There are plenty of horror movies that trace the downfall of characters who witness an image or film so malevolent that its poison begins to seep into their own lives. The Ring and Sinister are two recent examples. Wounds is in that same cursed-image mould, but it manages to bring some freshness to the idea.
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“Freshness” is kind of the wrong descriptor, though, considering all the grime, decay, scuttling insects, oozing wounds, sludge and other icky stuff churning around in Wounds. Armie Hammer stars as Will, a bartender at a New Orleans dive called Rosie’s. Perhaps not surprisingly, Will’s a bit of a boozehound, a condition that has yet to compromise his good looks and easygoing charm behind the bar — though his live-in girlfriend, Carrie (Dakota Johnson), has started to freeze him out.
His solution: drink more, do a little coke here and there, and allow his eye to wander to Alicia (Zazie Beetz), a Rosie’s regular he’s always sparked with, and whose new boyfriend (Karl Glusman) seems easy enough to ignore.
This would be a juicy enough set-up for a slice-of-life drama, but Wounds — a mostly faithful adaptation of Nathan Ballingrud’s horror novella The Visible Filth by writer-director Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow) — injects supernatural malevolence that begins when an unidentified cell phone turns up after a rowdy incident at the bar.
Will doesn’t think much of it until later that night, when it begins buzzing with texts so strange (“I think something’s here with me!”) that he’s inspired to figure out the passcode and reply. A little while later, after a taunting text encourages him to peek at the photos, he starts poking around in the photo albums, discovering images and a video so horrifically graphic he can’t believe they’re real.
Carrie — who’s suspicious of why Will’s got some other chick’s phone, in a way that suggests she’s had reason to be suspicious of him in the past — also takes a look, and feels the same mixture of revulsion and fascination he does. She also encourages him to take the phone, which seems to contain evidence of at least one murder, to the cops, though Will manages to lose it before he can show anyone else. No matter; it’s soon made abundantly clear that plenty of damage has already been done to both of them.
Wounds builds up a lot of its tension by setting the story in a world that seems grounded — Rosie’s feels so authentically lived-in that the smell of stale beer practically wafts off the screen — and then introducing elements that signal how reality is starting to crack. Some of these are electronic, like odd text messages and chilling photos that Will receives from Carrie’s phone that she doesn’t remember sending, and the ominous swirling tunnel that Carrie can’t stop staring at on her laptop. Others are more fleshy and squirmy, like a gaping incision Will thinks he sees in his armpit, and the increasing number of (Real? Imagined? Both?) flying roaches that follow him everywhere.
The performances also keep Wounds anchored for as long as the story will allow. Hammer, whose most prominent genre role to date is probably Sorry to Bother You (unless you count The Lone Ranger as horror), makes Will likable in spite of his obvious faults.
Those include his alcohol-fuelled lack of anything resembling ambition, as well as his tendency to make alcohol-fuelled bad decisions. While Johnson gets the showier co-starring role — Carrie gets to be spooky and fragile, but also a sharp-tongued badass — Beetz (Deadpool 2, Joker) brings that sparkling charisma we’ve seen in all her other characters. You believe that Will would become blinded by his crush on Alicia, because Beetz is the coolest.
Wounds may frustrate viewers who can tolerate plot weirdness only if it’s thoroughly explained in the end. Unlike the similarly occult-fuelled Hereditary, for instance, Wounds doesn’t spend much time exploring why all this freaky stuff is happening to Will.
All we know is that he found a phone previously owned by some college kids who took it upon themselves to conduct an ancient, barbaric “ritual,” one outcome of which is that whoever engages with their handiwork is immediately a part of it, whether they want to be or not. Huh? OK. Though the movie doesn’t deviate much from the source novella, right down to the very last scene, somehow it feels less satisfying than Ballingrud’s excellent original tale.
But if you’re willing to dive into this visceral blend of creepy tech and body horror, Wounds has its rewards. Anvari’s take on New Orleans is refreshingly low-key and devoid of the clichés that filmmakers love to turn to when lensing the city (a drunken Rosie’s patron crooning “When the Saints Go Marching In” is one of few obvious signposts, beyond the location shooting).
Literary references also add some layers to the story. Before she becomes drawn into Will’s phone mystery, grad-student Carrie is consumed by her term paper on T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” which itself ties into Wounds’ epigraph, a quote from Heart of Darkness. At one point, she calls Will “a mock person,” an insult plucked from her academic studies that zeroes in on Will’s own sinking suspicion that he’s been living his life as an empty suit — with his own personal interpretation of “this is the way the world ends” coming much sooner, and in a much more gruesome fashion, than he could ever have imagined.
Wounds premieres October 19 on Hulu.