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Thrilling, inventive, and expertly executed, “Arcadian” is a thoughtful and terrifying survival horror film that’s hard not to love.

Arcadian

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Nicolas Cage in a post-apocalyptic survival thriller creature feature.

I presume some of you may need more than the above paltry summation to purchase your tickets to Arcadian, though I struggle to understand why.

Luckily, for those who need more, I’ve got lots more to offer because Arcadian is more — much more — than another unconventional indie vehicle for Cage’s scenery-chewing brilliance. He’s unquestionably stellar in it, but he’s only one small part of a dazzling production that’s likely to be one of the best horror films of 2024.

As Cage told the SXSW audience at the film’s premiere, Arcadian is a mashup of his two favorite genres, the independently spirited family drama and sci-fi/horror.

And it’s a mashup in the true sense of the world — a damn near perfect blend of edge-of-your-seat action and jump-out-of-your-seat scares, anchored by a surprisingly effective character drama that delivers a sincere emotional punch.

It’s a creative and chilling creature feature, but human emotion is at the nucleus of this nightmarish future. 

After an intense opening, we get to know our core characters. Cage plays Paul, a loving father to two teenage sons, fraternal twins Joseph (Jaeden Martell; IT, Knives Out) and Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins; Lost in Space, Reacher). They live in a decaying farmhouse in rural Ireland, many years after an unknown apocalyptic event that left few survivors.

While enjoying a semblance of normalcy during the days, the nights are spent ritually fortifying the home and hunkering down as unseen monsters come out at night to hunt, scratching at the doors of their sanctuary in a desperate attempt to get in.

In a valiant effort to pretend the world outside isn’t a hellscape, Paul and his sons enjoy a family dinner at the kitchen table. As they banter, we get to know the interpersonal dynamics at play.

Joseph is reserved, thoughtful, and highly intelligent. He understands the world and dutifully does what is needed to stay safe. Thomas is rebellious and risk-taking, with a yearning to break free of the confines of his isolated life under the ever-watchful eye of his (understandably) protective father.

They’re coming of age at the world’s end, but that doesn’t stop them from harboring the same hopes, dreams, and desires as every other young person.

For Thomas, those desires include spending time with his crush, Charlotte (Sadie Soverall; Saltburn), the teen daughter of the affluent Rose family at a neighboring farm. The Roses live a much more comfortable life in their sprawling compound, and it’s a life Thomas covets almost as much as the lovely and vivacious Charlotte.

Meanwhile, the genius-level Joseph builds a working ATV entirely out of junk, affording him some welcome freedom. Thomas seizes this golden opportunity to secretly hitch a ride to the Rose farm, promising to be home before dark. But he loses track of time and has to rush home under the setting sun, falling into a crevice with no way out and no defense against an onslaught of burrowing creatures.

This fateful mistake sets the film’s devastating events in motion.

Paul must venture into the darkness to save his son, leaving his other son home alone to defend the farm against the increasingly savvy monsters and their relentless attacks.

The time taken to craft compelling and believable characters in the first half of the film before things go from bad to much, much worse makes the back half all the more nail-bitingly intense and emotionally investing.

When Arcadian finally becomes a full-fledged monster movie, it’s everything a horror fan could hope for.

The cast is superb. Cage delivers one of his more restrained but still captivating performances, once again showcasing his tremendous versatility as an actor. However, though he gives the film its cache, he’s not the star of this film. Instead, the narrative centers more on the talented young actors — Martell, Jenkins, and Soverall — all of whom absolutely shine.

For my fellow Cage-heads, don’t fret. His role may be smaller than expected, but it’s still meaty and gives the film some important emotional depth. He also gets an opportunity to unleash a bit of his trademark Caginess in the film’s frenetic finale, and it’s wildly satisfying.

As good as the human actors are, however, the monsters may steal the show.

It’s a bit difficult to talk about the magic created by director and VFX artist Benjamin Brewer (the lead VFX artist on Everything Everywhere All At Once) — designing the look of the monsters himself on his laptop, with help from his brother, Alex, who assisted on the modeling and 3D creature design — without ruining the thrill of discovery. I want to describe the horrors that await you, but it’s better if you go in blind. Truth be told, nothing I could say would adequately prepare you for the experience of seeing it for yourself.

If you’re anything like me, you feel confident you’ve seen all there is to see when it comes to creature design, and everything feels at least a little, often quite a lot, derivative of everything else. Arcadian reminds you there are still new fears to unlock with its unforgettably imaginative and innovative visuals.

It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve never seen anything quite like the horrors Brewer assaults the audience with. 

However, it’s not just the visual impact of Arcadian‘s dreadful beasts. The sound design is among the most unnerving I’ve ever experienced. It will shake you to your core. We hear the creatures long before seeing them, serving to immediately put viewers on edge even as things remain relatively calm.

Once the monsters emerge from the darkness to attack, their sounds are amplified in a bone-chilling way.

This, combined with some clever camera work and a horrifying visual trick I won’t spoil, should scare the bejeezus out of even the most hardened horror fan.

As good as the creature design is, the cunning way Brewer and screenwriter Michael Nilon (frequent Cage collaborator and producer of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and Willy’s Wonderland) reveal their monstrosity is a huge part of why Arcadian is such a standout.

The scene where we catch our first glimpse of the previously unseen threat is one of the most suspenseful, expertly orchestrated, jaw-dropping moments in modern horror history.

I won’t say anything more about the sinfully good slow reveal, but it’s a memorable moment that changes the film’s trajectory. It also lets audiences know this simmering family drama is about to get drenched in nightmare fuel and barrel toward its explosive final act.

Oh, and what an insanely fun and completely bonkers in the best possible way that third act is. One scene, in particular, is now permanently ingrained in my sense memory as one of the wildest things I’ve seen onscreen in some time.

It’s a film that somehow manages to be simultaneously off the rails and wholly grounded, and Brewer and Nilon have no trouble sticking the landing.

With a great script and confident direction, gorgeous scenery beautifully framed by cinematographer Frank Mobilio, an effectively eerie score, mesmerizing performances, and the kind of effects we’ll be praising for many years to come, this film delivers on every front.

If the fevered response from the premiere audience at SXSW is any indication, filling the theater with ecstatic cheers and audible gasps, Arcadian is a surefire sleeper hit in the making.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 5
ARCADIAN premiered at SXSW 2024, where it was screened for this review. It opens nationwide on April 12th, 2024.

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