Fortnight of Fright #1 – Some Kind of Monster

In anticipation of Halloween, Keesup is watching 20 notable horror movies in two weeks. This survey of the genre will include several themed double features and some entries that may not be conventionally understood as “horror” but are nonetheless relevant. Tonight’s entry: Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield (2008)

It’s the epitome of the “teaser” – an alluring clip that begs two questions: “What is going on here?” (no idea) and “When does this movie come out?” (1.18.08, apparently). Months of esoteric internet promotion continued to pick up heat for the project by 21st century media master J.J. Abrams. A letdown was almost inevitable from the intense hype – it could even share the fate of the similarly marketed Snakes on a Plane, which was immediately forgotten upon its theatrical release. But unlike SoaP, Abrams and director Matt Reeves were actually trying to make a good movie.

Cloverfield is the first entry in our horror movie intensive for several reasons. It’s the most recent of the films I’ve charted out, having been released just eight months ago. It is also distinctive from the sub-genres that have dominated the horror films of the oughts (slasher, torture-porn, J-horror). Granted, it borrows its most successful technique from the landmark Blair Witch Project (1999) – both films are almost entirely shown through the point-of-view of the characters themselves via consumer-level video cameras. The effect is to remove the audience from the conceit of the film being “directed” – one identifies with the characters/victims more because he or she (and therefore, the viewer) is in control.

Despite this, Cloverfield still feels like a high-end amusement park ride that sells its concept hard from the opening title:

“Multiple sightings of case designate “Cloverfield”. Camera retrieved at incident site “US-447”, area formerly known as “Central Park.”

But at the end of its 84 minutes, the viewer is allowed the comedown of the conventional closing credits. Cloverfield pretty much asks point blank for a willing suspension of disbelief. The buzz for Blair Witch grew out of the false implication that the movie was legitimate found footage from a crime scene; Cloverfield’s assertion of being “real” is just part of the fun. In a way, it’s the most successful meta-movie since Adaptation.

Cloverfield’s movieness is most clear in its conventional plotting and character development, in contrast to Blair Witch’s rambling improvisation and stupid, stupid characters. (Last Blair Witch reference, I swear.) The main story is a formulaic romance: Rob (Michael Stahl-David) sleeps with his best friend Beth (Odette Yustman), with whom he is secretly in love. Rob is moving to Japan. Beth is clearly in love with him but Rob is not ready to commit. It looks like it’s over, until, in the midst of crisis, Rob gets a chance to prove himself to Beth the only way he knows how: by saving her from a giant monster.

This love story (yawn) is the train that drives the main cast on their journey from Lower Manhattan to Midtown. The movie starts as a banal home movie of Rob’s going-away party, filmed by his acquaintance Hudson (T.J. Miller) or “Hud,” a sly reference to the user interface in first-person shooter video games; Miller actually operates the camera in about half of the final cut. The vapid crowd is still going into early morning when a large explosion rocks the apartment. The news reports a capsized oil tanker in the bay. The panicked but naturally curious partygoers climb to the roof for a better view, and they are treated to a spectacular explosion in the financial district. One of the guests immediately asks, “Is this another attack?” Whatever your concerns about directly mimicking amateur recordings of September 11th for entertainment, the filmmakers have our undivided attention.

The terrified yuppies rush down to the street where we get the moneyshot of the decapitated Statue of Liberty head and a brief glimpse of the monster as he takes down the Woolworth Building. The dust from the building sends everyone into nearby stores and stairwells. The Statue of Liberty moment leads to one of the best creepy-funny gags in the film: after the initial terror, all the witnesses gather around the destroyed monument and start snapping pictures on their cell phones and digital cameras. I mean, who wouldn’t do the same in that situation? But it is a nifty comment on the user-generated content and subsequent voyeurism that drives 21st century pop culture, and it suggests that on some level the film is about the creepy fascination of how that culture deals with apocalyptic events.

From here, Cloverfield: The Ride takes us from one setpiece to the next. Experience the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge while you’re standing on it! Get caught in the crossfire of a really loud assault on the monster, complete with tanks rolling up the street! Run from the creature’s dog-sized parasites! The Bloomingdale’s at the 59th Street subway station, filled with a ghostly white light, has become a command post and triage center – craziness! Tread lightly as you rescue Beth from the leaning Time Warner Center! Escape Manhattan via helicopter – but watch out for the monster’s devastating leap attack! Get bitten in half by the monster! (Sorry, Hud.) It’s hard to deny the thrill of this movie-as-roller-coaster mentality in the moment. But the drawback to a ride is, once you know all the turns, it’s just not as fun the second time. (If you’re doing a repeat viewing, I would recommend watching with someone who hasn’t seen the movie yet so you can sap vicarious excitement through them.)

Within the film, our knowledge of the creature is limited to the characters’, that is to say, none at all. Our lack of understanding, combining with the Jaws-style doling out of monster in brief glimpses, makes him much more terrifying; and, in one of the film’s neatest tricks, briefly turned professional film critics into Internet nerds, speculating on the creature’s origin or griping about how easily he could be killed. The film’s lack of backstory has allowed it to take on a life of it’s own on the Internet, with intense speculation and explanation on the events that led to the creature’s creation or discovery.

The film ends with a grace note designed to fuel such debate. The videotape jumps back to Rob and Beth enjoying happy times at Coney Island, when Rob pans toward the Atlantic Ocean; a large object, leaving a large smoke trail, falls from the sky into the ocean, far enough away to be unnoticed by Rob. Was this the creature descending to earth? Or was it a malfunctioning Japanese satellite that crashed to earth, sunk to a trench, dislodging and pissing off a millennia-old sea creature who wandered out of his habitat, incidentally attacking New York? And why was this Japanese energy drink’s main ingredient found in the saliva of the creature’s parasites?

Just like its forebear Godzilla, Cloverfield uses a far-fetched premise to take a stab at the national mood. Japan was dealing with the aftermath of being the aggressor in World War II and the subsequent victim of a devastating nuclear attack. Seven years after 9/11 and the subsequent manipulations by those in power, Cloverfield suggests that even with our military might aimed at the elusive monster, it won’t matter. We’ve already been scared shitless.

Tomorrow: The terrifying German expressionist masterpiece, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.

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