Await Further Instructions. 2018. Directed by Johnny Kevorkian. Screenplay by Gavin Williams.
Starring Sam Gittins, Neerja Naik, Abigail Cruttenden, David Bradley, Grant Masters, Holly Weston, & Kris Saddler.
Shudder Films / Premiere Picture / Goldfinch Studios
Rated 14A. 91 minutes.
Horror / Mystery / Sci-Fi
Several films in the horror genre can already be classified as post-Brexit, or, for Americans, post-Trump. Genres like horror or science fiction offer filmmakers intriguing ways to convey anxieties about individual identity, and the same goes for national identity. A self-contained film can reduce an issue from a larger scale to a smaller one, illustrating something affecting the entire nation by reducing it a microcosm. This is exactly what Await Further Instructions does and very well.
The screenplay, written by Gavin Williams, takes place on Christmas Day, revolving around the Milgram family. They’re all getting together at the holidays, despite Nick (Sam Gittins) worrying how his white, insular British family will react to his girlfriend Annji (Neerja Naik), who happens to have brown skin. When the house and neighbourhood are suddenly, inexplicably surrounded by a mysterious black substance and the only information about the outside world comes to the Milgrams via the TV screen, the family’s xenophobic fears reach hysterical heights.
Director Johnny Kevorkian (The Disappeared) does a fine job of drawing out an atmosphere of unease and relentless tension that feels similar to the drawn out national nightmare that is Brexit. The story will be recognisable to many, no matter their country. Williams’s screenplay depicts a family being torn apart by an older generation unwilling to change, the next one desperate to follow in their footsteps out of mythical national pride, and the youngest trying to survive through it all. Father Gore’s Canadian himself. We’re not immune to the plague of white nationalism and xenophobia. The biggest culprits in enabling its spread are those in the media who choose to stoke fears via ideologies based in racism, classism, and other methods of oppression. Kevorkian’s film uses science fiction specifically to apply its criticism to the damage of propagandised news and those who put their trust in the wrong sort of media.
After the family wakes up to discover they’re trapped inside, the television starts sending messages to them, and they’re told of a supposed infection. This is part of the film’s allegory about nationalism and xenophobia— these are the real infections, like viruses chewing their way through the citizenry, riddling the body politic with a disease that will only picks its bones clean before long. They’re inherited infections, too. The sister of the family, Kate (Holly Weston) is pregnant, and her father, Tony (Grant Masters), insists she takes the vaccines sent from outside. This moment symbolises how older generations determine the fate of the next generation via foolish decisions based on a faith in nation.
Xenophobia comes up fast at the start of the film after Nick and Annji come home for the holidays. It begins with small comments, escalating into barely thinly veiled racist rhetoric. Annji, who has a medical background, tries to warn them against taking mysterious vaccines. The white Brits would rather poke themselves with potentially infected needles because the TV said so rather than listen to a brown girl. Earlier, a comical moment sees Kate playing Scrabble with Annji and complaining about “Indian words“— hilariously ironic how the white Englishwoman doesn’t know her own language and resorts to passive-aggressive racism.
The icing on the cake is when the Milgrams assume the problem outside must be terrorism-related. Tony espouses the views of so many ultra-conservative whites, British, Canadian, or American alike: “If we don‘t uphold our values and have a proper British Christmas, the terrorists have already won.” This is the warped, white, right-wing mind that sees celebrating Christmas a defiant act of war against a faceless Other, an invented struggle to make themselves victims. Half of the white family lump Annji into the same category as a fictitious terrorist simply because of the colour of her skin. The irony is these white people only know about people with different colour skin due to what they see in the media, and judging by granddad’s (David Bradley) thoughts the media they’re consuming is the worst, most divisive kind.
Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation
to which he belongs;
he is ready & happy
to defend all its faults & follies
tooth & nail,
thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.
