Boy Harsher's Horror Film Brings Our Primal Impulse to the Front

Boy Harsher's Horror Film Brings Our Primal Impulse to the Front

In the very northwest corner of Massachusetts lies Florida, a quiet mountain town of 694 that’s surrounded by three state parks and the Hoosac Range. It’s a lonely area, defined by its deep seclusion and seemingly endless pine trees, so eerily quiet and unnervingly empty that it feels less like a rest stop and more like a Lynchian parallel universe. The kind of place that appears stuck in time, oddly familiar yet distinctly alien. Where it’s easy to get lost and even easier to lose yourself, especially if you’re The Runner.

The titular character of Boy Harsher’s new horror film and accompanying soundtrack, The Runner stars King Woman’s Kris Esfandiari as a strange woman whose bloodlust knows no bounds. First introduced to us while running through the forest underbrush in a blood-soaked dress shirt, The Runner appears, chased by some unseen predator, while the opening track (“Tower”) slowly edges closer and closer to climax. It’s a moment of visual and sonic agony punctuated by the punishing crash of producer Augustus Muller’s drum pads and frontwoman Jae Matthews’s distorted wails, as The Runner falls to her knees and screams.

Within the next 40 minutes, The Runner goes on to usher us through a whirlwind of motel rooms, mobile homes, ‘80s infomercials and even a fully produced music video for “Machina” (featuring BOAN’s Mariana Saldaña), all while following this mysterious interloper, who seems unable to control her deadly desires, subsequently wreaking havoc upon the residents of this small town, including a terrified boy played by Lucy’s Cooper B. Handy and Sigrid Lauren’s ill-fated “Lonely Woman.”

But The Runner isn’t just a horror film. Rather, it’s a far-reaching work that doesn’t confine itself to a single genre by stitching together The Runner’s story with bits of a faux documentary chronicling a Boy Harsher studio session, unexpected yet fascinating interruptions that further disorient the viewer as they simultaneously attempt to understand who The Runner actually is.

Maybe this was a happy accident, seeing as how the documentary portion was a byproduct of a moment during the pandemic “when everyone was doing live streams,” per Matthews, which was something they weren’t really comfortable doing. So instead, they toyed with the idea of creating a “more of a Behind the Music band in the studio type thing’” and combining it with “this movie we were talking about at the same time.”

Except, it ended up being the narrative portion that interested the two former film students, who share a love of neo-noir, thriller and body horror. As such, they decided to “whittle the documentary down to the bare minimum” in favor of building out a slightly off-kilter world that’s both foreign and nostalgic, with a prop closet full of Laura Ashley dresses, wood paneled bars and a captivating soundtrack that, sonically, keeps in line with Boy Harsher’s signature output of combative ‘80s-indebted music.

Most striking though is The Runner’s ability to transport you into a recreation of what Matthews calls a “world that exists in our memory,” placing landlines, VHS tapes and the 16mm used to film the entire movie, all alongside a modern score that also wouldn’t feel out of place in a Carpenter or Cronenberg film. And as Muller noted, this anachronistic co-existence is a result of their interest in “writing these sorts of rural stories, because that’s where we’re both from,” as well as an acknowledgment of Boy Harsher’s “urban side,” perhaps in reference to their distinct fusion of coldwave, updated post-punk and the kind of contemporary dark techno that’s taken over metropolitan centers as far-flung as Berlin and Mexico City.

However, Boy Harsher is more than its international reputation, much like how The Runner is more than just aesthetics, as proven by its backstory. After all, it’s a deeply personal project for both Muller and Matthews, particularly the latter, whose MS diagnosis during quarantine caused her to have “moments where I was like, ‘Wow, maybe I’m never going to play live again.’”

“It felt good to have this project though, because it made me feel like my MS wasn’t preventing me from creating the way I wanted to,” she said. And even though she was, technically, supposed to be resting at the time, there was something that wouldn’t let her stop developing The Runner, both a film character and a lyrical vehicle exploring her desire to be a “good person,” even amidst intense temptation, desire and the potential for complete self-destruction.

“Early on in the film, we explore what it means to give into compulsive behavior,” Matthews said, though she also mentioned this sort of “desire and lust and feeling trapped by those impulses'' that cannot be fulfilled has always been a prominent theme within Boy Harsher’s music. The only difference now is that it has a visual component, which puts these concepts into even starker terms by supporting Matthews’s already emotive lyrics.

“It’s like, ‘I want this,’ again and again,” she continued. “‘I want to fuck this person. I want to hook up. I want to be bad,’ even though you also inherently know that behavior will destroy you and destroy another person.” Or, as Esfandiari quipped, “Literally kill another person.”

Despite her character’s need for blood though, the latter can’t help but empathize with The Runner and her flawed nature, speculating that she was merely a woman that got “entangled with someone evil.” An evil that helped release “this compulsion to really go for what she wants, even though it's disastrous,” turning her into a person who’s spiraled far past the point of no return that she can only be defined by her desires.

Granted, it isn’t easy to tap into one’s own Id, making Esfandiari’s ability to channel the inherent rawness of The Runner’s psyche quite the feat. But within the “emptiness” and a “reckless energy” she tried to bring to the character were the memories of a “relationship in my past that left me feeling like I didn’t recognize myself” — much in the same way The Runner no longer recognizes her own reflection in the mirror amidst her killing spree.

“I really had to tap in a little bit further though, because there were no words,” she added, before Muller chimed in to say the lack of dialogue in The Runner emphasized Boy Harsher’s examination of these unrefined feelings — lust, desire and violent urges — when they are no longer constrained by morals or social norms.

“It’s that primitive way of people just making eyes at each other. It created the world we wanted,” he said, before Esfandiari jokingly attributed her powerful performance to the pain of running around after developing sciatica and the fear of constantly being attacked by hordes of moths, a phobia of hers.

“And then, everything else was all so realistic,” she went on to say on a more serious note, referencing the intensity of the story, which required her to do things like pulls a (since-misplaced) heart out of a dummy.

“It felt so real. Just tons of blood and like a big heart,” Esfandiari said, as we continued to ruminate on her character as someone with the ability to tap into their deepest, darkest and most primal and instinctual desires, while carrying them out with a reckless abandon most of us cannot fathom.

Whatever you think of The Runner herself though, it’s not a stretch to say that she’s one of the most human characters you can imagine, albeit one who has taken her yearning to the furthest extreme. But in doing this, she mirrors our own complicated relationship with the rational and the inexplicable, the push-and-pull between the morally righteous and the little voice in the back of our heads that tells us to give into our impulses: To cheat, to lie, to steal, to hunt, to hurt, to kill.

After all, as Matthews went on to add, “Everybody wants to be bad and destroy themselves and destroy other people.”

“I do think that within any red-blooded American, these impulses are there,” she said, before taking a brief pause.

“I think there's just a certain level of how far you’re willing to go.”

The Runner is now streaming via Shudder.

Photos courtesy of Boy Harsher