Bending Horror to the Breaking Point: Office Space

When you open an album with this lyric: “Okay, I think by now we’ve established/Everything is inherently worthless/And there’s nothing in the Universe/With any kind of objective purpose,” it’s a goddamned line in the sand. You are staring down the void and staking your claim in apathy, and demanding listeners do likewise. Such is the case with “Ecce Homo,” the opening track on Titus Andronicus’ third, Local Business. As it turns out, that title is perfect for what I’m picking at here. On previous outings—the uniformly great The Airing of Grievances and The Monitor—some of these rages were filtered through particular lenses—on the former, they were still precocious enough to reference Seinfeld, for instance, and on the latter, The Civil War became a pliable metaphor for disaffection. And, on this year’s The Most Lamentable Tragedy, they return to an epic (five act) narrative structure with Freudian overtones. But, the style and structure of LB—conceived and laid down between touring, and with a “stripped-down” sound that approximates a live recording—have stuck with me, its reams brimming with naked, introspective nihilism and existential dread. It’s rare that an album is so bleak and so boisterous at the same time.

It’s this kind of big-picture paradox—hopelessness and wild-eyed vigor—that makes you question the intricacies of how you perceive and categorize the world. To complicate/compliment matters further, now’s the time of year when I am apt to see the horror in the everyday. All is awash in transition and the prospect of finality. Around this time each year, people generally actively court adrenaline spikes with regularity. I, for my part, stick with the tried and true rush of horror cinema to get my fix. And, every year, during this brief warped window, I end up confronting the boundaries of genre, trying to suss out what qualifies as horror and why. I like genre; I find it instructive and squirrely, if not totally problematic. Genres are fun but they really create more problems than they fix, which is also fun. Horror is perhaps one of the easier genres to define because its intent is to elicit responses on a relatively cohesive spectrum—shock, terror, fright, unease, disgust, revulsion, etc. Generating variations on and combinations of these emotions is its very raison d’être.

But, in the long run, I’d like to think that The Big Board in The Cabin in the Woods was meant to show limitation and not expansiveness—its list of clichés, subgenres, and familiar plotlines given betting odds seems to support this. Every year I slog through lists and catalogues of “horror films” looking for a month long playlist to get in the spirit of things. I’m not alone in this pursuit as various outlets find themselves on the horror bandwagon, trying like hell to find a new way in. In this process, I find holes, and stretches, and loopholes that test the boundaries of how the genre is generally understood. Every year, I am confronted with the question: how far does this genre feasibly extend? There’s really no answer, and that’s the point and the beauty and difficulty of genre studies—it seems so clear at the outset, but the boundaries easily crumble under mounting exceptions. It’s really a testament to both our minds obsessive need for categorization and the sheer quantity of variations (and repetitions, let’s be honest) we have found on similar themes and tropes. With that in mind, consider applying the goals and the structures of the horror genre even further, past the logical point of no return, as it were.

For me, this exercise is ideally suited for a film like Mike Judge’s Office Space. Catch me in the right mood (like now) and I’ll argue for its inclusion as an incisive, if deeply buried, example of horror. You will never see it categorized this way (it is hilarious, after all), but it’s certainly a frustrated and cynical piece, as Judge’s satires tend to be (before success stories and risers started creeping in). I think these currents run a little deeper here than one might expect. Bear with me here. Office Space is this generation’s 1984. It’s this generation’s Brazil. It takes the necessary stylistic updates—from Orwell’s solemnity and Terry Gilliam’s absurdity—to new places, but it does so in a paradoxical way—by filtering through cable television, eschewing scope, and trafficking in diminished, less-polished, even drab aesthetics. Office Space is, in a very real sense, the horror movie of this generation. But, like in Gilliam’s masterpiece, humor is essential for coping with the rigors of a rigidly corporatized, bureaucratized life. Fittingly, then, Office Space is bleached with irony—it is, after all, the vernacular of the 21st century. Office Space’s comedic tone is overlaid so thoroughly that it purposefully suffocates the unsettling realities it grapples with. Its style is so tenaciously gauche that it ends up heightening the mundanity, living up to Goddard and Whedon’s description of the monster-maze conglomeration in the script for The Cabin in the Woods—“The Costco of death”—only from an inverse angle.

