I finally saw it!

Monsters need no motive. I imagine this is one of the greatest attractions of writing a monster movie, as opposed to some other type of horror film. There’s a certain amount of freedom that comes from needing to spend almost no time introducing your antagonist. The makers of Cloverfield obviously decided to take this truth to the extreme. Their monster comes from nowhere.

Great monster movies, in the first act, before the real rampage begins, usually choose to introduce us to the creature that’s going to cause our problems. It can be an attempt by the characters to downplay the first encounter with the monster, to make it seem like everything’s okay (Jaws). It can be a glimpse of what causes the monster to develop, like a scientist pouring bottles of formaldehyde into the sewer (The Host). It can be the discovery of a smaller version of the monster, the characters unsuspecting of the real terror that awaits (Alien, Tremors). Or it can be 45 damn minutes of chit chat before all hell breaks loose (Jurassic Park). But it’s surprisingly rare to find the film where the monster, truly, just shows up.

Think about it: if you knew nothing about Cloverfield going into it, you wouldn’t even be able to tell it was a monster movie until the characters see it for themselves. Even that first minute, telling us about “the area formerly known as Central Park,” wouldn’t give it away. Of course, it’s impossible to actually see a movie without knowing anything about it first. Even so, I applaud the way the format of the film gives the audience absolutely no contact whatsoever with the monster until the rampage begins. The moment is so sudden that even expecting it, I was startled. Which is a sign of another strength of the movie: it gives the audience time to become invested in the characters, and it succeeds. I was surprised by that first moment of violence because I actually cared about the conversation the characters were having when it came.

There is a another bit of genius in Cloverfield’s format. Now, we’ve all seen the found-footage horror movie before, because we’ve all seen The Blair Witch Project (a movie that rules despite having been a victim of so many parodies, and that itself owes a debt to the infamous 1980 Italian gore-fest Cannibal Holocaust, the earliest film I know of that used this format). This is an approach that could get old really fast if a lot of filmmakers started trying it, but it works beautifully here. The immediacy brought to the proceedings by literally giving us someone’s point of view is almost hypnotizing at times. But the thing that really makes this movie work, the idea that I seriously want to pat writer Drew Goddard on the back for having, is those glimpses we get of what was recorded on the tape before the night in question. God what a great idea! Those moments provide insight into our main character, serve as tidy bookends to make the movie feel whole, and also remind us of the physical object that is the tape we’re supposedly watching. Fricking great, seriously. A horror movie needs this kind of attention to detail to function as more than just a series of violent set pieces.

Cloverfield is the best monster movie I’ve seen since The Descent. (Come to think of it, that’s another movie that offers up no introduction or explanation for its monsters. Fancy that.) It’s scary, but just funny enough in all the right moments to break the tension so it can get built up again. I cared when characters died. I want to see it again.


4 Responses to “I finally saw it!”

  1. 1 Carly February 14, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    yet another ‘looks good but will have to wait till i move’ movie (if you thought i was brave enough for ‘the brave one’, you were wrong). why do you think it is people love to watch ny get torn up and destroyed over and over?

  2. 2 patty February 15, 2008 at 11:05 am

    because! ny is iconic. you see a picture of nyc and you immediately know where it is. you see a picture of seattle and it’s a little more difficult, especially when the space needle isn’t included. plus, ny has so many more buildings to climb and knock down.

  3. 3 Carly February 18, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    well, ok, but i have to wait to see these movies till i’m not directly affected by the health of the subways, bridges, and general population. although, why has no one turned the Mole People into a horror plot yet?! that shit is scary! who isn’t scared of getting stuck underground? and then running into someone who, y’know, liiiives down there. or vampires! vampires must love the mta tunnel system!

  4. 4 Магия July 24, 2008 at 6:32 am

    Клёво, мне понравилось! ;)

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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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