Sunday, March 29, 2015

In Theaters: IT FOLLOWS (2015)

(US - 2015)

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Bailey Spry, Debbie Williams, Leisa Pulido. (R, 100 mins)

It seems like every other month or so, there's a new indie horror movie being hailed as an Instant Horror Classic. Most recently, the scenesters couldn't shut up about STARRY EYES, which has already been forgotten. There's a lot of hype out there, and while you get an occasional OCULUS, THE GUEST, or THE BABADOOK that lives up to it, there's an awful lot of The Fanboy Who Cried Wolf when it comes it to a lot of these things. Horror is a very fan-friendly genre, and you meet the filmmakers at a horror con or they accept your friend request on Facebook, and that kind of interaction, unheard of in the glory days of, say, John Carpenter or Dario Argento or Wes Craven, tends to cloud the judgment of genre fans. When the usual suspects started shilling for IT FOLLOWS, it seemed like more of the same. But then even non-genre critics and media outlets started singing its praises, with the acclaim extending far beyond the usual insulated sycophancy of convention regulars, Rob Zombie superfans, people who think THE INNKEEPERS is good, and guys who hoard limited edition steelbook re-releases of movies they don't even really like.

With most indie horror never living up to the insider hype and big-studio releases beholden to either found footage or the tired jump-scare/shaky-cam aesthetic, IT FOLLOWS is the kind of sleeper sensation that arrives out of nowhere to save the horror genre from itself, with Radius/TWC nixing its planned VOD dumping in favor of a nationwide release once the word-of-mouth gained momentum and it turned into the best-reviewed film of the year thus far. Perhaps a good chunk of its success comes from writer/director David Robert Mitchell not being a "horror guy." His previous film was the 2011 indie THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER, a character piece following a group of teenagers over the last weekend of summer. Like SLEEPOVER, IT FOLLOWS was shot in and around Mitchell's hometown of Detroit, a city whose rundown areas and copious standing ruins almost function as another character (indeed, along with Jim Jarmusch's ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, IT FOLLOWS is a present-day Detroit version of all those early '80s time capsule movies that captured places like The Bronx in all its decaying glory). There's a disorienting sense of time and place throughout, with characters using tablets but driving '80s vehicles or watching cheesy sci-fi movies like 1954's KILLERS FROM SPACE on an old tube TV. The characters are smart, likable, and normal. There's no snark or vocal fry. In a way, the world of IT FOLLOWS is one lost in time, the kind of place where all the neighbors know one another. There's nothing about it that definitively states when it takes place (clearly the present day, given some technology), but the jarring signifiers, chiefly Disasterpeace's sublimely synthy, John Carpenter-inspired score, are there to send the message that this is the kind of movie we would've seen 30 years ago. And unlike 99% of what's out there today, we might actually still be talking about IT FOLLOWS 30 years from now. It's been deemed by some to be the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET of its generation, and that's really an apt comparison.

The story unfolds much more successfully than a synopsis might lead you to believe. 19-year-old Jay (THE GUEST's Maika Monroe, cementing her status as today's reigning scream queen), lives with her mom (Debbie Williams) and sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and attends what looks like a small community college. After having sex with new beau Hugh (Jake Weary) for the first time, he chloroforms her and informs of what she has to do: he passed something on to her, something that only she and those who used to carry it can see. It's a shape-shifting figure that's constantly heading in her direction. It can look like a stranger or be identical to someone you know. To get rid of it, you have to have sex with someone and pass it on to them. If it catches and kills that person before they have a chance to pass it on, it reverts back to pursuing you, and you have to have sex to get rid of it again. It can only walk ("It's slow but it's not dumb," he says), and it's always in pursuit. You can drive far away to give yourself some time, but it's always following you.

Mitchell has said that the origins of the film stem from a traumatic childhood nightmare about being incessantly followed. Beyond that, the most obvious read is the "It" being a sexually-transmitted disease, but Mitchell refuses to provide definite answers, leaving some plot details intentionally vague and open to interpretation in a way that will no doubt frustrate viewers who need everything concretely explained (what's with the three guys on the boat?  Or the peeping kids in the neighborhood? And what happened to Jay's pool?). In addition to Disasterpeace's score setting the mood on intense edge, Mitchell reveals himself to be a master of widescreen shot composition and choreography. Given the rules of "It," he's constantly having the camera move around the actors as you nervously observe the background--in a park, for example, when anyone walking in the general direction of Jay could be "It." And when it's not, you exhale, realizing you've been holding your breath in horrific anticipation and dread for the entire sequence. (MILD SPOILER) Mitchell is a master manipulator, often using cast members or extras with similar appearances to the stars and having them essay an incarnation of "It." Nowhere is this better handled than when Jay, Kelly, and their friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi), Greg (Daniel Zovatto), and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who carries a torch for Jay, flee to Greg's family's cottage: Yara walks towards them in the background and we don't think anything of it because it's Yara. As the characters sit in the sand and talk, Mitchell shows Yara paddling by in the water and saying "You guys should come in!" followed by a cut back to Jay as the now-threatening "It" Yara is headed straight for her, unseen by the others. From that moment on, nothing can be trusted, and you're at Mitchell's mercy. (END SPOILER)

IT FOLLOWS has a premise that you expect to be riddled with plot holes. If "It" has to walk to get you, then sure, you could ask "Why not go to an island? Or move to Hawaii?" And yeah, it's a little silly when Mitchell toys with the rules a bit and lets Kelly isolate the location of "It" and throw a blanket on top of it, making it briefly resemble a ghost from an old movie. Because it's a horror movie that arrives pre-anointed as the next Instant Classic, you keep waiting for its inevitable collapse...but it never comes. As a metaphor for either STDs or the idea of adult sexuality closing the door on childhood or however you want to interpret it (pay close attention to a framed photo seen in Jay's house near the end of the film for a potentially major alternate interpretation of the events), Mitchell has created an inventive, original, thought-provoking horror film that transcends the confines of its genre label to be a vividly-detailed and superbly-acted post-high school/early-college-age character piece. It's the kind of film that reveals more layers of detail and character with each viewing, particularly in the way that its protagonists initially seem like predictable "types" (Gilchrist's dweeby Paul, Luccardi's frumpy, sloppily-eating Yara) but aren't treated as such by the others. IT FOLLOWS will no doubt launch a thousand thinkpieces, and along with THE BABADOOK, it's the kind of multi-layered work that gives some artistic legitimacy and credibility to an historically-derided genre. It's not a perfect film but there's a lot to digest and dissect, the kind of cinematic experience that will continue to reward and provoke debate on future viewings, confidently standing the test of time. It's rare these days to find a fright film that rewards attentive, serious horror audiences with something of intelligence and depth, while simultaneously scaring the shit out of them.

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