As horror, Office Space crafts a world of mundane, routine, inescapable nihilism; it’s misanthropy that’s meant as comedy which, in its own Judge-ian way redoubles matters. It traffics in cultural bankruptcy, and posits modern civilization as a nadir rather than a peak. It’s a work fraught anthropology. It’s totally bleak, cosmically(/comically) hopeless—a fever dream of repetition and pleasantries and corporate-speak. “Milton,” the seed of Judge’s concept, remains as the Gollum-cum-synecdoche of this piece—a subsumed character undergoing acute psychological torture, and resorting to a desperate fetishization of his ruby-red Swingline, if only because it’s color distinguishes it from the grey, dark surroundings of his existence. It could easily fall under “psychological horror,” and it has a touch of The Shining and “technology horror” it its veins. Horror comedy has been a burgeoning if not thriving subgenre since at least Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, though probably back to Abbott and Costello’s chance meetings with various monstersOffice Space shares some genes with Shaun of the Dead, but there are no monsters here, and no subgenre riffing, and it’s not meta. At least Shaun and Ed got to imbibe at quaint English pubs with tasty pints and local character. Having watered-down drinks at Applebee’s/Chile’s analogs, and in lifeless, cheap apartments, is the highlight of the day in Office Space, a necessary decompression period before crashing out and repeating the cycle (“Now abundant beers await to erase redundant years”). Office Space takes up horror elements but never lets on about its hybridization; it’s too glossy to be obvious. Just like the world it constructs, all is surface, a façade of normality, a series of meaningless tasks to keep you busy and stressed for decades on end.

In fact, like Local Business and a slew of other horror films, like The Descent for example, Office Space is a work built around the rigorous process of coming out of a deep depression. To my mind, it stays dreary and not just a little hopeless to the last, solving the dilemma of the three principals’ creation as a means of papering over the larger issues that led to the scheme. As comedy, Office Space is an odd duck. It’s similar to Happiness but with more upbeat music. It doesn’t exactly set up its comical conceits; it doesn’t build toward laugh lines and gags but rather creates nervous laughter from familiarity and repetition. It’s anarchic in its trajectory while still being linear and hermetic. It’s the feint of the closed-loop. Resolution and progress are a mirage. This existence is inescapable; it’s the way things are and there is no way out. No wonder violent propensities lurk in the film—threats of mass murder, macho posturing, taking the copier out to pasture (“Smashing the system into the dirt now”), and Milton’s fiery pseudo-deus ex machina. Like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure (1997), murderous impulses are culled from just beneath a sociable, routinized surface; it’s “cinema of the repressed.”

Civilization has plateaued in Office Space; humans are interchangeable commodities, and individuality is subsumed by monolithic corporations hell-bent on ensuring incrementally rising stock. It’s all window-dressing for the horrors of modernity. Office Space has post-human moments as ascetic in their own right as those found in the films of Robert Bresson. Early sequences that set up Initech (positioned as an interchangeable entity with other cog-like companies, Intertrode for one) are like a low-brow version Jacque Tati’s Playtime, but devoid of any grace or hope for the technological future. It’s a world that seems to actively work against the characters, or at least counter to human behavior, like Chaplin’s Modern Times gone dull, the industrial gears no longer analog and met with rage rather than befuddlement. In the very opening of the film, all the principles are locked in the claustrophobic maze of the interstate, all “packt like sardines in a crushd tin box” (“Now there’s miles of angry motorists stretched as far as eyes can see/They are a billion breathing beings each with schedules to keep/They get a long look at the tow truck as they sit and grit their teeth/Hating that which comes between them and their coffee”). All this is to get to other cubes at a job they hate—not unlike human-Tetris, which Peter pointedly plays later in the film. The office they inhabit is filled with little totems to primality and the stunted progress of evolution: Peter’s dBase III book , Michael and Samir’s “Seals” poster, and Rodin’s The Thinker appropriated into a motivational poster—a once-inspiring monolith to human intellect reduced to a flat, hunched, encrusted, spaced-out, catch-all platitude. Survival instincts are sublimated; and what is horror good for if not to uproot the primal? The only escape is either cognitive disconnection or total annihilation (“Cause if I got more comfortable/Surely, I’m more complicit”). To regress fully is the desire that motivates and demotivates simultaneously. What’s more terrifying: swift, violent death or systematic dehumanization and routinized degradation? And, more so, is it not unsettling that we relate to it so intensely but can’t help laughing it off?

It’s The Myth of Sisyphus writ insignificant: Monday is terrible, and so the cycle begins; Tuesday is terrible, but at least it’s not Monday; Wednesday, you’re halfway home; Thursday, there is a dim light at the end of the tunnel; and Friday is a day-long clock-watch until the finish line. On Friday night, the fatigue from the week catches up. Saturdays=Youth. On Sunday, you nurse the hangover and dread the beginning of a new cycle. It’s not just a Skinner-box existence; it’s a downward spiral, a cycle of diminishing returns—“Ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So, that means, every day you see me, that’s the worst day of my life,” Peter says. Learn to embrace the nothing of the everyday. This is the rest of your life.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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