The Runner is a short experimental film. It’s worth watching if you’re into nebulous horror, gory makeup effects, MTV’s behind-the-scenes features, or the eighties as a general vibe. It’s also an album, with the added nomer (Original Soundtrack), by dark synth-pop duo Boy Harsher, comprised of vocalist Jae Matthews and producer Augustus “Gus” Muller.
The film stars Kris Esfandiari, vocalist for the doom-rockers King Woman, as the Runner. She’s “reckless… out of control… pure evil,” which is the tagline for the movie. In it, she silently runs through a rural, heavily wooded area, mostly covered in blood, killing anybody who gets too close. She never speaks; the only noise she makes is a scream, actually voiced by Jae in “Tower.”
Meanwhile, framed by a fictional Public Access TV show called Flesh First, Jae and Gus perform tracks from The Runner and give shallow insight into its creation, both as a film and as an album. They describe themselves in dark tones. Gus says he’s “a broken person.” Jae recites the tagline for the film, then qualifies it: “There’s a human side to her, too,” and Jae can relate to the Runner’s self-destructive patterns.
The meta-commentary scenes in The Runner mostly reflect our world. But in the Runner’s world, Boy Harsher’s ‘80s-nostalgic sound is visually translated into a pre-internet scape. Box televisions, cord phones, and red neon dominate. Flesh First host Pam Dillis sports shoulder pads. In a bar, while Boy Harsher’s “The Reason” plays from unseen speakers, maybe a jukebox, a man pulls the lever on an old slot machine.
The Flesh First asides, though they interrupt the reality of The Runner, also serve to immerse the audience in it. When we get to see what airs on the Runner’s television screen, we see what she sees. When we get to hear the music that’s popular in her world, we hear what she hears. We take on an active role in The Runner, potential victims of her monstrous desires.
I first discovered the band when they released their album Careful in 2019. Gus’s beats are steady and propulsive; I was running a lot at the time, and I would listen to Careful while I ran around downtown New York, my feet keeping time to the electronic beat. Jae speaks in distorted whispers. She screeches, moans, and sings with a deep, throaty growl that simultaneously implores the listener to come hither and back off.
Sonically, The Runner (Original Soundtrack) is familiar. Jae’s breathy moans and howls flit like ghosts between Gus’s dense synth beats and spooky, drawn-out chords. Even when the lyrics read like desperate begging (“Come and tell me I’m the only one”), Jae’s delivery is authoritative.
I feel like I’ve heard some of these songs before. At first I thought “Tower,” “Give Me a Reason,” and “Escape” were remixes from Careful (a technique employed by synth-goth outfit HEALTH for their “Disco” series of albums).
But the songs are new—Boy Harsher just has a signature sound. This could be limiting or too repetitive in less-focused hands. Instead, it’s evocative of an inescapable, subtly-shifting reality. The all-consuming nature of this reality perpetuates the drive to escape. The futile drive to escape engenders the drive to create. What better way out of the constraints of reality than to make art? Creation is certainly a healthier coping mechanism than murder.
The psycho-sexual nature of the horror genre is on brilliant display here.
On Shudder, where The Runner is streaming, the reviews have two themes. Either the reviewer is already a fan of Boy Harsher and loves the movie, or the reviewer thinks The Runner is not a movie at all. To people in this second camp, there’s no dialog, no plot, nothing beyond a good soundtrack.
As a fan of Boy Harsher, I’m obviously biased. But I’m not opposed to narratives with big gaps like the ones left in The Runner. Even without dialog, I think the plot of The Runner is pretty clear: a woman cursed with hunger for human hearts uses her sexuality to lure in victims. She doesn’t want to murder people, and she makes her intentions clear with looks that convey her blood-thirsty, monstrous nature. Do the people who choose to bring her home with them ignore those looks? Or are they unable to interpret them?
The psycho-sexual nature of the horror genre is on brilliant display here. We know the woman who the Runner picks up (played by Sigrid Lauren) is doomed, but the sexual tension between the two is intoxicating. The metaphor for self-destructive relationship choices would be heavy-handed if it weren’t so sexy, and if the horror special effects weren’t so good. When Kris finally sticks her hand into Sigrid’s chest and clenches her fist around Sigrid’s heart, we might as well be watching her sleep with Sigrid and then leave without saying goodbye.
In an interview for Fader, Jae says that “for The Runner, we had the idea for this character who needs to flee all these disastrous situations she herself has created; she’s the ultimate self-saboteur. We write about that person because that person is us… You can no longer be the little monster that lives inside you. But you can write that little monster into any situation you’d like, when you’re an artist.”
Before the credits roll (in a really fun montage of behind-the-scenes b-roll, not scary at all), the Runner stares through a chain-link fence at freeway traffic. Is the fence an overly obvious metaphor for the patterns that trap the Runner in her reality? Maybe, but in a 40-minute movie there isn’t necessarily time for subtlety. And a chain-link fence is not a wall. It’s comprised primarily of gaps; holes you can see through, wires you can cling to as you begin to climb over it. All the Runner would have to do to leave behind her evil behavior, the image implies, is decide to climb.
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CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Light Witch by Courtney Brooke. Use courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR. All Rights Reserved.
The Runner movie posters and album cover courtesy of Boy Harsher and Nude Club.