I’m currently working on a project with Milan Stürmer exploring how post-horror films both pre-figured pandemic imaginaries (2016-2019) and responded to them (2020-2022). It emerged from conversations in pub beer gardens in Cambridge during the summer of 2021 at a point when some vestiges of normal life had returned but things nonetheless felt extremely strange. Our intuition was that post-horror films (a category I’m more comfortable with than Milan) explore the horror incipient in everyday life, using the tropes of the horror genre to explore subject matter which is not traditionally the subject matter of the genre. This leaves them well placed to explore the problematisation of the social which the pandemic gave rise to, as well as to prefigure themes which entered into widespread experience during this state of exception.
I rewatched 10 Cloverfield Lane which was the 2016 film which kickstarted my interest in this category. It tells the story of Michelle’s flight from her fiance after a fight, leaving behind a diamond ring as she hurriedly packs a suitcase. After ignoring a call from her fiance, her car is struck while she is hurriedly driving through rural Louisiana and she wakes to find herself injured, connected to a drip and chained to the wall. Her belligerent jailer Howard soon reveals himself to be a prepper who has ‘saved her life’ by taking her to his bunker where, he explains, they can survive a calamitous attack by an uncertain enemy who has destroyed civilisation.
Understandably Michelle is initially unpersuaded by the conspiratorial rantings of a man who has imprisoned her. But upon an attempted escape she is confronted with the brutal reality that people are dying outside, suggesting Howard might be telling the truth. Along with the builder Emmett, who helped Howard construct the bunker before forcing his way inside when the ‘attack’ came, they enter into an eery facsimile of domestic life, in which brother and sister seek to undermine and evade father in spite of their reliance on him to protect them. Upon discovery that Howard is a murderous crank but who might nonetheless be correct about their outside being unbreathable, they plot an escape. Only for Howard to brutally murder Emmett in order to enter into a father/daughter relationship with Michelle who is now cast as the latest in a series of young women that the deranged Howard has (seemingly) killed.
Much like It Comes At Night this is a film about patriarchal authority in a time of crisis. The male prepper with his survival skills and his guns figures in both films as the most important person in the family, as a consequence of his practical capacity to provide protection, while nonetheless becoming increasingly tyrannical as the story progresses. For the male protagonist of It Comes At Night this is a matter of doing increasingly terrible things for the greater good of protecting his (shrinking) family. For John Goodman’s character in 10 Cloverfield Lane it is a matter of gradually being consumed by the murderous pathology which it is (provocatively) implied is logically independent of the fact he was alone in being prepared for the attack. Both films feature young men (who are, unambiguously, men) who enter into an uneasy co-existence with the patriarch based around the practical skills which they have in common. Before being quite brutally murdered by the alpha male with whom they have willingly cooperated.
What I like about 10 Cloverfield Lane is how it plays with the audience with regards to trust in the patriarchy. Even at the point of escape we see Michelle relying on practical knowledge imparted by Howard, “a trick we learned in the Navy”, which fleetingly seems as if it will let her down. Only at the last minute to prove reliable as her (well his) improvised way of destroying a padlock lets her out into the air. Confronted with the existential danger that Howard has warned her about, Michelle briefly panics only to see birds in the sky and take off her jury-rigged gas mask in order to breathe the fresh air she had been told was no more. Inevitably, this is the point at which the alien invaders which Howard had speculated about in his most deranged moments appear on the scene bringing the prospect of certain death which she had been warned about. Demonstrating the ingenuity she developed in order to escape her jailer, she evades the aliens and begins driving off into the distance, only to hear a (female) military officer on the radio direct civilians to safety while calling for anyone with medical or combat experience to go towards the front line. Given who she now is after confronting and defeating the tyrannical patriarch, Michelle heads towards the front line.
The question the film is asking seems clear: should we trust Father when the apocalypse comes? The answer given by both films is much more ambiguous. It Comes At Night shows how trusting patriarchal authority might keep us alive but the moral costs of doing so might not be worth this. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a more heroic yet ambiguous narrative in which we accept patriarchal authority might have some practical currency but it’s only through confronting it that we are able to develop the skills to survive the crisis which Father is seeking to protect us from. It’s interesting that both are directed by millennial men (albeit an extremely geriatric millennial in the case of 10 Cloverfield Lane’s Dan Trachtenberg) while centring female protagonists confronting patriarchal authority. There’s a broader feeling underlying these films in which an uneasiness about paternal authority mingles with the vague suspicion that it might prove practically useful in a time of crisis. Who should we trust when the apocalypse comes? Is it Father or do we need to learn to trust ourselves?