Review: “It Follows”

“It Follows” opens wide this weekend, and what follows is my review.  No real spoilers, especially if you’ve seen the trailer, but if you wanna remain completely in the dark — so creepy! — see the film first.

I’m a little reluctant to compare new films to seminal pieces of work.  “‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is the new ‘Star Wars!’”  Who wants that kinda baggage?  These things need time.  Well how about this: “It Follows” ain’t “Jaws” or “Psycho,” but it might just do for strangers what those films did for beaches and hotels.  You may find yourself keeping a safe distance from everyone as you leave the theater.

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The second feature from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, “It Follows” is about Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman who finds herself pursued by an evil specter.  After having sex with Hugh (Jake Weary), he takes her to an abandoned building and ties her to a wheelchair.  In one of the film’s more harrowing passages, Hugh explains that he’s passed this entity on to her.  She’ll start to see someone following her, and this thing is only visible to those who’ve been afflicted.  It can look like anyone — a complete stranger or even a friend.  (Strangely, the film doesn’t mine the latter as much as it could.)  It moves at a walking pace, but if it catches her, it will kill her.  Jay’s best bet is to pass the curse on to someone else.

Mitchell wears his influences on his sleeve, and there’s a lot to appreciate for horror aficionados.  The basic premise, a quiet neighborhood under threat, brings to mind…well, any number of slashers from the 70s and 80s.  Disasterpeace’s nerve-jangling synth score recalls John Carpenter.  Like so many horror films from generations past, this one could be read as a cautionary tale about adolescent sex.  (“Cautionary” is a strong word — I don’t think it’s the first or even twenty-first concern for Mitchell.  But it’s certainly a clever nod.)  Even the persistence of the threat reminded me of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, slowly stalking their prey and eventually catching up with them despite their best — okay, sometimes not-so-best — efforts.

Above all, Mitchell brings an understanding of how to use the frame.  What’s in it and what’s out — that’s really a bedrock of cinema and especially horror.  An oft-cited shot from this film is one where the camera turns 720 degrees.  Jay and a friend are at Hugh’s former high school trying to track him down.  The camera remains outside the office as they consult a secretary.  It turns to reveal a series of windows looking onto the lawn.  Students walk back and forth, but one off in the distance seems to be headed straight for us.  Then the camera passes over an empty hallway and back to the office — they’re still talking to the secretary — and then we’re looking out the windows again.

That student is closer.

When we get back to the office, the bell rings.  We hear doors open, and I started to worry that it would sneak up on Jay in the crowd.  The threat in this film could come from anywhere.  It’s one that the director puzzlingly undercuts a few times by depicting the entity with cheap ghoulish makeup.  More often than not, creepy makeup isn’t creepy.  And I’m sure going to avoid someone who looks half-dead.  But a student in a crowd of students?  Anyone would be a goner.

So much of what’s done with the camera involves smooth and elegant movement, but one of my favorite flourishes involves Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis strapping it to the wheelchair that Jay is tied to such that the lens is pointing back at the actress.  She struggles against her restraints, and the whole frame rattles.  It’s used to great effect when she and Hugh are being pursued by the specter in an abandoned building.  As he hurriedly pushes her toward the exit, the camera bounces around her terror stricken face and the dark figure in the background.  It’s as though the whole frame might collapse.

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Maika Monroe is really strong in the main role.  There’s a wistful quality to her performance, particularly during the first act.  Once the shit hits the fan, she plays horror with the best of them.  You’re really in her corner, which is why it’s disappointing when the film takes a turn in the second half.  By then, many of the characters have come down with stupid decision-itis, which is a disease prevalent in the horror genre wherein people on screen lose the ability to make rational decisions.  Their actions don’t come from a place of logic, they come from a need to set up more scares.  And this is never more prevalent than in the film’s climax.  I’m going to try and remain spoiler-free, but I really don’t know what the characters intended or what they thought would happen in that scene.

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Even if David Robert Mitchell leaves some scares on the table, “It Follows” is an enviable horror film.  Enviable in the way that it constructs, for the most part, empathetic characters.  Enviable in the way it eschews gore and cheap tricks to make us shiver.  And, most of all, enviable in the way that it uses the camera to instill fear.

But don’t worry, you’ll be fine.

Just don’t go anywhere with only one exit.

What did you think of “It Follows?”  Comment below!

Lists: Top 10 Horror Movies (Part 2 of 2)

It’s easy to forget how good some horror films are given the junk that populates the genre.  I would count most of these titles among my all-time favorite films, but especially the top 5.  (And “Jaws,” of course.  A reminder that the film is exempt.)  If you haven’t seen the first installment of the list, click here.  Now, let’s get on with it.

