In late 2001, my girlfriend and I moved from New York to Austin, Texas. We had some friends who’d recently gone down there and we’d never been away from New York. We knew a lot—especially in those months following September of that year—but we didn’t know tornadoes. All we knew was Twister and The Wizard of Oz. We pulled into Austin’s city limits and there was panic in the air. The sky was green. Fat raindrops splattered on the windshield. The radio in my car—a crappy little Volkswagen Fox that surprisingly had gotten us all these miles—didn’t work, so we tuned to whatever station we could get on the battery-operated boombox we had with us. There were tornadoes up and down I-35, the announcer said. We were on I-35. We scrambled for a motel, got the last room at a dive off the highway. It was bad—mostly flooding and those skies that would haunt our memories. We didn’t see a funnel but we imagined one. We went back to New York the next year and forgot about tornadoes. In 2008, we moved to Mississippi and really learned about tornadoes. The sirens. Hiding out in the bathroom with our children, putting bike helmets on them. A friend once told me, “You should have your driver’s license in your pocket in case you wind up miles away from your house, dead in a field.”
Written by Max Booth III (based on his own novella) and directed by Sean King O’Grady, the claustrophobic horror film We Need to Do Something takes a very elemental fear—hiding out in a bathroom during a tornado with your family—and transforms it into something else entirely. It works so well because it plays on this fear with a beautiful and strange recklessness. Sierra McCormick is Melissa, the film’s protagonist. With her dyed hair and dark clothes, she’s an outsider in her suburban house. Her dad, Robert (Pat Healy), looks like a substitute teacher. Her mom, Diane (Vinessa Shaw), could be an extra on The Office. Her little brother, Bobby (John James Cronin), is just a little brother. First, there’s the very real tension that comes with seeking shelter during a tornado. Then there’s the fact that the storm is ferocious. A tree comes down on the house, trapping the family in the bathroom. The power goes out. Phones are dying. It feels almost like the set up of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat transposed to a bathroom. Will they get out? Won’t they? What damage will this situation do to their psyches? Melissa’s worry about her girlfriend Amy (Lisette Alexis) seems normal at first—why wouldn’t she be worried? This is a time for worrying, for being afraid.
But there’s more. The movie remains claustrophobic—the family continuously stuck, facing new nightmares—but also opens up through flashbacks. Melissa is convinced that she and Amy are responsible for what’s happening. An encounter with a stray dog confirms that something more sinister is at work. Robert goes off the rails into batshit insane territory; Pat Healy gives one of the great Horror Movie Dad performances in recent memory. Did I mention the snake? Well, there’s a snake, and it’s a good one, slipping into the bathroom as the family’s hope for rescue devolves. What this film posits—in a darkly comical way—is that perhaps family is the greatest horror of all. To say more would be to give too much away.
In the end, I found We Need to Do Something particularly terrifying because it hit on a lot of my personal fears—tornadoes, trees crashing into houses, snakes, body horror, dads losing their goddamn marbles. It also subverts tropes in some smart and unexpected ways, launching itself fully into the realm of the weird. The film might’ve worked simply as a trapped-in-a-room horror story, but its ambitions are bigger. Healy, Shaw, and Cronin are all terrific, but McCormick’s performance is the picture’s beating heart. She brings Melissa fully alive, seeming to have stumbled out of a Megan Abbott novel: a twisty, complicated teenager who has gotten in over her head, who has chased a feeling into the darkness. In fact, the whole movie feels like chasing a feeling into the darkness. What you don’t see—what you can’t know—remains the most substantial source of fear and mystery. 🩸
One of the most revelatory film experiences of my childhood was watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat with my grandparents when I was 10. I can’t remember the exact circumstances—I believe it ran on PBS some lonesome...
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