A Crash Course in Horror is a monthly column by our self-proclaimed horror movie noob, Noémi Pomerleau. She reviews a classic (or even “new classic”) horror movie from the viewpoint of someone who has never seen it (because, well, she hasn’t).
In the January issue of Crash Course in Horror, I reviewed The Blair Witch Project, the film that put found-footage horror movies on the map. The film was rough and imperfect, like 90’s camcorders. It relied on a fear of supernatural forces to make you quiver in your boots. It was a great film! It also didn’t work on me. At all. I’m not particularly scared of ghosts, or witches, or things that go bump in the night.
I’m also not afraid of kaiju. So why was Cloverfield the movie that left me shaking, feeling sick to my stomach, and filled with existential dread? I have undoubtedly seen better movies as part of this project, but this one scared me more than any of them.
Finally, I have learned what happens when one of your greatest personal fears is explored by a horror movie. WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.
Cloverfield is about a group of wealthy 20-somethings in Manhattan who gather to have a going-away party for their good friend Rob (Michael Stahl-David). The party is video taped by Hud (T.J. Miller), Rob’s best friend, at the request of Rob’s brother and his girlfriend (Mike Vogel and Jessica Lucas), and we see the entire evening from the point of view of this camcorder. Which means we see an awful lot of Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), the girl he has an enormous crush on, and comparatively little of the party. He does take a break from hassling Marlena to follow the party gossip. Rob is distracted by the fact that he’s got unresolved feelings for his friend Beth (Odette Annable) and the awkward friend-or-more-than-friend drama has just hit its peak when the kaiju drama begins.
Of course, you probably know about that part, because Cloverfield had one of the most iconic trailers there’s ever been.
Found-footage style horror movies clearly make for excellent marketing campaigns.
So Rob and friends escape onto the streets of Manhattan, encounter Lady Liberty’s decapitated head, and spend the rest of the movie running from the monster and seeking safety. Except – oh wait, no they don’t. They go looking for Beth, the lady Rob had drama with, who had left the party long before everything went to hell and traveled in the exact direction the monster is coming from.
This is where the movie made its biggest misstep, in my opinion. It built itself a great concept — a survivalist horror story within the context of a monster movie — and then ruined it by forcing the characters to take illogical steps to put themselves in harm’s way. While the movie is still very harrowing, it would have been even more disturbing if the characters were doomed even after doing everything right.
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It’s also missing something that The Blair Witch Project rightfully added: a character so tone-deaf and obsessed with capturing what’s going on that it is completely reasonable that they never, ever put that camera down. While Hud seems a little socially unaware and slow to catch on, he is clearly a kind and generous friend. It’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t think to shut up and put the camera down when his friends are in mortal danger or deeply distressed.
There were some things that Cloverfield‘s screenplay got right. Most of all, it built a wonderful picture of New York City after an enormous disaster. Clearly inspired by the footage that came out of 9/11, it explored the fear of what might happen if a peaceful metropolitan center falls into collapse. The picture it paints feels real — maybe a little too real. Even if Rob & company’s stupid quest is the reason for showing us around this apocalyptic landscape, the emotions that it brings up are more than powerful enough to compensate for the questionable decisions that get us there.
But then — I am somebody who lives in a metropolitan center and is desperately afraid of being around for its inevitable collapse, so I might be blinded by the fact that it scared the hell out of me.
In terms of other production details, Cloverfield is a drastic improvement over Blair Witch, which is appropriate, considering it came over a decade later. Although Hud’s inability to hold the camera straight is substantially worse than the camping crew, the audio and video quality is greatly improved simply by the fact that handheld recorders have come a LONG way since 1997, and the film is allowed to reflect that. Images are clear (unless Hud decides to zoom in, forcing everything out of focus – ugh) and a good portion of the sound was clearly recorded and mixed in separately, which makes it much more satisfying to listen to. Very important, because that kaiju’s got a lot of screaming to do.
The monster does get shown off in this film, and the visual effects are solid. The gritty handheld camera style of the film makes it feel very obvious the monster is CG, but the camera never focuses on it for long enough for that to be a problem.
While I think Cloverfield would have benefited from a character arc where people make better decisions, I still found it interesting, and — obviously — scary like nothing I’ve ever seen before. While I couldn’t guarantee that it will affect other people as it did me, it has enough strength to stand on its own. Its action is compelling, the acting is decent, and it’s so short (a mere 85 minutes, with almost 15 of that being the end credits) that it never has time to get boring.
If you enjoy a good monster movie, can ignore characters doing stupid things, and have the stomach to put up with a lot of 9/11 imagery, I highly recommend Cloverfield. I am both dreading and looking forward to seeing its sequel!Buy Cloverfield here!
A Crash Course in Horror updates on every third Saturday of the month. The next update is due on May 21st! If you want to help pick the horror classic I review, just leave a comment below with your suggestion or find me on Twitter (@NoemiPOM)!