Just as I did last week, I’m going to pretend that it’s still the Halloween season and use that as an excuse to talk about my favorite and most underappreciated horror films. This week I’ll be diving into a more recent film: 10 Cloverfield Lane, directed and co-written by Philadelphia-native Dan Trachtenberg. I was lucky enough to watch this film in theaters on opening night, and I’m proud to admit that even though it is more recent, it has remained one of my favorite horror films of all time.
For a little bit of context, this film is technically a part of the “Cloverfield universe.” The first film in the series was Cloverfield is a 2008 found footage monster movie, directed by Matt Reeves and produced by J.J. Abrams, about a group of party-goers who just so happen to have a camcorder rolling when a giant monster attacks New York City. For years after its release there were rumors of a sequel, but nothing materialized.
Fast-forward to January of 2016: a teaser trailer for a previously unannounced project is released online. The trailer gives away no details about the film’s storyline other than that it appears to be a science-fiction/horror film and it was being released in only a mere two months. At the end of the trailer, the title appears on the screen, 10 Cloverfield Lane. Naturally, fans of the first film lost their minds and spent the subsequent two months theorizing what its connection to the first film would be.
10 Cloverfield Lane follows a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who is involved in a serious car accident. She wakes up chained to a wall in an underground bunker, being held captive by a man named Howard (John Goodman). To Michelle’s surprise, Howard claims to be her rescuer; according to him, there was an apocalyptic event that occurred while she was unconscious, the outside world is completely uninhabitable, and it is imperative that they remain in his bunker. Michelle has no idea what to believe: Howard clearly seems unstable, but the presence of a third person in the bunker (John Gallagher Jr.) who claims to have fought his way inside in order to escape the ensuing apocalypse complicates her feelings. To tell you any more than this would be to spoil a film that is full of nail-biting twists and turns and contains one of the most brilliantly layered mysteries I’ve seen in any thriller of the 21st Century. All I’ll say is this: there is one moment in this movie that had me so shocked to my core, I was quite literally screaming expletives in the middle of a crowded theater.
This film served as Dan Trachtenberg’s directorial debut (and so far, his only feature film directorial credit) and that achievement is beyond impressive. If this film is any indication, we have a long career ahead of us to look forward to. Trachtenberg’s direction is, without exaggeration, evocative of Hitchcock: the brilliant camerawork and composition are a major highlight in this film. The way Trachtenberg blocks his sequences, as well as the calculated, confident, and thoughtful movements of the camera are clearly indicative of a director who is already a master of his craft. His careful direction elevates a simple dinner table conversation or game of charades into sequences filled with palpable tension that will inevitably draw you to the edge of your seat. The performances are also top-notch. Mary Elizabeth Winstead breathes life into Michelle, making her into a resilient, strong, and most of all, intelligent heroine whom you can’t help but root for.
Horror films are always scariest when the main character actually makes intelligent decisions; it allows the audience to more intimately identify with the protagonist rather than scream at their screens in frustration, which in turn makes the film even scarier. Michelle is the epitome of this kind of intelligence. She is consistently two steps ahead of the game, always thinking of how to best handle each horrifying situation that is thrown her way, and it really draws the audience into the world of the story from the very opening scene.
John Gallagher Jr. serves as the film’s beating heart, infusing the story with a much-needed sense of humor as well as pathos. Gallagher’s performance perfectly balances out the dynamic of these three characters, providing humor that genuinely delivers while never diminishing the tension. I can’t praise John Goodman’s performance enough. When most people picture the quintessential John Goodman role, they would most likely imagine Walter from The Big Lebowski — and for good reason. But ever since March of 2016, every time I see the smiling, affable face of John Goodman, all I can picture is his chilling portrayal of Howard. Each subtle twitch of his face and each incredibly specific choice in his words combine to create one of the most utterly creepy performances in recent memory. And while I’m lauding the cast and crew, I must give credit to the heart-pounding score written by Bear McCreary, who is slowly becoming one of the most gifted composers working today.
One more aspect of this film that I feel deserves some discussion is the fact that it is rated PG-13. Historically, PG-13 horror films have not fared too well. Typically, they are very blatantly watered down and censored, which results in the scares feeling noticeably neutered. Quite the opposite is the case for 10 Cloverfield Lane. Trachtenberg is able to use the limitations of the rating to his advantage by employing one of the best examples of “leaving it up to the audience’s imagination.” Again, I can’t say much without spoiling major plot twists, but there are some moments in this film that are deliberately ambiguous, but with implications that are downright bone-chilling. Four years later, I still find myself analyzing this film every once in a while, thinking back on certain specific moments or images and contemplating the significance of them or what I think they ultimately meant.
I have my own theories about this story, but the beauty of it is that Trachtenberg takes an ambiguous moment, sprinkles it with some subtle but horrifying potential implications, and allows the audiences to draw their own conclusions. He trusts the audience without spoon-feeding them any answers — which is a welcome departure from many modern horror films. The result is something scarier than most R-rated horrors.
If you’re looking for a horror film that is truly nail-biting without being overly gory, 10 Cloverfield Lane should be at the top of your list. It is truly Hitchcockian in its execution; an intelligent horror film that treats its audience with respect while fully living up to the potential of its premise and delivering some of the most heart-pounding sequences I’ve ever seen. Throw in some terrific performances, musical score and a hell of a great script, and you have one of the most underrated horror films. Please go give it the attention it deserves.
10 Cloverfield Lane is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.
By Graham Burrell