During the Second World War, the Army Air Force Corps referred to B-17 bombers as “Flying Fortresses.” Such words conjure an image of invincibility and safety. But for the men and women who occupied that space it was anything but comforting. In its best moments, Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud remembers this. As a new wild horror movie made possible in part by the New Zealand Film Commission, this chiller at 20,000 feet is never scarier than when Chloë Grace Moretz’s officer is strapped into a lower ball turret, with only a view straight down to keep her company. Well, the view and a gremlin.
Yes, there is a gremlin in Shadow in the Cloud, and like the claustrophobic verticality of the movie’s setting, its presence is always felt like a breath on the back of the neck during a stormy flight. Granted this makes for a more effective first act than second (there is no third). Yet when the film turns into an all-out creature feature with more pulp than an orange grove, there’s still enjoyment to be found for horror fans who always wanted to know what would happen in one of these old school gremlin stories if the monster got through the glass.
Set in 1943, the film opens as a mystery. Officer Maude Garrett (Moretz) has classified orders from the top. They demand she be added last minute to a B-17 ferrying across the Pacific Theater from New Zealand to American Samoa, along with a locked box that must be kept shut at all costs. As a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), Garrett is not supposed to be on this potential combat mission, but it’s technically just a transport flight—one with the most unlikely of crews assembled from American, British, and New Zealand forces. Nevertheless, the men aboard all have one thing in common: condescending skepticism that a woman should be on the flight. They also share the bad habit of talking about her like it’s last call at the pub before they realize she can also use their interphone system.
Garrett is of course ready for the rampant chauvinism and misogyny. She’s also more than prepared for the surprise sight of Japanese fighters locking onto their slow four-engine bomber. What she could never anticipate though is the gremlin she first spies as a shadow on the wing—or how its interference drives the rest of the crew to start doubting her.
One of the most satisfying aspects of Shadow in the Cloud is how it acts as a reminder of the women who served in air forces during World War II. Yes, the WAAF was a real division of the Royal Air Force that is often forgotten in movies and pop culture, just as the U.S. Army allowed women to pilot planes across the Atlantic in non-combat missions as members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Shadow in the Cloud so thoroughly underlines these facts that there’s even a welcome montage of women who served during the ending credits.
… But make no mistake, this is not a historical drama; Shadow in the Cloud aims to be nothing more or less than a B-movie giddy about its own schlockiness. Even before the gremlin, the heightened reality is visible by the way military personnel break ranks and communicate, or in the film’s desire to live inside of a gun turret at the bottom of a B-17.
The first 40 minutes or so are the movie’s strongest, with Moretz getting to dominate almost every frame of the film, save for her view into the stormy clouds and the steep drop. The movie occasionally shows the rest of the crew, but only in flickering images of how they appear in Garrett’s mind as she listens to their banter and, eventually, interrogational questions when things go wrong. It’s a solid showcase for Moretz, and also a nice compact thriller that lands closer to The Twilight Zone’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” than Joe Dante’s Gremlins. As with William Shatner in that TV classic, Moretz’s heroine knows the all-male crew will not believe what she’s seeing on the other side of the glass, but she’ll still have to walk them through the supernatural if they hope to survive the night.
Shadow in the Cloud is gleeful about its pop culture heritage, as teased by a fun cartoon before the opening titles, which harkens back to those old Bugs Bunny cartoons in all but name. However, it’s when the movie fully embraces its gonzo silliness that it may lose some viewers. The film’s visibly low-budget, evocative monster effects during a thunderstorm play less pleasingly when it’s garish CGI in the bright light of day, and it all leads to a full throttle ending so grandiose that it borders on self-parody.
Yet Liang never once shows an interest in approaching anything that could be mistaken for subtle. As a first-time feature director working from her own screenplay—which she reworked extensively after the project distanced itself from original writer Max Landis, who was accused of sex misconduct—the director shows a romance for 1980s genre thrills. From its 1980s-inspired synthesized score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper to an emphasis on practical creature effects, this is a bananas throwback that skips a slow middle section to head straight into a wild finale which takes place around (and outside) the plane.
For some it may be too bumpy a landing, but for other genre aficionados, it’s a hell of an adrenaline rush they’ll walk away from with a grin.
Shadow in the Cloud premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10.