Two scientists who share a romantic history are tasked with investigating unnatural animal behaviour on the site of a Manson Family-style cult's compound
William Jackson Harper
And I thought of this masterful quote while watching the new horror/thriller/mystery They Remain.
Why? Because the film is very esoteric at times, and there’s a lot left open to interpretation. By the film’s final visual and last line of dialogue, you’ll have a good idea of what’s happened in a general sense, but man – there are a lot of psuedo-unanswered questions.
In other words, “This film doesn’t have any answers!”
Two researchers: loner Keith (William Jackson Harper) and very by-the-books Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) set up shop in what looks like a small biosphere, somewhere in the vast and uninhabited wilderness. They’ve been hired to conduct research into some strange animal behavior in the region. The site of their facility is smack-dab in the middle of the land inhabited formerly by a Charles Manson-esque cult. As their research fails to provide any answers, and as some sort of cabin fever sets in (including vivid and frightening dreams) – their already cold relationship begins to further deteriorate. With cameras set up all over the area – they may eventually find that they are not alone here.
With what is basically a two-person cast, a film like this needs to have strong performers. And that’s exactly what it gets.
Both actors are adept at everything thrown at them. Keith is clearly our sympathetic character. And Harper does a fine job of drawing us in. With little bits of revealed history (which are also important to the plot), as Keith and Jessica get drunk around a roaring fire-pit – you’ll start to understand how delicate and suggestive Keith may be.
As good as Harper is, I was more enamored with Henderson’s performance. Both actors do wonders when spouting off plenty of technical science-babble – but I found Henderson’s absolutely ice-queen-esque and no-nonsense turn as Jessica inspired and quite intriguing. We get some insights into Jessica’s past, but ultimately – we never know that much. And the fact that I’m left wanting a bit more (even if it might mess with the film’s plot) is a testament to her work as well as that of the writer.
As for that writing, I enjoyed the dialogue. It’s always tough to pull off that “technical science-babble” by the actors for sure – but a writer (whether they know about such things or not) have to make it sound realistic. So that even an everyday layman can “understand” it or at least buy that the characters do. The fact that I never further questioned anything – is a good sign indeed. And those “fire-side chats” were completely engaging. Again, I liked these characters. So kudos to the dialogue as well as the actors.
The film has a nice (read: unpleasant) feeling of isolation – something akin to Carpenter’s The Thing. There’s some paranoia as well, but it’s a bit less chaotic than that of the 1982 Antarctic adventure, since there are only these two characters. And there’s lots of silence. Long sequences without dialogue (only the sounds of nature) and then when the characters are together, but don’t speak – helps to not only cement the physical isolation, but the isolation/distance between Keith and Jessica.
I was in love with the cinematography of the film. Adding to the tension was the careful placement of the characters in the frame, most notably Keith. With his everyday journeys into the forest to check cameras, etc., he is so often shown as a small part of the frame. Of course, there are close-ups (more-so inside the research facility) but when Keith is outdoors, there’s always a good deal of greenery/shadows/wide-openness surrounding him. I was constantly waiting for someone or something to appear in those vast swaths of open space. Tension and delicious anticipation.
There are also the aforementioned dream/hallucination sequences which are extremely well done and quite eerie – as the look (and editing) is changed up to accommodate the otherworldly and mysterious presence of these moments.
There’s not much to be found as far as make-up effects, but when the story hits that particular need, you’ll be quite pleased with what the make-up artists bring to the table. Very well done.
The film was written and directed by Philip Gelatt – based on a short story from Laird Barron. I’ve not seen any other work from Gelatt, but will certainly remember his name when I see it appear again. He’s got a firm grip on tension and unease, and clearly has a good idea of how to direct actors.
My one big complaint (and why I can’t go any higher than my 4-star rating) is that right at the halfway point, I zoned back into reality. The film lost me.
It started to become repetitive. Up until that halfway mark, I was completely invested in these characters and their odd circumstances. There wasn’t one particular moment which led me out of this world – so I think it was just that I was hoping (needing?) something else to come up – for something to happen and move things along.
In that, the film could be considered something of an art-house piece – at least peripherally. Or perhaps a full-on character study – since the plot never pushes forward at any kind of break-neck pace. I guess it doesn’t necessarily need that — but since I felt the pacing stumble here, it maybe could have used a bit of a perk — what that perk might be, I don’t know.
The aforementioned final moment/line of dialogue does indeed wrap up some loose ends, and confirmed what I began to suspect much earlier. But that didn’t make it any less chilling.
While the second act sort of floundered in repetition and teased a bit with pacing problems, the film has so much going for it in the avenues of performance, character and tension – that you certainly need to give it a shot.
And that title, They Remain… doesn’t that conjure up so many creepy images and the promise of well done horror?
Well, the title’s eeriness pays off.
And per Homer Simpson — some questions were ultimately answered, but without being spoon-fed, was it enough?
They Remain premiered at Portland’s HP Lovecraft Festival this past October, but no wider release dates have been announced.