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Cloverfield (PG-13)

Cloverfield is The Blair Witch Project with a budget (and a really big witch), or a Godzilla remake seen through the eyes of anonymous characters who previously had nothing to do but run away from the monster, pointing up at the sky and yelling “Aaaiiieee!”

Mostly, though, Cloverfield is the first genuine post-Sept. 11 horror movie. Unlike, say, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which sporadically invoked the attack via images and dialogue, Cloverfield is specifically designed to recall the fear and anxiety of the attack. The movie probably wouldn’t even have occurred to screenwriter Drew Goddard if it hadn’t been for what happened that day.

Television put all of us at street level in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, which is basically what Cloverfield does: It reinvents the giant monster movie by making it about the insignificant, anonymous people being trampled underfoot, showing us nothing but their perspective. The film begins with a title card informing us that what we’re about to see was found on a videotape in what was ”formerly known as Central Park,” which automatically lets you know things probably aren’t going to end well.

They don’t – bleak times, these – but that doesn’t make Cloverfield any less fun. Unfolding entirely through a video camera once intended to document a farewell party for a New Yorker (Michael Stahl-David) moving to Japan, the movie is a visceral, gripping recreation of exactly what it would feel like if a creature the size of a skyscraper rose up out of the ocean and started stomping around a big city. (It bears repeating that the entire movie is shot on handheld cameras. If you’re prone to motion-sickness, pack some Dramamine, or There Will Be Puking.)

There are a few surprises lurking in Cloverfield, and director Matt Reeves has an uncanny ability to time his jolts and scare when you least expect it. The movie also stirs up an unusually strong aura of terror: Despite its hoary creature-feature premise, the filmmakers treat the situation seriously, and the picture is much more frightening (and, at times, terrifying) than you might expect. Cloverfield delivers more than its memorable trailer promised – there are some nasty surprises in store – and it doesn’t chicken out when it counts, either. Considering the state of horror movies today, that’s something.

Cast: Michael Stahl-David, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman.

Director: Matt Reeves.

Screenwriter: Drew Goddard.

A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 85 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore. Playing at area theaters.

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