Directed by Philip Gelatt (2018)
by Sandy DeVito
”There were moments when the sun coagulated between the teeth of distant peaks and the brass shell of sky peeled back to reveal the stars welded to a deeper darkness, and the moon would heave, yellow as an old cracked skull bone of some massive space-faring thing. I would be reminded with the cold that seeped up through the soles of my boots and stole into my blood that I was minute and impermanent, that every work of civilization is a speck upon the face of speck floating upon an infinite abyss." - Laird Barron on his childhood in Alaska
This is that slow, steady burn that stokes the fire of madness.
Most of all, nothing can dull my excitement that a short story by my Twitter friend Laird Barron has made it to the screen. It speaks to something in culture right now that Eldritch horror is finally finding a light shone upon it; perhaps we have collectively started to feel the strange, ever-present eye of chaos that rolls silently above us, hidden by the blue reflection of sunlight or the gray of cloud cover here on earth. Or perhaps we just feel closer to death than ever, with a madman in the White House, the threat of nuclear war, the onslaught of weapons created to kill our own kind that have poisoned our society. Whatever the reason, between this film, Annihilation and The Endless, and I’m sure a few I’m not yet aware of, 2018 is the year of Weird Horror. And I couldn’t be happier about it. I’ve loved Eldritch horror more than almost any other sub-genre for years now (only gothic horror is a greater love for me, really), but often feared it would never get the wider recognition it deserves, for seeing us, wretched humanity, for our tininess in the vastness of the unknown.
They Remain is based on Barron’s short story --30--, found in Occultation. The details in the story are sparse, and I was impressed at how carefully the film adheres to its source material; director Philip Gelatt is clearly a fan of the genre, one that can often be obtuse and reliant on unspoken details or alien objects or odd things that simply should not be to tell a story. Two biologists are on a remote work site, sent to gather evidence of, well, we’re not sure at first; there were other crews before them and they were unsuccessful. This film has only two major characters, and William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson carry the weight of something as dreadful and elusive as this with steady, strong shoulders, especially handling the special language of Barron’s writing and the uncanny of this specific style (originally conceived by H.P. Lovecraft) with aplomb, harnessing the mood of Barron’s story even when the dialogue is altered from its original source. His stories often focus on the harshness of nature juxtaposed with the inherently unknown aspects of our existence--partially from his own experiences growing up in the harsh wilderness of Alaska - and this film understands his aesthetic well. The first half lulls us into a hypnotic trance as Keith (Harper) wanders the woods, checking the cameras he’s placed for research. The trees, the autumn leaves, the wind, the gaping mouth of the cave, the clouds of gnats, all work to drag us further away from civilization, back to the darkness from whence our kind once emerged. The music was one of my favorite parts of this experience; it begins to seep into the quietness as the film wears on, a crazed, rhythmic dirge, the very voice of the “Deep Ones”, or, from Barron’s own mythology, the children of Old Leech. For some reason IMDb doesn’t have a composer listed; I’m dying to know who is responsible for this soundtrack. Every Eldritch writer I’ve ever read emphasizes the importance of the bastard music one hears when the Deep Ones are near; this music strives to capture a specific dread that only this particular kind of horror story can deliver.
I can’t see this film being received with any enthusiasm by mainstream horror audiences; it has nothing to do with the horror films that big studios create for an endless barrage of jump scares. This is the horror of the soul, a much more terrible and much more personal thing, a quiet needling in the back of your mind as you try to fall asleep in a dark bedroom. There is so much we don’t know about, well, anything, as Keith offhandedly says to Jessica (Henderson) as they examine tapes and bits of dirt, trying to determine what motivated a strange cult to sacrifice humans out in the remote woods. Where did we come from? What’s out there? What about all the things that happen, things we see, things we feel, that we can’t explain? What is reality, what are dreams, how do you tell the two apart far away from the anchor of civilization, the comfort of electricity and paved streets, restaurants and clean bathrooms? They Remain is not for those who feel they know; it’s for those of us who can’t stop questioning, can’t stop wondering, can’t stop dreading what is really out there.
I just hope someone else out there appreciates a film like this existing as much as I do. Eldritch horror will likely never be mainstream, but it has spoken to some of us for a long while, and the more it speaks to us, the more we can bask in the glow of truly atmospheric horror; the more we can collectively turn our eyes to the glowing, blooming gas giants of the stars. The great horn of a luxuriant beast, the undulating chant of an uncivilized drum, the dark figure of an encroaching stranger, the hum of insects, the rapidity with which we lose all sense of structure, time, and self; we can try again and again to find meaning, but we once were dumb and wild and dirty, and that wild one lives in us still. Madness is never far, rather it hovers on the other side of a thin doorway, waiting for its moment. They Remain may not have the answers some would like, but in the tradition of Picnic at Hanging Rock, it knows how much we want those answers, and it laughs, mocking and lunatic, at our longing.