It must be the time of year for atmospheric sci-fi thrillers that seek to test the mettle of its leads along with the audience. A week after the similarly themed Annihilation premiered, the smaller yet equally disturbing indie They Remain – directed and produced by Philip Gelatt (The Bleeding House, and writer of The Europa Report) – taps the same vein of weird and sinister as two experts are tasked to study a parcel of land where strange occurrences are afoot. Not to mention it was the preferred location for a cult to commit mass killings.
From the moment a quote by H.R. Lovecraft emblazons the screen, it’s evident They Remain would do its best to unnerve and draw out our irrational fears with disturbing imagery. Lamentably, the film doesn’t live up to Lovecraft’s words in a visual sense, however They Remain successfully evokes the chill and unease of the “Eldritch Style” through Gelatt’s minimalistic direction and masterful use of sound. Though William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson gave solid performances as asocial scientists with furtive motivations, much of what captures one’s imagination in the film is the location itself as this seemingly quiet slip of nature easily pushes those present towards desolation.
Little is revealed for most of the film which would be a dagger for the typical movie, but it oddly works in They Remain’s favor. We’re aware of Keith and Jessica’s assignment to catalog and record any activity on the property, but why is a corporation excited about their findings? Why are Keith and Jessica personally interested in the mass deaths? No matter… we haven’t time to unveil this minutiae when something or someone begins to slowly play tricks on their minds.
Keith is our eyes for a majority of the film and through his treks in the woods there are frequent pauses in his actions. They Remain overcommits to static shots where Keith looks beyond the camera frame – sometimes through the fourth wall itself – and it is creepy. It’s in those moments where our minds begin to wander; coupled with occasional hallucinatory cuts and quick flashbacks to the cult’s murderous activities, like our lead said at the beginning of the film, “You know how this is going to end”. Even though we’re aware Keith and Jessica were steeply spiraling downward not long after their arrival, what little details we receive about their history, their associates, and the mysterious employers who are deeply invested in the land keep this film’s motor running. It is through Gelatt’s deftness in revealing so little that They Remain’s more disturbing moments leave a greater imprint during the leads’ descent into madness.
Ultimately, what remains by film’s end may not feel like a satisfying pay-off for most. Nevertheless, They Remain isn’t a thriller that is meant to throw you about with many twists and turns. Instead, it is a straightforward dive into the darkness. Its plot may be narrow and performances concise, yet They Remain achieves in leaving its mark despite the inevitable decline of its unfortunate players.
They Remain – produced by Family Ranch and Reno Productions and distributed by Paladin and Giant Interactive – premieres in New York and Los Angeles March 2.