No theme to the Halloween coverage this year. I’ll be lucky just to get through it. Also, there won’t be many screencaps in this one, because the shaky-cam nature of the film makes good frames really hard to come by.
In 1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made a ton of money with a super-low-budget film they’d made titled The Blair Witch Project. It made so much money thanks to two gimmicks that worked in synergy to propel audience interest.
- They used the concept of “found footage,” using a gimmick from horror stories dating back to “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” by Edgar Allan Poe, making it seem as if the story had really happened.
- They created a promotional campaign centered on a website that described the backstory of the movie, again as if it had really happened. It was one of the first really successful viral marketing campaigns and built huge, fervent anticipation for the film.
Audience reactions on seeing the final film were decidedly mixed, some saying it was an exercise in absolute terror, others saying it was a mediocre low-budget indie in which nothing much happened with the added gimmick of inducing motion sickness in the audience.
Whether people loved or hated it, one thing was indisputable: it made a ton of profit, therefore guaranteeing that other films would follow in its wake. One of those attempts to imitate the Blair Witch formula was Cloverfield, a 2008 film that took the basic elements of the earlier film’s success–found footage technique combined with viral internet marketing–and combined them with a HUGE budget, incredible production values, and state-of-the-art visual effects. And motion sickness.
Directed by Matt Reeves from a script by Drew Goddard and produced by J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot, Cloverfield begins at a going away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who has landed a job in Japan. The found footage gimmick in this case is that one of the partygoers, Hud (T.J. Miller), has been tasked with “documenting the night” and recording people’s good luck wishes to Rob. One brilliant bit of scripting here is that Hud is not too bright, so when he is tasked with documenting the night, he takes it really seriously and keeps recording things long after the party has been forgotten.
The important things to note here are that Rob is having girl problems–he has recently slept with best friend Beth (Odette Yustman), then broke things off because he didn’t want to deal with a long-distance relationship while he was in Japan–and Hud has a huge crush on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who barely acknowledges his existence. And things are tense between Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) who organized the party.
But in the middle of all the celebration and break-up drama, there’s an earthquake… or something. Everyone rushes to the roof to see something explode out toward the ocean. They run panicked down to the street, where Hud films something huge moving in the distance. Something flies at them and smashes to a stop in the street.
It’s the mangled head of the Statue of Liberty.
One of the most brilliant moments in the film right here, as the jaded New Yorkers immediately forget the terror and danger just long enough to mill around the head and take pictures with their phones.
Rob, Hud, Marlena, Jason, and Lily decide to get out of Manhattan immediately, and of course, many things go wrong, not least among them when Beth calls Rob to say that she’s trapped in her apartment and begs him to come save her. Of course, along the way, our heroes die one by one and in the process manage to have several close encounters with the kaiju that’s terrorizing Manhattan.
Between the shaky cam and the smoke and debris, we never see the creature quite as clearly as we’d like, but it is huge and alien and terrifying.
One interesting bit is that we never get any explanation of what the creature is. The viral marketing campaign hinted at a connection between the creature and Slusho!, a popular drink made from a secret ingredient called Seabed’s Nectar, which is obliquely referenced in the film when Hud mentions that the creature may have risen from deep beneath the sea. The Slusho! material also references a satellite falling from orbit (which can be briefly glimpsed in a flashback shot at the end of the film), and someone briefly mentions that the creature may come from space.
And of course, the most disgusting bit is the fact that every time the monster appears, people mention slime that seems to have come off it, which doesn’t mean much by itself, except that the viral material makes it seem apparent that the creature’s first appearance was to destroy an oil rig run by Slusho’s parent company, Tagruato. The wreckage of the oil rig was covered by oil and Seabed’s Nectar. In other words, that secret drink ingredient may have been slime they were harvesting off the creature itself as it slumbered under the ocean.
But none of this is in the movie itself. The movie quite admirably, but also frustratingly, sticks to the limited perspectives of its somewhat shallow and not very bright characters as they try to save Beth then escape intact. Of course, the fact that the footage is identified in the very beginning as having been found in the area formerly known as Central Park lets you know that things aren’t going to go well for our heroes. The movie is pretty ruthless in dispatching characters one by one, although there are some moments that make oyu roll your eyes.
There are also some bits that strain suspension of disbelief and might drop you out of the movie momentarily, like the way Hud is able to use the light on the camera for apparently hours of hiking through subway tunnels without running down the battery, or the fact that the footage is identified in the beginning as having come off a SD memory card, when the movie itself keeps referring to (and acting like) a video tape.
And of course, although the filmmakers apparently used a special kind of camera rig to minimize the shaking and keep the experience viewable, I still got a monster headache from watching this movie in the theater.
Still, I do recommend the movie if you’re a fan of giant monster movies, but to get the entire experience, you should also visit the tie-in websites which are surprisingly still active.
Now I want to hunt down 10 Cloverfield Lane and see what it’s about.