Tag Archives: Juliana Harkavy

Work is Hell in ‘Last Shift’

Four years before Hereditary would introduce general audiences to a Paimon-worshiping cult that manipulates an unsuspecting family, Last Shift featured its own Paimon-worshiping cult manipulating the daughter of a  victim from beyond the grave. Like  Session 9—which also follows someone’s sanity unraveling at a job they are desperate to keep—Last Shift shows that good intentions are not enough to escape hell. 

Rookie police officer Jessica Loren’s (Juliana Harkavy) first day consists of a seemingly simple task: monitor a decommissioned police precinct overnight and let a hazmat crew in when they arrive to remove biohazardous crime scene materials. She is left alone at the station under strict orders not to leave the premises. As the night progresses, Jessica juggles encounters with a mysterious man who keeps wandering into the station with disturbing distress calls from a teenage girl as seemingly supernatural things happen around her. Eventually, her nightmarish visions are revealed to be the work of a Manson family-like cult known as the Paymon family. Unbeknownst to Jessica and the general public, the leader of the cult and two of its members committed ritualistic suicide a year ago in the holding cells of the precinct. This act cursed the building with their now demonically-charged presence. 

Last Shift features a plethora of nightmarish tricks and images.  It is like director Anthony DiBlasi unspooled every spine-chilling moment seared into my memory from a lifetime of ingesting horror media: the doctor looking straight at you from the recorded footage in 1999’s House on Haunted Hill; the mirror image not moving in sync with its counterpart in Silent Hill 3; the uncanny, creeping realization the seemingly unthreatening person you are talking to is something else in the 1990 adaptation of It. Once combined, these influences become a job-related pressure cooker requiring the character to ignore their survival instincts and stick things out. 

Unlike so many other horror movies where you are screaming for the person to just leave, you understand why Jessica insists on staying. Her father was killed in the line of duty by the Paymon cult, and she wants to honor his legacy. She wants to prove herself to her unsupportive mother and condescending male colleagues. She truly cares about doing a good job. As a cynical sex worker she encounters outside the station notes, “You still got that look on your face like you give a damn.” Whenever she is scared, Jessica repeats the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics like a religious mantra. This culminates with her repeating how she “dedicates herself before God” in the service of justice during the climactic final moments of the movie. Her motivations, even if sometimes misguided, are sympathetic.

Work is a great excuse to keep horror film characters stuck in an untenable situation. Jobs can be a necessary evil at worst or a satisfying calling at best. But unlike other horror film scenarios—like a visit to a summer camp or partying at a cabin with our friends—most of us need to work to survive. We will suffer indignities and challenges to our well-being to keep our jobs—especially if we see that job as a core element of who we are (as Jessica does in Last Shift).

The cult leader John Michael Paymon (Joshua Mikel) also believes in the work he is doing. At one point, Jessica enters a room and sees footage of a police interview with Paymon and his acolytes playing. As she watches on in fascination, Paymon states, “I am not ashamed of what I do. I do what I do because it’s right.” The torture he inflicts upon his cult’s victims is his own true calling, just as Jessica sees police work as hers. Paymon goes from human to taking on a demonic visage as the film progresses, indicating his death has led to rebirth as Paimon. He is aided by obsessed young women and, even more distressingly, by the ghosts of his former victims. And just as Jessica has her mantra with the Code of Ethics, cultists often sing an eerie hymn about pledging their souls to their master. 

In addition to creating compelling motivations for Jessica, we are also placed firmly in Jessica’s perspective throughout the film, and she becomes the only character we can trust. Like Jessica, we question every interaction as the isolation and stress gradually chip away at her grip on reality. But given her righteous intentions and competence, we expect she will ultimately prevail as the film’s protagonist and de facto final girl. This belief culminates in a nasty trick played on both us as the viewers and Jessica, as Paymon’s warning that he will metaphorically “rape her humanity” comes to pass. 

At the film’s climax, armed and masked cultists break into the precinct. They attack Jessica while pledging themselves to Paymon. She fights back, having tried unsuccessfully to summon backup and seeing no other choice after her dad seemingly calls her from beyond the grave, instructing her to avenge him. Only after her superior officer shoots her are we shown what truly happened. No cultists were invading the precinct. Instead, Jessica shot and killed the hazmat workers as they begged for their lives. As she lies on the ground dying and processing what she has done, Paymon and his acolytes stand over her. No longer afraid, she sings the cult’s hymn heard throughout the movie. She has seemingly dedicated herself to another higher purpose. 

Jessica’s bleak fate is the greatest source of fear the film has to offer: the idea that doing what we believe is right can still lead us down the road to hell without any awareness of what we have become. Even if we distinguish ourselves from those that willingly prey on others, our good intentions will not shield us from joining those who joyfully commit atrocities in hell. It is hard to imagine there was any hope for Jessica as soon as she entered the precinct, but her grounded motivations and dedication make what she’s done all the more horrifying as the credits roll. The horror of Last Shift festers in our anxieties to prove ourselves.