Monday, June 4, 2018

Movie Review: They Remain

They Remain ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Philip Gelatt.
Written by: Philip Gelatt based on the short story "--30--" by Laird Barron.
Starring: William Jackson Harper (Keith), Rebecca Henderson (Jessica).
There is nothing wrong is a slow burn horror movie – but eventually, you do have to deliver the goods or you leave the audience unsatisfied. That is really the issue with They Remain, which is a two hander horror movie about two people out in the middle of woods or may go insane, or maybe not. The two people are scientists, of a sort, who work for a major corporation. They are to stay on a massively large plot of land that once was the home a thrill kill cult, who we gather is not unlike the Manson family. It has been a long time since that cult moved on, but just how long is undetermined. The reason they are there is to determine if there is something about this land – something in the biological makeup of it – that caused or contributed to the violence. How would a corporation make money out of that? The scientists aren’t sure, but don’t much care either.
The pair of them don’t know each other before getting out there, and they fall into somewhat traditional gender roles. Keith (William Jackson Harper – so great as Chidi on The Good Place) – is the hunter of the pair. His job is basically to be out on the land, setting up cameras, and collecting samples, etc. Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) is more the gatherer – she’s to stay at base camp, and analyze all the data that they gather. After a lengthy setup, weird things start happening. She reports that she hears knocking on the pod door at night – and thinks its him – but the security footage doesn’t show anything. They both start having weird dreams that don’t make a lot of sense – lots of blood red skies, and visions of the thrill kill cultists committing the murders they know about. They start finding strange things on the land. With each other, they have a strange, push-pull relationship. We spend almost the entire movie with Keith – we really only see Jessica through his eyes – as he has trouble getting a handle on her. Sometimes he thinks they’re becoming friends – even though in general, he seems to hate people – and sometimes she’s cool towards them. Being out in the woods together for months on end, it’s not inconceivable that something sexual will happen between them – and there are times when that tension is in the air well before either of them act on it.
The film is based on a short story, and to be honest, you can tell. If the problem with adapting novels is sometimes you have to cut out so much the whole story is different, the problem with adapting short stories is that you have to pad them so much to get them to feature length, that they become dull and drawn out. Oddly, this film runs 100 minutes, and in reality you’d need less than half that time to tell this story. I understand that screenwriter/director Philip Gelatt is trying his best to build atmosphere and suspense throughout – and at times succeeds – but there is only so long you can do that before you need to deliver something, anything to the audience to make their investment in the movie worth it.
Which brings us to the end of the film, which is really when things fell apart for me. I’m willing to forgive an overly long buildup – particularly one that is made with skill, as this is – if you actually deliver on the end. They Remain doesn’t. It grows more overtly weird and strange, but it doesn’t really answer anything, and doesn’t do so in a satisfyingly ambiguous way, but rather in a clumsy, seemingly purposeless way.
There are things to like about They Remain – Gelatt is a decent director, even if he makes some strange choices, and Harper is too talented an actor to make Keith completely dull and pointless. Henderson doesn’t fare as well, in large part because her role is so underwritten that you never get a handle on her at all. It takes skill to make a no-budget horror movie like They Remain, and still deliver – and in this case, the film doesn’t quite get there.

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