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!

An Odyssey of the Mind

Apologies for the dearth of blog entries, everyone!  In addition to helping some friends shoot their first feature, I’ve been giving a lot of my time to a program called Odyssey of the Mind.  I’ve been involved with it for roughly 20 years.  I competed from elementary school through college, and since then, I’ve volunteered as an official.

I hate describing the program, because it’s easy to over-explain or under-explain, and, either way, it often leaves people scratching their heads.  In a nutshell, it’s a creative problem-solving competition.  Teams of five to seven students work for several months on their Long Term solution.  There are five types of LT problems to choose from: one is centered around a vehicle created by the team, another is centered around a performance based on classic art or literature, another involves a balsa wood structure and how much weight it holds.

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The team does everything.  They design their vehicle or structure, they research classic art and literature.  They write a script and build their props and sets.  Everything.  In addition to performing their Long Term solution, teams are given a Spontaneous problem on the day of competition.  In the months leading up to the tournament, teams solve practice problems, but they have no idea what they’ll face in the Spontaneous Room.  Problems can be hands-on, requiring them to build a structure out of toothpicks and mailing labels and then receive points for the amount of weight it holds.  Or they can be verbal, which might involve each student contributing a line to a team-created story that receives points based on creativity and the number of responses in a set period of time.

The program offers many takeaways, like budgeting and time management, but there are three real pillars.  The first is independence.  Did I mention the students do everything?  The second is creativity.  The program demonstrates that often there’s more than one right way to solve a problem.  And finally, the program teaches the value of teamwork.  As an only child, this was the most valuable lesson I learned.  During my early years with Odyssey, I was shocked (SHOCKED!) when my teammates didn’t immediately accept my ideas.

But my ego sustained a few blows, and I turned out all right in the end — certainly better than I might have without Odyssey.  It’s given me a lot to be thankful for.  I’ve made so many wonderful friendships through the program, even my wife and my best friend.

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