The peculiar fella at the old gas station warns you against going any further if you’re frightened by spoilers.

5.) “Rosemary’s Baby”

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It’s probably clear by now that I’m a bigger fan of psychological horror than that of the splatter variety.  I just see gore as an easy means to get a rise out of an audience.  Few films manage psychological terror as well as “Rosemary’s Baby.”  Roman Polanski’s film is about a young woman (Mia Farrow) and her husband, who’ve just moved into a new apartment with plans to have a baby.  Her next door neighbors may…or may not…be interested in using her unborn child in a satanic ritual.  The film is a masterclass in compositions.  When we meet the husband next door, he’s staged on the left side of the frame in a wide shot.  The right side is empty.  Why the unbalance?  Why are we being kept at a distance from him?  Also check out a scene where Ruth Gordon’s Minnie, the next door wife, calls a doctor for Rosemary.  As Minnie makes the call, the camera is positioned outside the room such that her face is cut off by the door frame.  What are Minnie’s intentions?  What’s being said on the other end of the phone?  What does all this mean for Rosemary?  Polanski’s choices make you nervous, ratcheting up the paranoia.

4.) “The Shining”

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While its characterizations might be a little thin, “The Shining” works remarkably well on an atmospheric level.  From the opening credits, director Stanley Kubrick has me on edge.  A helicopter shot follows Jack Torrance’s car as it drives through a mountain range, just a speck in this rugged landscape.  The droning score and use of a wide-angle lens to ever-so-slightly distort the image never fails to put a knot in my stomach.  This adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, about a family overseeing a vacant hotel, is pretty unconventional for a horror film.  Yes, we’re stuck with characters in a confined (and haunted) space, but consider how the film is shot and lit.  Kubrick doesn’t use the darkness as a crutch.  Even night scenes — I’m thinking of Jack Nicholson chasing poor Danny Lloyd through a snowy hedge maze — are made clear with diffused lighting.  So many of the hotel’s interiors are brightly lit and fully in focus.  We watch young Danny play in the hallways, as series of doors stretch in either direction.  Danger could come from any one of them.

3.) “The Silence of the Lambs”

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In its two hour running time, “The Silence of the Lambs” accomplishes so much.  It’s a procedural, as the FBI hunts a serial killer named Buffalo Bill.  It’s a human drama, as trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) attempts to silence her demons by finding Bill’s kidnap victim before it’s too late.  It’s a feminist film, as Clarice navigates the politics of male-dominated law enforcement.  And yes, it’s a horror film, as evidenced not just by Buffalo Bill but Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).  The first 10 minutes build anticipation and then undercut expectation.  We learn about Hannibal from Clarice’s superior and from his doctor at the asylum.  “Don’t let him inside your head,” “He’s a monster,” etc.  The doctor shows Clarice a picture of a nurse disfigured by Hannibal.  In a great bit of restraint, director Jonathan Demme refrains from showing us the photo.  Instead, we get the doctor’s description and Foster’s great reaction.  “His pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.”  As Clarice approaches Hannibal’s cell, we’re waiting for a gibbering madman.  What we get is the cool and calm cordiality of Anthony Hopkins.  This is a killer you might invite into your home.  The scene still gives me shivers.

2.) “Alien”

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I could watch “Alien” any time.  There’s a great economy of storytelling, with the screenwriters offering brief character sketches.  He’s the laid back Captain, he’s the alpha-male, she’s high strung.  There’s enough personality for us to care about these people.  Miners in space, they wake up from hyper sleep to a distress signal from a nearby planet.  Or maybe that signal is a warning?  I love the slow burn of the film, nothing horrific happens for about 40 minutes.  The strategy pays off thanks to director Ridley Scott and designer H.R. Giger.  Star Sigourney Weaver has said that she initially assumed she’d signed on to a B-movie, but Scott and Giger bring A-level craft.  The sets are all practical, the gloomy hallways of the mining vessel and the gooey corridors of the alien craft have often been imitated.  And then there’s the creature itself — brilliant in concept and execution.  It “impregnates” an individual and a critter comes bursting from the host’s chest.  The adult form is menacing as hell (and slightly phallic).  Contrary to many horror films, our characters make smart decisions to try to best this baddie, but they’re just inherently ill equipped to deal with the problem.

