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The Road to 'Cloverfield'

How monster movies got their groove back

By Steve Palopoli

WALKING into a screening of Cloverfield, I told my companion: "I don't even care if this is good. I have got to see that monster." What producer J.J. Abrams did with the campaign for his creature feature was pure genius, starting with the trailers last year that didn't even have the movie's name on them. The footage (which was filmed specifically for previews, before shooting on the actual movie had even begun) was the ultimate tease: what was attacking New York? My first thought was an alien invasion flick, but fairly soon it became clear it was some kind of monster.

But what kind? The fact that anyone could keep such a basic detail of a big-budget movie secret in this day and age made the question all the more maddening, and the speculation was endlessly entertaining. Godzilla. A mutant whale. H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulu (I still think there's a Lovecraft connection, but I'll spare you the nerdiosity). Someone even misheard the trailer line "It's alive!" as "It's a lion!," leading to theories that the monster was some version of the mythical chimera. One surprisingly successful prankster tried to convince people that the monster was the Statue of Liberty.

Luckily, for once the actual film was worth the build-up. Despite some mediocre acting and a few flat points, it more than delivered on its premise: a monster movie filmed from ground zero, with all of the cultural baggage that implies. As for finally seeing the monster itself, it was such a release that it actually didn't matter what it turned out to be—which was ultimately, of course, no more or less than Another Movie Monster. Cloverfield was a genuine movie phenomenon in its first week, jump-starting the idea (which had been left for dead after the lukewarm reception to 1998's Godzilla and Peter Jackson's King Kong) that monsters could be cool again.

Still, Abrams had some help in bringing back the monster movie. There were three important landmarks on the road to Cloverfield:

1. The Blair Witch Project: The importance that Blair Witch played in the success of Cloverfield can't be understated. And it shouldn't be, since, let's face it, this represents nothing less than the redemption of the Blair Witch legacy after a backlash that burned red-hot for almost a decade. Now that the pop culture's road rage about the movie's hype and refusal to actually show a monster has finally died down, Cloverfield is allowing movie lovers to embrace what Blair Witch did right. The viral campaign, the first-person realism, the ending that's almost an homage to Blair Witch in itself (except that this time great pains were taken to make sure everybody gets to see the creature) are all a vindication for the BWP filmmakers who certainly didn't invent this style of guerrilla filmmaking, but did just about perfect it.

2. Godzilla: I know, duh. But I think it's particularly important that Abrams was initially inspired by Godzilla to give American audiences a city-wrecking behemoth of their own. I've always believed that deep in their hearts, all movie fans want to love movie monsters like Godzilla. But so often, the movies themselves are terrible. For all his iconic fame, how many Godzilla films are really that much fun to watch? The original 1954 Gojira, 1968's Destroy All Monsters and maybe two of the 21st century updates (like 2001's Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, where Godzilla is seriously badass). That's four out of at least 30 films—not good. Cloverfield is as fun and thrilling as you always wanted monster movies to be.

3. Korean monster movies: I think the more that people watch The Host (there is supposed to be an American remake this year, for better or worse), the more it will become obvious how much Korean director Joon-ho Bong's film paved the way for Cloverfield. Influenced by the stylish cinematography of Chan-wook Park, and more like a Wes Andersen film than an Ishiro Honda creature feature, the warm reception to Bong's film showed that people will get behind monster movies that take chances. Like Cloverfield, The Host focused on the impact of a monster attack at a personal level, rather than on the monster itself. And though it didn't have as much build-up, the look of the monster in The Host was a surprise in its own way. South Korea also gave us the far inferior D-War last year, which didn't pave the way for much of anything, but did generate a lot of monster-movie buzz over here, until people actually got to see it.

CULT LEADER is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback to [email protected]

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