Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: Hidden (2015)

The new, heavily-advertised horror movie 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) from J.J. Abrams is marketed with the tag line “Monsters come in many forms.” 

Ironically, an identical slogan could be applied to the extremely-well made, extremely suspenseful 2015 horror film, Hidden.

The two films share a similar premise and central location too.

This genre picture from the writing/directing team of the Duffer Bros. finds a middle-class American family from North Carolina hiding out in a subterranean bunker, or fall-out shelter.

There, the trio lives by a set of important, clearly spelled-out laws that -- if violated -- could result in discovery or death.

Discovery by whom, you might ask? 

That’s a key issue in the movie. The family is terrorized from beings on the surface; beings known only as “Breathers.”

Hidden stars exactly three people, and is mostly set in one location, the aforementioned shelter.

Admittedly, for some viewers, these facts may be a deal breaker. Yet I found the film incredibly suspenseful, and the characters engaging. The filmmakers have learned that small things -- like dust falling from the bunker ceiling, or an over-turned table lantern -- are opportunities to create big discomfort, unease, or even outright terror.  In that dark, vast bunker, every sound is amplified, and therefore representative of a new, unseen boogeyman arriving to threaten the family.

Hidden also possesses one of the best and most surprising third act revelations I’ve seen in a while, and the film’s careful focus on character, on setting, and on that twist ending reminded me of a classic Twilight Zone (1959-1964) episode.

Of course, Rod Serling’s anthology series featured one other element that I shouldn’t neglect in my review: social commentary.

That’s where the 10 Cloverfield Lane tag line I noted above comes into play.  Hidden asks you, in no uncertain terms, to re-consider your definition for the term “monster.”

The film plays with expectations (and our understanding of the family’s rules of survival), but does so, finally, for a pro-social purpose.

With all the ugly demogoguing of ethnic and religious co-cultures going on daily in the 2016 presidential race, Hidden’s ultimate message -- that the term monster is derived almost entirely based on individual perceptual sets -- is most welcome, and indeed, most timely.

“The door is not the only way in.”

Ray (Alexander Skarsgard), his wife Claire (Andrea Riseborough) and his nine-year old daughter Zoe (Emily Alyn Lind) have survived in a subterranean fall-out shelter for 301days. They can’t live because they are being hunted by predators called ‘Breathers.’

But because of an incursion by a hungry rat, the family’s food supplies are now dwindling. Only 11 cans of food remain.

The hunt for the offending rat results in an accidental fire, and smoke and ash become visible on the surface, above the shelter.

Ray and Claire plan an excursion from the shelter to hide these signs of their presence. They fear that the Breathers, who have never found the shelter before, will be drawn to it.

The mission is not a success, and a Breather finds the shelter and is determined to break in

Young Zoe grows increasingly anxious as the Breather sets about opening the hatch, and invading the family’s sanctuary.

“Sometimes, rules have to be broken.”

Early in Hidden, Ray and Claire establish the rules of their unusual life in the shelter, reminding Zoe (and thus informing the audience…) about them. 

These edicts are:

Never be loud.
Never lose control.
Never open the door.

Never talk about the Breathers.

As these rules are presented, and then re-iterated during the course of Hidden, viewers come to think that they are mere practical survival guides for the members of the family.

But that is not, strictly-speaking, true.

Or more accurately these rules have a meaning beyond a surface reading, beyond our (limited) knowledge of the situation. One of the great virtues of Hidden is the way that we come to parse these rules in a new and different way by movie’s end.

Ray’s admonition that “we are not animals,” plays in two ways too, and speaks to the spark of greatness in all human beings, even ones in this family’s dire situation.

And this parallel or double-meaning is not coincidence. Rather, it’s a result of careful planning and good writing.  Consider, for example, Ray’s words to his wife, in the film’s first act, about their situation. “Try changing your point of view,” he says. “The shelter can be a prison or a home. This is our life now and we have to live it the best we can.”

Again, we register that advice in a certain way, because of our individual perceptual sets, the invisible luggage or selective exposure that defines us as people and which we carry around day-to-day. As Hidden reaches its third act -- and its humdinger of a twist -- the scales will fall from your eyes. Your point of view, as Ray suggests, will be altered rather dramatically.

Hidden is thus a clever (and scary) horror film because it asks audiences to be smart, to consider the central situation in at least two different lights.  One light is about family, and the bonds of family.  For instance, Claire and Ray have made a pact that they live by: their daughter always comes first. 

And then, in the second light the film asks the audience to consider another context, and one that contradicts powerfully the first.

I don’t want to say more, but the film is about the monsters that threaten the family, and simultaneously, the “outsiders” that society often deems monsters. 

Right now, in the national dialogue we have candidates with very loud megaphones telling us that immigrants are monsters (murderers, rapists and drug dealers), and that all Muslims are monsters too (terrorists). These remarks encourage fear and more importantly, stereotyping. We fail to see the people stereotyped as “monsters” as individuals. We see them as a menacing horde, not as people.

In a very powerful sense, this is exactly the concept that Hidden concerns (though the film was shot in 2012).

And make no mistake: if Rod Serling were alive today, this is precisely the same stance he would adopt. He always saw value in the derided outsiders, in the people operating on the fringes of the culture. He saw people as individuals, not as groups, or as a particular skin color.

Hidden is no mere polemic, however. It is an affecting story about the bonds of family. Claire is capable and tough…perhaps too tough, especially with her daughter. 

And Ray is a dreamer, a gentle man who care-takes his daughter’s emotions. He is named perfectly, the only ray of sunshine in his daughter’s life.

Both parents most summon atypical characteristics to stay true to their pact. Ray must fight hard (and indeed viciously), a trait that Claire demonstrates when she uses a wrench to dispatch the rat. And Claire must summon the hope -- so characteristic of her husband -- to endure the family’s survival and assure that Zoey remains intact spiritually as well as physically.

The film’s action scenes, though small, garner real terror and add to the film’s leitmotif.  The action set-pieces involve, respectively, a rat and two deer. These interlopers are as important for what they “aren’t” as what they are, and reiterate the idea that “monsters” take different shapes.

To say any more about these facets of the movie would be to ruin much of Hidden’s visceral impact, and I wouldn’t want to do that to you.

Finally, If you aren’t sure if you want to see a low-budget horror movie with just three characters hiding in one primary location  (especially when 10 Cloverfield Lane is playing in theaters and offers a big-name option…), then I will leave you with Ray’s good advice: 

Try changing your point of view.” 

Simply put, Hidden is one of the best Twilight Zone episodes never made.

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