Filmmakers Matt and Ross Duffer are the creators, writers, and directors of Netflix’s supernatural hit Stranger Things. But, before Netflix, the duo tried to break in with a creepy, little-seen debut feature called Hidden.
The film stars Alexander Skarsgård and Andrea Riseborough as Ray and Claire who, following some sort of catastrophic event, have escaped with their daughter Zoe (Emily Alyn Lind) into an underground fallout shelter. The formerly happy middle-class North Carolina family has spent the last 301 days hiding away from an unknown danger that lurks above (they’ve labelled as “Breathers”). They live day-to-day, rationing their waning food supply and living by a code of four rules:
- Rule 1: Never be loud.
- Rule 2: Never lose control.
- Rule 3: Never open the door.
- Rule 4: Never talk about the Breathers.
As they try to simply exist, the plot soon gives way to a massive Memento-esque twist that re-contextualizes everything. It’s the kind of claustrophobic movie that could have worked as an extended Twilight Zone episode (not only because of the razor sharp Rod Serling-like ending), which everyone is clearly a fan of after 10 Cloverfield Lane became a thing.
The story — shot with a purposefully shadowy yellow tinge that’s the complete opposite of the suburban pop of Stranger Things — is more about the tension between the character bonds than any big monster reveal.
As the film unfurls, with a plainly pulsing score that’s reminiscent of the music in The Thing, it lets you try and figure things out while staying focused on the family’s increasing need to leave the bunker. The Duffers wisely have them break the third rule as a fire forces the family upwards out of their apocalyptic hell.
At the center is Lind’s performance. In particular, it shows the Duffers have a skill for working with child actors and helping make their performances real. Skarsgård’s father figure is the rock of the family, who makes sure to sit with Zoe and keep her mind off the threat of the Breathers by playing loads of solitaire and charming homemade board games to pass the time.
A single-shot scene in the middle of the film after Lind’s character has a panic attack, which prompts Skarsgård to delicately cover Lind’s eyes and have her imagine the simple joys of eating strawberry ice cream, shows a magnetic mastery of mise en scène from the first-time filmmakers.
Perhaps the reason why Hidden isn’t well known is because producers had trouble getting anybody to actually see it. It’s also kind of a bland title even if its true meaning becomes clearer towards the end of the movie. While readily available on digital platforms, the Duffers completed shooting the movie in 2012 and movie studio Warner Bros. only eeked out a measly VOD release three years later. The roll-out is a kind of fascinating failure because the lack of awareness of the film itself has more to do with limiting viewer access than overall quality.
It’s not a perfect film, and definitely not as imaginative as Stranger Things, but it could have benefited from the Blumhouse model of making movies on the cheap before releasing to theaters for a decent return and then cleaning up on VOD. Not a lot of people even know the Duffer brothers’ first movie even exists, and it seemingly features everything a studio would want for a low-profile box office hit.
For the people who did watch it, the main question persists throughout: Is this from a nuclear fallout, a zombie apocalypse, or is there a monster lurking outside? In a way, it’s a little bit of all three, and like the way they tease out Brenner’s government experiments and their effect on El throughout Stranger Things, the Duffers are able to keep the potentially grating story in Hidden fresh by knowing when and what to reveal at particular times.
Gradual flashbacks take us outside the cramped bunker and into the day of what turns out to be an attack from the government after an unexplained virus outbreak. This reveal has been done time and time again — just like a lot of the tropes of Stranger Things — and yet the Duffers keep adding their own curveballs to build on the audience’s preconceived notions of what’s happening. It’s the perfect precursor to what is hopefully a fruitful career in great genre storytelling.
“Sometimes the truth is hidden from us,” Claire says to Zoe at one key moment in the film. One thing’s for sure, the Duffer brothers aren’t hidden anymore.