Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: It Follows (2015)

It Follows (2015)

Rated R for disturbing and violent sexual content including graphic nudity, and language

(Note: while this film premiered at Cannes in 2014, it only got an American release this year, so I'm counting it as a 2015 film.)

It Follows is the best horror film of 2015, a title that I am almost certain will not be taken from it between now and New Year's, and the best teen horror film since Scream. Someone who's seen as many horror movies as I have doesn't necessarily scare easily, but even so, this was a film that had me looking over my shoulder all the way home -- as I was leaving the theater, at the stoplight, at the gas station, and while entering my subdivision. (Nice going, Mary, pulling in right behind me like that.) Writer/director David Robert Mitchell proved himself an expert at suspense, crafting a film that is simultaneously stylish and gritty, with an excellent cast, a great score, and a terrifying, amorphous monster that, even with (or perhaps because of) a lack of traditional "scares", made for one hundred minutes of non-stop dread.

The story (*ahem*) follows Jay, a college girl who, after sleeping with her boyfriend Hugh, finds herself pursued by a malevolent force. As Hugh explains to her, it is slow, moving only at a walking pace, but it will not stop walking straight towards its target, occasionally slowing down only to lull it into a false sense of security, and it will brutally kill her if it reaches her. It can take the form of anybody, be it a friend, a loved one, or a stranger, whatever it takes to reach its victim. Running away can only buy time, and it cannot be killed. The only way to end the curse is to pass it along by having sex with somebody else, and even then, that's only a stopgap -- once it kills that person, it starts moving back up the chain of people the curse passed through.

Now, if this were your normal teen horror flick, it would've followed an awfully simple formula. We would've had a slew of jump scares fueled by bad special effects, a high (yet oddly bloodless) body count, tons of "hip" dialogue from writers who haven't been in high school in twenty years, lots of sexy young people looking sexy, and an unambiguously happy ending, with the curse broken and the few survivors living happily ever after... until the last frame reveals that the curse isn't quite dead. (Sequel!) It's a formula so timeworn that The Cabin in the Woods spent ninety-five minutes tearing it apart along with all the people who propagate it.

It Follows takes one look at that formula and says "nah nah nah nah nah, this is how you make a scary movie". For starters, while the body count is high, most of the kills aren't just offscreen, they're merely implied, as Jay has sex with people to pass the curse along only to run into the monster again a few days later, the fates of her paramours never elaborated upon. We only see two dead bodies over the course of the film. There are scares here, plenty of them, but they're not the point of the film. Instead of going for shock, the film works best in raising all manner of horrifying questions as to the nature of this curse. There is no happy ending here -- the entire film is built around an overriding sense of hopelessness and doom. It is clear right from the moment that Jay is "cursed" that she is literally and metaphorically fucked. "It" (the monster is never given a name) is always coming after her, and is almost always lurking somewhere in the background. The half-baked measures Jay and her friends try to pull off to slow "it" down turn out to be mere stopgaps. Run off to a lakefront cabin in the woods (the only horror film where that's actually a good idea for once)? "It" may take a day or two to get there at walking pace, but "it" will eventually find you. Shoot the thing in the head? "It" will get right back up seconds later and keep coming. And of course, passing "it" on merely kicks the can down the road for the next poor sucker to deal with, giving them a death sentence unless you explicitly tell them what's going on -- and once it's done with that person, it's back to coming after you. It's a terrifying conceit, one that leaves no escape, only a few more days on the doomsday clock.

All that comes before you start thinking about what "it" represents. "It" is an inherently sexual creature. It's passed along like an STD, it often takes the form of a naked or half-naked man or woman, and as we see in one horrifying scene, it kills through sex, or more specifically, rape. The circumstances of how Jay gets "infected" -- Hugh chloroforms her and ties her up so that he can tell her what's going on without her running away in a panic, then dumps her at her house in her underwear -- resemble, almost frame for frame, a textbook case of date rape. And for Jay to survive, she must do the same to others, having sex with them knowing that she's placing them in the same peril that she's currently in. She must become complicit in its murders, sleeping with and then abandoning any number of random guys in order to buy herself some time. Sex will come to dominate her thoughts, and it will become a joyless affair, something that she must do in order to have just a little while longer to live, all while damning the other person to a terrible death unless she warns them (and who knows how they'll react to that?). It is very hard not to see It Follows as, fundamentally, a movie about rape, with "the curse" warping Jay's entire perspective on sex, flushing her plans for the future down the toilet, and rendering her paranoid about everybody around her, as they may very well be out to get her and do it to her again. As terrifying as this movie was for me, I can't imagine what it must be like for a woman watching it, especially a rape survivor. (So yeah, major-league trigger warning for anybody watching this film.) Like I said in my review of Ginger Snaps, the best horror films always have some subtext drawn from the real world informing their monsters, and with It Follows, the subtext in question is a particularly cruel one that the film uses for maximum effect.