— Arthur Schopenhauer
Nationalism and patriarchy go hand in hand. One of the most devious ways in which nationalism works is by turning women against their own interests, allowing them to be manipulated by the patriarchy, convinced it’s all part and parcel of patriotic duty. The mother of the Milgram family, Beth (Abigail Cruttenden), is helpless to do anything in the face of her husband’s xenophobic madness, and Kate only echoes her dad’s ignorant leadership. The funny thing about all this nationalism and patriarchy is that, when things go wrong there’s nobody to blame except for men. Once the patriarchy inevitably leads us to destruction there’s nobody other than the patriarchs to accept the guilt. Tony whines to his son: “You have no idea what it‘s like to be a father.” He exemplifies the self-pitying patriarchal male who laments his faults and his perpetuation of a flawed system passed down from his father, and his father before him, and so on.
“We need to be shepherds.
Protect the herd— even from themselves.”
There’s plenty of vivid imagery throughout the film. Right away there’s the black substance keeping each home stuck within its own contained environment. This in itself is an image of divisive media carrying water for politicians with ugly ideologies seeking to cut us off from one another— literally from the neighbours right next to us— creating pockets where insular beliefs and destructive rhetoric are able to thrive.
The substance, we come to see, is actually an endless series of wires. They coat the house, then eventually they’re inside, using people as puppets. They appear like tentacles, playing off imagery associated with H.P. Lovecraft’s Old Gods and the Cthulhu mythos. This adds another interesting layer to the wire-tentacles. They’re not Old Gods but the horrifying New Postmodern Gods of Media. After the baby’s born, the first image it sees is a TV screen that reads: “Worship me.” Even before that, the Milgram home has a Christian cross hanging directly above the television, like they’re two objects of worship in juxtaposition. From birth, we’re letting children be manipulated by media. Nowadays, a sinister algorithm is seeding incredibly dangerous worldviews into the world of Kids YouTube, exposing children to worrisome content, and many youth are being taught toxic things about how we, as humans, should relate to media, in its many forms.
But the older generations are not immune. The young are looked down upon for their relationship with technology when it’s older people who are often more susceptible to negative influence by the media than anyone. When the tentacles use Mr. Milgram as a literal puppet, sinking wires into the back of his head and pushing out his mouth, it’s a heavy-handed yet effective piece of symbolism about how destructive media organisations push lies and hatred with the sole purpose of dividing people for the sake of making money, more clicks, more ad revenue— more greed. The fact it’s Mr. Milgram specifically is a clear image of the Baby Boomers being manipulated through the wires as a tool of the New Gods seeking to indoctrinate the rest of society.
“The majority has spoken”
Within the film, the family and home take on qualities of the national sociopolitical climate. Tony— a man who sees himself as having failed in his patriarchal role— uses a time of disaster to try and prove himself as a true patriot, going so far as torturing his own son, believing him or his brown-skinned girlfriend are a “sleeper agent.” He epitomises the current problem with white nationalism, overt or otherwise, and how so many scared white men act today: totally obsessed with an external threat of terrorism rather than willing to look inward at their own actions that have torn his family and home(/the nation) apart.
Await Further Instructions has come along at the perfect time, evoking many sentiments coming out of the current post-Brexit/post-Trump landscape, from the U.K. to here in Canada and the U.S. next door. Angry racists and xenophobes will hate this film because it outright challenges their worldview in an interesting, horrific, and at times darkly comedic way.
The film’s finale is a culmination of the story’s focus on media as a force of corruption instead of being one of liberation through informing the public. Father Gore sits and writes this only days after the massacre in Christchuch, New Zealand. Part of the hideous killer’s entire identity is wrapped up in these very same issues with media and how certain companies, like YouTube, are enabling white nationalists and all sorts of other creeps by allowing them to influence people of all ages, but especially youth, under the guise of free speech. The infectious tentacles of nationalism and xenophobia reach far and wide, worse than ever before because of the proliferation of screens and social media everywhere we turn. Await Further Instructions is an important genre film that speaks to the terror of reality we’re all currently experience together, and suggests there’s only destruction ahead should we forget to take care not to let the media turn us, and those around us, into hateful, insular, and myopic puppets.