Review: ‘The Runner’ Feels Like Friends Exploring Horror Tropes and Creating Joy in a Difficult Time

At least since Michael Jackson changed into a werewolf for MTV viewers, horror movies and music videos have been feeding on each other. Iconic darkwave duo Boy Harsher’s new short film The Runner, debuting on Shudder, extends the conceit out to 38 minutes, weaving spooky imagery to accompany their sultry synth throb and/or using their ominous goth vibe as a background for a loose narrative of blood, hunger, and darkness.

The result is amateurish indie horror with a very polished and evocative soundtrack. The ramshackle collection of expected themes and tropes is more charming than frightening. But fans of the band won’t be disappointed. And even more, casual viewers should be able to appreciate the love that’s gone into the project.

The story, such as it is, is minimal and familiar. The movie starts out with a woman (Kris Esfandiari), the titular runner, running through the woods covered with blood. At first, it seems like she’s a victim escaping an assailant.

But it quickly becomes clear that the operative genre is not slasher but a tragic vampire. The runner hijacks a car and goes to a house. There she scares off a teenager played by singer Cooper B. Handy and watches a music video on television starring sultry, PVC-clad singer Mariana Saldaña, aka Ms. BOan. Then the runner heads off to a bar tellingly named “Lost” where she picks up a lonely woman (Sigrid Lauren) and…well you can probably figure out the rest. Though the exact gruesome how is genuinely startling, and easily the film’s best moment.

Intercut with the story are scenes of Boy Harsher—singer Jae Matthews and producer August Muller—practicing, performing, and discussing their music and the movie. These interludes again make the project feel more like a music video than film, as do the song titles and credits that appear in the corner at the beginning of different tracks. It’s not clear whether the music was composed to score the film, or whether the film was created to market and accompany the album The Runner OST.

The Runner
Courtesy of Shudder

It’s probably a bit of both—and as far as that record goes, the hybrid movie approach turns out to have been a brilliant way for the band to stretch themselves. Boy Harsher is best known for its icy dancefloor gloom and sway, as on the classic 2014 single “Pain,” a masterpiece of menace in which Matthews sighs, yodels, and slides sado-masochistic insinuations around Muller’s dark mechanical echo and thump.

The duo hasn’t abandoned that sound—“Give Me a Reason” brings the old dark magic to a goth club near you. But the soundtrack conceit also pushes them to try new approaches. “Tower” is breathily ambient Twilight Zone music, building up to an industrial metal shriek. The collaboration with Saldaña, “Machina,” is HI-NRG synth-pop—as the runner watches the dancer on the screen, she starts to mimic her sensual movements, as if to affirm that even vampires can be seduced by disco if it’s catchy enough. And Cooper B. Handy’s song “Autonomy” is New Wave indie pop, more New Order than Joy Division. It closes out the movie on a surprisingly cheerful note, as Kris Esfandiari, out of character and in a large cowboy hat, dances in a cornfield.

Matthews and Muller created the album during covid when they couldn’t tour, and when Matthews was diagnosed with MS. You might think that that would result in a downbeat, bleak vision. Sure enough, Matthews says at one point during an interview segment that she identifies with the runner’s evil, hunger, and desperation.

This isn’t really an evil, hungry, desperate, or even downbeat movie though. Instead, it feels like a bunch of friends messing around with horror tropes and music they love, working together to create some joy in a difficult time. Outtakes at the end of the cast giggling and mugging amidst the bloody FX, like cheerful reanimated corpses, are almost better than the movie itself. The last two years have been such a difficult time to make music, or for that matter to live. It’s exhilarating to see that eviscerated guy in the chair (Cameron Findlay) look at the camera and give a thumb’s up. The Runner may not be great art. But sometimes making art at all is enough.

The Runner arrives on Shudder on January 16, 2022. 

This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.


The Runner

7

The Runner may not be great art. But sometimes making art at all is enough.

7.0/10

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.