When I started watching the short film FAMILIAR, I was struck by memories of Kevin Spacey in AMERICAN BEAUTY. An average businessman with a house in suburbia, a wife and daughter, his life looks perfectly average and happy from the outside. But underneath the skin, there are things crawling; rip back the facade and everything familiar is actually dysfunctional, unhappy, seething with chaos. John Dodd, the protagonist here, is cut from the same mold as Spacey’s character, facing much the same problems with the rat race. But outside of Spacey and Wes Bentley discussing RE-ANIMATOR, there would be no reason for me to bring up AMERICAN BEAUTY on Death Ensemble. And watching the first half of FAMILIAR, I wondered why its producer was asking me to review it. Then I watched the second half of the film, and I fully understood how this short film had transformed into a horror show. And an impressive little show at that.
John Dodd is a descendent of the Edgar Allan Poe narrator, a sober character whose sanity becomes unhinged as things start to unravel. From the very first frames, John provides an inner monologue. “The world is asleep,” he tells his audience, and that contents him, but he’s awake to just how horrible and unbearable this mundane life has become. When his wife joyously tells him she’s pregnant, he’s sickened. Though they already have a teenage daughter, he feels a new child will cage him. John takes action, but when he can only go so far, this turns into a Something Is Trying to Get Out flick, as that thing providing his inner monologue wants out in the worst way.
Once it takes that turn, FAMILIAR gets squishy and nasty. The second half becomes a weird hybrid of Kafka and David Cronenberg, full out body horror with a revulsion to the flesh. It’s heightened greatly by the inner voice, which detaches itself from John and becomes increasingly angry and more frantic as John tries to remove it from himself. Writer/ director Richard Powell’s script is terse and deft, expressing the growing inner rage. It also posits the question: Can we really separate ourselves from our undesirable qualities? The answer to that question, in FAMILIAR anyway, is horrifying, unpleasant.
Credit to Robert Nolan as John. He looks strained throughout the whole proceedings, worn thin by what many people would consider a fulfilling life. As the mania builds within, and consequently tries to escape him when he won’t comply, Nolan’s delivery of the inner monologue is sweet perfection. Considering that I usually find this technique an unnecessary distraction, that’s a great compliment both to the show and the actor. The best thing about Nolan is he looks like the next door neighbor, maybe a little unkempt but average to a fault. Which leads me to think just how many of our next door neighbors are ready to lose it.
The only real fault I have with FAMILIAR is some shoddy special makeup effects work. When flesh gets bubbly, it looks like latex. This takes away from suspension of disbelief, just when things are really starting to cook. I was especially surprised when I saw just how impressive that thing trying to get out is, at the end of the show. Had those earlier effects been up to par, FAMILIAR would have been wholly satisfying.
Even given that, very satisfying it is. FAMILIAR takes a whole bunch of ideas from sources as disparate as Poe and Cronenberg and provides its own unique tale as a sum of the parts. True it started me off thinking of Kevin Spacey, but it left me impressed with just how talented Nolan and Powell are together, and hoping to see more of their shared work in the future.