H., now streaming on Netflix, fits a category I've come to think of as drama of the inexplicable.
A drama of the inexplicable is driven by an unexplained happening: a girl disappears within the canyons of a rock formation (Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock). People return unceremoniously from the dead, much to the delight/astonishment of their loved ones (French series Les Revenants). Members of a dance team experience unexplained seizures and other phenomena (last year's The Fits). Two percent of the world's population suddenly vanish (HBO's The Leftovers). Unlike magic realism, which presents magic as an ordinary part of an otherwise realistic world, the above happenings are very much acknowledged as upsetting or disturbing.
To call these stories "mysteries" is inadequate – unlike a typical whodunit, for example, dramas of the inexplicable offer few helpful clues, leave no trail of breadcrumbs to a logical conclusion. Dramas of the inexplicable aren't quite "horror," either, though their implications can certainly horrify – Halloween may find in Michael Myers a figure of bottomless evil, but though his psyche is inexplicable, he's a known threat, a flesh-and-blood person who (theoretically) could be killed with enough firepower.
And "supernatural thriller" also does not satisfy, because while they may thrill, dramas of the inexplicable don't involve a distinctly classifiable source of the supernatural, like ghosts and the afterlife (The Sixth Sense), psychokinesis (Carrie) or the Devil (Angel Heart). The eerie stuff is never more than vaguely defined – we suspect the strange phenomena of Peter Weir's The Last Wave have something to do with Aboriginal "dream-time," but while that's enough to intrigue, it leaves too much unexplained to mollify us.
No, drama of the inexplicable generates tension and atmosphere from a lack of explanation. In H., we're never quite sure why things become so strange in Troy, New York – we don't know why drinking glasses begin to spontaneously shatter, or why people are found standing with their nose to the wall in some kind of coma. We don't know where the enormous head of a stone statue came from, or how it can float down the Hudson River. It probably has something to do with a meteor that flashes across the sky over Troy (if it's really a meteor, that is).
But it's in this atmosphere that we follow two women named Helen. One of the Helens (veteran character actress Robin Bartlett, in an Independent Spirit Award-winning performance) is in later middle age and enthusiastically cares for her "Newborn Angel," an ultra-lifelike infant doll that acts as a sort of surrogate child (named Henry). Helen holds club meetings with other Newborn Angel moms, posts videos demonstrating how to make bottle-feeding the doll look real, and even stages simulated feedings in the middle of the night. Her husband Roy grudgingly tolerates Henry, but still jumps at the chance to go on a fishing trip with his buddy.
The other Helen, whose story parallels the first, is a conceptual artist in her early 30s, who, along with her husband, stages provocative performance pieces that involve violent and sexual imagery. As the couple explains in a master class, their art is often the product of intense disagreement; sometimes they even come to blows. This Helen believes she's pregnant and repeatedly encounters a black horse.
H. was made on a tiny budget, written, filmed and premiered within six months as part of the Venice Biennale College-Cinema Program. Essentially a prestige student film, H. successfully establishes a naturalistic tone before anything strange happens. Anything supernaturally strange, anyway – Helen's devotion to her Newborn Angel borders on eccentric, but also suggests a sympathetic and tragic backstory, and this slightly off-kilter realism primes us for the weirdness to come.
I've already mentioned some of the odd occurrences in H., but to be too specific would spoil the (eerie, unsettling) fun of it all. For now, let's just say there are...disappearances. Like all films in this category, H. isn't about solving the mystery, as fascinating as it might be to speculate – it's about how characters respond when their reality is turned upside down. For the Helens, reality begins to feel like a half-remembered dream, and we know them well enough that their responses are simultaneously unnerving, and a valid reflection of their psychology. H. is a mesmerizing and perplexing watch with no easy answers to give. But like many dramas of the inexplicable, the mystery is tantalizing enough to be its own reward.