Both terrifying and sad, It Follows is one of the best horror films in recent memory
Horror films tend to operate in two gears—“Be afraid” or “be afraid later”—and they alternate between the two over the course of their running time. One explicit example is the formula of the Paranormal Activity films, which cleanly split their action into day and night sequences. During the day, genuine scares are and far between, with most of the time dedicated to conversations whatever forces are haunting them. Then, once the sun goes down, that’s when all hell breaks loose. Audiences have been trained to respond to these rhythms over the course of the film, and when the credits roll they are finally released from the ostensible terror they just witnessed. It’s especially freaky, then, when a horror movie comes along that refuses to let audiences off the hook for any time whatsoever. David Robert Mitchell’s indie hit It Follows is one such film, and its success can all be boiled down to one thing: it is a terrific premise, superbly executed, and it turns down multiple chances to take the easy way out.
The premise is simple in theory and utterly creepy in practice. As the film begins, Jay (Maika Monroe) has just begun dating an older guy named Hugh (Jake Weary). After they eventually have sex, Hugh reveals that he has just passed something on to Jay. That “something” turns out to be a terrifying supernatural being that will slowly follow her until it catches up, and ultimately kills her. The being takes many forms (all human), can only be seen by those affected, and gets around only by walking, slowly. You can try and get as far away from it as you can, but it will always eventually catch up. The only way to get rid of it is to pass it on, but even then, if it kills that person it will then set its sights back on you. That is what makes it such a frightening, ingenious idea—this is a being that cannot be disposed of, and even when Jay is far away, the characters (and the audience) are fully aware it’s only a matter of time until it catches up again. Then it’s back to running.
It’s one thing to dream up this scenario and a whole other thing to implement it as well as Mitchell does here. Right from the first frame, It Follows is coated with a thick, mysterious dread that never lets up. It’s made abundantly clear that this is a problem with no simple solution. It has no weakness or motivation to exploit. As the title says, it follows. That’s all. And there’s nothing any of the characters can do to stop it.
As far as achieving this effect is concerned, Mitchell is unafraid to pull from the playbook of past genre triumphs. The most obvious point of comparison is likely John Carpenter’s Halloween, which employed a similar tone and visual style while telling a story of horror descending on a group of suburban teenagers. (The memorable score by Rich Vrelland also carries a Carpenter-esque vibe.) Mitchell’s suburban Detroit, however, isn’t nearly as photogenic. These children roam their neighborhood like survivors of some kind of apocalypse, and very few adults are anywhere to be found. Those who do show up are normally given the Peanuts treatment, with faces deliberately kept out of the frame. These are teenagers left to fend for themselves. If It Follows can be read as a coming-of-age horror film, its opinion on growing up isn’t particularly romantic. Every time it threatens to become a celebration of youth, Mitchell is quick to turn it into a full-throated warning of the Pandora’s box that awaits these characters on the other side. It’s every bit as heartbreaking as it is terrifying, and leaves audiences rooting for a happy ending that they know can never come.
PS: After two weeks of a successful limited release, It Follows is getting a wide release this weekend instead of going to VOD. This is actually really huge, so I implore you to go see it this weekend if you have the time. That way, more movies like this might get a shot at a wide release. Do it.
Jean-Luc Godard says Goodbye to Language
This past weekend, I was surprised to learn that Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language was playing at the independent theater down the road from where I live. Godard’s 3-D experiment has gotten quite a bit of attention among cinephiles, but it hasn’t been widely shown for various reasons. Mostly, it’s because Godard spends his time these days making narrative-free avant-garde art projects of interest only to his most die-hard fans. For the most part, Goodbye to Language is no different. It’s 70 minutes of Godard doing whatever the hell he pleases, typically alternating between footage of a (usually naked) couple, a ship coming in to port, and a dog just chilling by a river. However, the real hook here is his use of 3-D, which is probably the most interesting I’ve seen. In between the white noise and Godard’s insistence on sticking his cantankerous worldview into every scene, there are a handful of shots that will blow your brain to pieces.
