They Remain Movie Review
Written by Shane D. Keene
Released by Paladin
Directed by Philip Gelatt
Written by Laird Barron (short story “—30—“), Philip Gelatt (script)
2017, 102 minutes, Rated PG
Theatrical release on March 8th, 2018
Rebecca Henderson as Jessica
William Jackson Harper as Keith
They Remain is a production that’s been on my geek radar ever since folks started buzzing about it a few months back, and for good reason. When it comes to the work of author Laird Barron, it would be safe to say I’m a superfan, a borderline Annie Wilkes of the Barronverse, and “—30—” is one of my top three favorites in his lexicon of brilliant cosmic horror stories. It’s the one this film is based on and if you’re inclined to read it, you can do so in his amazing collection, Occultation. And you should read it. It’s a fucking amazing tale that will hang with you, darkening the corners of your mind and heart for a long time after. And I’m happy to say that director Philip Gelatt did a fine job with the movie, adhering religiously to Barron’s original vision and creating a script that, while it certainly takes some creative license, particularly with continuity, clings closely to the original plotline and manages to maintain the cosmic feel in a way that largely negates the science fiction elements of the work and makes this movie a pure, terrifying horror experience from start to finish.
In They Remain, two scientists on a months-long survey are living in a geodesic dome structure on a Manson-like ranch in the middle of nowhere. At first the two highly disparate personalities populate semi-opposing but oddly complementary ends of the spectrum, with Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) seeming to be the voice of logic and reason and Keith (William Jackson Harper), the field agent/naturalist, the more impetuous and openly curious of the two. But as the plot wears on and tensions fray the tenuous strands of trust between them, they begin to swing in wildly opposing directions, their character arcs diverging and evolving only to converge again in strange and horrifying ways as they follow an emotional and psychological path that leads them from arm’s length acquaintance to mutually antagonistic, hitting every possible high and low note along the way as they try to unravel the mystery of a haunted place that may just be their undoing.
The one thing that really makes this film work is the fact that director Philip Gelatt actually gets cosmic fiction and, while riffing on some familiar beats, he manages to boil the whole scenario down into one long dread sequence that piles on the horrors in slow burn layers, building the creep factor up to maximum and evoking the brooding atmosphere of Barron's work perfectly, demonstrating not only a knowledge of the original piece but an utter devotion to it. Throughout the movie he frequently depicts entire scenes from the story in picture perfect detail, often using Barron’s masterful dialogue verbatim, though sometimes in slightly different points along the timeline. This is a wise tactic on Gellat’s part given that there’s probably none better in cinema or fiction when it comes to building realistic, natural-seeming character interaction and only a fool spends his folly trying to perfect perfection.
And this director’s no fool. I suspect he’s at the very least a fan, if not a student of Dario Argento’s work, a fact demonstrated admirably by the vibrant use of lighting, surreal blurring effects that heighten both the mystery and the dread as whatever threat the characters are facing draws near, and making use of the stations on the color wheel like a maestro on a grand piano, creating for the viewer an epic symphony of darkness and terror that builds to a crescendo and descends into madness and despair as the movie progresses. Philip Gelatt has taken one of Barron’s masterpieces and turned it into one of his own, remaining always faithful to the underlying feel and themes of the original work and transforming it with the eye of a true artist into one of the most visually and thematically satisfying films I’ve seen in the last few years.
You’ll likely see this cinematic terrortrip compared—whether favorably or not—to the coincidently released Annihilation, and while it shares some thematic elements, any serious comparison falls apart quickly, and it’s readily apparent that They Remain is a thing all its own, born of the remarkable mind of a great author and the stellar execution of a director at the height of his own creative powers. So, let me leave you with this admonition: if you haven’t read Barron’s work or seen this amazing film yet, you should unfuck that. You never know when you might wake up dead and you don’t want to have missed this experience prior to that inevitable event.