10 Cloverfield Lane is a quality funhouse horror film

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane

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The success of the original Cloverfield didn’t really lie in the quality of the film. As far as present-day takes on the Godzilla/rampaging-monster movie go, it was fine, and it certainly paved the way for found-footage as a marketable formal gimmick.

Truth be told, though, I don’t remember much about the actual movie Cloverfield (even if I do remember liking it); what I most remember was the marketing campaign around it, the mysterious trailers and viral tactics that made an unknown movie starring a mostly unknown cast into a #1 box office smash and seriously upped the nerd cred of the dudes that created the show Felicity.

It’s therefore not that surprising that the studio would like the Cloverfield franchise to continue — and it’s not that surprising that they’ve decided to distance themselves from the formal trappings of the first film in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

(Please note that, while there are many films that are easy to discuss without spoilers, this isn’t one of them.)

According to the filmmakers, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a “blood brother” or “spiritual successor” to the original Cloverfield film. While this makes for nice copy and everything, it’s not exactly accurate: It’s a completely different genre of film that nevertheless has a lot in common with its predecessor. The design is different where it counts, the storytelling style is completely different, but let me put it this way: if you’ve seen Cloverfield, you’re going to know where this is going faster than the people who haven’t.

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John Gallagher Jr., Winstead and Goodman

Having just left her boyfriend, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) escapes towards a better life only to get into a violent car accident. She wakes up chained to the wall in an underground bunker with the none-too-reassuring survivalist Howard (John Goodman), who tells her that there’s been an attack of indeterminate origin on the United States and that seemingly everyone is dead except for them and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a handyman who helped Howard build the bunker and ran to it when the attacks happened. Howard is extremely prepared, extremely convinced that the world has ended but also unbelievably creepy, dressing Michelle in his deceased daughter’s clothing, raging at any perceived intimacy between her and Emmett and generally micro-managing her already routine-bound life in the bunker. Michelle begins to suspect that Howard is lying about the outside world — or at least about the way she ended up in the bunker.

10 Cloverfield Lane leans extremely hard on the “this is what they want you to believe” storytelling fake-out as tension builder. There’s not a single ominous one-liner that isn’t augmented with a musical swell, not a single seemingly-innocuous prop that isn’t shot for ten seconds to make sure we won’t see it in another light later. It’s difficult to truly be shocked and absorbed by a film that makes it this clear every step of the way that looks may be deceiving and the way a certain situation reads may not be the actual truth. 10 Cloverfield Lane basically funhouse-mirrors the shit out of each and every plot point. It’s as if the filmmakers are in a game of one-upmanship with themselves, incapable of not taking it to the limit whenever possible.

While this can become tedious in terms of mounting tension in an organic way, I can say that 10 Cloverfield Lane is fun in a more immediate way. It’s a film crafted by people who know what they’re doing, which can be both annoying and satisfying in equal measures. The three leads are great and the film is well-paced enough to overcome the often cheap thrills it lathers up. It feels most of all like an episode of The Twilight Zone or another vaguely out-there anthology series — which is anything but coincidental if you consider that this is apparently the way the Cloverfield series is meant to go. ■

10 Cloverfield Lane opens in theatres on Friday, March 11. Watch the trailer here:

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