Two researchers, alone in a barren wilderness, gather clues about a mysterious, invisible threat. As they advance toward answers, the threat advances toward them, and the march toward a murky showdown swells with dread. The premise could describe any number of sci-fi scenarios through the ages. “They Remain,” the new thriller from director Philip Gelatt (“The Bleeding House”) hews closely to some predictable beats, but it’s an engrossing exercise in boiling familiar ingredients down to pure, unbridled creepiness.
Based on the short story by Laird Barron, the movie unfolds in and around a pair of geodesic domes in the middle of nowhere, with a cast almost exclusively comprised of two people. Keith (William Jackson Harper) and Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) are a pair of scientists assigned to investigate the woods where a mysterious cult engaged in horrifying antics ages ago; in its wake, the pair have been tasked with studying the biological life in the area.
It doesn’t take long for these two disparate events to come together: The nature of the cult remains murky throughout, but the Manson-like horrors haunt Keith’s dreams, and gradually complicate his relationship to reality. At a certain point, Jessica brings back a strange archeological object from the woods, and then things get really kooky — the co-workers are assailed by strange noises at night, accelerated sexual tension, and petty arguments that manifest out of nowhere — and Gelatt does a fine job of orchestrating an unsettling audiovisual immersion into psychological disarray.
Anyone remotely familiar with “The Blair Witch Project” knows that these sort of expeditions usually go south, and the execution of the frightening journey matters more than its destination. Gelatt maintains tight control over the slow-burn tension, applying a minimalist aesthetic with his two main actors that would seem theatrical if it weren’t interspersed with jarring editing strategies, bursts of sudden color, and blurry visuals to highlight the mounting sense of encroaching evil. Keith and Jessica are monotonous professionals stuck in routine, barely smiling as they go about their research, and only find a modicum of warmth when sharing drinks over the campfire at night. But their robotic default runs counter to their chemistry, and before long, they’re getting into spats about each other’s whereabouts and motivations as their relationship takes on a more personal dimension.
Also…there might be someone watching them in the woods. Or was that just a dream?
As the pileup of eerie circumstances keeps building, “They Remain” goes from an efficient demonstration of the formula’s appeal to a redundant slog toward inevitability. Gelatt maintains an aura of suspense and uncertainty all the way through a final confrontation, but the movie never shakes the impression that it mainly exists as a succession of self-contained moments. The clunky dialogue doesn’t help (“Does every cult resemble a family or does every family resemble a cult?”), though Gelatt manages to derive palpable tension from the uneasy feeling of doing serious work without understanding its purpose.
Fortunately, the vignette-like structure yields a decent showcase for the two leads, particularly Harper (most recognizable from “Paterson” and TV’s “The Good Place,” though he also starred in the “High Maintenance” episode “Geimer,” which also involves a paranoid couple facing a potentially non-existent threat). Henderson oscillates from stern workaholic to femme fatale and back again, and of course it’s never clear how much her behavior stems from her co-worker’s imagination. The movie hovers in their fragile subjectivity even as it makes it clear that danger lurks in the space between them. Gelatt, who also wrote the screenplay for the superb sci-fi found footage thriller “The Europa Report,” obsesses over the residual impact of claustrophobia on group dynamics, almost to the point of fetishization. If Lovecraftian horror and survival stories are your jam, “They Remain” is your crack.
Among the precedents that it calls to mind, none resonate louder than “Annihilation,” Alex Garland’s sci-fi survival drama that just happened to open theatrically one week ahead of “They Remain.” The timing appears to have been pure serendipity, but the parallels between them elucidate this recurring trope. Both movies stem from literary sources, and use the prospects of some otherworldly monstrosity as a backdrop for a bigger, broader investigation into human behavior. They also suggest a distinct topicality to such stories. Arriving at a moment of profound instability around the world, as unknown dangers give rise to deep fears about each passing day, the drama of getting trapped in the middle of nowhere with no end in sight feels less like a metaphor than a dilemma to which everyone can relate.
“They Remain” opens theatrically in New York on March 2 and in Los Angeles on March 9.