The Scariest Scene In Cloverfield Really Pops (Literally)

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror with your tour guides, horror experts Matt Donato and Ariel Fisher. In this edition: Matt chimes in on a particularly ... explosive scene from "Cloverfield.")

When someone mentions "Cloverfield," what do you think of first — the movie or the viral marketing campaign?

Instead of reading college textbooks, I was scouring fanboy blogs for information on Slusho or Tagruato between analyzing animal roars against the then-unnamed film's trailer across even more private threads. The "augmented reality" experience that shrouded "Cloverfield" in addictive mystery, and can never be replicated thanks to social media's leaky spoiler faucet, generated such uniquely ambiguous hype around "1-18-08." That same inexplicability permeates Drew Goddard's script and climaxes during Lizzy Caplan's squishy demise.

You'd be right to assume that an American kaiju flick with the audacity to decapitate the Statue of Liberty might find its most nightmarish content in gargantuan extraterrestrial attacks. That's not to say "Clovie" (our nickname for the unnamed giant monster) doesn't strike fear — the helicopter sequence is some "swallow you whole" hellishness since you can practically hear the beast's tummy rumble from its gaping mouth. I just find more concern in the unknown; I can see Clovie, but can't explain what happens after one of its ejected minions chomps Marlena's flesh. That's the Good Sh*t™ when it comes to my horror appreciation. Show T.J. Miller getting munched, first-person style, on the other hand, and I won't bat an eye.

The Setup

Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is your average New Yorker celebrating a massive promotion and impending relocation to Japan with an apartment shindig. Interview segments introduce Rob's closest friends (Mike Vogel, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller) along with Rob's ex-lover Beth (Odette Annable) through the lens of a camcorder — we never leave this perspective. Festivities carry onward until a blackout dulls our vision and chaos erupts outside, which is eventually revealed to be a towering extraterrestrial attacker who levels New York City while Rob's posse flees. The camera never stops rolling as skyscrapers crumble, catching every horrific misfortune along their journey.

The Story So Far

Before director Matt Reeves lets Clovie take a gargantuan bite out of the Big Apple, Rob and Beth have it out as romantic has-beens before she ditches his bon voyage shindig prior to the metropolitan mayhem. Then the "earthquake" happens, news reports point towards a capsized oil tanker, and Lady Liberty's dome comes rolling into view — cue frantic foot traffic as everyone hits the streets searching for safety. Rob, Hud (T.J. Miller), Jason (Mike Vogel), Lily (Jessica Lucas), and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) follow evacuation instructions towards the Brooklyn Bridge only to witness it crumble under Clovie's tail, killing Jason. Next? The military unleashes weaponized fury and starts gunning at Clovie, sparking crossfire as the partygoers scramble underfoot.

As reporters document soldiers blasting Clovie with artillery, parasitic minis rain down on the crowd, presumably released by the host monster that just won't die. Rob convinces his surviving companions to chase after Beth into Midtown Manhattan — Beth phones in duress from the Time Warner Center — so they push against a sea of New Yorkers flowing in the opposite direction. Around one corner, Clovie interrupts the shot like a 3D amusement that pops in your face as it snarls before more projectiles cause an explosive distraction. Rob's crew scampers underground into the subway system, walking along the tracks in pitch darkness.

For a moment, the silence ushers in a sense of calm. Hud tries to start a conversation about flaming homeless people emerging from the shadows while rats scurry by with haste. Rob switches the night vision on to reveal dreadful news crawling over the tunnel ceiling, and Hud yelps a quick instruction: "Just run." Parasitic Clovie pipsqueaks chase the group towards the next stop. Hud is tackled and pinned by an enemy, which Marlena bashes away, heroically. Unfortunately, she's also attacked, and bitten. Before anything worse can happen, Rob pulls Marlena towards an open door that leads to an underground shopping mall where they're spotted by military officers who've erected a command center complete with a field hospital.

The Scene

Inside the subterranean basecamp, Hud points the camera towards rows of hospital beds where injured infantry are being treated by medical personnel. It's brightly lit, Clovie's warcries aren't audible, and there doesn't seem to be any current threat. The site's chief officer (Tim Griffin) mentions that his ranks will be "phantoms" in fifteen, meaning defense orders have shifted to incoming bombs. Rob pleads his case to chase after Beth — either he's dashing back into danger or getting shot trying to leave. It's brave and selfless since Rob knows his petty bickering drove Beth from the party earlier than intended. "If you wanna stop me, then you're gonna have to shoot me."

The camera is holstered at Hud's side during Rob's argument, still recording from a downward angle. Lily and Marlena lurk behind the hubbub as Hud almost exclusively films Rob in the command center, a mutilated corpse, and the bustle of rapid response workers tending to wounded patients. Rob's foolhardy yet passionate gesture is essentially the character's moment to prove himself in the eyes of the audience, which relaxes our tension for a brief spell because there's do-gooding afoot. Then Marlena sickly mutters Hud's name.

"Hud. I don't feel so good."

The camera circles around on Marlena, whose pale complexion makes the blood dripping from her eyes and nose pop even under sterilized lights.

"Bite! We've got a bite!"

Doctors in hazmat suits descend like a swarm on Marlena, who's now panicked and screaming Hud's name. As Marlena is dragged towards a quarantined area, she begins spewing blood from her mouth between cries for help. The yelling turns into an indistinguishable chorus of alarm as Hud tries to keep pace, tumbling when met with resistance which causes the camera to jostle.

Once Hud resets the frame, we see Marlena restrained by two figures as a shadow against a plastic cover. Her outline inorganically inflates like a dollar-store water balloon filled by a firehose. Inside, juices are fired towards the airtight barrier like they're shot from a cannon, as Marlena's life extinguishes in an inexplicable explosion not even a minute removed from the first signs of infection. It's all so fast, so concerning, and so mortifyingly gruesome, a reminder of how everything can end in a snap.

The Impact (Ariel's Take)

So, depending on where you stand on "Cloverfield," you're either going to laugh with me or hate me. This is also the fun part of getting to share this column with someone else — we can have vastly varied opinions on the same material.

I'm pretty sure that when I first saw "Cloverfield," and likely several times after, this scene ... made me laugh.

I'm not proud! But it did. I don't know why, but there was something very Ringling Brothers about the final moment. Even now, it definitely shocks me, but mostly it just makes me giggle.

The thing that's the most terrifying for me here is the chaos. It's the inability to get an answer from anyone. The lightning-fast clip at which everything happens. There isn't a moment to blink, except for when Rob says some seriously impractical sh*t to someone who clearly does not care.

Am I allowed to say I think he's a really obnoxious character? Because either it's been a really long time since I last saw this, or he's just way more obnoxious than I remembered.

Sadly, but expectedly, I digress.

Marlena's untimely and gloopy demise isn't what scares me about this scene, but it does scare me. It's the not knowing what's happening that's frightening. When everyone around you has a plan, and you're just standing there, scared, unsure of where to go or what to do, and you're hurt, and your friends are being dragged away, and no one will give you answers ... that's terrifying. The isolation, confusion, and powerlessness are what get to me. Not Lizzie Caplan's admittedly creepy rendition of "Pop Goes Marlena."

I will say this, though — that moment definitely hits differently when you're scrolling through it frame by frame to find a usable still.