Cinematic Releases: The Lovecraftian Thriller They Remain

Philip Gelatt's indie thriller They Remain premieres this weekend at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, OR. The film is the second to be directed (as well as written) by Gelatt, the screenwriter of 2013's indie sci-fi favorite Europa Report, and is based on a novella by Laird Barron. Like Europa Report (which took a bit of loose inspiration from At the Mountains of Madness), They Remain draws from Lovecraftian ideas and themes to inform both its mythology and its approach to slow-burn sci-fi suspense. But while those narrative aspects are inspired by the great early-20th-century writer of “weird fiction,” the style of the film is decidedly modern, and extremely minimalist. Its focus is on creating a cold, icy hostility and sense of alienated dread which at times feels almost antiseptic in its modernity. It also plays out almost entirely as a two-actor show, building up the distrust and tension between co-stars William Jackson Harper (The Good Place) and Rebecca Henderson (Manhunt: Unabomber). The result is a film which transposes Lovecraftian ideas onto a very different genre approach. The results are uneven and the final product a bit flawed, but it is nonetheless a compelling, well-shot and acted indie thriller.

Harper and Henderson play two scientists who have been sent by a mysterious corporation to investigate an ecological “dead zone” which, despite having normal-seeming vegetation, appears to be totally lacking in animal life. The area used to be home to a mysterious cult which ritualistically killed a huge amount of people on the land – begging the question, are the history of occult violence and the ecological anomalies linked? The film follows their months-long investigation – and the way in which they both begin to psychologically unravel and mistrust each other as the isolation and macabre work plays with their heads. The focus of the film is largely on the latter: the occult concepts and ecological mystery are quite intriguing, but it is the psychological fallout of them, and the effects of isolation on the two paranoia-prone minds, with which the story is most concerned. The film's best scenes are either subjective nightmare-visions reflecting the characters' mental cracking or dialogue scenes between the two, in which reticence and mistrust fill the gaps of what goes unsaid.

This is where the movie is at its strongest: Harper and Henderson both give strong performances, particularly when they are working with silence and facial/body language to convey this unspoken tension. The film's cinematography by Sean Kirby is likewise very strong in both of these aspects, bringing an icy hostility to these dialogue scenes, and a dreamy sense of unreality to the sequences which may be nightmares or visions, or may be real. The film is quite atmospheric, and strongly captures the sense of psychological subjectivity central to Gelatt's script. Kirby likewise was the cinematographer for the 2007 Lovecraftian horror/thriller Cthulhu (a very interesting and ambitious queer-cinema take on The Shadow Over Innsmouth), which boasted a similar coldly dreamlike atmosphere; his work on that film made him a naturally excellent choice for this one.

However, the film has some significant flaws in the script department. While the tension between the two main characters works well, the larger story which frames this tension leaves much to be desired. Neither the ecological mystery nor the Lovecraftian cult mythology are sufficiently fleshed out, and sometimes feel more like macguffins in service of the characters' story than a story unto themselves. This is definitely a problem, since both of those plot threads are really interesting in concept (they are, after all, why both the characters and the viewers are here), and it is a bit frustrating that they remain underbaked. Some of this may be due to budgetary constraints – as 2007's Cthulhu likewise learned the hard way, it is difficult to deliver Lovecraftian horrors with very little money – but largely it seems due to the fact that the script is more interested in inward strife than outward mythology. The end result would, however, have been stronger if it could have done both. The last act in particular is harmed by the underdeveloped nature of the story's mythology, as we really should know more than we do about what is actually going on for the film's climax to have more impact. As it is, the film's final act is less satisfying than it should be as a result.

Ultimately They Remain is compelling and worth checking out when it gets a wider release this fall, because of how well it handles its slippery paranoia and isolated character tension. The actors handle the two-person-show challenge of the material quite well, and the strong visual style makes the slow-burn approach work pretty effectively. It is unfortunate that the script shortchanges its Lovecraftian mystery as much as it does, as this aspect of the story is really interesting, and we do not get nearly enough of it. The result is an uneven film which in the end doesn't quite fulfill its potential. It is nonetheless worth a look, and makes a case for Gelatt being a strong filmmaker who could do something very impressive with a bit more resources. Perhaps next time he can explore the Lovecraftian themes which have recurred in his work so far with a bit more depth.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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