Actors deserve more respect for shaping their careers than they get credit for. Not everyone is looking to be a star or simply taking a role to maintain relevancy. Some are carefully crafting a body of work. They view their art as exactly what it is: art. We should consider actors as curating their careers and voices just as much as any other creative aspect of filmmaking.
While not yet a big name in horror like Bill Moseley, Barbra Crampton, or Brad Dourif, John Gallagher Jr. is devising a career up there with Kevin Bacon as one of modern cinema’s most underrated genre actors. Each time he lends his voice to the darker side of storytelling, he feels born for it.
His next project is the Amblin Partners film Larry, the first straight horror project we’ve seen from an Amblin name in decades. Based on a short by Jacob Chase, the film will also feature Gillian Jacobs (Community) and center on a family being terrorized by a monster who apparates through electronics thanks to the nightmares of a young boy. Think of it as Before I Wake strained through the lens of Rachel Talalay’s 1993 forgotten techno chiller classic Ghost in the Machine.
This project has all the trappings that get me excited for a new horror film. For one, it’s based on a short, a medium that I believe harbors some of the most imaginative genre ideas we see today. But also, with works like The Devil’s Candy, Hereditary, and Mike Flanagan’s opus The Haunting of Hill House, the last decade of horror has re-contextualized the modern family drama, giving audiences a new in for observing the nuances of the 21st-century family. And never more topical than now is the evolution of parenting as technology rapidly advances. With Larry’s tech gone mad conceit, the film has the opportunity to cut through the fat of these changing dynamics and get to the meat and the fun of its central message.
But what actually gets me excited for this film is Gallagher. If you look at the actor’s career, you’ll see a carefully curated list of films that I don’t believe is by chance. In the decade since he broke onto the scene with his Tony-winning role in Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening, his body of work encapsulates not only modern masters like Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret) and Aaron Sorkin (The Newsroom) but also exciting new voices like Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) and Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post). What I find most surprising though is his early dedication to genre films.
Not since Terrence Mann went from Cats to Critters has a Broadway actor found such a home in horror. In 2016, Gallagher made three genre films back to back, beginning with the unexpected 10 Cloverfield Lane. While John Goodman gives a performance for the ages and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the film’s solid foundation, I found myself drawn to Gallagher’s audience surrogate, Emmett. He understood exactly his place in the film’s arc, something even the most accomplished actors can fail to do. This takes an artistic self-awareness noticeably lacking in ego. And rather than playing into any potential archetypes of a film set in one location, Gallagher resists the urge to draw undue attention and simply illustrates one of the most important adages of the artform: acting is reacting.
This is something that would be vitally central to his roles in Mike Flanagan’s Hush and Greg McLean’s The Belko Experiment. In Hush, a re-actualization of the masked ‘80s slasher, he was able to draw from his well of theatrical training to imbue his character with a foreboding physicality, in spite of his slight frame. This physical dichotomy would be pushed further in Belko, as a diminutive desk jockey discovering his inner rage while caught in the middle of a governmentally sanctioned battle royale.
We typically only see this type of physical acting in horror when it comes to our monsters. But for Gallagher he is able to isolate his character’s stresses and tensions into specific regions of the body, offering a psycho-physical connection to these roles. This wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the backbone his stage training provided him.
Each of these horror films in which Gallagher has been cast, which makes up almost a third of his film career since 2007, can be seen as acting challenges. Genre films open him to roles that offer new hurdles to jump over that can be endlessly fascinating for audiences attuned to watching this type of artistic discovery. Or to put it another way, consider Gallagher and his choice of roles like an even-tempered version of Nicolas Cage’s wildly diverse filmography.
Which is what intrigues me all the more about Larry. The film’s scant plot details give it the potential to tilt into a fun, schlocky madhouse which feels like a wholly new type of horror film for Gallagher.
In the original short, a parking lot attendant working the night shift discovers an abandoned iPad. On it is the children’s book The Misunderstood Monster about the titular Larry, a Stephen Gammell-esque monstrosity that just wants a friend. Of course, the only way to see Larry is through the tablet, which sounds about as gimmicky as the light switch scene in Light’s Out. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when a gimmick is used as a crutch, it can forecast the scares, softening their impact.
Gallagher’s collaboration, though, tells me that Larry will be far more than its mere contrivances. While The Belko Experiment may have a fair amount of shock value, Gallagher’s career has shown us that he gravitates towards films that have underlying subtext and complex, nuanced characters. And with Larry, I can only surmise what emotional risks Gallagher will be tasked with taking, but I think we can rest assured that whatever the film brings, it will be of cinematic substance.