They Remain


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

They Remain
"This is not a film for newcomers to the genre. It requires a familiarity with ancient things, yet it is in the unfamiliar that it anchors its emotional affect."

Adapted from a Laird Barron short story yet opening with a quote from HP Lovecraft and opening at the HP Lovecraft Film Festival, They Remain puts its cards on the table at the start. In fact, it needs to, as the psychic landscape it explores would be impenetrable without a guide; it must assume that its audience is already familiar with certain conventions because otherwise they would be quite unable to engage with what it offers. This is not a film for newcomers to the genre. It requires a familiarity with ancient things, yet it is in the unfamiliar that it anchors its emotional affect.

Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) and Keith (William Jackson Harper) are scientists, once lovers, now colleagues investigating reported changes in animal behaviour in the vicinity of a compound where a Manson Family-style cult once committed mass murder. Setting up their equipment in geodesic domes amid woodland stained with mould and the soft decay of autumn, they seek out specimens for study and are perplexed, in particular, by odd insect activity. Older viewers may be reminded of 1974's Phase IV but this film presents a less tightly formulated narrative. When the equipment begins to malfunction, no rational explanation can be found for it. When Jessica and Keith begin to malfunction, we are invited to perceive them as no more than an extension of the animal and mechanical worlds.

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Is it the place that is causing it, or the legacy of something that happened here before - perhaps many times? As the scientists' frustration with one another grows - there seeming no other explanation than incompetence for all the evident problems - so does a reawakening of long buried sexual desire; but what does that mean, and who does it threaten? Keith goes for long walks in the woods, framed by the long lines of tree trunks and fallen leaves, adrift in some rural psychogeography of reduction and disintegration. Everything seems to be breaking down into its constituent parts, like the bodies splintering apart in brief, lurid flashbacks that flicker before us the way moments of dream do when one has been awake for too long. They may, indeed, be intended to shock us into wakefulness. The film is, in places, achingly slow. As a piece of art trying to bring together the infinitesimal with a sense of the passage of great aeons, it makes its mark; as a piece of entertainment, even for this select audience, it struggles.

This is an exercise in the development of atmosphere and tone. The sense of place is more important than the plot, even though the place has nothing visually distinctive about it at first glance. It could be anywhere, which, of course, is partly where its particular horror stems from. Henderson and Harper cultivate a similar blandness, like Ballardian protagonists trying to understand the world without recognising themselves as part of it. The acting is impressive but restrained; the stillness is everything. In time a breath, a glance out of place, becomes shocking.

They Remain is a film that requires a considerable investment. The reward is not as great as it might have been, but this type of film is a rarity, and for the connoisseur, a fresh draught is still a welcome thing.

Reviewed on: 09 Oct 2017
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Two scientists investigating strange ecological changes find themselves at the mercy of Primeval forces.

Director: Philip Gelatt

Writer: Philip Gelatt, based on a short story by Laird Barron

Starring: William Harper Jackson, Rebecca Henderson

Year: 2017

Runtime: 90 minutes


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