Is J.J. Abrams' 'Cloverfield' the Next Monster Hit?

"Cloverfield" has been shrouded in mystery since the grainy trailer puzzled moviegoers last summer, but the fog lifts Friday when the movie hits the big screen. Now the question is whether the J.J. Abrams-produced monster movie is the next "'Blair Witch Project" -- or "Snakes on a Plane."

Early Internet chatter has been a marketer's dream. Bloggers have been debating everything from the meaning of the movie's title to the kind of creature that decimates Manhattan. Only a handful of people were permitted to see the movie until last week.

The approach has worked so far. Nerd king Harry Knowles of AintItCoolNews.com gushed that the film "is a bold genre-reinvention unlike anything we've ever seen before."

But the real test will come when audiences are asked to fork over cash for a film they know little about.

"The question is whether the strategy of not giving a literal explanation about your movie pays off," says Richard Klady of MovieCityNews.com. "Not many movies go that route."

Nor do many movies keep story lines hidden from studio executives and even their stars. Abrams opted to use little-known actors who were required to sign agreements that they would not reveal plot points. Some actors didn't even know what they were auditioning for.

"Some of them thought they were trying out for a 'Felicity' movie," says Cloverfield director Matt Reeves, who created the television series with Abrams. "We didn't have a script when we started, or even when we made the trailer. Just an outline. We wanted to keep everyone guessing."

The guessing began in July, when "Cloverfield's" trailer played before "Transformers:" grainy footage from a handheld video camera of a party that's interrupted by an explosion, fireball and the Statue of Liberty's head caroming down the street. No voice-over, no title, no music. (Cloverfield, incidentally, is the name of the military operation to stop the monster, though that's not spelled out in the film.)

After the trailer aired, filmmakers launched a viral Internet campaign, complete with MySpace page profiles of its characters and websites that offer possible clues.

Aimed at a YouTube audience and taking its cues from Blair Witch, Godzilla and 9/11 footage, Cloverfield is shot entirely with digital handheld cameras. The jittery movie tells the story of five young New Yorkers who try to escape the creature's rampage.

"Essentially, it's a monster movie with a Handicam," Reeves says. "But we wanted it to be utterly realistic."

Actors were asked to do some of their own filming and ad-lib much of their dialogue. "If we said any line that could have been in 'Transformers,' it was thrown out," says star Michael Stahl-David. "They wanted it to look just like a videotape that captured an attack, which is pretty terrifying."

And possibly controversial. Reeves concedes filmmakers are braced for criticism that the movie strikes a little too close to real-life events. The movie's poster is of a headless Statue of Liberty with a smoldering New York skyline in the background.

"'Godzilla' was a statement about the atom bomb, the terror of that time," Reeves says. "In our minds, this is a way of exploring the terror of our times."

Whether the film stirs controversy or profits remains the final mystery. But Reeves says he's expecting at least one response: nausea.

"People who love handheld camera work should sit close, because they'll love it," Reeves says. "People who get anxious about it should sit further back in the theater, because they could get sick. We really want this to be different from what people are used to."

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