So I sat down with some friends the other night to re-watch a movie that blends the genres of science fiction and horror. It does a fantastic job, using the speculative idea at its heart to draw out hidden motivations, chipping away the viewer’s assumptions until the end can’t help but leave you unsteady, less sure of the ground you stand on both with regards to the narrative and the outside world.
I’m talking, of course, about Primer.
No, really. Primer is a horror movie. Don’t get me wrong; it’s also a science fiction movie, and I can see why it could be considered solely that — not least because of how detailed it is in its consideration of time travel. And I really do love its technobabble, mainly because it never slows down for the viewer.
But even as it’s telling a science fiction story, it’s doing so in a way infused by the horror genre. In our post-movie “okay so what was up with X” conversation, I claimed that it had elements of the Gothic to it, but I’m pretty sure I’m using that term inaccurately. The horror aspect of the movie is much more than jump-scares or eldritch terrors (nothing against either of those, mind you); it’s the whole mood, from the ominous hum of the box to the repeated isolation of the two leads (emphasized by how everything but their dialogue tunes out now and then). And as much fun as it is to puzzle out timelines and failsafes and which Abe and Aaron were in which box when, I think there’s a lot to consider about this movie that has nothing to do with the big question of “what just happened?”
Spoilers for Primer below.
The image that sparked this was the thump from the attic door at the end, the flashback to Abe and Aaron from that timeline breaking out of where they’ve been confined. Horror is, in many ways, about hidden crimes and motivations bursting out into the open, and in a very literal sense, that’s exactly what’s shown at the end of the movie. The drugged (on my first viewing I thought dead) Aaron forcing the attic door open and tumbling out (after repeated references to the sounds in the attic – rats? birds?) is one of those images that stuck with me. This is partly due to the way it’s shot; the thumps punctuate a conversation elsewhere, jumping back to the closed door shaking as someone tries to get out. It’s meant to be jarring, an eruption of the hidden into the mundane, and it works. After a movie’s worth of the perpetual sense that at any moment, this could all go wrong, the slamming open of that door provides that confirmation. (Of course, everything already has gone wrong — this is just one of the undeniable symptoms.)
I think this is why I went with the term “Gothic” in the post-movie discussion the other night. The Something Horrible In The Attic, the buried secret that looms forth unexpectedly, is a trope that’s used frequently in Gothic fiction. More broadly, it’s a major part of a lot of horror: Stephen King, in particular, tends to use it left and right — everyone has a buried secret, an Aaron in the attic, a vegetative venture capitalist in the guest room. It’s when those secrets leak out that the horror goes from implicit to apparent.
The more I thought about it, the more I saw further horror tropes all the way through Primer: Both Aaron and Abe have to essentially bury themselves alive to use the box, and despite the strange contentment and dreams they have in the box, there’s still the first moment of claustrophobia and the final nausea after coming out of the box too soon. Both are scrupulously paranoid about following the paths that have already been laid out (up to recording conversations and reciting them back), but there’s also the fear that the world is going to change from this safe, known direction. On a more character-centered level, there’s the slow corruption caused by the force they’ve created. This even extends to physical corruption; that’s a heck of a lot of blood streaming from Aaron’s ear. That’s not even mentioning the degrading handwriting and what it implies (or could imply). And after the movie spends so much time concentrating on two people to the exclusion of everything else, the sudden intrusion of someone else into their plans is more than just the outside getting in; it’s a sign that their work has leaked out into the greater world, and they have absolutely no idea what effect it’s going to have.
There are always leaks, after all.
I think the biggest horror trope that Primer uses — and the reason why it is at heart a horror movie as well as a science fiction movie — is duplication. Freud cites duplication and repetition as one of the causes of the uncanny, and he’s right: being surrounded by sameness, the sense of deja vu, hearing the same phrase or number multiple times in a short period, are all vaguely unnerving. There’s a reason twins are considered kind of creepy, after all. (I’ll be posting about that more soon.) And Primer is so full of duplicates that there are multiple explanations floating around the net trying to figure out exactly how many Abes and Aarons there are at any point in the timeline. The moment when the viewer realizes just how far back the problem has gone — “I hope you’re not implying that any day is unimportant at Cortex Semi” — is also the moment when Abe realizes that the person wearing his friend’s face is not who he expected at all. The imposter, the doppelganger, never mind how they got there and what their current motivations may be, all that matters is that who you thought was real is not.
The story of Primer depends on the moment when we realize that there are more than two players here, despite there being only two characters. (For this, I’m not counting Thomas Granger. His presence is troubling, but he’s not there as a character, much less a player of the game.)
The doubled effect extends even further, since part of the plot hinges on both Abe and Aaron being willing to do violence to themselves. It’s not just your friend’s doppelganger who’s walking around; it’s your own, and he may not care about the same things you do. In fact, he almost certainly doesn’t. The person with your face is not necessarily you.
That duplication is the center of Primer, and I think the center of its nature as horror. Seen as a puzzle movie, it’s science fiction and fascinating at that. Ignore the puzzle and it becomes about doppelgangers, about taking over someone’s (your own) life. Even if Abe succeeds in stopping the construction of this timeline’s box, what happens to him? Someone else has his life now. And Aaron is still creating a bigger box, one that can go back even earlier…
In the shadow of what’s usually seen as science fiction horror (the major movie example is Alien), Primer holds a strange but secure place – quiet but unsettling.