It’s Women in Horror month at Nightmare on Film Street and in celebration, Almost Horror has a classic from one of our generation’s most talented filmmakers. Katheryn Bigelow’s (Zero Dark Thirty, 2012) 2008 Academy Award-winning war drama The Hurt Locker will be twelve-years-old on June 6th of this year. Crazy, right? It seems like only yesterday that we witnessed the director’s harrowing peek inside the mind of Sergeant First Class William James and his platoon of slightly unhinged U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit soldiers.
It’s also hard to believe that this film is classified as a drama when the horror elements aren’t nearly as ambiguous as some might think. Here, the horrors of war and the monsters these conflicts create should be enough for any self-respecting cinephile to consider this a definite Almost Horror film, but that’s what we’re here for, to do some mind-changing.
THE INVISIBLE MONSTER
You don’t need to look much further in The Hurt Locker than the opening scene to experience the horror this film has to offer. A man subduing an explosive device only to have it detonate mere feet from him is terrifying in and of itself but look past the surface and into the subtext. Here is where the real horror lies.
Imagine an invisible, malevolent force moving so fast through the air that it raises things off of the ground, pushes those within its reach away with great force, and causes any air around it to expand. This includes the air in your lungs. Terrifying thought, yes? That’s what kills Sgt. Thompson played by Guy Pearce (Ravenous, 1999) in the opening of The Hurt Locker and that’s what happens when this unnatural force of pure destruction catches you in its wake.
THE WAR MONSTER
It is born of man’s ugliest qualities, made of humanity’s weakness for greed and forged out of a primeval lust for violence. This. Is. War. Since 1980, the country of Iraq has been trapped in this monster’s grasp transforming it from a country that, before its totalitarian rule, was growing in modernism and progression.
As history has shown, every time the Iraqis have attempted to take back their homeland, this monster mutates into something else, something equally as horrible. From insurgents to external interference, this monster dons many faces and it seems no one knows which one it will wear from day-to-day.
The Hurt Locker is one of the beast’s most deceiving disguises of all. A country posing as the savior the Iraqis desperately need is really just an extension of the behemoth they’ve been battling over the past 40 years. Battles between American soldiers and Iraqi insurgence, terrorist groups, the country’s dictator government spill into the living rooms of average Iraqi citizens leaving nothing but pure devastation in its path.
Metaphorically speaking, the character of Sergeant First Class William James played by Jeremy Renner (28 Weeks Later, 2007), is a result of a system that creates monsters. A Frankenstein Factory of sorts. Sgt. James is an amalgamation of patriotism, romanticism, and disenfranchisement, which is often aimed at individuals who don’t have much of a future. This image of the American hero is sold to these people to maintain a military might around the globe.
Sergeant First Class William James is a perfect example of that model working. You see, he enjoys what he does. He enjoys it so much that even after finishing his tour of duty and returning home to his wife and child, he is miserable. Why? Because he loves what he does despite witnessing the worst in humanity on daily basis.
In many ways, he’s perfect for an organization that needs monsters like him. Monsters that see objectives instead of human lives. If this seems horrifically cynical to you, remember, this is all metaphorically speaking of course. It’s all right there in the movie if you look past the surface.
GRAB YOUR TORCHES AND PITCHFORKS
Sergeant J. T. Sanborn, played by Anthony Mackie (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, 2012) and Specialist Owen Eldridge played by Brian Geraghty (When a Stranger Calls, 2006) don’t like Sergeant First Class James. They think he’s reckless and dangerous. In other words, they think he’s a monster. In fact, they think he’s such a monster that they plot to kill him.
Sanborn has the opportunity when the two are assigned to destroy explosives. James leaves his gloves at a detonation site and returns to pick them up. Sanborn contemplates “accidentally” triggering the still live explosives but his partner in crime Eldridge gets cold feet and the plot is ultimately abandoned.
AN UNDERLYING FEAR
I suppose we need to address the critical element that lurks beneath the surface of The Hurt Locker. I liken it to the zombies in Romero‘s classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) and how they are present throughout the runtime of the movie. The plot is essentially about them, they are featured liberally to the end but they are used as an underlying fear instead of the in-your-face centerpiece they are expected to be.
Much is the same for the explosives in The Hurt Locker. Bigelow has used them as a sinister underscore to the other horrors happening in the story but they are always there, waiting like volatile sentinels. She uses them sparingly but effectively, allowing their presence to gnaw away at the audience’s psyche just enough to cause dread throughout the tension-soaked storyline.
Moreover, Director Bigelow equips this lurking villain so well to the story that even the city of Baghdad becomes its own monstrous character. It becomes a thing with many limbs controlling various nefarious aspects of its governing body while its millions of eyes see everything you do. There is no safe place to hide. This beast will find you.
WELCOME TO THE HURT LOCKER
The term The Hurt Locker originated in the Vietnam War thanks to the US military and it means trouble or suffering, especially if this suffering is deliberately or callously inflicted. One of the earliest uses of the phrase appeared in an Associated Press article on February 21, 1966, by John Wheeler. A quote from a soldier saying “If an army marches on its stomach, old Charlie is in the hurt locker,” and since then the vernacular has made its way into popular culture via movies, television, and music.
It became the title of Bigelow’s movie after writer Mark Boal (Detroit, 2017) spent two weeks embedded with a real-life American bomb squad during the Iraq War in 2004. The writer heard Master Sergeant Jeffrey Sarver say the phrase, one the soldier claimed was his own in a lawsuit he filed against the production in 2010. Sarver’s claims that the title of the film was his along with the character of William James, but the suit was ultimately thrown out of court in 2011.
GATHERING THE EVIDENCE
As you can see the evidence is clear. While Summit Entertainment (The Hurt Locker’s distributor) released and marketed the film as a war drama, they really should have sold it for what it really is, a bonafide monster movie. There are so many monsters in this movie, it’s like a Peter Jackson movie steeped in reality. Middle Earth meets Middle East. From the monsters of war to the monsters that fight it, The Hurt Locker is a stark representation of man’s need for terror, even if it means creating a few of their own monsters to fulfill that need.
Have I convinced you? Does The Hurt Locker fit the criteria required to be included as an Almost Horror film? Let us know on our various Nightmare on Film Street Twitter, Subreddit, Facebook and Discord accounts. Oh and if you’re not feeling the whole social media vibe then subscribe to our NOFS Neighborhood Watch Newsletter to get all things horror delivered straight to your inbox. Until next time fellow fiends, stay outta The Hurt Locker!