‘Habitual’, Indie Horror By the Numbers

by Brian Connor

Night Of The Living DeadParanormal Activity. The Blair Witch Project. All micro-budget horror films that made an absolute fortune at the box office. Which, unfortunately, leads hundreds of people to think making a horror film for three bucks is a lot easier than it is. And most of the results are dreadful. In the quality way, not the way you want a horror film to be. Does Habitual buck this trend?

Massachusetts Is Wicked, Kid

A group of New England ravers and an escaped mental patient (Johnny Hickey) head for an underground party called “Habit” held in an abandoned asylum. Loading up on mysterious drugs, their night spirals into a nightmarish mix of hallucinatory bloodshed and terrifying attacks from psychotic monsters. Will anyone make it through the night?

The Johnny Hickey Show

Habitual is very much a one-man show. Written, directed, starring, and possibly catered by Johnny Hickey, it’s as pure an example of an auteur project as you’ll ever see. Which, and this might be a controversial stance, is very rarely a good idea.  When the phrase “auteur filmmaker” gets thrown around, it usually gets linked to the likes of Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, or Quentin Tarantino. Directors with a strong personal style and control over their movies.

What makes the aforementioned guys better is that they aren’t entirely wedded to being in complete control. Scorsese has a style, but it’s a style molded in collaboration with other great film people like Thelma Schoonmaker. Nolan, again, repeatedly works with trusted experts like Wally Pfister. These filmmakers have a strong sense of what they want, but will work with the best people they can to achieve that result. You know who IS an auteur in the purest sense of the word? Tommy Wiseau. Or Neil Breen. Or Russ Meyer. Maybe the audience doesn’t want auteur films. The smartest guy in the room is the one who knows he doesn’t know how to do everything.

Hickey wears a lot of hats in this. Some of them work well. He’s not a bad actor and certainly gives himself the hardest role in the film as Simon, the twitchy, jumpy asylum resident. In his best moments, he calls to mind Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys.

The direction too, is pretty solid for only his second feature in 10 years. Apart from a couple of glaring scenes (at one point someone walks past a corpse hanging from the ceiling at well below eye level and somehow only notices them after slipping in some blood), they’re very effective and often very creepy.

You’re waiting for the …but.

There’s a Big But and I Cannot Lie

The writing is all over the place, frankly. I couldn’t tell you any other character names. They’re merely murder vectors in shoes. They don’t get witty dialogue or motivation or back story, they just wander around New England asylum basements, then die. And it’s never entirely clear if they’re dying in a slasher movie or in a drug-induced hallucination.

Their Heart Is in the Right Place. The Other Guts Are All Over the Place

Massachusetts has a big prescription drug addiction problem. Hickey’s debut feature Oxy-Morons focused on that, to fine effect. Again, here, you can see he’s trying to make a point about kids being all too willing to take anything that will get them high without questioning the source. But by making the drug some magical/supernatural thing, it misses the point of drug awareness. Kids don’t and can’t be aware of drugs that don’t exist. No real-life drug acts in the way the one in Habitual does, so what is it warning people against? Having an amorphous “Drugs are bad, m’kay?” message …well, you know that’s a joke. It’s a catchphrase joke.

Once you, as a viewer, aren’t engaged with a story you’re going to need a hell of a fireworks show to pay attention. Even that can work; heck, the Final Destination franchise got half a dozen movies out of it. Habitual doesn’t have that, so you just get repetitive Saw-esque gore murders. Even Saw had the ironic justice gimmick to the murders. Here, the characters don’t have any flaws (or anything else) to pay for. If you’re going to whittle down to a “final girl” you should make sure the audience knows their name.

As a calling card for Hickey, Habitual isn’t a disaster. It’s good to root for the little guy and there’s enough to warrant him getting more film work. But hopefully as part of a team. There are too many plates spinning for one guy here, and the writing one was left to fall.

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