One thing that’s always disturbed me about “doomsday preppers” & “survival” enthusiasts is that they always seem to be perversely looking forward to the post-apocalyptic scenarios they’re supposedly preparing against. When preppers warn of possible end-of-the-world scenarios that will tear society to shreds, the first thing that always comes to mind is the question “Who would want to survive that?” Whether the world as I know it ends by zombie outbreak, alien attack, or (most likely) nuclear fallout, I’d honestly rather die that pick through the wreckage with the paranoid, power-hungry bullies who had been anticipating that downfall. Apparently I’m not alone in that opinion.
10 Cloverfield Lane is less of a “sister film” sequel to the (shrill, annoying, insufferable) 2008 found-footage sci-fi horror Cloverfield & more of a tense, horror-minded thriller about the monstrous spirit lurking within doomsday prepper culture. I’m not sure that it’s the first film to depict the selfish nastiness & misanthropy at the heart of “survival” types in the context of the horror genre, but it’s the first I’ve seen and it’s damn effective. After a brutal car accident, a young New Orleans woman (played by Faults‘s un-deprogrammable cult fanatic & Scott Pilgrim’s mall punk girlfriend Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself chained to the wall of a mysterious basement wearing only her underwear. Her captor (played by a beyond terrifying John Goodman in what might be a career-high performance) attempts to convince her that she’s “lucky” to be contained in his bunker because “there’s been an attack” & “everyone outside [the shelter] is dead.” Skeptical of her captor’s “generosity” & the idea that “getting out of [there] is the last thing [they] want to do”, our hero carefully attempts to piece together exactly what the strange man wants her for, what’s waiting for her in the outside world, and what’s her safest, most expedient form of escape. 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps the answers to these questions shrouded for as long as possible, but one thing is certain throughout: whatever monstrous threat is waiting outside the shelter could not be has as awful as the one running the show within.
Part of the reason 10 Cloverfield Lane is such a great film is that it’s the exact opposite of its predecessor. Ditching the shaky cam blur that made Cloverfield such a nauseous mess, the film adopts a very grounded, straight-forward visual style that recalls William Friedkin’s masterful stage play adaptations Bug, The Birthday Party, and The Boys in the Band. More importantly, the first Cloverfield film never developed its characters beyond shrill archetypes fleeing danger. When someone’s endlessly shrieking “Rob’s got Beth on the phone! Rob’s got Beth on the phone!” and you don’t know or care who Rob & Beth are, it’s difficult to be anything but annoyed. 10 Cloverfield Lane, by contrast, locks its audience in a basement with a small cast of fearful doomsday survivors suffering under the power dynamics of the cycles of abuse. It’s much easier to be engaged by a film on an emotional level in that kind of scenario.
There is something very essential that both Cloverfield films share, however: the overwhelming power of their central mysteries. If these two films are to be understood as a loose anthology, it’s the basic trick of keeping the audience in the dark that binds them. 10 Cloverfield Lane ups the ante by not only clouding the truth about what exact outside force is looming as a threat over its proceedings (zombies, Russians, Martians, nuclear war, and mutant space worms are all suggested at some point), but also introducing a complexly monstrous threat from within the characters’ ranks that is simultaneously abusive, protective, and difficult to understand. The film’s woman-in-captivity terror is far from unique (actually, it seems to be somewhat of a full-blown trend recently) but the way its Stockholm syndrome familial bonds & doomsday prepper cultural context complicates that narrative allows the film to crawl under your skin in a way that its predecessor never even approached, whether or not its threat was just as mysterious. All of this, a go-for-broke third act that throws all caution to the wind, an expert use of the Shondells classic “I Think We’re Alone Now” to boot. 10 Cloverfield Lane shook me, surprised me, and confirmed my deepest fears about “survival” nuts’ ugly thirst for post-apocalyptic power grabs. That’s far more than I could’ve expected from a “spiritual sequel” to a found footage horror I failed to enjoy all three times I gave it a shot.