SPOILER ALERT: This pieces discusses plot details of 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Witch. Proceed at your own risk.
Much ado has been made about J.J. Abrams’s mystery box. (Too much, if you ask Abrams himself. And if you ask me. But here I am, writing about it anyway!) But that’s because the concept — the idea that a box, when unopened, "represents infinite possibility, hope, and potential" — is particularly salient when used to explain the singular flaw in nearly all of Abrams’s projects.
As our own Amy Nicholson noted in her 10 Cloverfield Lane review, Abrams is a marketing genius. Creating and sustaining hype is his true gift. Were he not also a talented filmmaker, we might find Abrams selling knockoff haute couture en masse out of the trunk of his car, convincing hordes of dudes that each Fucci cuff link held the secret to the universe. But herein lies the problem with that whole "mystery box" thing: Abrams consistently takes the conceit both too far and not far enough, building up anticipation that cannot possibly be rewarded, then revealing what’s up either way too soon or way too sloppily and with deeply disappointing results. More specifically, Abrams lets the air out of nearly every single one of his films by doing something horror fans have been debating the merits of since the beginning of Horror Time: revealing the monster. Almost always poorly and with much fanfare.
10 Cloverfield Lane was, in its original form, a spec script called The Cellar, purchased by Abrams’s Bad Robot in 2012. The logline was simple and chilling: "A woman wakes up in a bomb shelter with a mysterious man who says he rescued her from an apocalyptic event." As Abrams explains it, fans were hankering for a sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield, because this is America and nobody is ever satisfied. While Abrams and director Dan Trachtenberg were tinkering with The Cellar's script, they realized that there was some shared "DNA" between the projects, and before anyone could say "billion-dollar-franchise potential," the two were hacking off portions of The Cellar and surgically replacing them with portions of the Cloverfield world. A "spiritual sequel" emerged from the operating room.
You can see the scars in the final film. The first 80 minutes or so are nearly perfect, as thrillers go: taut, tense, terrifying. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is predictably on-point as Michelle, who can’t figure out whether bunker-builder Howard (John Goodman) is her savior or her captor. Is the air outside really contaminated by alien and/or Russian chemicals? Did Howard really "accidentally" drive Michelle off the road right before the so-called Martian attack, or is she a kidnapping victim? And what of Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who just happened to squeeze into the bunker and join the not-so-merry twosome right before things went to shit?
The last 20 minutes or so of 10 Cloverfield Lane seem clearly like the minutes that Abrams haphazardly stitched on, minutes that turn the film into something unrecognizable from its origins. Psychological horror turns into all-too-tangible horror. Kubrick turns into Del Toro. (Not to say there’s not a place for Del Toroesque phantasmagorical creatures. But it’s not in 10 Cloverfield Lane.) Where Abrams fails in 10 Cloverfield Lane — and where he regularly fails — is in his undying fanboy ardor for giant, goopy alien monsters. Abrams is so in love with his monsters that he cannot see the forest for the CGI trees. Once we know the aliens are real, and exactly what they look like, and exactly what they’re capable of, and exactly how you kill them, the entire film deflates. All of those months of mystery-boxing on Abrams’s part are for naught. By the end of the film, we know the exact nature of the beast; by the time Michelle decides to help battle the rest of the unholy creatures (something we’ll ostensibly see her or others like her do in another Cloverfield film), we’ve lost any sense of fear or anticipation. Just throw fire into the aliens’ gaping maws like you did a few minutes ago, Michelle. You know the drill. You’re good. Bye, girl.
10 Cloverfield Lane would have worked without any scenes of giant, murderous aliens. In fact, it would’ve worked really well even if Abrams had kept the aliens in there, but at least partially obscured them, kept them at least half-inside that godforsaken mystery box. There’s another movie inside 10 Cloverfield Lane, a better movie, a psychological thriller about an old man infantilizing and harming young women (there’s a stomach-churning scene in which Howard struggles to find any other descriptor for Michelle than "girl" or "little princess") while an enigmatic invasion brews overhead, a movie about the dark and terrible things humans are capable of doing to one another. In its original iteration, 10 Cloverfield Lane [Note: It was produced by Paramount, which has the same parent company as MTV] could’ve been a completely fresh, Room–meets–Silence of the Lambs–meets–Close Encounters of the Third Kind sort of thing that kept audiences questioning allegiances and truths and the nature of the beasts both human and not, even after the credits rolled. But Abrams didn’t want to make that movie. Abrams wanted to shoehorn in his slimy-ass CGI monsters.
In her review, Amy Nicholson argues that the film was doomed in this way from the very start — that thanks to Abrams’s insistence that the link to Cloverfield sit right there in the title, we already knew what the monster would be, and where the horror would stem from, before we even sat down in the theater. But, foolishly, I held out hope that perhaps "Cloverfield" was just Abrams’s term for all of his mystery-box projects, that perhaps the link was anthology-like, more Twilight Zone or Black Mirror than Alien. I was wrong, obviously. Abrams showed his hand to all of us months ago.
