A Horror Movie That Aspires to Lovecraft, but Only Achieves Lifelessness
DIRECTED BY PHILIP GELATT/2018
Keith and Jessica are a pair of scientists who have been dispatched by someone to go camping somewhere for two months to investigate something. Something weird has happened someplace and the scientists have to figure out some cause for some reason. I’m not deliberately avoiding spoilers here. The script for They Remain is a tad vague when it comes to setting up the basic premise of the story. Some of these gaps in our knowledge of the initial situation will be filled over the course of the movie’s 100 minute runtime, but it sure isn’t in any hurry to clue the viewer in.
In this particular stretch of forest (wherever it is supposed to be set- the story takes place late October thru mid-November, but these trees look awfully green for that time of year) animals are apparently behaving oddly. There’s no explanation for what the animals are suppose to be doing, nor do we ever see any animals behaving strangely. There are some insects, and a dog turns up at one point, but they all look pretty normal to me. But I’m not a movie scientist, so what do I know?
Anyway, the two scientists talk about their mission to investigate the forest. They talk about a strange cult that used to camp near here. They talk about the cult’s murderous activities, they talk about how maybe the cult’s actions are still somehow affecting the forest, they talk about a lot of other stuff. For a movie, They Remain makes a pretty good audio book.
For a movie, They Remain makes a pretty good audio book.
And that’s the movie’s biggest problem. The two scientists (who are pretty much the only people on screen throughout the whole movie) talk about all sorts of things- some of which even sound a little exciting- but nothing actually happens on screen that we can see. One of the scientists hears strange voices at night- and we’re told about it the next day. Another expedition meets with a tragic end- and we’re told about it by a third party. On and on and on.
Tensions develop between Jessica and Keith over the course of their assignment. He’s all about getting down to whatever business they have, while she… Well, she quickly starts to get goofy on him. Jessica disappears at odd times, and then lies about it. She accuses Keith of messing with her mind, all the while she seems to be gaslighting him. Is that because of the weird vibes that surround a place that once hosted a death cult? Or is Jessica just naturally unhinged? Rebecca Henderson’s weirdly monotone performance as Jessica definitely suggests the latter. The fact that the two of them seem to be sharing the same dream suggests the former.
William Jackson Harper is an actor I’ve enjoyed elsewhere, most notably in the TV show The Good Place. He does a good job here, but the movie surrounding his performance doesn’t do him any favors. Writer/Director Philip Gelatt seems to be going for ‘low-key’ and ‘simmering’ when what he’s ended up with is ‘lifeless.’ There’s no energy to anything here. Late, late into the movie Keith begins to break down under the strain (all of the mild weirdness he’s suffered up to that point has finally started to get to him, I guess), and Harper actually gets a chance to do some acting.
Writer/Director Philip Gelatt seems to be going for ‘low-key’ and ‘simmering’ when what he’s ended up with is ‘lifeless.’
Gelatt also wrote 2013’s Europa Report, a sci-fi film about a group of scientists sent to the eponymous moon. That movie, also about a group who have to contend with isolation and unexplained phenomenon that threatens them, worked so much better at building the suspense and raising the stakes throughout the story. They Remain on the other hand just sorts of plods along as we follow the day-to-day activities of our two leads. We’re told a great many things, but don’t see any of it. And nothing we’re told really changes anything until really late in the game. There is a good horror story within the conceits of They Remain, but it doesn’t really get started until the final 20 minutes of the film.
They Remain isn’t a good movie, and it has nothing at all to do with the film’s budget or its small cast (there are something like 4 speaking parts in the entire film, and one of those is solely over radio). It has to do with its screenplay which doesn’t allow anything to really happen for 80% of the film’s runtime. A slow buildup is not a bad thing for a horror movie, but there’s slow and then there’s glacial. The soundtrack makes an admirable effort to convince us of the rising dread as we watch the umpteenth long shot of Keith crouching in the woods waiting for something to happen. Somebody should tell him he’s going to be waiting a long time.