“You know what comes next.”
Philip Gellatt begins his modest horror film by quoting one of the masters, H.P. Lovecraft, specifically from Dream Cycle. “Wise men have interpreted dreams, and the Gods have laughed.” The feeble attempts of Man to define subconscious have driven the great works of David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky, but, despite the multiple positive aspects of the film, They Remain isn’t quite there. Dreams don’t have much of a meaning for Keith (William Jackson Harper (Chidi!)), but they will soon as he and Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) go on a three-month mission to investigate animal activity in a remote wilderness.
A camping trip with a curt co-worker for a few months is hardly an ideal getaway, even less so when the area being investigated is home to the bloody aftermath of a famed cult. Sitting around the campfire, Jessica queries to Keith: “Does every cult resemble a family or does every family resemble a cult?” Alienation makes sense to Keith, he finds nature preferable to the deception of the company he works for, but willing one’s self over to a sadistic group is unfathomable to him. Conversely, Rebecca shrugs off altruism altogether. William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson feed off each other well, which is fortunate considering how much of the film they must carry. Harper, particularly, is alone for large stretches at a time. Harper, who has gained fame recently for The Good Place, is gifted in revealing a great deal with a slight tweak of his facial muscles, and that skill set is put to great use here. They Remain is unlikely to provide a boon for Harper’s acting career, but it’s more proof of his charismatic presence; he’s able to deliver no matter the role.
It’s become a cliche to say that the setting is a character in stories, but the surroundings of They Remain feature as prominently as the two leads. The forest’s pristine beauty hypnotically lulls audiences into a false sense of security, right before sending them searching the entire screen for the slightest movement or shadow. If that weren’t enough to set viewers on-edge, the score’s straining quality doubles as the soundtrack to Keith’s fraying mindset. Keith claims to find solitude in a forest canopy, yet even the most ardent outdoorsman would classify this landscape as unnerving. These portions of the film are the most effective at evoking the Lovecraftian horror Gellat is aiming for, and by far are the most engaging. Other passages, dedicated to showing cult members engaging in disturbing behavior, would have been better left to the imagination. The restraints of a small budget left the cult killer sequences to feel out of place, more resembling an exploitation film. A move that undercuts a majority of They Remain‘s potency in creating mood.
Gellat’s sense of pacing, along with Sean Kirby’s camerawork, lends a hallucinatory quality to the film, but even slow burns should move a little faster than these proceedings. The script muses on whether evil can be connected to a place and if there is a price to living carelessly in the wild. Rather than offer outright answers, Gellat invites those watching to ponder these questions along with Keith and Jessica. Minimalism in horror is the prevailing trend at the moment, but there is a limit to just how thin a plot can be. They Remain is an adaptation of a Laird Barron story, titled -30-, from the Occultation short story collection, and one wonders just how much was cleaved from the novel so that the camera could luxuriate in tree lines. Without anything concrete for Harper and Henderson to latch on to, the film should be significantly tighter than its 102-minute running time suggests.