Tuesday, March 31, 2015
"It Follows" is, if you were to be unkind, a stylish but very obvious ripoff of early John Carpenter.
If you were to be more kind -- as I am inclined to be, after my second time seeing it -- it's basically the movie John Carpenter never made. Or, to be more precise, it's the movie latter-day John Carpenter WISHES he still made.
David Robert Mitchell's second feature film is unabashed about its desire to pay homage to the horror titan, all the way down to Disasterpeace's extravagant synth-heavy score. If that's all it had going for it, it would be just another one of these fairly anonymous 80s-pastiche horror movies that seemed to come into vogue in the wake of Ty West's "House of the Devil."
But Mitchell has something working in his favor here that most of those other films do not.
His movie is really, REALLY fucking scary.
But don't get me wrong. The hype that's calling this the scariest horror movie in 10 years is overstated. That honor, of course, goes to "The Babadook."
This is only the second scariest horror movie of the last 10 years.
Or maybe I'm overstating my case. I don't want to oversell this film. But I will say that, aside from "The Babadook," I haven't had a horror movie worm its way so deep under my skin for a long, long time.
Like most Carpenter movies, the script is kind of just okay and the performances top out at "good" but never get anywhere close to great. Maika Monroe is solid enough as Jay, the film's put-upon lead, but she doesn't really do anything to distinguish herself from the legions of scream queens that have gone before her. Daniel Zovatto is exactly every bad-boy-next-door-neighbor you've ever seen. The best performances come from Keir Gilchrest as the sensitive-nerd-with-the-crush and Olivia Luccardi as the random-friend-who-doesn't-do-a-lot-but-says-cool-weird-shit, but they don't ever really manage to transcend the confines of their roles.
What Mitchell has here, though, is a powerful command of cinema and one hell of a hook that is elementally powerful but so simple in its conception and execution that I can't believe no one has thought of it before.
If you've seen the trailer, you probably know the basic idea: Jay has sex with a guy named Hugh and discovers that he's passed on a...thing...that will follow her until it either kills her or she passes it on to someone else (with her vajajay, of course). If it kills her, it goes back to Hugh. If it kills whoever she passes it on to, it goes back to her. Pretty straightforward.
You'll be forgiven if you dismiss this as a riff on your typical 80s sexual-panic slasher flick. I guess it sort of is. But what Mitchell does with the concept is pretty goddamned stunning. He sets the moralizing aside and instead focuses on the sheer, reptile-brain terror of the...well, the thing...coming after her. Mitchell could have had it pass on from Hugh to Jay in almost any other way -- a kiss, an arm-wrestling match, whatever -- and it wouldn't have affected the story one bit. End of the day, it's not about the bonin' at all. What starts as a teen sex romp turns into a fevered paranoid thriller that would make Polanski proud.
"It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you," Hugh tells her. "Sometimes I think it looks like the people you love just to hurt you."
Mitchell's thing is as terrifying, alien and amorphus as Carpenter's Thing. He has a powerful sense of what to do with the camera, and his use of deep focus is masterful. His camera is always moving, searching, but never aimless. I can't think of one shot in the movie that felt like a guy showing off. Everything -- even the flashy stuff -- is perfectly motivated.
He also knows when to sit on an image and just let it bleed (literally or not). He's a genius at lulling you into an almost hypnotic sense of security, then suddenly yanking the rug out from under you and sending you reeling desperately for balance.
The chilly, decayed Detroit location and the retro production and costume design also serve to place this movie firmly within an 80s lexicon, but beyond that they create a quiet sense of almost apocalyptic timelessness that reinforces the larger theme. You feel like these people are stuck on a hamster wheel that's just gonna keep running on forever and ever until they die.
Mitchell is doing nothing to reinvent the wheel here. But it doesn't matter. Structurally, "It Follows" is a pretty standard, straight-forward teen horror movie. But it's just a really damn good one, head and shoulders above all but maybe five or six of the generally agreed-upon classics. He taps into some primal fears that put this film -- if not quite at the level of Carpenter's Halloween and The Thing -- well within spitting distance of them.
The first time I saw it was at the Arclight in Hollywood. I got out of the theater at about 4:30 in the afternoon. It was a sunny, warm spring day. I went into the parking garage without a care in the world to go to my car. Then the elevator doors opened and a random middle-aged Asian lady got out and started walking toward me and I about shat my pants before I realized she was just going to her car, too.
It's that kind of movie.