By Elias Savada.
In case you’re not feeling enough dread after watching Natalie Portman push her way through The Shimmer in the unsettling Annihilation, there are similar aural, low-frequency bass rumblings that might send your mind and body into similar fits in the smaller but nearly as disquieting They Remain. This horror-lite tale harkens up other pronoun-centric horror items (It, It Lives, It Comes at Night, They Look Like People, You’re Next), but lacks the recurrent jump shocks you expect from most multiplex outings of the genre. This microcosm of woodsy decay, the second feature from Philip Gelatt – after his 2011 horror-mystery debut The Bleeding House, another middle-of-nowhere story with more gore than his current effort. Some narrative lapses leave holes in his low-budget sophomore effort, yet the movie’s offbeat stylings and strong performances by Rebecca Henderson and William Jackson Harper (in what is basically a two-character set piece) help to offset the slow pacing. It doesn’t really work, but it’s a worthy attempt.
Two field research scientists, Jessica (Henderson) and Keith (Harper) arrive in a remote, verdant locale – somewhere in the New York State Green Mountain and Finger Lakes region (if you pay attention to some of the technical data that floats about the screen) – for a months-long observational mission on behalf of a large beast of an unidentified corporation. There was a murderous, sociopathic cult that resided in the area some time ago and something nasty happened to them, either of their own making or from some other, unknown force that appears in films like this one. Their dead-zone mission is to unearth any X-Files-ish aberrations dealing with one of the following: animal behavior, ghosts, genetics, chemistry, aliens, or none of the above. Supposedly there were some oddities that appeared on the company’s radar and the two scientists are the latest team attempting to define the issue and maybe determine its cause. Armed with some sophisticated equipment, including tree-hugging, streaming digital cameras placed out in the wild near their camp (three interconnected geodesic structures), the duo find that this is where the path to madness begins.
Gelatt tries to play cute by slyly planting cautionary insinuations about Jessica’s “obsessive” behavior, or playing cuter with a fortune cookie saying on a package of instant coffee: “The unexamined life isn’t worth living.” While Keith is the agent in the field, off investigating flora and fauna, Jessica spends her time cooped up looking at the data and samples Keith retrieves from the forest and cameras. If boredom doesn’t play with their minds, the writer-director (adapting a 2010 novella by Laird Baron) plants plenty of disconcerting notions with dream-like sequences that actually turn out to be dreams. These moments, which may foretell the future or unearth the past, sprinkle quick flecks of distorted, subliminal images into any number of scenes (some with cult members, others with a mysteriously cloaked figure), raising the unease quotient as your brain tries to absorb what it glimpses. He pushes this point a little too far as the film progresses.
Some interesting cinematography helps the film along, particularly some night shots as the scientists are side lit by a campfire and back lit by their encampment structure. Campfires always make for good scary stories. The film lays out too much of its plot via chatter between its principals. Yes, They Remain is a talky affair, placing it psychological edge on whispered tongues – mostly Jessica’s – with the camera pushing brightly lit, weirdly framed, close-up head shots of each actor, embellishing their dream-state tales as the music (Tom Keohane) and sound design continue the queasy edge-of-your-seat approach. Some of the film is shot (very nicely by Sean Kirby) with an out-of-focus background, short depth of field effect, as well as shooting scenes with off kilter angles. Angst follows close behind.
A little after an hour into the film, the dynamic takes a sharp turn to the WTF corner of Keith’s universe, leaving it up to the viewer to decide if what follows is real or imagined. They Remain offers little genuine action until the film’s final minutes – hardly worth the wait for anyone who has sat through the film’s first 90.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).