10 Cloverfield Lane: A polished masterclass that sends chills down the spine
The monsters in Dan Trachtenberg's suffocating three-hander are distinctly human but no less terrifying, driven to acts of violence and barbarity in the name of self-preservation.
"People are strange creatures. You can't always convince them that safety is in their best interest," pointedly muses one of the protagonists.
Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle's deliciously ambiguous script keeps us guessing about where that safety might be, constantly shifting the balance of power between characters whose ulterior motives are shrouded in mystery.
Every time we think we have a grasp on the slippery narrative, the film pulls another rug from under us, flinging us into a mire of nerve-jangling confusion.
The less you know about Trachtenberg's picture before the lights dim, the better.
In an affectionate nod to Hitchcock's Psycho, the director cranks up the tension with opening shots of a young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), driving away from her old life in the city.
She stops for petrol and takes a pleading telephone call from her boyfriend Ben (voiced by Bradley Cooper) shortly before her car spins out of control and plummets down a bank.
She regains consciousness in an underground bunker, at the mercy of a survivalist called Howard Stambler (John Goodman).
"You're lucky to be here at all," he informs Michelle cryptically.
As she regains her strength, Michelle learns that Howard saved her and his neighbour Emmett (John Gallagher Jr) shortly before a devastating global attack rendered the surface of the Earth uninhabitable.
The trio are safely cocooned within an airtight bunker, 40 feet below the polluted surface without any telephone signal, until the air is breathable again.
"How long do we have to wait?" asks Michelle.
"Depends on the proximity of the blast: one year, maybe two," speculates Howard.
The survivors have water, food and electricity thanks to Howard's ingenuity and immaculate forward planning, and make the best of a hellish situation.
However, Michelle isn't sure if she can trust everything that Howard tells her.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a polished masterclass in suggestion that sends chills down the spine with unsettling regularly.
Goodman is genuinely creepy as the conspiracy theorist who doesn't tolerate defiance of his rules in his underground lair.
"My generosity only extends so far," he growls.
Winstead and Gallagher Jr are equally strong as discombobulated house guests, who harbour secrets that could destroy them or set them free.
Trachtenberg's direction draws on the claustrophobic setting to plant seeds of doubt and suspicion, including a couple of thrilling action sequences with delightfully unexpected pay-offs.