Fresh off a weekend where Us set box-office records, it’s fair to say that horror is having a moment. Even better, the genre is attracting diverse talents that recognize what an extraordinarily malleable format it is, beyond monsters and ghosts, serial killers and cults. Fear functions off the unseen—the hinted at, but hidden. Thus anything that is repressed can be utilized as nightmare fuel, opening up a huge range of human experience and culture to exploit metaphorically.
How to be Alone, the directorial debut from Stranger Things staff writer and Blacklist-honored scribe Kate Trefry, is one of those kinds of film—horror in form, but psychological thriller in theme. It’s a very personal kind of horror, one that turns the neat trick of transplanting a woman’s interior anxieties into the real world—mental demons brought to life. It isn’t particularly scary per se, though it is a gorgeous film filled with incredibly creepy imagery, but instead it shines as a thoughtful character examination of a young woman in a crisis of identity. Artfully borrowing from touchstone classics, the short bridges the classic horror archetypes of the “final girl” and the “dysfunctional mother” as these warring identities collide on the battlefield of her own neuroses, allowing for a fascinating interplay between victim and badass warrior—a rich characterization that does not have to submit wholly to either.
Fresh off a premiere at SXSW in its celebrated “Midnight Shorts” program, the film is uncommonly good looking. Shot in gorgeous saturated tones with bold neon color choices and plenty of smoke from cinematographer Caleb Heymann, it’s a fun pop visual style that evokes, well, Stranger Things for one. While tonally and thematically very different, the film also doesn’t forget to have fun however, from it’s cheeky Scream-inspired “rules” for being alone, to its cute ending. Maika Monroe (The Guest, It Follows) is an engaging lead—her surfer chill providing substance to both the character’s hot-mess chic, but inner strength as well, and the production design from Susannah Lowber is splendid.
Trefry isn’t a stranger to Short of the Week. A co-writer on one of last year’s best genre shorts, Souls of Totality, we had reason to be impressed. But writing and directing a work this personal is a different beast. Trefry describes to us that she has always been afraid of being alone, but that it was never exterior forces she feared, but herself—being forced to be quiet and face the monster within. In the course of developing the short she became pregnant, and suddenly the conflicting identity elements of the film came into focus—sex, motherhood, the impending transition from a weirdo artist to a responsible parent—was it either/or? In the process of working through these themes she found something universal, that as self-centered animals, it is ourselves that we fear the most and hoped with the film to, “expose the weird, embarrassing, scary secrets we keep locked up, where they wait for a moment when we are alone to pounce. I wanted to show people of the absurdity of our darkest fears, and to remind them that a powerful phobia is really only evidence of an even more powerful mind.”
Trefry has a bright future. In addition to her role on Stranger Things she currently has one of her Blacklist scripts Revolver set up at Chernin, with Andrew Stanton attached to direct. In addition, new outfit Valparaiso Pictures is considering adapting How to be Alone to feature. With such a strong directing debut, Trefry has demonstrated that she’s not only a writing talent on the rise, but a directing one too.