The Human Race is a grindhouse drive-in classic that happens to have been made years after the drive-in heyday; at least it follows the maxim of legendary drive-in critic Joe Bob Briggs, “the first rule of great drive-in movie-making: Anyone can die at any moment.”
The set-up of The Human Race is that everyone on one city block, 80 souls in total, are snatched from their lives by a white light, dropped into a strange obstacle course and told, “The school, the house and the prison are safe. Follow the arrows or you will die. Stay on the path or you will die. If you are lapped twice, you will die. Do not touch the grass or you will die. Race or die.”
And naturally, there can only be one winner. To paraphrase Glengarry Glen Ross, “Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. (To the chest) Third prize is you’re fired your head explodes.”
This sets up a bleak story of survival horror, with a unique set of characters that you usually don’t see in this sort of picture including a homeless woman, two deaf best friends, a WWII marine in a walker, a woman who is eight months pregnant, two Korean kids (brother and older sister) and a one-legged Iraq veteran, played by Eddie McGee.
Eddie is great in the film, showing charisma, acting skill and action-hero chops. He is faster and more agile on crutches than some people are on two feet. Trained in Toronto by one of Jackie Chan’s students, Eddie does all his own stunts including a mind-boggling fight sequence. There is also a great moment when Eddie demonstrates just how agile he is on crutches, skittering sideways like a metal spider.
According to director Paul Hough, he had Hollywood interest in his script, but no one wanted him to make it with Eddie McGee in the cast. It’s sad that Hollywood, who once gave two Oscars for the same role to Harold Russell – the handless actor who played Homer Parrish in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, can no longer recognize the value of having a true underdog in a film like this. (Granted that Russell didn’t get many more parts from Hollywood, but at least in 1946 they were able to recognize when a great script and a unique actor intersected.)
The presence of so many characters demonstrating their ability to overcome their disadvantages is simultaneously inspirational and wickedly cruel. This is best demonstrated by the pair of deaf friends, who are first overjoyed to be able to “hear” for the first time, only to become despondent as they realize that the only thing that they will be able to hear are the race instructions and the grim countdown from 80 racers downwards. (Every time a racer dies, the remaining runners “hear” in their heads how many competitors are left.) The price for being able to hear in a limited way is that everything that they hear is an announcement of death.
Crueler still, the two deaf characters do not realize that what they are hearing is their own voices. Since they have never heard anything, they can’t recognize themselves speaking in their heads.
“We made two of the main characters deaf because it saved us money on recording audio.”
That quote is a great summary of the film in a way: it exists at the intersection of cruelty, inspiration, low budget grindhouse need, exploitative cynicism, a talented cast and a brilliant script. (Yes, it’s a very complicated Venn diagram.)
The film makes very good use of sub-titles for its deaf and Korean characters. Using color (the deaf girl’s sub-titles are in red like her shorts) and occasionally all-caps for emphasis, Paul Hough is able to communicate both dialogue and character using the sub-titles.
It is hardly surprising that the film contains a lesson about the dangers of underestimating others based purely on their disadvantages, but the film goes even further than this. Even the disadvantaged in the film underestimate and misunderstand the other disadvantaged. The saddest of these misunderstandings is the male deaf runner who assumes that the adrenaline of being in a race to the death will finally push him out of the friend zone with his deaf girl (not girl-friend) friend.
The film has been compared to the Richard Bachman (Stephen King) novel The Long Walk. Paul Hough, the director, says that he never read that book, instead pointing to Battle Royale as a more direct influence. Unlike those stories of survival horror and related stories like The Hunger Games, The Human Race features characters from a variety of ages and abilities, rather than just young men and women.
Since lapping other racers twice will kill them, the film sets up a built-in tension that forces the racers to keep moving or – like the old wives’ tale about sharks – if they stop, they die. (Heck, sometimes all they need to do is slow down to be killed.) The film turns the best runner into a locomotive of death, killing just by running faster than everyone else – a serial killer in sneakers.
Like Battle Royale, the 80 competitors react to their peril in a variety of ways. Some, like Eddie’s best friend Justin (Paul McCarthy-Boyington) become heroes, bottling up the runners to try and save the old marine from being lapped. Others become in turn suicidal, philosophical, stir-crazy, cynical, violent, revealing their true selves in the crucible of their desperation.
While it has more on-screen deaths than The Hunger Games, like that film (and book) many of the deaths occur off-screen. This is not a huge narrative problem, although some of the sequences of off-screen deaths are curious and curiouser, like three deaths that happen like an explosion of popcorn kernels BangBangBang at a critical sequence as two characters argue.
The one major problem with the off-screen deaths is that the climax of the film revolves around three people being left alive, two of whom we have seen throughout the film and the other a mystery. When the third survivor appears it is someone we have seen only briefly, mainly in a flashback. The reaction to that character’s reappearance should be “Oh, that’s who survived!” not, “Wait! Who’s that survivor?”
That minor quibble aside, The Human Race is a cruelly inspiring grindhouse film of survival horror. It is a bloody, violent risk, but worth the gamble.
– Michael Ryan