10 Cloverfield Lane
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
Opens March 11
Bad Robot’s J.J. Abrams has taken pains to stress that 10 Cloverfield Lane is merely a “blood relative” of and “spiritual” sequel to the 2008 hit Cloverfield, which Abrams developed and co-produced, and that those involved only determined the movies’ kinship partway through production. So don’t expect to re-encounter any of the same beloved(?) characters or even that arbitrary monster whose CGI standardization was effectively masked by the purposefully awful camerawork. There had been other found footage horror movies (REC, Quarantine) since The Blair Witch Project and its immediate copycats became moneymakers at the turn of the millennium, but Cloverfield’s wholehearted commitment to the style (or gimmick), cleverly ambiguous title and artful viral marketing made it stand out and inaugurate an exhausting new wave of more such movies, of which six-odd Paranormal Activitys are only a piece. The footage in this not-sequel wasn’t fake-found; taking place largely in one semi-cozy bunker, it relies on classic tools (performance, dialogue, suggestion, loud noises) for its scares, and cinematographer Jeff Cutter owns and uses a tripod, the better for him and first-time director Dan Trachtenberg’s camera to leer at the slithering, contorting, tank-topped female lead.
The bunker’s owner is Howard (John Goodman), and with him inside are bearded young handyman Emmet (Tony winner John Gallagher Jr.) and twentysomething Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). 10 Cloverfield Lane opens with Michelle hurriedly packing up some things for a drive (presumably distressed because of the “Ben” who keeps calling without her picking up), then getting into a deafening (to the audience, not her) car crash and waking up on a sordid mattress, shackled to the wall via knee brace in a cell. Howard soon greets her to let her know he saved her life, everyone’s dead outside after some kind of attack, and she can’t leave for at least a year to avoid toxic air. He drops a tray of eggs, grits and toast on the floor and awaits her gratitude, but of course she assumes she’s been kidnapped and imprisoned and that Howard’s a liar, and Emmet a gullible sucker for believing him and welcoming captivity, until an attempted escape convinces her that perhaps the bunker is the only livable world now.
The screenplay, by John Campbell and Matt Stuecken (Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle also wrote a draft), never required a big budget, since most of its drama hinges on hints Goodman drops or withholds. Howard is a conspiracy theorist and violent-tempered fright; always making cryptic references to a “gone” girl named Megan, he is very plausibly a kidnapper and worse, slimily implying that Michelle will make a good cook for the three. So she won’t try anything, he stands guard while Michelle uses the toilet, but assures her he’s “not some kind of pervert.” Goodman, on a continual roll recently with memorable turns in Flight and Inside Llewyn Davis, is again well cast, and he’s able to invest this disaster case with some humor, like when he requests that watched VHS tapes be returned to their “sleeves,” and turns menacing during a charades-like game before you realize the funny twist answer.
Human touches like these distance this claustrophobic three-hander from the Saw/Hostel ghetto, as does the mix of vulnerability and grit from saucer-eyed Winstead (Death Proof, Smashed). 10 Cloverfield Lane is cheapened, however, by your constant awareness that it’s building to some manner of shock ending. Although I’m not at liberty to discuss specifics, the inevitability of something (something epic, Tweet-worthy and OMG that fulfills all of the promise and nerdy excitement of the viral marketing) downgrades the modest pleasures of the movie’s bulk to a steady buildup, as constant as the generator’s hum throughout. There is also no shortage of easy loud jolts, and there’s a brainless appeal for grossed-out gasps with a closeup of one amateur’s attempt to stitch up a forehead wound. The one-bunker setting ultimately proves only a little more novel a trick than Cloverfield’s shaky cam, and its pressure to deliver the goods lets it down.