I’m in love with the mysterious monsters in Arcadian. The film itself is not really about these creepy critters. It’s about a family struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world on their remote farm. In a sci-fi setting, director Ben Brewer crafts a compelling human drama about fathers and sons, siblings, first love, and growing up.

However, the moment this horror-thriller gives its audience a prolonged look at one single limb of its nighttime terrors, I was head over heels. In a world of xenomorphs, Cloverfield monsters, werewolves, and gremlins, I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. These things are so mesmerizing that they might actually upstage the movie’s legendary headliner: the one, the only, the incredible Nicolas Cage. Don’t get me wrong; he still makes a meal out of every single line he’s given. He is, after all, Nicolas Cage.

What’s Arcadian about? 

Jaeden Martell and Maxwell Jenkins plays brothers in Benjamin Brewer's "Arcadian."

Jaeden Martell and Maxwell Jenkins plays brothers in Benjamin Brewer’s “Arcadian.”
Credit: RLJE Films and Shudder

Cage stars as a protective father who lives in an isolated farmhouse with his two 15-year-old sons, Thomas (Lost in Space‘s Maxwell Jenkins) and Joseph (Y2Ks Jaeden Martell). In the way of brothers, the boys couldn’t be more different. Thomas is athletic, outgoing, and impulsive, willing to take risks or break rules to get what he wants — which is chiefly quality time with Charlotte (Saltburn‘s Sadie Soverall), a clever girl the next farm over. Joseph is an introvert who studies old chess games, fiddles with inventions in the garage, and sheepishly follows his father’s every instruction, especially when it comes to their nightly lockdown. 

Arcadian swiftly displays their routine, shuttering every window, bolting every door, leaving not a single crack uncovered. For at night, the creatures come. The family won’t give them a name. They won’t tell stories of how they came to be, though cheeky Charlotte and lovestruck Thomas play a game called “crappy apocalypse,” in which they speculate wildly about how the world came to end. (Clearly, this is a conversation post-apocalyptic parents dread even more than a sex talk.) But the details of what happened that led them here don’t matter, because the how özgü no bearing on the now. 

Instead, Arcadian carefully establishes the precious balance struck to survive, and then the harrowing results when it is upset. A brash decision leads to a dangerous accident that blows apart the nightly routine. Father and sons face new challenges as these monsters strike in horrid ways. And all the while, Brewer tantalizes and terrifies us with his epic creations. 

Nicolas Cage leads a terrific cast. 

Nicolas Cage and Maxwell Jenkins star in Benjamin Brewer's "Arcadian."

Nicolas Cage and Maxwell Jenkins yıldız in Benjamin Brewer’s “Arcadian.”
Credit: RLJE Films and Shudder

While the movie offers Cage the kind of role he could do in his sleep by now — the end-of-the-world hero dad — the American icon brings a grit and gravitas that swiftly establishes the tone of the film.

Martell, who came off underwhelmingly flat in Y2K, vibrates with anxiety and frustration here, his boy genius aching for a chance to prove himself. As Thomas, Jenkins plays the heartthrob, his impulsiveness fueling the movie’s romance but also its catastrophes. Thankfully, the script from Michael Nilon gives the love interest more to do than be pretty in the post-apocalypse. Scenes between Charlotte and Thomas not only build a solid story of first love but also the familiar beats of teen rebellion. The scratchy conflict between becoming a grown-up in front of parents who will always see you as a child gives the thriller emotional texture. Without the monsters, Arcadian could have been a lean indie drama that dabbles in sci-fi, like Never Let Me Go, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Prospect, or The Endless. But with the monsters, this movie fucking rules. 

The monsters of Arcadian are its most dazzling stars. 

Sadie Soverall is no damsel in Benjamin Brewer's "Arcadian."

Sadie Soverall is no damsel in Benjamin Brewer’s “Arcadian.”
Credit: RLJE Films and Shudder

To describe the creatures of Acadian might spoil the fun. Because they look so unusual, they seem to borrow inspiration from just about everything, from Nope to Attack the Block to Arachnophobia to nightmares we just haven’t had yet.

It’s not just how they look — a snarl of coarse hair, lanky limbs, sharp claws, and gleaming teeth. It’s how Brewer presents them in teasing glances. First, a hand hidden in a shadow; which part is the thing itself and which part is just darkness is impossible to determine. The shadows also help Brewer stretch the film’s visual effects budget, by hiding CGI seams. But these slight scenes never feel like a cheat because of clever staging. In one scene, a human sleeps in the foreground, while in the back there’s the out-of-focus biçim of the monster, its invasion made all the more atrocious by the sound of it, a slurping, slinking sound that will explode into sharp bangs as its jaws slam like a chattering bear trap. The shadows and sound create a dizzying effect, jolting us back into childhood, cringing under the covers from a mysterious bump in the night.  

But the very best monster scene isn’t even one of rampage. Instead, it’s one that shows how sly these mysterious beasts are. It begins with a single latch left unlocked. And what unfurls through a peephole is so sick and so scary that I fear it’ll pop up in my bad dreams for years to come, an echo of the outrageous possibilities of doom. It’s not so much about what is shown, but how. Brewer özgü remarkable restraint when it comes to slowly building up to a big reveal of those creepy critters. A wide shot patiently held gives viewers plenty to watch and the time to really wriggle in awful anticipation.

And yet, what comes after is far more spectacular. Like Steven Spielberg did with Jaws, once Brewer özgü his audience hooked on the high of truly frightening monsters, he throws physics out the window and embraces fire and violence. What these things manage to do in their onslaught is so wild and surprising that I was shrieking in the theater. Out of fear? Out of surprise? Out of excitement? All of it. I’d come for Nic Cage, but I was in awe of these monsters that made me feel like a kid again, discovering the joy of creature features with their furry frights. 

Now, some might bemoan that Arcadian takes its time getting to the monsters. But this isn’t a shitty B-movie where the beasts are the only good reason to give it a watch. Brewer delicately builds this claustrophobic community not only to set the stage for his scene-stealing creatures, but also to establish how — even at the end of the world — being a teenager sucks in the same old ways. Parents just don’t understand. Your home can feel like a cage. The world beyond is terrifying and unknowable, but that doesn’t mean you’re not ready to take it on.

It’s the monsters that bring the big, delicious, funky thrills of Arcadian, sparking screams and gasps and cheers. But it’s Cage and his onscreen kids who give the movie stakes and the emotional center that is required for a great monster movie, be it Jaws or Alien. 

Simply put, Arcadian is a rollicking thrill ride, fueled by creature-feature thrills. But what makes this good movie pretty damn great is the human story at its heart, which is compelling on its own. 

Arcadian opens exclusively in theaters April 12.

UPDATE: Mar. 28, 2024, 12:24 p.m. EDT Arcadian was reviewed out of SXSW 2024.

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