“Something’s coming”: 10 Cloverfield Lane and the lost art of the teaser

A monster movie, but no sign of the monster? If it worked before, it can work again…

On Friday, like the freshly decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty swooping in from the dread of a New York night, this trailer arrived online for 10 Cloverfield Lane. Until it arrived, most people (this writer included) had no idea such a film existed. Like so many other franchise entities, it had a nominal IMDb entry, listing it as ‘in development’; little did we know how far along that development was. No point in pretending; if ever there was a film for which a sequel was to be anticipated, Cloverfield wasn’t it. Not that it’s a bad film (Actually, from a thrill delivery point of view, it’s quite the opposite), but it came out eight years ago, and it ended on a relatively definitive note, with just hints as sequel potential. Then again, we don’t know how these two films interact with each other, but we’ll come back to that.

As you’d expect from a teaser trailer, it’s not terribly long and it’s quite thin on plot detail. Yet, it’s caused a flurry of anticipation; not an easy thing to do in the same week as the Academy Award nominations. So, why does it work? The marketing for the original Cloverfield offered little bar an infamous teaser that sold the film far better than any glimpse of its monster ever could, and this new trailer appears to be working on a similar principle. It’s a good example of counter-programming. Lest we forget, we now get teaser trailers for teaser trailers of the biggest ‘event’ films; something as brief as a five-second clip, sent out days ahead of the trailer’s release date, is used to sate the public’s appetite for footage. Now, while there is something to be said for a well-edited punchy film trailer, their primary goal is to promote the film. We are at a point in which the advertisement is as much an event as the product; it sounds like Don Draper’s ideal. Within this context, the trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane is going against perceived wisdom; it’s putting the focus back on the film.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

Since they must have known the trailer was going to appear very suddenly, it allowed the trailer editors the chance to be creative. The first thing to note is the difference in style between this new film and Cloverfield. Once we were subjected to camcorder footage of fleeting glimpses of carnage. Now we get structured medium shots (Framing! Actual framing!), with the camera switching to Steadicam as it goes along and the action ramps up. Producer J.J. Abrams has described 10 Cloverfield Lane as a ‘blood relative’ of Matt Reeves’ original film, but this trailer suggests this new film is more conventional in its filmmaking than its cousin. That’s not a bad thing, since most audiences would agree the ‘found footage’ gimmick has long worn out its welcome. Still, the apparent conventionality (Again, not a pejorative) of the shooting style is just the first of a few surprises. The trailer opens on a jukebox, with the soundtrack of the trailer to come being punched in. The choice of “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James & The Shondells means this could be anything. It’s a defiantly happy tune, filled with romantic imagery of domesticity (“Children behave/That’s what they say when we’re together.”) It accompanies shots of what looks like a family unit playing games, making sandwiches, listening to music and reading. So far, so misleading. It’s all too calm.

Also helping to create a false sense of security are some notable filmmakers and cast members. No names are displayed onscreen except for J.J. Abrams’, but this is still a step up in recognizability from Cloverfield; Abrams’ name was the only one in that trailer too, and at that time he was still best known for creating Lost. Now, this new film is presented by the director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and it has known cast members compared to the unknowns of Cloverfield. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. lend the film the respectability of their film and television work. John Goodman, that perennial dweller of the no-mans-land between tragic and comic, appears as the presumptive patriarch. Their presences distance this from Cloverfield so well that by the time earthquake-alike shudders and loud rumblings rock what is revealed to be their underground bunker, it’s clear this teaser is doing exactly what it says on the tin. Plot details are minimal; this is about atmosphere and increasing tension. (That said, the song lurches into a dark remix, which is one distracting trait that needs to be excised from all new trailers pronto.)

Now, we enter into the turn, the twist, the rug pull. While the song continues, the rate of cutting between shots accelerates. From a few seconds of domesticity, we get a glimpse of a gun, a handcuff attached to railings, and shifty looks being exchanged between the three leads. The song begins to break down as ominous strings begin to to creep in. It’s something of a trope in movie advertising by now, but it’s allowed here because something’s been off about this scenario from the start of the trailer. The darkened lighting scheme, all desaturated colours and lights from lamps, suggests something much darker is to come. Then, we’re crawling in air ducts and flashing gun handles before Goodman slams his hand on the dining table to bring in the strings and bring the façade to an end once and for all. It’s finally clear Winstead’s character is there against her will, but the rumblings from outside sound less appealing than her underground prison. It’s all supposition of course, but to offer any greater explanation at this point in proceedings, two months ahead of release, would dampen the hype. It’s the classic rule of horror: suggest, don’t show. The audience’s busy minds can create greater terrors and more warped plots than any filmmaker. Therein lies the key; even if whatever is outside the bunker proves to be a damp squib, an expectation has been generated in the audience. They want to see what it is, and how it might be related to Cloverfield. It doesn’t give the audience what they want; it creates the want. P.T. Barnum would be proud.

"Something's coming."
“Something’s coming.”

From that point, it’s a montage of arresting imagery. A fire. A search for phone signal. A first hint of daylight from outside. A daring escape. The methodology becomes more off-kilter as the film’s true identity crawls into view, with more high angles and even darker lighting. That initial glimpse of daylight is shot from a very low angle with light flooding in through a very small window, suggesting all manner of danger beyond. Bear in mind, this is all before we get any solid indication of what the film is. All this gets the audience buzzing, guessing, supposing. Time and again, we hear of audiences’ growing frustration with trailers spoiling plot points. The trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane is a remedy to that. By the end, all we know for sure is that “something’s coming”, as Goodman puts it. He’s afraid of what’s outside the door, but the trailer’s vitality comes from not finding out for sure what that is. Finally, up comes the word Cloverfield, followed by ‘10’ and ‘Lane’. It’s at once reassuring and disorientating; it’s so different in style to the original film, and we’ve no idea what their relationship is to one another. Yet, there it is. Whatever’s outside that door is either about to destroy New York, or already has, or perhaps neither. Cloverfield offers a reassuring context, but the trailer is that effective that the word could have been left out of the trailer, and it would be just as effective. It’s an additional frisson of recognition for the audience, an extra little thrill at the end of its tail.

For all this supposition, this trailer (and by extension, this film) has one trump card: it came out of nowhere. Amongst the sad talk of Alan Rickman and David Bowie this week, it planted itself in social media streams with little fanfare, and little indication that it was even being made. Indeed, Bowie offered a fascinating template for sudden announcements with the releases of The Next Day and Blackstar. No-one even knew they were being recorded, let alone when they’d be released. Like those album announcements, this trailer has tapped into a desire we didn’t know we had: the desire to be surprised. Any projects director Dan Trachtenberg had in development were just a cloak (To see how he earned this gig, watch his live action short Portal: No Escape). Did we particularly want a Cloverfield follow-up? Whether we did or not, the fact that it’s coming without the baggage of attendant hype or expectation is refreshing. It proves that, on occasion at least, ignorance is bliss.

10 Cloverfield Lane arrives in cinemas in March.