10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

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Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of survival horror, so 10 Cloverfield Lane is basically designed for me. That said, my love for the genre also means I have standards. I enjoy the odd mediocre Aliens ripoff (and you may have noticed that’s basically a genre unto itself), but very few films reach the intensity required to make something truly memorable.

On the flipside, I’m no fan of the first Cloverfield. The film struck me as hackish and hollow, like most JJ Abrams productions, a formulaic application of found footage tropes to the monster movie. I was especially unimpressed by the pretension that Cloverfield somehow transcended the monster genre in its portrayal of post-9/11 mass trauma, given that monster films have dealt with mass trauma since Gojira dramatised the psychological aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

So it’s a pleasure to say 10 Cloverfield Lane was a fucking masterpiece, my first five-star rating on this blog. It also doesn’t require knowledge of Cloverfield, with an entirely different set of characters in the same universe.

Unlike the first, this isn’t really a monster movie. While monsters play a role in the story, the primary horror here operates at the human level.  For most of the running time, the primary conflict concerns John Goodman’s excellent depiction of Howard Stambler.

From the moment Goodman’s character kidnaps Final Girl Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the audience is prompted to wonder, as Michelle wonders, whether Stambler is telling the truth about an apocalypse outside his bunker, or simply on a power-trip. The horrifying answer, of course, is both.

In fact, each plot development is gut-churningly predictable. This predictability is no problem, feeling more like an existential absurdity than a horror movie formula (other critics say the film packs in many surprises, maybe it was just on my wavelength).

1o Cloverfield Lane reminded me of absurdist theatre by the likes of Edward Albee, with a largely confined set requiring dialogue-driven action (and like Sartre, hell really is other people). The human crisis is so acute, so traumatic, so absurd, you have to laugh.

The three leads come to represent a kind of Oedipal nightmare family. A controlling father, a terrified but resourceful daughter, and a son who bonds with the daughter, a bond the father sees as a challenge to his authority (a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy as he antagonises both).

Director Dan Trachtenberg uses the claustrophobia of the script effectively, with a tight mise en scene, many frames following a rule of three that centres on the leads.

In retrospect, 10 Cloverfield Lane was the perfect US horror film for 2016: a paranoid patriarch manipulates fear of the Other to gain control. But then I read left-wing messages into all but the most reactionary films. Call it a negotiated reading.

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