Like Alex Garland's recent science-fiction/horror film "Annihilation," writer-director Philip Gelatt's "They Remain" adapts the work of a writer who blends brainy realism and surreal fantasy, in a way sometimes dubbed "the new weird." Gelatt takes on Laird Barron's short story "-30-," and as with Garland's big-screen version of Jeff VanderMeer's "Southern Reach" novels, "They Remain" explores a spookily transformed wilderness.
Rebecca Henderson and William Jackson Harper play Jessica and Keith, scientists and occasional lovers assigned by a mysterious paramilitary organization to gather data in a woodland region where a cult recently committed multiple murders. Their big question: Does this place hold some occult power that drives its inhabitants violently mad?
"They Remain" stays mired in and around one campsite, watching Jessica and Keith as they experience strange visions and turn on each other. Working with a micro-budget, Gelatt relies heavily on cinematographer Sean Kirby's saturated colors, composer Tom Keohane's minimalist drone, and Harper and Henderson's nuanced performances to create a sense of creeping dread.
The results may frustrate anyone looking for definitive answers about what's going on and why — or even viewers who just want to see something freaky and terrifying. This movie remains subtle throughout, emphasizing the tenuousness of reality and the unmooring isolation of the bush.
But as with much of "the new weird" genre, "They Remain" does what it means to do. It makes the natural feel threateningly alien.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills