They Remain (2018): …Audiences May Not

This week delivers another independent horror/thriller film available on several streaming platforms – They Remain. Based on a short story by horror author Laird Barron entitled “-30-“They Remain’s trailers promises quiet chills, atmosphere, and Lovecraftian themes for patient horror fans. Philip Gelatt, whose only other previous directing credit was a 2011 film called The Bleeding House, adapted the screenplay and directs.

Synopsis

Audiences may see some similar parallels with the previously released Annihilation. Keith and Jessica, scientists who share a history with one another, are stationed alone at a make-shift facility along the edge of a remote forest. They have been tasked with studying unnatural animal behaviour in the woods for a nameless corporation. These same woods once served as the compound for a Manson-style cult who committed various atrocities. As the days pass and strange phenomena begin to unfold, Keith becomes increasingly paranoid and suspicious of Jessica.

A Slow Burn Without the ‘Burn’

They Remain takes a very slow, deliberate approach to its material. Horror fans should not go into this film expecting standard jump scares or sharply edited, suspenseful twists in action. Director Philip Gelatt frames the story using long camera shots with admittedly stunning cinematography by Sean Kirby. Much of the camera work places its characters at the periphery of wide shots of the vast forest emphasizing their isolation. Shadowy images occasionally flicker off in the distance. They Remain also toys with Lovecraftian themes of ancient evils buried in the forest that may or may not be influencing the living world.

They Remain 1

Perhaps the biggest problem that emerges from Gelatt’s approach to the material is that things move too slowly. A slow burn approach is well-suited to psychological horror. Yet the approach also necessitates a deliberate ratcheting up of tension, which is absent from They Remain. Gelatt spends a great deal of time re-creating the feeling of a nightmare, but much like dreaming, They Remain meanders from scene to scene with no sense of urgency. Not much happens in They Remain. Shadowy images may flicker in the background occasionally but that’s all they do.

They Remain is Soaked in Dreamlike Atmosphere

For horror fans who want to feel like they’re immersed in someone’s nightmare, there’s no shortage of atmosphere in They Remain.

For horror fans who want to feel like they’re immersed in someone’s nightmare, there’s no shortage of atmosphere in They Remain. The film is soaked in a lucid, dreamlike state that blurs the lines between Keith’s dreams and reality. In fact, They Remain is at its best when luring viewers further into Keith’s increasingly fragile mental state. It’s the film’s dream sequences that deliver the creepiest moments assisted by a minimalist but haunting score. Fans of 1970’s horror may see some parallels in terms of tone with the surreal but incomprehensible Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.

They Remain 2

Empty Narrative and an Unsatisfying Conclusion

They Remain will make viewers feel uneasy but that unease is likely to vanish as things plod to the conclusion. To some extent, the directionless is a narrative problem as Gelatt’s adaptation of Laird’s short story doesn’t give his audience much with which to work. Expository dialogue is lazy and but much like the film’s pacing, Gelatt veers a little too far in the opposite direction giving his audience few hints or tangible plot points. Too much is left unclear making it difficult to invest in what’s happening in They Remain.

Too much is left unclear making it difficult to invest in what’s happening in They Remain.

Some information doesn’t need to be spoon-fed to viewers. I don’t need to know what kind of history is shared between the characters. As a viewer, I can piece together from the narrative that some relationship did exist in the past. I don’t need to know why animals are behaving strangely or how it is connected with a cult. But I need something in the story to feed the imagination and They Remain is a pretty empty film aside from its atmosphere. It’s all capped off with one of the most vague and disappointing endings I’ve seen in a long time.

A Case of Unfulfilled Promise

They Remain is not a bad film by any means. On the contrary, there’s a lot to like about this little independent thriller from its excellent score to the strong performance delivered by William Jackson Harper (Keith). It’s also a beautifully shot film that maintains a feeling of unease for much of its duration with its nightmare-like atmosphere. Certainly it was a welcome change of pace to see an unconventional approach to a story that could have been remarkably conventional. Unfortunately, the film’s story is a little too threadbare and the pacing borders too often on lethargic rather than simmering. The less said about the ending, the better.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: C+

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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