New Zealand filmmaker Roseanne Liang teams up with Chloë Grace Moretz for B-movie madness in Shadow in the Cloud. An utterly ridiculous creature feature set aboard a bomber en route from Auckland to Samoa in 1943, the film must be approached with a healthy suspension of disbelief and monster-positive open-mindedness. Head-scratching lapses in basic logic and common sense have never stood in the way of a grand time watching the cinema’s long tradition of mutants, freaks and malevolent goblins. Those low budgets and short running times promise a certain kind of pleasure, and Shadow in the Cloud operates in that spirit.
Moretz plays Flight Officer Maude Garrett, a last minute passenger assigned to a Flying Fortress ominously named “The Fool’s Errand.” Carrying a mysterious package and paperwork validating her confidential mission — much to the chagrin of the flight’s skeptical crew — Maude is allowed to take off. Confined to the Sperry ball turret, the female flight officer listens on the intercom to a steady stream of ugly sexual harassment from nearly every man on board. Despite being subjected to awful insults and unchecked misogyny, Maude asserts her qualifications and stands her ground.
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If the threat of violence and rape wasn’t enough, Maude quickly realizes an equally pressing concern crawling around the exterior of the aircraft: a nasty, bat-like gremlin threatens to disable the plane. Maude knows she faces an uphill battle convincing her traveling companions that a bugbear of folklore poses a clear and present danger. Liang juggles the whole works efficiently and takes a staging risk that pays off handsomely — nearly all the action of the film’s first half is confined to the claustrophobic, prison-like sphere where Maude is stuck. Calling to mind aspects of both the famous Randall Jarrell poem and the Amazing Stories episode “The Mission,” Liang keeps the camera, and the audience’s attention, on Moretz in the bubble.
The gremlin plot shares screentime with the unfolding drama surrounding the contents of Maude’s top secret traveling case as well as the arrival of Japanese fighters eager to shoot down the B-17. It is the sabotaging beastie, however, that commands the viewer’s primary attention, and Liang pays her respects to a wide range of classic pop culture precedents. From Roald Dahl’s 1943 book, The Gremlins, anticipating the Disney movie that never happened to Bob Clampett’s Bugs Bunny cartoon Falling Hare, the Shadow in the Cloud team acknowledges gremlin mythology with genuine admiration and respect.
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Shadow in the Cloud’s strongest gremlin connection, however, is through disgraced co-screenwriter Max Landis, whose famous father John Landis co-produced and co-directed the ill-fated Twilight Zone: The Movie, which features the George Miller-helmed remake of the well-known episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” The younger Landis, accused by eight women of criminal acts including rape, physical assault, emotional violence and sexual abuse, was removed as a producer of Shadow in the Cloud even as Writers Guild of America rules kept his screenwriting credit on the film.
While the knowledge of Landis’ involvement in Shadow in the Cloud invites a closer and darker reading of the film’s most menacing lines of dialogue, Liang and Moretz have both emphasized the extent to which the movie was re-written before shooting began. Director and star prevail, even if the end result is as battle-scarred and bullet-riddled as the fuselage of the cursed vessel that functions as the site of the drama. A concluding montage set to Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” shares period clips of the many women who served in the air forces of the Allies of World War II.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.