There is one technique in particular that’s downright crazypants, and he employs it twice with impressive results. Essentially, a shot begins showing a small group of characters having a conversation. The group breaks up, with two walking to the right and one remaining to the left. Godard keeps a camera on both sides of the scene, and uses the 3-D to lay the images on top of each other. Close your left eye, you’ll see the scene on the right. Close your right eye, and… you get the picture. It’s just one jaw-dropping innovation in a film with a few of them, and if any of this sounds interesting to you, it’s well worth checking out if it comes to your town.
Other new releases:
–As far as Liam Neeson’s action phase goes, Run All Night is probably one of the better ones. Once you get past the frustratingly impatient editing, director Jaume Collet-Serra is able to put together a handful of genuinely exciting action sequences.
–David Cronenberg has always been a provocateur, but Maps to the Stars is a different kind of provocation; part Hollywood satire, part family drama, it’s a curiosity that aims to leave the audience with a bad taste in their mouths. At that, it succeeds wildly. In all other areas, it just feels vacuous. For Cronenberg completists only.
–It’s hard to see anyone walking away from Denny Tedesco’s music documentary The Wrecking Crew unhappy, and it’s now available on VOD. Many years in the making, it tells the tale of the session musicians that played on many of the most famous rock songs of the ’60s, only to get virtually no credit when the music reached the public. Fun, informative and personal—Tedesco’s late father is one of the film’s subjects—it’s not exactly a hard-hitting piece of filmmaking, but it’s a fascinating window into an era of the music industry that has long since died away.
Classic of the week
True crime seems to be having quite a moment lately. The podcast Serial took the world by storm last year, and Andrew Jarecki’s gripping HBO series The Jinx recently made headlines by unearthing new evidence that could put alleged murderer (and confirmed body-chopper) Robert Durst behind bars. However, one of the biggest inspirations for The Jinx—and most true crime documentaries to come out in the past 20 years—is Errol Morris’ 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, which can currently be viewed on Netflix. (A Criterion Blu-ray also came out this very week, if you’re into that.) Not only is it a formally groundbreaking and fascinating piece of work, but another example of a filmmaker coming up with evidence that would lead to legal results in the subsequent years. If you’re half as interested in this kind of stuff as I am, Morris’ film is required viewing.
Trailer of the week
ETHAN HUNT’S BACK, Y’ALL. The Mission: Impossible series has become one of our best action franchises, and I’d attribute that to a two things: 1) this role brings out the best in Tom Cruise, and 2) every film has a different director. The latter has allowed each film in the series to have its own style, and the appeal as stayed the same even as everything else has changed. However, if one thing sticks out to me about this trailer for the series’ fifth installment (helmed by Christopher McQuarrie) it’s that it seems to be banking on many of the things that made Ghost Protocol so darn fun. Most of the ensemble is back, Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg included, and they’re even sure to throw in a new stunt that seems to be a blatant attempt to one-up the Burj Khalifa. And darn it all if I’m not salivating at the thought. As blatant as it may be, you just don’t see practical, borderline irresponsible stunts like this anymore, and for that alone the Mission: Impossible series will always have my admiration.
Home viewing recommendation
One of the more pleasant surprises last year was that Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice—by all accounts one of the most challenging, deliberately confusing, and generally out-there movies of 2014—was funded and distributed by a major Hollywood studio. Lightly less pleasant: its unimpressive box office performance. Honestly, that’s no surprise. This always was a film bound to thrill a select group of fans and utterly alienate everyone else, but consider me a staunch member of the former. I named it as No. 7 on my best-of-the-year list, and in retrospect that might be on the low end. I’ve revisited it a few times since, and I’ve only been more engrossed in its dark, paranoid universe. It grows richer (and more coherent) with subsequent viewings, and I’m probably going to watch it even more in the years to come. It’s currently available on iTunes and various VOD platforms.