Substitute “virus” for “tornado,” as the initial external threat and slot in “mandatory self-isolation” for “fallen tree that makes escape impossible” and it would seem Sean King O’Grady’s “We Need to Do Something” has instant allegorical relevance. It hardly takes a PhD in advanced semiotics for the pandemic-battered soul to identify with the plight of an archetypically unhappy family trapped in their bathroom while God-knows-what rages outside.
But releasing a single-location horror just as we all emerge from our own single-location horrors is a double-edged shard of broken bathroom mirror. Imagine “Sharknado” playing to an audience of marine biologists — ours are now the keen, jaded eyes of newly-minted experts in quarantine derangement syndrome. So we can’t help but see all the ways the film, which abandons allegory in favor of lurching grotesquery rather too quickly, fails to capture the actual psychological awfulness of being trapped too near your nearest and dearest, with no end in sight.
Instead of creeping claustrophobia, fraying familial bonds and eroding social skills, we get the more dramatic yet somehow more banal terrors of poisonous critters, mysterious gunfire, disembodied rasping voices and a dismembered organ that twitches, bloodily, in a sink. Which is all fine and good — especially the neat practical effects, and Shane Patrick Ford’s gloomy but surprisingly dextrous small-space camerawork. But when these episodes turn out to have little significance beyond their jump-scare or gross-out value, whatever glancing topicality the setup may have is lost, and you feel a little foolish for looking for it. When, late in the film, a phone’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” ringtone sounds out, it’s hard to escape the suspicion we’ve been Rickrolled.
Pink-haired, pouting teen Melissa (Sierra McCormick) hurries back through a gathering storm from a date with her new girlfriend Amy (Lisette Alexis), a painstakingly styled goth with razor-blade earrings and a lattice of self-harm scars up her arm. Scolded by her mother Diane (Vinessa Shaw) for being late, Melissa, her younger brother Bobby (John James Cronin), her mom and dad Robert (Pat Healy) hunker down in the bunker-like bathroom while tremendous thundercracks sound outside and their phones blink tornado warnings. There’s a power cut and a loud thump and once the storm subsides, the door can only be opened a couple of inches. No one comes to help, phones don’t connect and the noises from outside are becoming more sinister and less explicable.
Greater nastiness still may lie within. Certainly Robert, an alcoholic, apparently abusive husband to Diane and a scornful, neglectful father to the kids, is in a rage even before they realize they’re trapped, and only becomes more blustery as the hours tick hungrily into days, weird things start to happen and cabin fever sets in. Melissa flashes back to her relationship with the troubled Amy, and starts to wonder if maybe their antics might be obscurely responsible for the whatever-it-is causing their predicament.
Part of the issue is that aside from the few, shallow-focus flashback scenes with Melissa and Amy that hint at a whole different film (specifically “The Craft” minus the mischief or the insights into self-conscious, hormonal teenage girls) we get no sense of who these people were before. Indeed in Robert and Diane’s case, it’s hard to believe they’ve ever been in the same room, let alone shared a life together.
From the outset, Healy’s Robert, a middle-management type in a short-sleeved shirt and tie, is crazy-eyed, clench-jawed, apoplectic, Willy Loman by way of Jack Torrance. Shaw, quietly impressive and restrained as always, is far subtler as Diane — neither performer’s choice is wrong, exactly, but this is a small room to be asked to contain two entirely different schools of acting. That schism, between schlocky supernatural chiller and psychological-disintegration thriller is never reconciled, certainly not by a final denouement that is as overexplained as it is unsatisfying.
Perhaps its scares work more evocatively on the page of screenwriter Max Booth III’s novel than in his screen adaptation. But more than most movie genres, horror relies on there being more than just what we see on the screen, and although “We Need to Do Something” wants us to infer cataclysms happening just outside the frame, it is as trapped therein as the characters are in that damn bathroom.