Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield was the first official box-office hit of 2008, and would become the highest grossing horror film of the year. An aggressive Internet marketing campaign by Paramount Pictures played no small part in the film’s success in a year that saw most studios padding their release schedules with franchise sequels, comic/novel adaptations, and family-friendly fare. Clues about the film were spread through websites several months in advance, readying an audience for a new property made by mostly unknown director. Cloverfield’s true importance has nothing to do with its marketing, however.
The film takes the form of a first-person camcorder recording of Manhattan being attacked by a giant monster of unknown origin. The scenario itself elicits many terrifying moments; the film contains some of the best “jump” scares in recent memory. The true terror of Cloverfield comes through its reenactment of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, explicitly through the monster. Reeves makes the connection between the two evident from the onset, with some of the early images in the film being direct recreations of two widely seen photos from that day: smoke billowing down the street as people run towards the camera, and later evacuees fleeing Manhattan on foot.
The intriguing marketing campaign ensured the film’s financial success, and its unique blend of two genres helped the film from both a narrative and commercial perspective. Consider the 1998 American remake of Godzilla, a very similar film to Cloverfield, which was poorly received by critics and public alike, and was viewed as simply another catastrophe cash-in that followed in the wake of Independence Day’s success. From a purely superficial perspective, Cloverfield truly is 1998’s Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project—a comparison repeated ad nauseam in reviews of the film. If that was all the film was, its commercial success would be uncertain; the poor performance of 2007’s Dragon Wars and both 2008’s Diary of the Dead and Quarantine are evidence that giant monsters and first-person camera tricks no longer entice cinemagoers to the extent that their precursors did. Cloverfield manages to combine two failing genres into something more visually interesting and commercially successful.
Yet to compare Cloverfield to such films is to only examine the superficial aspects. Through an analysis we see that Cloverfield has more in common a group of early seventies horror and exploitation films that used metaphorical recreations of actual events. Exploitation films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left incorporated details of the Manson Family slayings to shock their audiences. The homicidal families in both films were reminiscent of Manson but made no direct reference to him. Texas Chainsaw in particular capitalizes on the audience’s knowledge of the crimes and its “true story” of the “most bizarre crime in the annals of American history” would have arguably not been as potent had the audience not been all too aware of the then-new ideas of spree killings and serial murder. The Manson Family only claimed a handful of victims, yet the entire nation would have been able to claim part of the “Manson experience” as they were subjected the first legitimate media circus of the Twentieth Century much in the same way Americans would be able to say they “experienced” the 9/11 catastrophe regardless of where they were on that day.
In the same manner – and for the same reasons – that Tobe Hooper’s Massacre brought to mind Charles Manson, Cloverfield exploits 9/11 to become a more powerful film than it would have been otherwise. The use of first-person perspective takes on a greater meaning through this idea of recreating the experience of 9/11. In the age of the twenty-four hour news-cycle and the Internet, events are “experienced” en masse through a television screen or a computer monitor, therefore the audience would more readily accept Cloverfield’s use of first person perspective as truth, perhaps even more so than the same technique in The Blair Witch Project nearly a decade prior. The majority of people experienced the events of that day through the safety of their living room, stoic newscasts being their only window into the historical event. Cloverfield removes this emotionless veneer from the disaster, placing audiences directly in the middle of the events, replacing their detachment with a feeling of terror. This terror is magnified ten-fold for its transition to the big screen, where even the most minuscule details of the mise-en-scene are made far more imposing than when viewed on television newscasts. Cloverfield is in this light more an exploitation of 9/11 panic than it is a monster movie. Audiences responded to this in droves; Cloverfield is the most financially successful film interpretation of 9/11 to date, surpassing the cumulative grosses of both United 93and World Trade Center in particular.
The horror genre works best when it addresses the fundamental fears of the human psyche and the thin line between life and death, and Cloverfield does this accordingly, incorporating the unknown (the monster), corporeal instability (Marlena’s explosion post-bite), and the feeling of being helpless (Rob’s search amidst the chaos) into the proceedings. Rather than the simple visceral scares offered by the spectacle-horrors of Hostel or the Saw series, Cloverfield makes the uncanny relatable in a way that has been missing from horror for a while; it has proven that audiences won’t shy away from a horror film that visits such emotionally unsettling places. Only time will tell if other filmmakers will follow the lead.
Cloverfield further surpasses its contemporaries by examining the new avenues of fear that have arisen in the post-9/11 world. Individual fears of personal tragedy have been joined by a shared fear of a national tragedy, one that disrupts the social body rather than the physical one. September 11th caused the realization that America’s governmental, financial, and cultural institutions are as vulnerable and impermanent as the humans that comprise them. This widening of scope is Cloverfield’s true strength and separates it from the majority of recent horror cinema.
By addressing these issues, the comparison to exploitation cinema arises again. The most successful of such films combined the visceral with the cerebral to become something more akin to social commentary than mere horror. Cannibal Holocaust exploited the cannibal cinema fad to explore media violence and the relationship between civilization and barbarism. While Cloverfield certainly doesn’t rise to the level of social critique, it can at least be viewed as the first step towards modern social examination through its acknowledgment of the importance and ramifications of 9/11.
The film’s importance ultimately lies in what it hints at rather than what it achieves. Many recent films – Grindhouse to name the most obvious – mimic the form of seventies exploitation but not the spirit. Cloverfield provides hope that horror’s continued nostalgia for exploitation has the potential to do more than visually emulating those films. Exploitation cinema is still resonant today because it addressed issues absent from mainstream film and informed the audience about the realities around them. Cloverfield continues this tradition and, while it is not without its shortcomings, ultimately bodes well for the future of horror by reaffirming that terror and intelligence are not incompatible.