The other half of the equation that made this movie work so well was David Robert Mitchell, who wrote and directed this film. He was clearly informed by a love of classic '70s and '80s horror movies, filling the film with an inventive visual and audio style that heavily draws on those films for inspiration while still emerging as its own beast. The soundtrack is dominated by droning synthesizers that build as "it" approaches, setting up a wall of doom that envelops the viewer, and the look of the film makes full use of darkness, overcast skies, and neat 360-degree camera shots that reinforce the fact that "it" can be anywhere around Jay, without ever becoming obtrusive or over-stylized. It also heavily employs its setting, an American city that, in the popular consciousness, has become synonymous with ever-encroaching decay and death -- Detroit. This film just wouldn't have felt the same taking place in sunny California or all-American small-town Ohio. The characters may live in the "nice" suburbs, but they frequently venture into the city for many scenes, and all the crumbling buildings only build the film's oppressive atmosphere. It also goes hand-in-hand with the weathered look of the film, which, despite clearly being set in the present day, mixes in all manner of anachronistic cues. One of the characters, Yara, has a distinctive clamshell e-reader, but nobody has a cell phone, all the televisions are old cathode-ray tube sets rather than LCD flat-panels, most of the characters drive cars from the '70s and '80s, and in the opening, Jay and Hugh are at an old-fashioned movie theater screening the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn classic Charade. It feels like a film that could be set anywhere, in any time, rather than going out of its way to feel "modern" and inevitably dated in ten years.

The same extends to the characters. Mitchell wrote teenagers and young adults who actually speak and act like such, not like they stepped off the set of a CW or ABC Family show, and he pulled together an amazing young cast. Maika Monroe leads the pack as Jay, and through her, you get to slowly see her predicament unfolding, her reactions perfectly capturing her growing despair. Her friends, meanwhile, all try to comfort her and get her out of harm's way. All of them felt like real, distinctive people, like lifelong friends thrust into a terrible situation. Many of them don't believe Jay until it's almost too late, but sure enough, after one suspenseful moment they witness firsthand that Jay is in deep trouble, and start coming up with increasingly hare-brained schemes to try and stop "it". I went over to IMDb's discussion forum for this film, and amused myself with the responses of people saying, "oh, if I were Jay I'd just go to Vegas and fuck a porn star, then he'll spread the curse through so many other porn stars, that'll get 'it' off my back for a good long while". They're all comfortably removed from the characters' situation, not under the massive pressure they're facing that's clouding their judgment -- and even if they did do that, there's always the uncertainty as to what happens if "it" actually walks all the way to Vegas and wipe out the entire porn industry, then walks back to Detroit once Jay's number is up. At most, they're buying a few years. It's a movie where the characters' mistakes aren't borne from stupidity -- they're in so far over their heads that there's really nothing they can do except comfort Jay as the inevitable approaches. It was like watching that College Humor video of a bunch of frat-bros watching The Hunger Games and talking about how, if they were in the Games, they'd be total badasses. No, you wouldn't -- you'd be too busy looking over your shoulder and crying to think about doing all that stuff.

Score: 5 out of 5

This isn't your usual horror movie. It's not the kind that will send you flying out of your seat over and over, but rather, the kind that'll have you thinking that staying in that seat for too long will merely give some monster time to catch you. It's the sort of movie that hangs over you, where you can't escape the fear it created even after you've left the theater. Add in some great characters, the '80s synth soundtrack from hell, and a wonderful sense of style, and you have a recipe for what is, so far, the scariest and most effective horror film of the year.

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