A blog series about Gothic horror media that inspired Project Vampire Killer, my novel about vampires, cinema-as-sorcery, space weed, and the glorious Gothic ascendant.
They Remain (2018, directed by Philip Gelatt) is not a vampire movie in the traditional sense, but it features a number of hallmarks of the genre: a landscape brimming with Gothic threat, the emergence of the past’s monsters into a more technological but vulnerable present, and occult forces that sap the life and sanity from isolated protagonists.
Keith (William Jackson Harper) is a field agent and security officer, working to protect and collect samples for field researcher Jessica (Rebecca Henderson). Together they are trying to find something that their corporation can exploit for profit—some elemental presence in the deep woods of upstate New York (near the Vermont border, if the coordinates are to be believed).
This is where the Gothic theme comes in: the site at which their base camp is deployed was (is?) home to a counter-cultural murder-cult, one with many victims, most of whom remain unaccounted for. Instead of veering into slasher or thriller territory, the film explores the psychogeographical impact of the area on the isolated characters who do not trust one another or the strange things they see, hear, and ultimately experience.
The plot can be categorized as high strange horror, complete with episodes of lost time, strange phenomena in the sky, mysterious knocks and voices, and a widening gulf between scientific assumptions about the nature of reality and the inexplicable but powerful experiences of the personal.
I saw this film shortly after its initial release and, strangely enough, bounced off of it. It was too abstract, full of too many scenes of characters staring off into space and looking mildly uncomfortable, with not enough substantial supernatural or physical threats to keep me interested. It was about a year later when I gave the film a second chance and, deciding to watch it with an open mind and to make an effort to experience it on the film’s wavelength, I enjoyed it quite a bit more. It is a film that rewards repeat viewings, with subtleties in the first act exploited later on, one that presents possible explanations and interpretations the more you think about it. That can work against it—it’s a little too open to interpretation at times—but that’s likely more a matter of taste. I’ve returned to it a couple of times since, always eager to discover something new.
They Remain, much like the short story it is based on (“-30-” by Laird Barron, which I will be discussing on a podcast later this year), was influential on Project Vampire Killer in several ways: a corporate entity investigating occult horrors, the idea that the people on-site don’t have all the information they need to face those threats and are thus expendable, and the emergence of Gothic structures in the material and psychological realms to bring the haunted past crashing down upon a more advanced but vulnerable present.
The film’s locations include an excavation site of murder victims, the ruins of a lost settlement, and a mysterious cave full of…something. There's also a great black horn that may or may not have belonged to some terrifying creature lost to prehistory. In Project Vampire Killer, the Gothic landscape is likewise full of secrets eager to be revealed, with buildings and structures emerging (and growing) in response to the people there. All good Gothic horror involves the environment, built and otherwise, having a psychospheric impact on the characters—influencing them, harming them, possessing them, even.
While vampire movies and literature proper had the most obvious impact on my novel, examples of high strange and corporate horror did as well. They Remain’s key image of a lone security contractor with a rifle exploring the haunted woods of upstate New York resonated with me in ways personal and creative. I’m a sucker for rough people running up against something much rougher, and this film is a great—if decidedly more abstract—example of that kind of high strange horror.