They Remain is being promoted as Lovecraftian in nature and is making its premiere tonight (October 7, 2017) at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, but aside from a Lovecraft quote at the beginning, I had a hard time finding the Cosmic Horror it claims to be peddling. But with that said, the film almost stands on its own without needing the Lovecraftian elements that I suppose its source material, Laird Barron’s short story “-30-“, had (I haven’t read it). In the process of translating the story to the screen, writer/director Philip Gelatt has made this more of a straightforward decent-into-madness tale, although he does retain a taste of the supernatural to add flavor along the way.
They Remain is the story of two scientists who are left in the isolation of a mysterious forest to investigate unnatural animal and ecological behavior in the general area where a decade or so earlier, a Manson Family-style cult had called home. There’s no real explanation as to why this research is necessary, and for the most part, there seems to be nothing abnormal about the area at all. To call this movie a slow-burn is a bit of an understatement as Gelatt tends to do that thing first or second time low-budget filmmakers tend to do when shooting in the woods: get loads of establishing shots that are beautifully framed and intended to foster a sense of isolation and dread, but most of the time end up just being filler.
It’s not to the extent of say, The Legend of Boggy Creek, but there’s a fair amount of nothing happening that lacks tension or anxiety. It’s all rather soothing and pleasant, to be honest. The cinematography captures the beauty of the forest without capturing any of the intended impending horror. Unless you’re just afraid of the woods.
There’s also a distinct lack of weirdness going on. There’s some discussion of a couple of weird things in the woods, but we never see them (except for a brief glimpse or two on fuzzy video monitors) and ultimately the film develops into a fairly standard exercise in paranoia without ever really giving the audience a substantive reason before finally diving into an unearned final fifteen minutes that seem to be from a different movie; a movie where weird shit was actually happening before the finale.
The two leads, William Jackson Harper as Keith and Rebecca Henderson as Jessica, both do excellent jobs with what they’re given. Harper, in particular, shines since his character ends up being our real protagonist. He captures the rising fear perfectly, despite having nothing in the script to trigger any fear. Jessica ends up being less central and more of a source of mystery and unease for Keith as the film inches forward, but Gelatt’s script is so lean on specifics that the lurking madness has nothing upon which to really establish itself and she ends up being more of a cipher than a character.
Instead of revealing disturbing elements and allowing them to build the anxiety and oppressive isolation, the film drops casual mentions of historic events and the barest of bare bones plot points. Even the discovery of the remains of an abandoned 18th-century settlement and a shit ton of human bones doesn’t really have the impact it should. Speaking of which, if there are any actual occult ties between the deaths of the original settlers and the cult, it’s mentioned once in passing and then never brought up again. Your mileage may vary, but for me, that was not enough to establish narrative causality. More links needed to be developed.
This is the sort of film that some people are going to watch and think is smarter than it is when it actually borders on pretentious; as if going all-in on the horror aspect might cheapen the overall artistry of the project. So in order to be taken seriously, the script goes way too subtle. So subtle, in fact, that the final moments, regardless of whether they’re actually happening or are all in Keith’s head, just don’t make any sense unless a number of passing comments are supposed to have actually served as plot development. They’re like an entirely different movie.
And when I say that, please understand that I know exactly what Gelatt is intending, but he didn’t lay enough groundwork to actually make it work.
I’m reminded of a couple of excellent low-budget horror films that also use isolation and paranoia to ramp up the tension and weirdness to finales that are pure mind-fuckery: Resolution and Animosity. In both cases, the filmmakers knew what they wanted to do and had no qualms about making it happen. There was no hesitation, no remorse; just a constant building of tension to fantastic finales. They Remain just doesn’t take any risks and there’s ultimately little to no payoff.
Gelatt also wrote a similarly themed science fiction film, Europa Report, which was more successful in its execution of Lovecraftian horror, but that film had a director who took some creative risks and a budget that allowed for a larger cast and some nice effects. They Remain has some good performances with lovely cinematography and sound design, but isn’t really something to seek out; especially if you’re looking for a Lovecraftian film.
They Remain will open theatrically across the US in Fall 2017.