They Remain (2017)
Written & Directed by Philip Gelatt
Keith and Jessica are sent for an extended research assignment to study nature. This isn’t your typical assignment because the plot of land they are visiting is the site of ritualized murders committed by a Manson-style cult decades before. The private interest backing the expedition wants to know if such acts of depravity and evil have left a mark on the environment. Keith goes out each day, placing cameras and gathering samples. Jessica stays in their geodesic dome headquarters processing samples, looking for some elusive unknown. Keith encounters a wild dog that seems to be leading him through the woods, and both researchers begin to experience hallucinations and dreams about the dark acts performed on this land. Something evil lurks in the darkness and is slowly luring two more victims to it.
They Remain is based on a beautiful short story by Laird Barron titled -30-. The short story and film are remarkably similar, so the writer/director gets points for a faithful adaptation. So herein lies the problem, because the filmmaker seems so intent on not diverging in any manner from the source material that he doesn’t have much to show us. The film does nail the hallucinatory feel of Barron’s work and this style of cosmic dread weird horror. However, I would argue that this entire sub-genre of literature doesn’t necessarily work on a film. I can’t imagine Barron’s writing as film because it is perfect as just the written word. The film only dilutes this short story and fails to deliver the atmosphere built on those pages.
Adaptation is a tricky art. One of my gripes with the “geek” community is the dogmatic fervor to the source material and canon. When I was a child and a teenager I too thought that if an adaptation was not unceasingly faithful to the source, it was therefore imperfect. As I’ve gotten older, experienced life and my tastes in art have evolved my view has softened, and I am much more interested in how an artist changes a piece to adapt it into a new form. The Leftovers series is better than the book, in my opinion. This leads me to be excited for Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen series coming to HBO. I enjoy the original graphic novel, but I don’t want a straight adaptation of that book. I want something that will surprise me and explore things deeper or introduce new themes to the material.
There is a stiffness to the proceedings of They Remain that falls flat for me. The director fails to get exciting performances from very capable actors. William Jackson Harper (Chidi on The Good Place) plays Keith and is going for something very restrained in this film. I think that is a problem though because I got to the end of the movie unable to say I knew much about his character beyond his job. The short story can go into his head more easily, and so we have a much better bead on what motivates Keith and how he is reacting in his mind to the horrific events.
I always love when a film chooses to keep the origins of its horror ambiguous and obfuscated. They Remain does an outstanding job of that, showing us only glimpses and not indulging in clunky expository scenes. We know what we need to know and that is enough. However, the film indulges in a little too much psychedelia without substance. Honestly, I found myself drifting off to sleep in the middle of the day and had to pause the movie to take a nap. This is not good for horror in my opinion. I would never drift off reading a Barron short because his prose is intensely riveting. Any adaptation that fails to capture that is a real disappointment.