1.) “Psycho”

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I excluded “Jaws” to resist the obvious, and then #1 comes along and I make the next most predictable choice.  But what are ya gonna do?  Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was a watershed moment in movies.  So much has been written about the film that I’m at a bit of a loss…so I’ll focus on two elements.  First, Bernard Hermann’s iconic score.  It’s excellent.  And I’m not just talking about the shower scene.  Consider how long it takes Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) to meet the business end of a knife.  We spend 50-ish minutes with her — she steals money from her bank, hightails it out of town, and meets a nice hotel clerk named Norman (Anthony Perkins).  This doesn’t look like the movie we signed up for, but it sure as hell sounds like it!  From the opening credits, Herrmann’s driving score leaves little doubt about the type of film we’re watching.  And then there’s that final twist, the one that reveals the nice hotel clerk occasionally masquerades in his mother’s clothes and knifes young women.  It’s tricky to follow one massive twist – Marion’s murder — with another.  Your audience is primed, looking in every nook and cranny (literally and narratively) for something to jump out.  But Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us twice.  We watch as Norman dutifully cleans up his…uh…mother’s mess, placing Marion’s corpse in her own car and wiping down the bathroom.  It’s a great, dialog-less sequence that puts us in his corner.  Reportedly, audiences in 1960 gasped when it looked as though Marion’s car wouldn’t sink in the swamp.  “We’ve just seen this terrible murder.  Surely, this guy’s safe.  Right?  Right!?”  Admittedly, I suspect “Psycho” was instrumental in making audiences suspicious of their narratives.  Everything since has had to contend with that.

Thanks for reading! Here’s my complete “Jaws” Memorial List:

1.) “Psycho”

2.) “Alien”

3.) “The Silence of the Lambs”

4.) “The Shining”

5.) “Rosemary’s Baby”

6.) “The Thing”

7.) “Shaun of the Dead”

8.) “The Exorcist”

9.) “The Sixth Sense”

10.) “The Orphanage”

Honorable mentions include: “The Blair Witch Project,” “The Devil’s Backbone,” “The Innocents,” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (the version from 1956 and ’78).

Do you have a favorite horror film? Comment below.

Lists: Top 10 Horror Movies (Part 1 of 2)

With Halloween around the corner, I thought I would count down my top 10 favorite horror movies.  I’ve chosen to exclude “Jaws”, since it would just be too obvious a choice.  Truth be told, you’re gonna see a lot of horror’s usual suspects here, but hopefully there’ll be some surprises as well.  I should stress that these aren’t necessarily the scariest movies I’ve seen, just my favorites from the genre.

Fair warning: spoilers are known to haunt this post.

10.) “The Orphanage”

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“The Orphanage” doesn’t exactly re-invent the wheel.  It’s about a mother who returns to the facility that cared for her in her youth.  She and her husband plan to reopen it to help disabled children.  A ghostly wrench is thrown in their plans when their ill son goes missing.  There are a lot of familiar elements: a large and gloomy estate, imaginary friends that are so much more, and creepy, unsettling kids.  It functions just fine as a family drama — Belen Rueda is really strong as the mother who will stop at nothing — but it makes this list because it’s frankly one of the most frightening films I’ve seen.  Director J.A. Bayona constructs sequences that are all-timers.  It has two of the best jump scares: one involving a woman crossing the street and another the immediate aftermath.  Later, a medium wanders the orphanage at night, her committed performance is bolstered by glowing green eyes (thanks to infrared cameras) and eerie sound design.  Finally, a game of one-two-three-knock-on-the-wall is distressingly suspenseful as the camera leisurely shows us what we want (or don’t want) to see.

9.) “The Sixth Sense”

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With movies like “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender,” it’s easy to forget how strong a filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan once was.  I like “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” but it’s hardly controversial to say “The Sixth Sense” remains his masterpiece.  Everyone remembers the ending — and it’s wonderfully constructed — but this is so much more than a twist film.  We’ve got two compelling central characters: a young boy who sees ghosts and a child psychologist looking to make good after a traumatic event.  Shyamalan finds ways to visually tell the story, such as a series of P.O.V. shots as the boy moves to and from his psychologist during a game.  Then there’s that ending — turns out Bruce Willis’s traumatic event was fatal. The twist works on a number of levels.  First and foremost, it holds together.  The ending adheres to the rules that the movie laid out (convenient though they may be).  As opposed to other films with similarly slippery endings (“I’ve been dead the whole time,” “I made all these people up,” “It was all a dream”), our protagonist’s actions have real-world consequences.  Finally, it concludes his arc.  Having helped a child in need, he can peacefully depart.

