Director Philip Gelatt’s They Remain is a horror movie, that sadly, in spite of a strong build and bucketloads of potential, fails to drench the audience with its much-promised fear.
I had my own set of expectations coming into it, as it was based on a short story written by one of my favourite American cosmic horror writers, Laird Barron. Early theatrical trailers and luscious cinematography suggested the film could be promising.
The movie stars William Jackson Harper, famed for his role in American comedy series The Good Place (2016), and Rebecca Henderson, both of whom give solid performances. The setting and visual design of the film are also fantastic and set up the story well. Harper and Henderson play Keith and Jessica, two scientists who are sent by a mysterious company to investigate insidious murders carried out by a Manson-style cult. The pair spends their time conducting experiments, gathering and analysing evidence in the dark remote woodlands where the murders happened. Unease and fear start to lurk, as Keith experiences bad dreams and visions of the creepy cult members, and Jessica begins to act strangely.
The problem with the film is not to do with the establishment of this plot or the slow building of a mood. But rather, it fails to deliver on the horrors that have been set up in the beginning. Monitoring a series of cameras and various equipment, the two scientists slowly discover a backstory of sinister presences who were at the camp, long before the cult set up shop. The story explores an interesting sense of manifesting evil within the genius loci, or spirit of a place. There seems to be the sense that the woods themselves have imprinted the psychopathic behaviour of the cult in some unknown biological mutation, which remains a mystery to the audience.
The interesting premise of the short story is enough to warrant this film’s watchability, but ultimately it lacks the meat on its bones to really deliver. I can’t put my finger one hundred percent on why They Remain doesn’t live up to expectations. Comparing it to the fantastic cosmic horror movie The Ritual (2017), which launched a matter of months ago, this movie lacks several things. The Ritual was also based on something; a novel by supernatural horror writer Adam Nevill, that was transformed beautifully into a terrifying and horrific film. For one thing, The Ritual had a much bigger group of well-developed characters, having been pulled from a novel rather than a short story. It also delivered an absolutely horrifying monster, which They Remain sadly lacked. Whilst the theory that the less you see of a horror baddie, the more frightening it is has some weight, in the case of They Remain, I think the supernatural was not visible enough.
There is a portion of the movie which focuses on a large horned skull found by Jessica and some hallucinogenic effects, but I think the viewer would’ve favoured a more present threat to slowly emerge from the darkness of the woods.
They Remain has many favourable attributes, not least of all its originality and non-derivative plot. Whilst many will find it slow and lacking something, fans of horror will still appreciate this unique addition to the genre, and be inspired by its potential, perhaps more than its success.
They Remain is writer/director Philip Gelatt’s sophomore feature film effort, having previously written and directed the 2011 horror-mystery film, The Bleeding.