Writer/director Chris Gorak's The Darkest Hour hit theaters on Christmas Day; to give you an idea of why you should be excited, here's an appreciation of Gorak's topical 2006 chiller, Right at Your Door.
“They don’t really know anything,” Rory Cochrane murmurs wonderingly at one point early on in Right at Your Door, writer/director Chris Gorak’s nightmarish horror parable about the War on Terror as it's imagined at home. That line of dialogue guilelessly gets to the heart of Gorak’s drama, which features the best and not-so-best aspects of George Romero’s trenchantly moralistic horror movies.
Cochrane's exclamation is a small but significant breakthrough for his character. At this point in the film, a dirty bomb has gone off in downtown Los Angeles, sending toxic ashes across the city and its suburbs. Brad, Cochrane’s harried antihero, has sealed himself into his house at the recommendation of local authorities. He’s shuttered his house with duct tape and cellophane. But his wife Lexi (Mary McCormack) is on the outside of his house. She's now, as the title says, right at the door, and Brad can't – or maybe just won't – let her in.
So when Brad says, “They don’t really know anything,” to Lexi, who’s now tearfully begging Brad to let her into the house, Brad’s not really talking to her. He’s admitting to himself that yes, all the preparation and due diligence he’s hitherto performed don’t amount to a hill of beans considering that the people he’s taking orders from aren’t even sure what’s happened. From that moment, Brad’s one short step away from half-wailing and half-spitting out to Lexi that the L.A. authorities “don't fuckin' know enough to sugarcoat anything."
As in Romero’s The Crazies, Right at Your Door evokes a world where authority figures are visibly shown to be unreliable. This is extraordinary in Right at Your Door because authority figures are only physically represented by armed grunts clad in gas masks and biohazard jumpsuits. These monsters are just following orders when they don’t answer Brad’s questions. For example, one can't help but notice the way one soldier hesitates and even trembles while puffing out his chest and defensively telling Brad, “We’re not trying to cause more panic than there already is.” Compare that with the way the similarly dressed soldiers in The Crazies are defined by their actions. They don’t use verbal prompts that might even tentatively reveal their humanity. By contrast, Gorak's army men reveal their humanity while they’re doing the most cruelly impersonal things.
And yet, Brad still clings to the notion that what he’s been told by authorities makes some kind of sense. He improvises an elaborate series of cellophane tarps and hangs them up on open doorways in order to quarantine Lexi in certain parts of their house until someone can come by and check her out. He does all of this because he’s in full-on panic mode. While Brad is thinking clearly enough to try to help his wife as best as he can, his self-preservation instincts have kicked into overdrive. So while he knows that the voices on his radio that warn him to stay indoors and seal himself into his house are not entirely reliable, he listens to them anyway. Because in this apocalyptic scenario, heeding any advice is understandably preferable to sitting on your hands and waiting to die.
Right at Your Door is striking both for its spare scenario and its sympathetic characters’ plights, and also for Gorak’s tendency of not shying away from pointed, Romero-esque sermonizing. At one point Alvaro (Tony Perez), the gardener of Brad’s next-door neighbor, despondently explains why he was admitted to Brad’s home and Lexi wasn’t: pure chance. “We didn't decide anything,” Alvaro insists. “It was instinct. It was just instinct." Gorak, like Romero, is shooting from his gut, not the hip, which is what makes the film’s twist ending and its shrill, blind howl of rage against the shadowy tactics and potential repercussions of the War on Terror. Gorak points a big honking finger of blame squarely at the evil-looking g-men, but they’re not really guilty and neither is Brad, even though he’s ultimately responsible for his fate. Hearing Cochrane cry out, “I’m still alive,” at the end is terrifying because it’s the last impotent complaint of a man that knows he’s unwittingly killed himself.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.