8.) “The Exorcist”

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Everyone knows the story of “The Exorcist” — a young girl is possessed by the devil.  But actually I don’t find William Friedkin’s film to be that scary.  Sure, there are some chilling moments.  A priest’s vision of his deceased mother on the girl’s bed still gives me goosebumps, but the film succeeds as a character-based drama.  We learn early on that Father Karras, the priest charged with performing the exorcism, is suffering a crisis of faith.  And when he’s confronted with the devil…well, that’s the stuff of drama.  Actor Jason Miller is the heart of the movie, wearing Karras’s anger, sadness, and confusion in the lines on his face.  It’s a testament to the film that its third act is so compelling.  At face value, there’s nothing particularly spectacular about it:  one set, three actors, lots of yelling.  But thanks to the great character work, we’re completely invested.

7.) “Shaun of the Dead”

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The first feature-length collaboration between Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost is still the best.  Though I enjoy the hell out of “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End,” neither of those films manage as stunning a blend of comedy, drama and genre.  In “Shaun of the Dead,” the titular character is a young man stuck between adolescence and adulthood — the former embodied by his endearing yet childish roommate, Ed.  Amidst turmoil with his girlfriend, who would like Shaun to do something with his life, a zombie outbreak erupts.  The film is stunning in the way it has you laughing one minute and on the edge of your seat the next.  Check out a scene where Shaun’s stepfather turns into a zombie.  Shaun tells his mother, voice brimming with emotion, “There’s nothing left of the man you loved!”  His stepfather then promptly mutes a loud car stereo.  While the writing is tight and the performances are excellent, Wright has carefully crafted his story for the silver screen.  There’s an amusing cut of sorts where a drunk Shaun scribbles on his refrigerator then falls asleep in the kitchen.  The camera remains stationary, but through a quick lighting change — Boom! — it’s the next morning and Shaun hasn’t moved.

6.) “The Thing”

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John Carpenter’s masterpiece — sorry “Halloween” fans — was not viewed particularly favorably upon its release.  Audiences in 1982 were looking for a close encounter of a warmer and fuzzier kind.  Paging “E.T.”  “The Thing” tells the story of a group of researchers in the Antarctic who stumble upon a shape-shifting alien with a penchant for assimilation.  There’s plenty of splatter here, thanks to Rob Bottin’s still stunning practical effects, but the real draw is the dread and paranoia that ensues from the creature’s arrival.  One great bit of tension comes from our protagonist, played by Kurt Russell, implementing a blood test to identify the creature.  Appropriately, the novella the film is based on is called “Who Goes There?”  So many of the film’s thrills come from our characters not knowing who to trust, and this may never be more potent than the film’s haunting final moments.

Stay tuned this Friday, Halloween, for my top 5 horror movies.  Comment below with some of your favorites!

Start Them Up!

It’s Friday!  And for many, that means payday!  If I may be so bold, I encourage you to use some of that hard-earned cash to support a pair of filmmakers, Ben DeLoose and Matt Chilelli.  Full disclosure: these guys are my friends.  But they’re also expert cookie bakers, wielders of puns, and talented filmmakers.

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Those of you who’ve been following the blog since the beginning might remember that Ben and I have known each other for over seven years.  We met through an internship program in Los Angeles.  Matt and I both went to Ithaca College, but we didn’t connect until I moved to L.A. in 2009.  I’ve helped them out on a number of sketches and shorts, and we collaborate on a Youtube channel, 3byThree.

Ben and Matt are making their first feature…provided they meet their fundraising goal.  The premise is an intriguing spin on the haunted house genre.  While working on their Kickstarter video, I remarked that their apartment was ideal for a horror film.  There are so many corners and hallways.  Standing in one room, you can’t see into the next.  Their response: “We wrote our script around that!”  And of course they did.  Like any good low-budget filmmaker, they’ve designed this project with the resources already at their disposal.  (Why write the splitting of the Red Sea if you can’t afford a bathtub?)

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I don’t want to spoil the intricacies of their plot, but you can get a taste of what they’re after in the Kickstarter video itself:

By the number of set ups and lighting conditions, it’s clear Ben and Matt don’t do anything half-assed.  I can tell you first hand that this video took a lot of man hours.  These guys set the bar high.  The pitch is a great sampling of their humor, sensibilities and how they construct a scare.  You can see that they’re dedicated to using the properties of moviemaking — frame and camera movement, light, sound, etc. — to tell a story.  It’s an exciting project, and I’m really looking forward to the full feature.

I hope you’ll consider donating…$5 or $125, it all helps!