"Monsters come in many forms," states the tagline for 10 Cloverfield Lane, and so does horror. Dan Trachtenberg's confident and terrific feature debut isn't gory – there are no demonic possessions or haunted attics – but it is horrifying; extracting fear from every aspect of its craft – the sound of a door opening, a glance from an actor, a camera angle, a line of dialogue, the implied horror of an innocuous act.
For a debutant to establish and orchestrate a film's intensity so masterfully this way speaks of a great talent to keep an eye on. The tension ratchets up to excruciating levels early on is sustained basically throughout; causing teeth to grind, grips to tighten and gazes to drift to the cinema floor. This is suspenseful filmmaking of the utmost quality.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a pseudo-sequel that shares little in common with Matt Reeve's found-footage monster movie Cloverfield. In fact, someone with no prior knowledge of what that film is, may well be surprised to learn this is a sequel at all. It stands apart, not just thematically and in how it was made – but in simply being a better, more enduring work. Though, to be fair, the original was more ambitious. The common denominator is that both films were produced by Star Wars producer JJ Abrams.
After totalling her car, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakens to find she is being held against her will in a bunker built by John Goodman's Howard: a conspiracy theorist who claims to his tenants that something catastrophic has happened to the world, and that going outside will kill them all. John Gallagher Jr plays Emmett, a third occupant caught between belief and disbelief in what Howard claims.
It's a simple set-up for 100 minutes of nerve-shredding excitement. Aided no end by the great script of Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Whiplash's Damien Chazelle, Winstead turns in a performance as great as you'd expect from an actress who hasn't yet hit the level of stardom she deserves. It's Goodman who steals the show however as its centrepiece, a character the veteran actor plays on a fine line between sympathetic and untrustworthy, turning in a career-best performance in the process.
Emmett is a bit of a problem however. Gallagher Jr's performance is good, but the script reduces the character to little more than someone for Howard and Michelle to bounce off. A third character in the bunker's pressure cooker atmosphere could have introduced another combustible element, but in the end Emmett does little to affect the plot.
Most scenes in the bunker are fantastic, but there are occasions when the tension, which mostly grows organically, seems more manufactured. Either this stems from the script (in the case of one particular over-egged scene), Bear McCreary's sometimes overbearing soundtrack or the sound design, which tends to favour sheer volume over nuance, but none these are major problems. This film remains a ringing endorsement for "low" budget, major studio filmmaking, able to offer big budget genre thrills with focused, small-scale narratives.
The film's one major fault is its ending, which doesn't offer a payoff quite worthy of what preceded it. The final set piece would be perfectly fine in most other films, but feels trite and underwhelming, tacked on to an otherwise intelligent thriller. Thankfully the rest of the film makes it easy to forgive this eye-rolling venture into cliché.
Announced only two months ago, 10 Cloverfield Lane has clearly benefited – at least financially – from the sense of unknowing that has engulfed its short, sparse but effective marketing campaign. Branding Trachtenberg's work with the Cloverfield name was a smart move from a financial point of view, and has granted a small, brilliantly-made film more attention than it may otherwise have had, but conversely the film would undoubtedly be better were it not carrying even a small fraction of the weight of franchise expectation.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a tightly-made horror-thriller. Every dollar of the budget appears to have been spent wisely; every line of dialogue has purpose, each second accomplishes something, each object introduced has a payoff. There's no excess, no fat, and the result is a gut-wrenching film with two towering central performances that you're not likely to forget in a hurry. Cut that final 10 minutes, and it would be near-perfect.