A family gathers at their home for dinner at Christmas time. Daughter is expecting her first baby; Son has brought his new girlfriend. A strange, black, goo-like substance appears outside the house with no explanation. A message appears on the TV with only a single line: “Await further instructions.” The family trapped and afraid, tensions being to rise in the house. Christmas is not going to go well at the Milgram household.
This is the setup for Await Further Instructions, the latest sci-fi horror film from director Johnny Kevorkian that made its world premiere at Chicago’s Cinepocalypse genre festival this week. It’s one of several films programmed at this year’s festival that plays like an episode of Black Mirror, using the presence of technology as a jumping off point to explore deeper concerns of human nature. It’s also a horror film in the tradition of Night of the Living Dead, gathering a group of people in a house with an unexplained threat outside and observing as fear gives way to anger and violence. It’s the Bottle Episode from Hell.
Nine out of 10 versions of this movie would more or less disregard the external threat, because, like, the real horror is people, man. It’s a concept we’ve seen played out plenty of times, from the aforementioned Night of the Living Dead to The Mist to now every season of The Walking Dead. What’s outside is dangerous, for sure, but it could really be anything; what matters is who’s in the house. There’s plenty of this at work in Await Further Instructions, too, as the family unit breaks down with surprising speed. Dad (Grant Masters) almost immediately becomes a kind of zealot; unable to face his fear any other way, he simply puts all of his faith in the will of whatever entity has them trapped inside. It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen play out time and again over the course of history drilled down to a single microcosmic example, and the way that the rest of the family members react to Dad’s conversion determines how everything else is going to play out.
Turning the horror entirely inward, though, is a bait and switch. We’re promised something evil and scary outside the home for most of the movie’s running time, and the Twilight Zone version of this movie would most likely reveal it all as some sort of social experiment: the sun comes up, the black goo disappears, and the family is forced to reckon with the things they said and did to one another during the night. It’s a fine twist, sure, but one that has become entirely familiar. Thankfully, Kevorkian and screenwriter Gavin Williams have the courage of their convictions and are willing to see their premise through. Just when you think they have the chance to back down, they go all in and take Await Further Instructions to a place we haven’t seen in movies before. It’s exciting when a filmmaker can surprise you.
Await Further Instructions is a bleak, bleak movie, one which doesn’t have a whole lot of optimism about human beings or their relationship to technology. We’ll blindly follow whatever screens tell us, and it’s a practice that’s not going to end well. But it’s also smart sci-fi horror, well-realized and effective, the kind of movie that’s easy to recommend to genre fans. Oh, and it’s set at Christmas. It’s always nice to have another horror movie to watch around Christmas.