This is the same problem I had with The Witch, Robert Eggers’s debut feature about, well, a witch terrorizing a pious family in 17th-century New England. Not 10 minutes into the movie, we’re introduced to the titular witch: She’s fleshy, with long, unkempt hair and a penchant for slaughtering adorable babies. Though we get this full-on confirmation of the monster’s existence almost immediately, for the remainder of the film, Eggers tries to have it both ways: He shows us the witch intermittently but also shows us the family as it slowly breaks down over suspicions that its eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), might be the witch. But we know that she’s not — because, you know, we’ve already seen the witch — so whatever psychological horror might’ve been wrung from that premise is neutralized.
A lot of ink has been spilled about whether The Witch is "scary," or whether horror films need to be "scary," or what "scary" even means in this context. I think there’s a very real human horror story hidden within The Witch: A family, defeated by nature and losing its faith in God, begins to turn in on itself, its members hurling blame (and, eventually, actual weapons) at one another because there’s nothing and nobody else to absorb their rage. But, as in 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Witch chooses to center its blame on a corporeal villain, a flesh-and-blood monster, one we’re apparently meant to find more disturbing than the cerebral paranoias that threaten our protagonists. Ultimately, both films abandon what’s arguably a richer, more complex type of horror — the horror inherent in discovering just what humans are capable of doing to one another — for a more plainly obvious type.
None of this is to say that no horror film should ever center on a visible monster, or that you can’t open a mystery box without simultaneously evaporating all sense of tension. The best movie monsters, though, remain unknowable to us even after we’ve glimpsed them. We’re not gaping into their gullets, or watching them coat themselves in Essence of Baby within seconds of meeting them. Think about The Shining, which never fully reveals the nature of its villain, just confirms that something undoubtedly sinister lurks in the Overlook. Or Pan’s Labyrinth, with its what-the-actual-fuck, hands-in-the-eyeballs monster, which succeeds in being one of the most disturbing, indelible fiends in the history of cinema because it hardly moves and its horrible acts against children are only hinted at. What about that hobo thing behind the Winkie’s Diner dumpster in Mulholland Drive? Does anybody else feel an urge to weep into their mother’s nonexistent petticoats every time they see Patrick Fischler, even when he’s playing Jimmy Barrett on Mad Men, or no? Or think about The Babadook, which never really explains the motive of its titular antagonist or why it’s content to chill out in a basement for eternity. These are the monster reveals that work: the ones that aren’t actually reveals but peeks behind the curtain, peeks that raise more questions than they answer.
The strangest thing about all of this is that J.J. Abrams knows this. He knows it’s more valuable to keep people guessing than it is to give them all of the intel. He’s never opened his own actual mystery box, the one that spawned his infamous TED Talk. And, as he explained in that same talk, he knows it’s better to keep the monsters at bay. "There’s the thing of mystery in terms of imagination — the withholding of information. You know, doing that intentionally is much more engaging," he said. "Whether it's like the shark in Jaws — if Spielberg's mechanical shark, Bruce, had worked, it would not be remotely as scary; you would have seen it too much. In Alien, they never really showed the alien: terrifying!" This from the man who showed us the alien in literally every single one of his sci-fi films.
Even more strange, Abrams knows that the heart of these monster movies — Jaws, his own — isn’t the monster. It’s, as he puts it, the "investment of character." As he explained it, "It’s why when people do sequels, or rip off movies, you know, of a genre, they're ripping off the wrong thing. You're not supposed to rip off the shark or the monster. You gotta rip off … the character. Rip off the stuff that matters."
How to explain, then, 10 Cloverfield Lane, in which Abrams not only shows us the monster but rips off the monster (or at least its biological brethren) instead of the characters? (Like, I don’t know about y’all, but I’d enjoy knowing what happened to Lily after she went up in that helicopter.) How is it that Abrams innately understands what makes a good monster movie, speaks about it publicly and at length, then completely ignores his own hard-won wisdom?
Perhaps it’s because Abrams has yet to take his own advice — which he’s given, by proxy, to millions of YouTube viewers since his TED Talk — and do a little introspection. “Look inside yourself and figure out what is inside you,” he said. “Because ultimately, you know, the mystery box is all of us. So there's that.” So there’s that, J.J. What’s inside you? Is it a hulking monster with six mouths and giant gills? Or is it a human being, a monster in its own right, a mammal with an unknowable soul, a life form capable of all manner of evil, an organism that even the most brilliant of scientists have yet to truly understand?
Why not lay off the CGI monsters for a few rounds and plumb the mysterious psychological depths of the human monster? Because the truth is, those types of monsters are right there in your films already. You’ve just got to trust that they're even more terrifying — and even more satisfying to confront and examine — than the inside of an alien’s mouth.