Horror movies are the best movies. There. I said it.
Horror’s ability to dramatize larger-than-life threats (monsters, ghosts, demons, psychos) in order to disseminate resonant and cogent themes that reflect and meditate on the very nature of fear itself provides the genre’s Achilles heal and elevating grace. When horror films fail to suspend our disbelief or provide convincing writing and performances, it can fail miserably at its own objectives: to scare and to ponder. But, when horror succeeds at provoking immersion and conviction, and engenders a textured, multi-layered approach to fear, it can soar above all other films in its unique ability to do that which it sets out to do: scare us. tl;dr: when horror films are good, they’re really, really good and when they’re bad they’re rotten. I was surprised and delighted to find Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane situated in the former category.
“10 Cloverfield Lane manages to animate the idea that the biggest threats and terrors can come from within the domestic space and from within our own families rather than the more evident dangers from outside the doors of our supposed refuges.”
Wielding the virtues of a stunning cast and a big budget, 10 Cloverfield Lane succeeds at delivering any horror maven’s desires: 1) effective jump scares, the bounty of which any adrenalin-junkie is in constant pursuit 2) codification of fear towards the film’s central diegetic threats (apocalypse, confinement, kidnapping) and 3) rumination on insidious, non-diegetic fear (which I will soon elucidate). All of these elements constituate the film’s brilliant thematic work.
The film follows Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World ), who leaves her fiancée in the middle of the night in pursuit of greener pastures only to be driven off of the road by an irate truck driver (it’s less trope-y and “done” than it sounds). She wakes up in a cinder block cell, with a now-broken leg chained to the wall. She manages to use an water-drip IV to retrieve her personal affects from across the room, including her surprisingly not-dead phone, but she has no cellular service. She’s underground. Enter Howard, played by John Goodman (who begs no introduction, obvs), who brings a tray of food and benevolently urges Michelle to stay hydrated and “get handy” with a pair of crutches. In the coming days, Michelle learns that her surroundings are but one room in a surprisingly cozy bunker (which looks like equal parts the Dharma bunker from Lost and a studio set from the apartment of insert-your-favorite-sitcom-here) which she shares not only with Howard, but also with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr. of Short Term 12 ) a Podunk simpleton who holds Howard in nothing but the highest regard for his foresight in constructing and generosity in sharing a bunker built for a doomsday scenario which has apparently taken hold of the nation somewhere in between the inciting car accident and Michelle waking up. The nature of the Armageddon is unclear–Howard offers hypotheses ranging from nuclear blasts at the hands of “the Russkis” to extraterrestrial probes. Michelle is skeptical, convinced that she’s being held for nefarious purposes rather than protective ones. Whether or not the apocalyptic scenario is actual (and, therefore, whether or not the strange and short-fused Howard is a hero or a villain) forms the central mystery of the film.
On paper, it sounds like 10 Cloverfield Lane takes its cues from the exposition of Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt minus the comedic impulses and War of the Worlds, but the premise is articulated with what feels like utter-freshness as we are immediately encouraged to think that this is not a film we’ve seen played out before. The film’s relationship with not-so-acclaimed Cloverfield (2008) is only established, rather negligibly, in the last 15 minutes of the film, and its association with the antecedent film is liberated from the pesky shaky-cam and found-footage aesthetic. (The script was developed independent of the 2008 film, and it shows).
One of the greatest strengths of the film derives from its mise-en-scene which successfully impresses upon us the confinement and the sense of always being watched (as well as the contrivance of the bunker’s resemblance to a family home) of the characters, but additionally generates a prosthetic sense of confinement for the audience. The pacing of the film is on fire (save for a regrettable time-is-passing montage that shows Michelle, Emmett, and Howard to be getting along as a content, surrogate nuclear family) with every breath of stagnancy punctuated immediately by a scream-provoking cut, a chase sequence, or a big-reveal. The performances also shine brightly, chiefly in Goodman’s case.
Goodman makes an unlikely candidate for a dramatic, nay, terrifying, role, but his tendency towards comedic timing only contributes to the uneasiness of the film, as much of his dialogue is simultaneously pathetically laughable and highly unnerving. (He treats Michelle to home-distilled vodka, lamenting “I just said I distilled it, I didn’t say anything about it actually tasting good,” and he apologizes to Michelle about the circumstances offering, “I know that this isn’t the life that you prefer, and that it’s been hard for you to come down here… but I really want us to be a happy family, you and me”). As the audience attempts the tenuous process of deciding whether to loathe or root for Howard, Goodman provides the requisite nuance to evoke pity, horror, and above all, confusion. Primarily, we find out Howard is estranged from his daughter, Meghan, a reveal which is likely to provoke a pout in solidarity with Howard even as we are equally suspicious of his motives as Michelle.
Additionally, Winstead makes a great kickass heroine or “last girl.” In the first place, her characterization elides the Sci-Fi/fantasy impulse to masculinize it’s central female characters (re: Ripley of Alien fame, cuz, you know, women can’t be tough unless they’re basically manly). In fact, it is actually the female-coded skills of sewing and fashion design which allow Michelle to triumph over her circumstances–a properly badass gender and genre subversion. But, whatever the moment, Michelle provides a portrayal of the consummate survivor, scrappy, spry, and resourceful: at times, she endeavors to placate Howard, and at others she defies and mutinizes against him. This interplay advances greatly the thematics of 10 Cloverfield Lane, which dramatizes issues of (abusive) father-daughter relationships through the hyperbolized stakes of this surrogate family–Howard is simultaneously the bungling sitcom father, “just doing his best” as well as the twisted and monstrous parental archetype so familiar to horror films (albeit these portrayals are usually emblemized through a woman, see also: Psycho and Carrie). With the threat of apocalypse looming large, albeit somewhere in the background, 10 Cloverfield Lane manages to animate the idea that the biggest threats and terrors can come from within the domestic space and from within our own families rather than the more evident dangers from outside the doors of our supposed refuges.
SPOILER-SATURATED CONCLUSION AFTER THE JUMP
The pitfall that nearly undoes the successes of 10 Cloverfield Lane comes from the out-of-left-field ending, which feels like an entirely separate short film arbitrarily tacked on to an otherwise flawless one. Michelle escapes her crazed captor (who, probably DID believe in the apocalypse but who also believes that kidnapping brunettes will help his recuperate the loss of his estranged Meghan) but only to find out that the world above ground is in fact ravaged by the apocalypse, a far less satisfying ending than the alternative, thematically speaking. Enter a new antagonist: the alien species familiar from the 2008 Cloverfield, and an utterly unwelcome chase sequence. While the ending is admittedly derailing, the conclusive moments of the film only confirm an observation Howard makes toward the beginning of the film–that Michelle has “got some fight in her”–which may just prove inspirational to for audiences that take 10 Cloverfield Lane as a meditation on what it means to thrive rather than survive in the wake of abuse.