The standard was set so low, and the results are thrilling enough that 10 Cloverfield Lane must be considered one of the greatest sequels of all time.
In an impressive feature debut, director Dan Trachtenberg fashioned a tangential follow-up to 2008's shakycam kaiju flick Cloverfield. Only the title and an unfortunate late tonal shift directly connect 10 Cloverfield Lane to its irritating predecessor.
This is a tense, superbly acted mystery of collateral paranoia after Cloverfield, in which we couldn't discern was happening. Until it isn't.
Trachtenberg works from a screenplay that wasn't intended as part of a Cloverfield movie universe, as producer J.J. Abrams has hinted (and the final shot promises). You can tell where the original idea ends and the sci-fi ride is hitched. 10 Cloverfield Lane makes all the connection it needs with one detonated f-bomb; everything afterward is just sensory salve for the CGI-dependent.
But what a movie up to that point.
10 Cloverfield Lane gets into our heads because that's where the scariest stuff happens. Terror is announced in quiet terms; a clean shaven face or a missed answer in a board game. It's Room without motherly instinct shielding her son and the audience from bad things happening. Yet much funnier, in a nervous sort of way.
In a wordless opening set to Bear McCreary's menacing music, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) packs and scampers; why isn't explained. A jarring accident later, Michelle awakens, injured and shackled in a windowless concrete room.
She is a prisoner of Howard (John Goodman), a genially unhinged survivalist who insists otherwise. He saved her life by bringing her to a bunker beneath his farmhouse, after some kind of attack — Chemical? Nuclear? Russians? Martians? — on humanity.
Howard sounds crazy, but we saw the first movie. 10 Cloverfield Lane superbly shuffles what we know (and don't) and what the characters are experiencing. At times, Howard seems less insane; maybe he really is doing a favor for Michelle and willing lodger Emmitt (John Gallagher Jr.), who helped build the bunker. Then Howard snaps, like an angrily mismanaged parent.
Winstead makes a resourceful victim of Michelle, always seeking an escape angle, from smuggling contraband to fake-flirting Emmitt to push Howard's buttons. There's also a trace of Stockholm syndrome in Michelle, invited by Howard's homey touches: a jukebox, the rubber ducky shower curtain. Women in peril are seldom so respectfully drawn in scary movies.
Yet above all else this movie is Goodman's showcase, a rare leading role he capitalizes upon with a performance to be considered among his finest ever. Everything Goodman has been in movies — gruff, goofy, dangerous, pathetic — is right here in Howard, conveyed with tiny bits of acting business adding up to a great portrayal of a more frightening monster than alien lizards.
10 Cloverfield Lane isn't airtight; Howard has conveniently lax standards in storing materials that could be used against him, and a couple of expositional monologues slow the movie's roll. There are plenty more scenes that genuinely entertain, like a montage of this odd household being established, set to I Think We're Alone Now, the Tommy James and the Shondells version, not the low-hanging Tiffany fruit.
I wish Trachtenberg ended his movie at my idea of a better moment, but that's what the stop button on a remote is for. Nevertheless, 10 Cloverfield Lane joins The Witch as evidence of a refreshing development in movie terror, toying with brains rather than splattering them.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.