Film Review: They Remain

Stylish audiovisual feast for adventurous genre enthusiasts, even if the relatively slender storyline has to rank among the least of its inducements.
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Writer-director Philip Gelatt’s They Remain belongs in the company of films like Beyond the Black Rainbow and We Are Still Here that privilege a highly stylized, almost abstract, approach to genre materials. Often these films possess a quality of studied nostalgia, openly acknowledging their precursors in reverential acts of cinematic homage, and They Remain is certainly no exception. Gelatt’s film owes an obvious debt to John Carpenter’s The Thing and, to a somewhat lesser extent,The Blair Witch Project. That the writings of H. P. Lovecraft were another key source of inspiration is clear from the film’s onscreen epigraph: “Wise men have interpreted dreams, and the gods have laughed.” This aphorism also serves as fair warning that the exact meaning of ensuing events will be more or less up for grabs in the minds of most viewers.

Availing himself of his predecessors’ predilection for old-school shock tactics, Gelatt places his emphasis on building an atmosphere of growing psychological dread, provoking along the way some wonderfully disconcerting twinges of chilling insinuation and spiraling ramifications. What’s more, Gelatt largely eschews the too-easy payoffs of excessive gore or the machine-tooled jump scares that dominate much of today’s horror fare. To accomplish such a delicate balancing act, he primarily relies on purely audiovisual means: geometrically precise shot compositions, the burnished autumnal color palette and intermittently psychedelic imagery of Sean Kirby’s cinematography, and (perhaps the film’s greatest asset) Tom Keohane’s mind-blowing score. That’s not to downplay the considerable contributions of the two charismatic leads, particularly given the fact that They Remain is essentially a two-person film.

Adapted from a Laird Barron short story, They Remain follows two investigators—biologist Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) and surveillance expert Keith (William Jackson Harper), though neither are named in the film—as they embark on a three-month-long examination of a seemingly bucolic rural landscape haunted by the legacy of a thrill-kill cult referred to only as “the Family”—a band of peyote-eating, nude-dancing, human-sacrificing hippie types perhaps best described by Thomas Pynchon’s choice epithet “Mansonoid.” Nowadays the area is a “dead zone” supposedly devoid of all biological activity, and the researchers have been brought in by a shadowy corporation (also unnamed, but represented by a ubiquitous triangular logo) to find out why.

They Remain proceeds more through the power of suggestion than by any logical or coherent narrative development. Of course, given the Lovecraft quote that opens the film, that’s not exactly surprising. Not for nothing does the first shot depict a closed eye. Gelatt works hard to increasingly blur the boundaries between dream and waking life. You get the feeling that the film’s slender storyline mostly exists as an excuse for Gelatt to assemble a familiar trove of horror-movie tropes—failing video monitors, menacing animals, barely glimpsed lurking figures—only to turn them inside out through the rigorous application of his aesthetic sensibility.

As the first audible line of dialogue suggests: “You know how this is going to end.” That’s true enough for any astute genre enthusiast from about the 15-minute mark. Gelatt clearly believes that the final destination is much less interesting than the journey there. Cinemagoers inclined to appreciate the film’s stylistic qualities and intense performances just might be inclined to agree.

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