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Chills and thrills and lots of questions energize this tale of paranoia

There’s something familiar about the title, right? Like that word right in the middle of it, the name of the surprisingly good 2008 found footage horror film about young folks trying to survive in a New York City that’s been ravaged by a big, ugly, havoc-wreaking monster. Well, there’s a connection between that film and this one, which is also surprisingly good. No, it’s not a sequel or a prequel. Let’s call it a companion piece, and leave it at that. Oh, and both were produced by J.J. Abrams, so there was someone in charge that knew what he was doing.

But the same can be said here about first-time director Dan Trachtenberg and the very small cast, made up of John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Gallagher Jr. (and a couple of dead pigs and a voice-only cameo by Bradley Cooper as Ben).

This is not a movie for people who suffer from jangly nerves or for anyone who casually sips from their giant diet Cokes while watching. The nervous ones will be involuntarily leaving their seats – as in straight up in the air – from time to time; the Coke drinkers will be cleaning their spilled drinks from their clothing.

Yet, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is atypical of the psychological horror genre, which is the best way to describe it. Through all of the scares and shocks and downright bad situations, it’s a class act, a terrifically created helping of twisted drama. It’s a film that’s filled with questions, some of which are answered, and then follows up with more questions, many of which aren’t.

It starts with an upset Michelle (Winstead) frantically packing a small suitcase, then driving and driving, ignoring the “please come back” call on her cell phone (the afore-mentioned Ben). Her car trip is accompanied by radio chatter about “a widespread power outage and blackout” and by a menacing, mostly string score by Bear McCreary that takes some cues from the way Hitchcock used Bernard Herrmann’s music.

Then, hold on to your Cokes, there’s a brutal, violent crash – the first example of the film exploding with loud sounds – and it cuts to Michelle waking up in a heavily locked, bunker-like room, a medicinal drip attached to her arm, her leg handcuffed to the wall.

And so begin the questions, like where is she and what’s going on. Big, gruff, not very friendly Howard (Goodman) unlocks her door but has no answers for her, beyond that he saved her by bringing her here and that there’s been an attack…maybe the Russians, maybe Martians.

They’re not alone. There’s also Howard’s handyman Emmitt (Gallagher), who helped conspiracy theorist Howard build this strange bomb shelter, which is stocked with plenty of food, drink, books (we get a glimpse of one called “Surviving Doomsday”), games and video cassettes.

Another neat ingredient to the script is that we never learn much about this trio beyond a few details. Howard is a demanding neat-nick with a short temper, a bellowing voice, a tightly packed keychain on one hip, a pistol on the other and a fondness for Tommy James & the Shondells. Emmitt is a likeable but doofy guy who talks too much and has low self-esteem. Michelle is a tough gal with a history of panicking and running when things don’t go right.

Trapped in the bunker under Howard’s rule, there’s talk of dying if they go outside, and of a bum air filtration unit, and for fans of “Breaking Bad,” an appearance of a barrel full of perchloric acid. The two main questions that hang over everything is what is Howard’s agenda – is he a captor or a savior – what’s really going on outside?

Goodman’s temperament and mood-shifting performance helps make the film fun and nerve-racking. As do the intermittent loud rumblings from above. So, is it OK to simply call this a psychological horror film? Another good question, since there’s so much genre-changing in the last act, no single label will suffice.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.

10 Cloverfield Lane

Written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle; directed by Dan Trachtenberg

With John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher, Jr.

Rated PG-13

This article originally appeared on Santa Rosa Press Gazette: Chills and thrills and lots of questions energize this tale of paranoia


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