Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It Follows: A smart, scary little shocker

It Follows (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for disturbing violent and sexual content, graphic nudity and profanity

By Derrick Bang

Young indie filmmaker David Robert Mitchell acknowledges a debt to horror auteurs John Carpenter and George Romero, and it’s easy to see why: Mitchell’s little chiller, It Follows, is suffused with the original Halloween vibe.

And I mean that in the best possible way.

As the full implications of her terrifying dilemma are explained to Jay (Maika Monroe,
center), her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and former boyfriend Greg (Daniel Zovatto) react with
varying degrees of skepticism. Their doubts won't last long...
Mitchell’s film is unsettling and nervous-making, in the manner of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and 1978’s Halloween, both of which emphasized atmosphere over the gratuitous gore they were (somewhat unfairly) accused of spawning in subsequent rip-offs. Mitchell understands the distinction; rather than gross out the audience, he’s far more interested in sending us home with a desire to leave the lights on all night.

Not to mention regarding the next sidewalk-strolling stranger with a worried eye.

For the most part, Mitchell plays this card skillfully: This is a seriously disturbing suburban nightmare, and editor Julio Perez IV knows precisely how to pace cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ often disconcerting camera set-ups: a slightly wonky angle here, a worrying overhead shot there, a tense tracking shot taking us to the next scene.

Nor does Mitchell cheat, with cats bursting from darkened closets, or potential victims playing nasty tricks on each other. This narrative is scary not because of in-our-face surprises or frenzied assaults, but because of inexorable, slow-moving doom: the horror of ghastly inevitability.

The setting is a dilapidated neighborhood in suburban Detroit, with homes just distressed enough to suggest residents trying their best to maintain appearances, despite rampant unemployment and fractured families. The occasional empty house signifies a battle lost, just as nearby streets leading toward the city pass entire blocks of shattered structures that look more like the aftermath of the London blitz, than any portion of a modern American metropolis.

The actual time, though, feels ambiguous (and deliberately so, I’m sure). Technology exists, but smart phones aren’t ubiquitous; neither are we far enough back to glimpse LPs and turntables. It’s as if time, like suburban renewal, has skipped this particular enclave, which exists in something of a dreamlike haze.

Which is appropriate, given what’s about to happen.

College-age Jay (Maika Monroe) and her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) lead a casual lifestyle with their mother, the latter an alcoholic who barely charts her daughters’ comings and goings. Despite this, Jay and Kelly seem to be reasonably well-adjusted, spending most of their time watching old fright flicks with best buds Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who has had an obvious crush on Jay for many years.

But Jay’s eyes are elsewhere, on the slightly older Hugh (Jake Weary). They nervously work their way through what might be a first or second date, impulsively playing a harmless “what if” game that has an unexpected effect on Hugh. But that odd moment passes, and nature eventually takes its course in the back seat of his car.

Whereupon Hugh employs rather drastic tactics to confess what he has just done to Jay. He has been followed, apparently for some time, by a dangerous supernatural something bent on killing him, and quite horribly. He “caught it” after a casual sexual encounter with some girl, who warned him that the only way to escape this whatzis is to “pass it on” by sleeping with somebody else.

We could equate this with the hoary urban legend regarding the traveling businessman who sleeps with a bar pick-up, and wakes the next morning to a lipstick-scrawled message on the mirror that reads “Welcome to the world of AIDS.” Similarly, it’s impossible to avoid thinking of the sex=death equation that fuels so many of today’s teen-oriented horror films.

But it’s not quite that simple. In this scenario, sex also equals life.

On the surface, Hugh clearly is the worst sort of cowardly creep, by virtue of “infecting” Jay in this manner. On the other hand, he’s desperate ... and how many of us would nobly refuse to save our own lives, given such an easy way out?

On the third hand, Hugh is honorable enough to explain all of this to an initially frightened, angry and dubious Jay, who doesn’t believe a word ... until, Hugh having holed them up in a deserted warehouse, she gets her first glimpse of the shambling monster that has become her own malevolent shadow.

It only walks, Hugh explains, so it can be outrun. But it never stops, and it can take any form: often that of a naked man or woman — hence this film’s R rating for “graphic nudity” — but also of a total stranger, or a person you might know and love. It’s silent, never speaking. And it remains invisible to all, except those who’ve become part of this sexual chain.

Finally, the kicker: If the chain is broken — if this thing catches and kills its current target — it starts to work its way backward, until and unless an earlier victim provides another fresh conquest.

I’ve never seen a better excuse for promiscuity.

Trouble is, Jay isn’t that kind of girl. One core dramatic issue, then, is whether she can persuade herself to become that kind of girl: an inward struggle that the increasingly terrified Monroe projects quite persuasively.

Jay’s sister and friends can’t imagine what has happened to her, but they devotedly believe that something is wrong, even if they don’t know what. They stick loyally by her side, the group augmented by Greg (Daniel Zovatto), a former boyfriend whose presence clearly irritates the meeker Paul.

And, before too long, lurid proof of Jay’s pursuer becomes obvious to all.

Whereupon, firmly in the grip of this film’s appalling storyline, we start to wonder where this can go, how it can end, whether anybody can endure. The usual definition of “safety” becomes fragile; we start to tense at the appearance of random figures centered in Gioulakis’ establishing shots: Is this one harmless? Is that one coming this way?

Absolutely brilliant.

The largely inexperienced cast members inhabit their roles with reasonable conviction, if somewhat superficially. Luccardi’s Yara is the chatterbox, constantly reading aloud from novels downloaded onto her compact tablet. Zovatto’s Greg is the tough and practical guy: not one to yield to fear. Sepe’s Kelly is the protective younger sister, who positions herself as a subtle barrier that prevents Paul’s clumsy romantic overtures from pressing very far.

Gilchrist has the busiest career of this bunch, and it shows; Paul is by far the most emotionally complex character, and also the most sympathetic of Jay’s entourage. But the film nonetheless belongs to Monroe, who is convincing both as a flirty, serene young woman in the throes of love, and as a gaunt, shattered, fear-frenzied victim struggling to find some means of control or salvation.

Mitchell’s film is by no means perfect. It has the overly dark, grainy cinematography and muddy soundtrack that characterize its low-budget origins; it’s sometimes difficult to decipher what characters are saying to each other. Most annoying, though, is the degree to which Mitchell relies on the grating, overly loud electronic score by Rich Vreeland, billed here as “Disasterpeace.”

I grant Mitchell’s desire to capture the unsettling sonic vibe Carpenter established with his similar synth score for Halloween, but Vreeland ain’t half the composer Carpenter is, and Mitchell obviously doesn’t know when enough becomes too much.

But these issues don’t seriously detract from the narrative’s anxious, uncomfortable primal energy. In all the ways that matter, this is a “smart” scary film, and a welcome alternative — for fright fans — to the entrails, decapitations and hacked limbs that pass for horror these days.

1 comment:

  1. Smart and terrifying, but never seeming like it's trying too hard, either. It just works out all perfectly fine. Nice review Derrick.