The horror genre has a long history of doing a lot with a little. Movies like Night of the Living Dead, The Evil Dead, and Paranormal Activity founded horror franchises based off small budgets and big concepts. The recent sci-fi, horror hybrid They Remain follows in this tradition. With an extremely small cast—IMDB credits a total of two cast members—and a single set on location in upstate New York, They Remain maximizes its cinematography, Laird Barron’s unsettling source material, and the top-notch acting talent of Rebecca Henderson and The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper.
Now, I’m going to be upfront and give the game away: the movie’s director, Philip Gelatt, is my cousin, so you may consider me a biased source. Wth that caveat, I honestly thought that They Remain is quite a well-done, low-budget thriller. The plot is effectively simple: two scientists arrive at an isolated encampment in the same woods which previously hosted a Mansonesque cult. As they explore the area, and each other—*wink* *wink*—the remnants of past atrocities seem not so far away.
While some critics seem to think that the lack of plot and dialogue stripped the movie of a certain momentum, I thought the story’s sparsity allowed the camera work to shine. As Philip explained, “They Remain is a weird little slice of what one might call weird fiction or even literary horror. I knew we’d never be able to get a huge budget together to make it, so instead I leaned the story down and focused us in on capturing a certain atmosphere of dread and uncertainty. Luckily, those two things are pretty cheap, especially these days.”
Indeed they are, and the movie’s lean look allows the screen to be filled with an uncanny foreboding. Rather than belaboring plot points and explication, the camera drives tension with long shots of the forest transforming from summer into fall. Shots linger on fallen leaves and ants, exposing the natural beauty of the landscape and the maddening isolation of the wilderness. While the final plot twit may not blow your mind à la The Sixth Sense, the reveal is both memorable and chilling.
They Remain received a nice plug this week when king of the “new weird”, Jeff Vandermeer, tweeted about its DVD release date, which it shares with the film adaptation of his first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation.
They Remain comes out today on-demand, I believe. The movie based on the Laird Barron story. Looking forward to seeing it. Also, Annihilation’s out on blue-ray. (And I saw Cold Skin, no US release yet, but it really really deserves one.)
— Jeff VanderMeer (@jeffvandermeer) May 29, 2018
The thematic synchronicity between the They Remain and Annihilation is rather remarkable: both movies evoke an uncanny, Lovecraftian feeling of cosmic horror; both movies dwell on the unknowability of nature and the schizophrenic effects of isolation. But while Annihilation, the book, was noticeably bare-boned, the movie expanded the source material so that the movie stands by itself outside of a trilogy. Not to say that Annihilation isn’t a decent movie, but They Remain expresses many of the same anxieties about the conflict between science and nature, often more subtly but more effectively.
I might say that They Remain marks a new high-point in sci-fi/horror, not seen since The Thing in 1982, but then you might think that I am just hocking my cousin’s movie. Instead, I’ll say that They Remain does a lot with a little, and highlights the growing talent of its director and stars.