What do you think of when you hear the term horror film? Does there need to be a threat of violence, a monster, blood and gore? It is a term that is either liberally thrown around, or—often for fear of being overlooked—relegated to the outskirts of cinematic thought. Horror films have had an important place in cinema, and it is arguably within the confines of horror that some of the most provocative and challenging pieces of cinematic art have been created. Halley (2013) is a film that is concerned with these questions. Reviewers and critics have seemed to either want to ‘save’ the film from the negative connotation of the horror genre by proclaiming its difference, or are quick to tack on the horror modifier as a way to criticize the film’s bleak and often grotesque imagery. On either side of the spectrum, they are exploiting the genre as a way of promoting an agenda. While the reviewers who have come out to chastise the film’s disturbing content appear conservative and outdated, it is often the writers who have tried to save the film, in spite of these images, that have performed the most damage. Claiming that the film’s message transcends the horror genre is egregious. To believe that horror cannot be a place for thoughtful reflection is wrong; Halley doesn’t transcend horror, Halley is horror.
Perhaps what they are searching for is a way to talk about the film being outside of the boundaries and constrictions of typical genre. There is no doubt that Halley is far from a cookie-cutter horror film. Much like the visual style and pace, the film’s plot is restrained. Alberto, a nighttime security guard at a twenty-four hour gym, is the victim of incurable disease: death. While he has been able to slow the process of decomposition and remain a tertiary member of society, the effects are rapidly increasing. He is left with no other choice; he must leave his job to spend his days in complete solitude. The remainder of the film follows Alberto through his final days as an active member of society.
Halley’s strength lies in co-writer/director Sebastian Hoffman’s restrained style. While a viewer can easily piece together what is happening to Alberto, no direct mention is made. In addition, moments that would generate the biggest cinematic payoffs are often cut, leaving only the banal in its place. Decomposition is symbolized in the film’s slow pace. Most of the film is comprised of the clinical moments where Alberto is undressing and then dressing his wounds and sores. Hyper-realistic effects make the film one of the most disturbing and convincing body horrors. The relation to Cronenberg has been tossed around a lot in relation to Hoffman’s directorial debut, and while it is apparent in the analysis of the body in relation to horror, it is there that the comparison ends. In terms of style, Hoffman couldn’t be farther from Cronenberg. Hoffman is far closer to a filmmaker like Carlos Reygadas—proven by the fact that Reygadas’ producer, Jaime Romandia, also produced Halley.
Like Reygadas, Hoffman’s concern lies in the existential crisis of his characters, with Hoffman using the horror genre as a method to deliver the film’s strongest messages. While the reserved pace and scope of the film leaves room for interpretation, Halley is interested in man’s concern with death, religion, the afterlife, vanity, and—possibly—global warming. The first few thematic elements are clear, as a man struggling with the effects of living after death within a decomposing body are nearly inescapable from critiques of death, religion, and the existence of an afterlife. It is in the latter two possible themes that the film is the most challenging. Hoffman’s choice to set a large portion of the film at a gym is brilliant. This narrative device allows him to compare Alberto’s feeble and decomposing body with images of desired beauty and strength. The character’s within the gym seem obsessed with the vain goal of perfection; selfishness personified. Comparing Alberto’s state with these brief characters offers a very pessimistic judgment of societal pressure to remain fit and beautiful.
As far as global warming is concerned, Alberto’s plight could be read as an allegory to the dying planet. Without giving away too much, there are distinct images late in the film of melting glaciers. In juxtaposition with Alberto’s condition, Hoffman could be comparing living in a decomposing body with humanity’s current state: we are living on a dying planet. Regardless of where you feel the film falls thematically, it is clear that Hoffman is interested in heralding large messages. One thing is for sure, Halley is a deeply complex, moving picture that refuses to be pigeonholed or reduced to any one meaning.
While there are many things that can be admired about Hoffman’s directorial debut, the film is not without its faults. Most apparent is the cinematography. Hoffman’s style prefers overexposed, clinical compositions. While the aesthetic is certainly fitting for the film’s content, an abundance of light bloom becomes a bit tedious. In nearly every shot there is a strong haloing effect, as the result of a strong source of white light. Through trying repetition, the effect makes itself too noticeable.
Ultimately, Halley is a remarkable film and, with hope, the start of an important career for Hoffman. Halley is not a popcorn film, it is not easily digestible. Rather, Halley is challenging and disturbing, forcing a viewer to look beyond the grotesque images that are present.
Halley is now available for download via iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/halley/id968206082?ls=1