I grew up catching midnight reruns of The Twilight Zone. I used to get absolutely spooked by its commercial, certain that I never wanted to hear a single note of its tinny theme song or catch glimpses of its distortions of the imagination. Yet eventually, after sampling an episode for the first time, I made catching its late-night replays a habit. I became attached to The Twilight Zone’s engaging brand of mystery and its modern parables, never meant to be overly didactic or preachy, never corny or silly despite how old it was. The Twilight Zone told stories well enough that it was genuinely terrifying beyond today’s fare of jump scares. Since then, I’ve come across only a small number of films and shows that match its terror.
Add to that list 10 Cloverfield Lane, which hit theatres just last Wednesday.
It’s a film that entices the viewer at first glance, and some might say that it’s the kind that’s a lot better the less you know about it. Just check out the trailer that announced the film:
In case you aren’t scrambling to the cinema already, here are the broad details: the film tightly focuses on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who wakes up handcuffed to a bed after her car is rammed off the road. She meets the genuinely-unnerving Howard (John Goodman), who introduces himself as her savior, not only having apparently rescued her from the crash but also having protected her from a massive chemical attack that has rendered the outdoor air unbreathable. Together with Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), they are now the only inhabitants of an underground bunker with enough supplies to outlast the fallout. It immediately becomes clear that Howard is hiding something from both Michelle and Emmett, and that Howard’s strict control over the affairs of the bunker means that he isn’t to be trusted.
It’s no surprise that J.J. Abrams’ fingerprints are all over this project, considering his continuing obsession for mystery boxes, hatches, etc. But at the helm of the film is Dan Trachtenberg, whose work you might know if you’ve seen this short film based on popular video game Portal. 10 Cloverfield Lane is Trachtenberg’s first feature, and it is an impressive debut. Trachtenberg works to color in his characters beyond their dialogue. Though much is said about the characters’ respective pasts, it’s easy to figure things out by considering the bunker itself and the way the three survivors react to it.
Now the title links the film to 2008’s Abrams-produced Cloverfield, a found footage monster movie after the heart of Godzilla. Abrams has stated that the new film is nothing more than a ‘blood relative’ or a spiritual successor to the original, which is surprising because 10 Cloverfield Lane shares almost nothing with its predecessor. There are monsters, there are people reacting to the monsters, and that’s it. But 10 Cloverfield Lane emerges as the much stronger film with its awareness that there is something much more frightening than the monsters it shows you, a characteristic that the original Cloverfield manages to hint at without ever really underlining. Fans of the first film might go to look for links in the second movie, only to be frustrated that there are just a few throwaway references to the world of Cloverfield. However, because the two films inhabit the ‘Cloververse’ without ever really tying up, it’s possible that the next entry could take place in a totally different place and time and reveal different monsters and that’s fine.
More than a follow-up to an ambitious approach to the giant monster movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane opens the door for future low-maintenance (shot primarily in chronological order on a single set), low-key (the movie having been announced two months before its release) horror films that aspire to something more than the cheap carnival ‘boo!’ It’s fun enough to bring back memories of midnight screenings and the reasons I waited all night to be scared out of my pants.