Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2008

It's right behind you...

'Cloverfield' and its monster dial back the horror, up the suspense to inject Monster Movies with a vital shot in the arm

Paramount Pictures
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Drew Goddard
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, Jessica Lucas, Odette Yutsman, T.J. Miller, Lizzy Caplan and Mike Vogel
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 24 minutes
Opened January 18, 2008
(out of four)

The guerrilla marketing campaign withheld its secrets. It offered just enough titillation that, while we didn't know what exactly it was that was tearing up New York City, we really, really wanted to know. J.J. Abrams wouldn't tell dare tell.

Now, after months of guesswork, rumors and stealth hints left around the Web, the Cloverfield monster has been revealed. No, it's not Godzilla, nor a dinosaur, nor the smoke monster from LOST, nor Bowser. It is, in fact....

But wait! That would be spoiling the fun. And it's not as if I could give you a conclusive answer anyway. Mostly we can only catch glimpses, captured first-hand on digital video by Hud (T.J. Miller) on the night of his best friend Rob's (Michael Stahl-David) going-away party. It's hard to get a great look of the thing - whatever it is - because . . . well, most of the time people are running away from it.

Buildings are being ripped down. Bridges are collapsing. Manhattan is engulfed in smoke and shrapnel. Electricity, city-wide, flickers on and off. Someone said something about people being eaten. No one knows exactly what they saw. The military is intervening, and even they aren't sure. (Or at least they won't admit it.)

Like the best monster movies, the beast itself is shown in mere seconds at a time - and even then, only in parts. A foot here, a tail there. Cut to a shot of the carnage it's wreaking on Central Park. A few people gather around to take pictures on their camera-phones.

The glimpses of the monster we do get don't come with the rhythmic timing of a John Williams score, but in unexpected moments and from unexpected directions. Our cameraman is as surprised as we are, and as frantic.

Though no doubt largely influenced along the way by Abrams (the LOST co-creator who produced the once-secret Cloverfield and spearheaded the marketing effort), director Matt Reeves makes effective use of his handheld camerawork. It's an interesting and socially modern way to document such an attack, providing a sense of urgency that crisp editing and a thundering musical score couldn't equate.

After lulling us into a sense of monotony in the opening party sequence - where we meet our principle characters and briefly get to hear about their silly soap-opera lives - terror comes in the form of a sudden blackout and an explosion downtown. Chaos spills into the street in minutes. We are no longer at ease, and won't be for the rest of the brisk 84-minute run time.

And, despite some real artistry in the design of the monster itself, Reeves keeps it mostly out of plain sight. He never lets us get too comfortable with it.

Now what should have been hidden from sight are the characters we follow from humble beginning to chaotic, abrupt end. It's probably the only thing keeping Cloverfield from being a defining 21st Century horror movie - but it's not exactly a minor flaw. What's so curious is that there's such energy and creativity in the form the story takes, and yet the film uses the most hackneyed of twentysomething cliches to emotionally attach us to. They look like they all walked out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog - and their melodramatic lives are just as interesting.

Sure, we go along with them. We pretend we give a crap about Rob's darling sweetheart. We can pretend to get behind his courage and derring-do (yes, derring-do) as he makes his way through a torn-apart city to save his precious.

But we don't. We couldn't care less. The lives and motivations of the characters needn't necessarily be ultra-complex, but these are a cheap and lazy excuse for drama. Even the intentionally boring characters in this film's stylistic predecessor, The Blair Witch Project, offered more interesting character dynamics to follow.

Cloverfield is at its best when the camera is moving and the characters are moving toward (or, in some cases, away from) unknown danger. We tolerate the lame character storylines because of the strength of the action, the terror of the moment, the uncertainty of the threat.

The most impressive thing is the self-control and conviction the filmmakers show in presenting the story. They don't cheat in order to try to fill in details or explanations - explanations which would likely cloud the issue and dull the impact of the in-the-heat-of-the-moment tension anyway.

The best example I can think of is the helicopter scene (I won't spoil the details), a terrifying sequence during which the camera never strays. Because of this, we see very little - but what we don't see is far more ominous than what we would feel with a conventional wide shot.

The aforementioned Blair Witch Project showed the same impressive restraint, and was similarly successful - but other films attempting similar methods between this film and that one have resorted to camera tricks and easier storytelling methods to make up for the limited nature of the first-person-camera form.

Suspense/horror filmmaking - the kind that builds toward palpable fear - has largely been replaced by ADD horror. Gore, jump-scares, clear-cut answers instead of shadows and sound effects. A movie like Alien, in which we rarely see the title character, isn't enough for the masses anymore. Now, we need to see both the Aliens and the Predators, and we need to see them constantly.

It was scarier, more suspenseful and more memorable in 1979.

A movie like Cloverfield incorporates modern techniques - which so far seem to appeal to wide audiences when done right - to keep audiences off-balance once again.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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