It might have the C-word in the title, J.J. Abrams producing and a monster in its midst, but this is not Cloverfield 2. Anyone expecting/desiring a sequel to Matt Reeves' 2008 monster mash will feel disappointed at best, cheated at worse, so let's make that thunderously clear from the off. Rather, 10 Cloverfield Lane is, as Abrams puts it, a "spiritual successor" or "blood relative" set in the (shudder) "Cloververse” – a hint of overlap here, a pinch of DNA there.
In fact, so faint are the echoes, not everyone will be convinced that debut director Dan Trachtenberg's suspense-thriller is anything more than a standalone effort. Originally entitled Valencia, it doesn’t take a cynic to point out that slipping 'Cloverfield' into the title of this Bad Robot production can only boost box-office prospects.
What's not to be doubted is the effectiveness of this tense, claustrophobic three-hander. Gone is the setting of a New York teeming with an astonishingly designed kaiju, scuttling alien-arachnids and unpardonably attractive twentysomethings. Instead we have a remote farmhouse – the address of the title – located 40 miles from Lake Charles in Louisiana, though the action is primarily confined to an underground bunker.
Our way in is Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who we meet as she packs her stuff to flee a relationship. So forceful is the car crash that she’s subsequently involved in that we, like her, are stunned when she awakens to find herself hooked to a drip in a bare, windowless room with breezeblock walls. She’s also chained.
Michelle’s captor is Howard (John Goodman), slovenly clothed, salt ‘n’ pepper beard, routinely flexing his hands as anger and paranoia surge through his tremendous frame. “There’s been an attack, a big one… I’m not sure yet if it’s chemical or nuclear,” he informs Michelle, warning of a fallout that requires they stay underground for “one year, maybe two”. Is he speaking the truth?
The third player in this psychodrama, mellow, eager-to-please Emmet (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.), certainly thinks so. He supports Howard’s theory that the Southern Seaboard has been attacked, and offers testimony of an appalling flash, “like something you read in the Bible.”
If Cloverfield assaulted our eyes with seesawing, visceral, found-footage thrills, and our ears with the deafening roar of streaking jets and collapsing skyscrapers, 10 Cloverfield Lane is all about pregnant stillness and screaming silence. Trachtenberg is far more traditional in his filmmaking and suspense techniques, right down to the stabbing strings of Bear McCreary’s Bernard Herrmann-esque score, and here delivers a chilling chamber piece in which a bellowed word or a fist thumped down on a table can impact like the Statue Of Liberty’s head bouncing down a Manhattan street
The presence of Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle among the screenwriting credits speaks volumes: Goodman’s Howard is as terrifying as J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher. He might not stop at verbal and psychological abuse, either – 10 Cloverfield Lane burrows deep into horror territory, threatening, at times, to become Martyrs for the masses.
The atmosphere is one of ambiguity and distrust. At the top of the steps to a triple-locked door gleams a small window to the outside world, and through it can be spied two dead pigs, Frank and Mildred, their blood-blistered flesh seemingly lending credence to Howard’s ranting about Russia, North Korea, al-Qaeda, and extraterrestrials. But then how do you explain the Doomsday books on his shelves, or the very existence of this bunker, with its air-filtration unit and tidy living space kitted out with TV, DVDs, jukebox, fish tanks, plants, electrical stove and refrigerator? He is, as Emmet puts it, “a black belt in conspiracy theory”.
All three characters are strongly played by a cast that was allowed to act out the drama chronologically courtesy of the single setting, and each has a backstory that further ratchets the tension – Howard’s mentions of someone called Megan build into a particularly heart-stopping subplot.
But there is humour, too, with the trapped trio continuing to obey table manners in this most extraordinary of settings, and adapting their rhythms until they co-inhabit with something like harmony – movies viewed include Pretty In Pink and Cannibal Airlines. (The latter is a made-up title but Frank Marshall’s 1993 drama Alive is a close fit.)
Does the action ever unpick its padlocks and move above ground? And, if so, is there anything out there that more firmly locates Trachtenberg’s movie in the “Cloververse”? To answer that would be to do the script, with its incrementally-tightening chokehold, a terrible disservice. Although it’s fair to say that the suspicious, strong-minded and thoroughly resourceful Michelle has one eye forever on that outer door, the other on the keys swinging from Howard’s hip. It’s also fair to say that Winstead’s unflashy, deep-dive performance elicits more emotional investment than any of Cloverfield’s comely cut-outs.
It’ll be too slow-burn for some and others are sure to say it’s a Twilight Zone episode stretched over 104 minutes (to which we say: “And?”), but 10 Cloverfield Lane has enough suspense, shocks and scares to be a monster hit. Let’s hope so – someone needs to give Trachtenberg a wad of cash to go shoot Cannibal Airlines.