2015 NR Canada Adam Massey 87 mins.
Horror films are important not least because they so often dramatize fundamental philosophical questions.
I just watched an extremely interesting (and definitely underrated) horror film (currently streaming on Netflix in the US), Adam Massey’s Man Vs. (2015). I did so at the same time that I was reading an essay by Canadian philosopher Karen Houle about the importance of the language we use when talking about the natural world.[i] At one point in her essay, Houle quotes from Martin Heidegger, a quote that struck me as providing a great lens through which to watch Man Vs.
Below is the trailer and then the quote.
Heidegger: “As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve.”[ii]
If we take our environment only as “standing-reserve,” to be used for our own ends, Heidegger says, we’re heading for a fall, destined in some dystopian future to become ourselves “standing-reserve.” Man Vs. illustrates this claim perfectly.
Man Vs. centers on Doug Woods (played brilliantly by Chris Diamantopoulos), who is the star of a reality show (Woods Vs.) in which he survives in remote places after being stranded by his production crew. He and his team have decided on the Canadian wilderness for season three, which has been picked up by a TV station and promises, they hope, fame and fortune. All Doug has to do is survive five days in the woods with nothing but a backpack. After Doug is dropped off, eerily alone, he soon realizes that something or someone is following him. As the mysterious stalker begins getting more aggressive, Doug runs through the panoply of possibilities: it’s a wolf, their “crazy” backwoods Canadian guide, the producers themselves, out to spook Doug for higher ratings. What is tracking Doug, though, is none of those things. I won’t say what it is, because the ending is extremely interesting and you should watch it for yourself. I’ll just say that it upends what Doug—and most likely the viewer—expects.
More importantly, Man Vs. tracks Heidegger’s quotation about the dire consequences of humans taking the world around them as “standing reserve.” Because this is exactly what Doug does. He goes into the wilderness and sees only resources to be mined for his own personal use, which is only superficially about survival and in actuality is about viewers and fame. Doug uses trees for shelter, sets traps, and skins and cooks a rabbit—all without any awe for the inherent being or power of the natural world around him. Doug views nature strictly pragmatically, strictly as his own personal resource. And the point of his TV series is to promote this view as widely as possible.
Doug is heading for a fall though—Heidegger’s promised “precipitous fall.” In Man Vs., the fall is literal, as Doug falls into what appears to be a trapping pit.
This moment culminates Doug’s humbling lesson (in many ways the point of the film) that the universe is not, actually, his personal “standing reserve.”
Indeed, as the pit exemplifies, the tables get turned as Doug realizes with horror that (to quote Heidegger again) “he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve.” All the ways in which Doug mined nature for his own personal ends becomes turned around on him. And that’s the horror of this film, which beautifully dramatizes the existential terror of the universe refusing to be humans’ “standing reserve.”
[i] See Karen L. F. Houle, “A Tree by Any Other Name: Language Use and Linguistic Responsibility,” in The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), pp. 155-72. Houle is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph in Canada.
[ii] Qtd. in Houle, p. 167, from Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1977), p. 331.