Sunday, March 22, 2015

"It Follows"

 3.5 / 5 

Horror may be the toughest of all genres to pull off.  What scares one person may bore another.  What gets under my skin may leave you shrugging.  So, ever since the slasher fad of the 1980s, horror films have pushed the limits ever further of what an audience can stomach, reasoning, I guess, that if an audience can't be scared, it can at least be revolted.

Suspense and fright has given way to shock and disgust, and horror filmmakers have relied increasingly on startling sound effects and grisly visuals to sell their wares.  (You may have noticed that the easiest way avoid being "scared" at a horror movie is to plug your ears; without the jolting sound cues, most horror films lose their power.)

But there's been a slow and welcome change of late, with movies like The Woman in Black, Insidious and The Conjuring taking glee in the re-discovery of taking their time to establish a story, then turning the screws ever tighter.  It Follows is a nice addition to the growing trend of intelligently, skillfully made horror movies.

It begins with the horror-film truism that came up in the early 1980s, that a smart, capable young woman should never sully her reputation with sexual intercourse, that sex equals death.  The latter axiom may only have been implied in movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween, but became a part of the real world around the same time, when HIV and AIDS were making headlines -- and frightening young people away from sex of any sort.

The characters of It Follows seem to live in a world perpetually stuck in about 1982.  Their cars look like the sort of hand-me-downs that a 1980s high-schooler would have driven.  Their homes have above-ground pools and 4:3 television sets with rabbit-ears.  The girls feather their hair, the boys are attired in hopelessly retro ways, and there's nary a cell phone in sight.  And yet, this isn't a period piece.  It's more a kind of horror-driven fairy tale set in this imagined world that never moved on from the latter years of the Cold War, the time before we knew about AIDS and the ways sex could kill you.

From its first shot, It Follows establishes the off-kilter sense of doom and dread that pervade it.  Director David Robert Mitchell knows how to create a mood, one that never lets up.  I can't think of a movie as strangely unsettling, in ways both big and small, since Philp Kaufman's masterful 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Acting, production design, photography, music and sound effects are all used to keep us off-balance.

It Follows opens with a scene we don't understand -- a barely dressed young woman staggers out of a suburban house and stumbles down the street.  It's hard to tell if she's running, and if she is we can't figure out from what.  She assures neighbors and her father that she is fine, but she's obviously not.  And then, the next morning, she's dead, in the movie's only overtly grisly scene.  (Fair warning: It is indeed a disturbing image.)

Seemingly unrelated, young college student Jay (Maika Monroe) is getting ready for a date with a boy named Hugh (Jake Weary) who may be too old for her.  They flirt a little.  They sit down to a movie ... and Hugh begins to freak out.  He can't see something sinister that Jay can see.  They forget about the incident, and continue their flirtation.  They have sex in the back of a car.

Then things get really, really weird, because the sex they have is, well, cursed.  I won't tell you how, I won't tell you why, but Hugh has "passed on" something to Jay without her knowledge or consent, and he needs her to be certain that she has been infected.  There's only one way to get rid of it -- to pass it on to someone else.

Yes, in the revisionist horror-movie world of It Follows, sex isn't an instant death sentence, not as long as you can go out and have sex with other people.  In the 1980s, the way to survive a horror movie was to be the virgin.  In It Follows, the only way you can reasonably be assured of living to the end of the movie is to become sexually prolific.  It's a sly subversion, one that Mitchell plays both for laughs and for shock.

It Follows is never less than fascinating, occasionally genuinely creepy and scary, and frequently downright bizarre.  It sets its own rules and then follows them carefully.  It hints at a "meta" cinematic world view, one that allows it to comment on itself ... but just barely, never going over the top in that sense the way the downright silly Cabin in the Woods did a few years ago.  It Follows doesn't want to be an homage to other horror movies -- it wants to be its own.

Though it has an odd sense of pacing and an ending that plays things a little too coy, it largely succeeds.  It Follows is, above all, a wonderfully effective little horror show that knows the best places to find horrors aren't necessarily in monsters that live in our imaginations -- but in the monsters that live inside our heads, the ones that emerge and grow once we've entered the world of adulthood.  They're the kinds of monsters that take hold and never let go, following us everywhere we go, with the ability to take the form of anyone, but especially the people we care about the most.  As the title says, once we decide we're going to be adults, it follows that some pretty ugly stuff decides to start following us around for the rest of our lives.

Once you get over the effective creepiness of It Follows and start thinking about what it all means, its subtle and cutting observations become all the more fascinating.

Viewed March 22, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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