CLOVERFIELD Directed by Matt ReevesWritten by Drew GoddardWith Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman, T.J. Miller, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, and Mike Vogel

Horror may be the only movie genre that thrives on poverty. From the Universal classics of the 30s (Dracula, Frankenstein) to the Val Lewton B movies of the 40s (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie) to the low-budget shockers of the 60s and 70s (Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), many of the most original and frightening horror movies have been made on the cheap. The genre’s low commercial stakes have made it an effective point of entry into the movie business: John Sayles, Monte Hellman, and Francis Ford Coppola all got their start in horror. And when studios do throw money into a fright flick (e.g., Universal’s Van Helsing, bankrolled at $160 million), the results can be dismal.

The giant-monster movie is a slightly different breed because of the special effects required to bring the big guys to life. The original King Kong (1933), with its abundant and ambitious use of stop-motion animation, was so expensive that few imitators followed in its wake until the 50s, when Godzilla arrived in the form of an actor lumbering around in a rubber suit. The computer age let Steven Spielberg breathe new life into the subgenre in the 90s with his three Jurassic Park movies—budgeted successively at $63 million, $73 million, and $93 million. But the most frightening movie of the decade turned out to be the $60,000 sleeper The Blair Witch Project (1999), ostensibly the video diary of three young people who journey into the woods in search of a legendary witch. It grossed almost $249 million worldwide, a jaw-dropping 4,144 times its production cost. Imagine spending millions on digital effects to create lifelike dinosaurs and being outdone by a movie whose scariest scenes consist of a darkened screen.

Cloverfield, the latest theatrical project from Lost creator J.J. Abrams, charts a novel middle course, borrowing the verite gimmick from Blair Witch to tell a hair-raising story about Manhattan being destroyed by a gigantic sea creature. A color test pattern identifies what we’re about to watch as a camcorder tape retrieved from the “area formerly known as Central Park.” Its opening minutes, screen dated April 27, show young lovers Rob and Beth (Michael Stahl-David and Odette Yustman) embarking on a romantic day that will ultimately take them to Coney Island. But this is interrupted by footage of a loft party, screen dated May 22, that’s interrupted by explosions, a power blackout, and hysteria on the streets. As Rob and his friends try to figure out what’s going on, a gigantic metal boulder bounces to a halt in front of them, revealing itself as the head of the Statue of Liberty.

These images of the disaster are all shot by Rob’s goofy friend Hud (played by Chicago comic T.J. Miller), and they’re terrifying precisely because they’re limited to his point of view. A fair amount of screen time is taken up by the jarring movement of blurred light as the characters run for their lives, and Hud’s fleeting glimpses of the monster prove Val Lewton’s old dictum that a momentary image can have greater impact than a prolonged one. To spend millions on digital effects and then present them badly may seem counterintuitive, but the verite device renders the viewer as powerless as the characters.

Another antecedent here—and maybe a more important one than Blair Witch—is Orson Welles’s 1938 radio play The War of the Worlds, the first half of which simulated a news broadcast about spaceships descending on a small town. Welles exploited the intimacy and immediacy of a new medium to scare the pants off his audience; Abrams has updated the stunt for the YouTube age, trading on our insatiable appetite for eyewitness video.

After The War of the Worlds incited a nationwide panic, Welles was taken to task for abusing the public sensibility at a time of great unease—some listeners concluded the futuristic war machines had been sent by Nazi Germany—and Cloverfield has been similarly criticized for referencing imagery from 9/11 more explicitly than any other fictional movie to date. The partygoers in Cloverfield are jolted by a huge explosion, and after climbing up to the roof they watch a fireball erupt amid a cluster of skyscrapers, darkening all their lights. Once they’re outside on the street, a huge cloud of dust and debris races toward the camera, mimicking the street-level video footage of the twin towers’ collapse. They take cover in a convenience store, and another blast shatters the windows, sending a shower of broken glass flying toward the camera. Scraps of paper fall from the sky, and lines of evacuees trudge down the street coated with dust.

The same condemnation greeted Spielberg’s War of the Worlds in the summer of 2005, and the makers of Cloverfield have tried to inoculate themselves against it with a press book that stresses “catharsis.” There’s even a four-page essay surveying the history of horror movies and identifying the national neuroses that inspired Frankenstein and Dracula, Godzilla and Psycho, Jaws and Halloween. “We live in a time of great fear,” Abrams notes. “Having a movie that is about something as outlandish as a massive creature attacking your city allows people to process and experience that fear in a way that is incredibly entertaining and incredibly safe.” Whether or not he’s sincere, the numbers bear him out: most fact-based dramas about 9/11 and its aftermath have been a tough sell (United 93, A Mighty Heart, Rendition, Redacted), but Cloverfield made back its budget and then some in two days.

A public screening I attended wasn’t your typical horror-movie experience, with people laughing and hooting as the characters meet their gruesome ends. When it was over the audience filed out in near silence, wrung out from the tension. No one shouted “Too soon!” at the screen, though given the path we’ve been led down since 9/11, I’d have been more inclined to shout “Too late.” Abrams may be exploiting images of a national trauma, but politicians have been doing the same thing for years in pursuit of even less noble ends: the $10 you’ll spend on Cloverfield hardly compares with the estimated $487 billion spent to date on the war in Iraq. Strangely, the economics of the movie business turn out to be equally applicable in public life. Why take the trouble to create a detailed vision when it’s easier and more effective to keep people in the dark?   v

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