This review is coverage for the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival.
Existential horror is exceedingly hard to realize in a cinematic format, and if you’ve ever read the works of H.P. Lovecraft you might have a pretty decent understanding as to why. The thing about existentialism and fear of the unknown is that both rely almost entirely on character experience and thought process, which in a written work can be expressed by just writing out what the character is thinking. In a movie, though, filmmakers are limited by what an audience will reasonably be terrified by, and short of a hackneyed voiceover there just aren’t cut and dry ways to communicate internal dread, particularly when the film involves a limited cast in a remote location so that they have little ability or motivation to express those feelings externally. They Remain demonstrates this as an example of how not to explore existentialist horror in film, as it is neither scary in its presentation nor compelling through its characters.
In a remote area, two scientists, Keith (William Jackson Harper) and Jessica (Rebecca Henderson), investigate an outbreak of strange animal behavior. The site is further infamous for being the base of operations for a Manson-esque cult that committed mass suicide. As the scientists investigate the surrounding area, they find that their equipment begins to malfunction, they experience strange and lucid dreams, and they feel an inexplicable sexual pull to one another that distorts their judgment.
And that’s pretty much the whole movie. There isn’t any deeper symbolic meaning to the otherworldly manipulation, and it’s a pretty obvious descent into insanity as Keith and Jessica start to behave less rationally and more instinctually cabalistic. This in itself makes the film a fairly shallow experience, but it holds the potential to at least be entertaining with the right character work propelling the narrative. Alas, both Keith and Jessica are written as no-nonsense workaholics with dependency issues, which not only makes for a dull variety of on-screen personalities, but it also disserves the kind of emoting necessary to convey the existential dread of losing grip on one’s sanity. Harper and Henderson deliver wooden performances that are almost comically deadpan due to the forced and hokey dialogue they’re forced to convey.
But when you get right down to it, They Remain fails mostly because it is just downright boring. Long stretches feature Keith merely wandering in the wilderness, with shots that last way, way too long to ultimately serve no storytelling purpose. The intent seems to have been to exemplify Keith’s sense of isolation and the growing horror that his visions and surroundings are imparting upon him, but in practice we just have to watch Keith mope around the woods as quick cuts of cult rituals intersperse the lack of action. This isn’t so much storytelling as it is idea-dumping, letting us know that Lovecraftian dread is what we’re seeing rather than actually making us feel that dread along with the character.
I have to give They Remain credit for trying such an ambitious mode of minimalistic and mood-dependent storytelling, but writer-director Philip Gelatt just doesn’t have a grasp on making his characters relatable or empathetic, which is absolutely necessary to make the avant garde editing convey the appropriate level of maddening terror. Instead we’re left with a dull, overlong nature walk with an experimental art film spliced into its center. That’s something less than horrifying.