Maybe you don't remember the part about the monster on the plane’s wing in Randall Jarrell classic poem, “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner,” but surely its implied in there someplace. Regardless, Maude Garrett will have to contend with exactly that, as well as a number of Japanese Zeroes, when she hitches a ride in the deadliest seat in a WWII B-17 Bomber for nearly the duration of Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud, which releases in theaters and on VOD this Friday.
For some reason, Women’s Auxiliary Flight Officer Garrett is determined to hitch on ride with the crew of the “Fool’s Errand” making a supply run to New Zealand. Even more important than her is the top-secret cargo in her dispatch box. The sexist crew stash her in the ball turret and make demeaning sexual jokes over the open comms, but they stop laughing a little when she bullseyes a Zero that supposedly never would have flown out that far. However, they start dismissing her again when she claims to see a gremlin-like monster sabotaging the engine.
Max Landis and Liang (whose previous short film Do No Harm was the highlight of the 2017 Sundance) cleverly riff on the jokey WWII lore blaming gremlins for engine failure (they were sort of like the invisible “Not Me” in the old Family Circus comic strip). You could think of it as Richard Matheson’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet adapted to a WWII setting, but Liang and Landis fully develop the premise and consistently raise the stakes.
Liang also deftly capitalizes on the confined space of the ball turret to create tension. In many respects, Shadow is like Steven Knight’s Locke, in which the car-bound Tom Hardy plays off numerous unseen voices over the phone. In this case, the voices and personas of the B-17 crew-members are not as clearly and distinctly established, but that sort of reinforces Garrett’s perspective of alienation from the men above her.
This is very inventive genre filmmaking, so we can forgive the over-the-top, unbelievable excesses of the centerpiece action scene. Of course, it also helps that the gremlin looks cool—and appropriately sinister. Unlike the various Twilight Zone adaptations of Matheson’s story, Liang doesn’t tease us with the gremlin. She gives us plenty of good looks at the nasty creature, who holds up to scrutiny, thanks to some nifty design and effects work.
Liang is definitely going to be a genre star, because her first short and feature are both wildly entertaining. As it happens, the two films would pair up well together, because they share common themes. It has been a while since we have had a really good weird war movie, so the arrival of Shadow in the Cloud is particularly welcome. Highly recommended for fans of monster movies, it releases this Friday (New Year’s Day) on VOD and simultaneously releases theatrically as best films can these days.