Artistically, Halloween III Season of the Witch was the right choice … but audiences didn’t warm to the notion of a branded anthology series of films, so John Carpenter quit and other hands turned the franchise back into an endless exercise in the Same Exact Thing Again. Fuck you, 1983 film fans for screwing things up for the rest of time. Subsequently, the big screen (and straight-to-video) spinoffs of Tales From the Crypt tried something similar but the franchise stuttered to a halt. In fact, the most reliable non-series horror shingles have been built around company identities – Universal monsters, Hammer horror,Amicus anthology, and latterly entities like Blumhouse, Ghosthouse, Platinum Dunes and After Dark. So, the idea of a Cloverfield franchise, telling different but wonkily connected stories is quite appealing and – with Marvel/Disney and DC/Warners pioneering shared universe cinema – the time for creating larger-than-one-film-or-series worlds may well have dawned.
This under-the-radar genre film from J.J.Abrams’ Bad Robot outfit might or might not be a sequel to Matt Reeves’ found footage kaiju movie Cloverfield – it’s mostly set in a survivalist bunker during a crisis which the protagonist has a very limited view on for the bulk of the running time and half-believes is not even happening. Is this disaster/invasion/apocalypse related to the events of Cloverfield? And – going back to the original film – what was that big monster attacking New York all about anyway? Even after you’ve seen this, connections between the films are up for debate – it’s as if Bad Robot want to encourage fan theories to fill in the gaps where their hastily-scripted projects aren’t quite thought out. Of course, this could mean that writers Josh Campbell (a film editor), Matthew Stuecken (a producer) and Damian Chazelle (the Whiplash/Grand Piano guy) and debuting director Dan Trachtenberg are just working in the make-it-up-as-you-go-along mode quite a few of Abrams’ film and TV scripts.
In an economical, wordless opening, would-be clothes designer Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) breaks up with her boyfriend (a voiceover Bradley Cooper) and drives away in the night, ignoring ominous snatches of news … only to get into a loud, shattering road accident. She wakes up with a knee-brace and a dripfeed, chained to a pipe in a concrete underground room and assumes she’s been abducted by one of those collector types who were around a lot in cheap horror movies a few years back (Captivitiy, Chained, Cellar Door, etc). Howard (John Goodman), an ex-Navy paranoid, has built a survival shelter under his farm (complete with jukebox for rousing but somehow sinister golden oldies) and brought her here, along with handyman/third wheel Emmett (John Gallagher Jr). The sort of nutjob who anticipates the end of the world with something like relish, Howard keeps saying he’s only acting for his guests own good and is protecting them from a deadly outside world … but his bearish presence (Goodman makes a great literal heavy) and dissociated menace suggest that he might still be a serial killer and life outside (as in Blast From the Past, another bunker movie) is going on as normal.
Howard talks about an estranged daughter, Megan, who Michelle is clearly supposed to replace – though she starts wondering how accidental her accident was and then what really happened to the smiling girl in the pictures whose clothes she is wearing and whether she was even who Howard says she was. A game of charades – which I’ll bet was written by Chazelle – is a brilliant exercise in revealing character through trivial chat: no matter how much prompting he is given, Howard can’t look at Michelle and think of the word ‘woman’ and then terrifies Emmett when it’s his turn to make them guess. Winstead – following up her outstanding work in another confined power game, Faults – is a compelling heroine, who doesn’t go in for the usual pleading and whining and whose schemes to get away or the upper hand make for a great deal of suspense … and, as a third act reveals, is not involved in the fight of her life but merely training for conflicts with bigger and weirder menaces.
The story is at once infallible and ramshackle. Many clues cast doubt on what Howard tells Michelle and Emmett, but the actual backstory is vague and incoherent – not to keep it ambiguous but because the filmmakers just don’t know how to put it together. The layout of the bunker – which includes ducts only Michelle can fit in which have to be crawled through several times – is tailored for the convenience of the plot, not survivalist logic. What was Howard actually planning for, and how impulsive has he been in dragging Michelle into his little domain? Why has he let Emmett in, when the younger man is plainly a rival and a potential troublemaker? How come he has just the one gun? Is an unused bus ticket really the best poignant souvenir the filmmakers could think up? Because it’s a mystery as much as a suspense film, 10 Cloverfield Lane encourages thoughts like this – and too many of them just lead you out of the movie. And yet it’s a good thriller, with an entertaining baddie, an intrepid heroine, thwarted escape attempts, mystery and conflict and a last act some will tune out of but which at least offers a satisfying spectacle after all that time underground.