Rating: Unrated
Stars: William Jackson Harper, Rebecca Henderson
Writer: Philip Gelatt, based on the novella -30- by Laird Barron
Director: Philip Gelatt
Distributor: Paladin
Release Date: March 2, 2018 (New York); March 9, 2018 (Los Angeles)


THEY REMAIN | © 2018 Paladin

THEY REMAIN | © 2018 Paladin

Adapting Laird Barron’s novella -30-, screenwriter/director Philip Gelatt gets good horror mileage out of a strong premise and a small cast with THEY REMAIN. Although a few other characters show up now and then, and there’s a voice representing the employment company, THEY REMAIN is virtually a two-hander. Gelatt wrings maximum tension out of the set-up, and ends on a note that is both enigmatic and chilling.

William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson play, respectively, scientists Keith and Jessica. The two have been sent to spend a few weeks doing a field study on a wilderness site where a homicidal cult once lived. The purpose of their work is to examine whether anything in the environment could have affected the mental state of the cult members.

The living accommodations and lab are set up in a trio of white geodesic domes that look alarmingly out of place in the green field surrounded by woods. Keith is jealous of Jessica’s employment status; Jessica is suspicious of Keith. Jessica says she’s been shown footage of the cult; Keith doubts that it exists. They begin to make ominous discoveries beyond the scope of their mission, which lead to bigger questions. It becomes increasingly clear that someone is becoming dangerously irrational, but we’re not sure whether it’s Rebecca, or Keith, or both.

It’s difficult to pull off a “who should we trust” thriller while simultaneously trying to elicit dread for whichever character is onscreen, but Gelatt manages it. This is in no small part due to the skill of his leads. Keith runs hot and Jessica goes from reserved to icy. Harper and Henderson both convey fierce intelligence and intensity, making us by turns afraid for and afraid of them.

Gelatt also knows how to use quiet and the natural world to build up tension, teasing us with a view that taunts us, suggesting we ought to be able to see any menace approaching from a long way off and then making us doubt our perceptions. The incongruity of the geodesic domes in these surroundings adds to the sense of unease, making us feel that things are slightly out-of-balance even before anything happens.

There is also an intriguing mixture of mythologies within the script, with the present goings-on occasionally interspersed with flashes of the site’s unsavory past. Further lore is gradually worked into that, until we’re nearly as much under the local spell as the characters are.

THEY REMAIN starts out in the realm of science, but it belongs in the subgenre of horror films that includes THE WICKER MAN and THE KILL LIST. It is a very worthy addition to the category.

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