MARCH 28, 2015
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)
There's a funny thing about horror movies like It Follows - when it's at its best, it's largely due to the fact that writer/director David Robert Mitchell thankfully didn't spend a single second more than he had to explaining the source of the "monster" that terrorizes our heroine throughout its slightly overlong 100 min runtime. Maybe in It Follows 6: The Curse Of The Nameless It Follows Monster, we can learn that it's actually a pawn for a Druid cult looking to make a blood sacrifice, but for now we're in the dark as to where it came from, why it's doing what it's doing, how it can be stopped, etc. Even more than Myers in the original Halloween, it's a force of nature more than a flesh and blood thing, which is why it's terrifying.
So what is it? Well it's not much of a spoiler since they explain it about 20 minutes in (more on that later), so here goes - it's the embodiment of an STD, basically. Passed on through sex but working like the curse in The Ring, once you "get" it, the only way to save yourself is to sleep with someone else, at which point you'll be safe while It goes after that new target. It just walks, it can't teleport or anything like that, but it does change its appearance (and often), so it could be anyone, though its dead-eye stare and lumbering walk is usually a dead giveaway. If It gets you, then It starts working its way back, and we don't know how far back that is (thank Christ; I was dreading some sort of "if we kill the original person, everyone down the line will be safe!" type scenario). The guy who gave it to Jay, our heroine (The Guest's Maika Monroe), could be the 2nd or 3rd victim of the line, or he could be the 1000th (this thing could be milked for sequels AND prequels forever if they want), but it doesn't matter. Stopping it by investigating its own history doesn't seem to cross their minds; everything they do is about surviving by passing it on or killing it.
It's refreshing to see a movie devoid of the usual exposition and convoluted "mythology"; the movie becomes smaller as it goes instead of opening up the world to more information and characters who know what they're dealing with. Unfortunately, Mitchell applied the same "less is more" thinking to the actions of his heroes, and that doesn't work quite as well. Granted they are young adults (their exact age is unclear, but Jay attends community college, so they're at least 18 I would think) and thus maybe not quite as intelligent as Mr. Horror Movie A Day sitting in the comfort of his theater seat, but at least two of their grand plans don't make any goddamn sense at all, and they never seem to think of more obvious (if still short term) solutions to stay ahead of the titular being that haunts them - i.e. getting on a damn boat. At one point they manage to shoot the thing in the head, and it just keeps coming after them with barely a pause - so why does their next plan involve spending what seems like hours driving to a giant pool with dozens of electric appliances, hoping to get it into the water and then electrocute it? That would be like assuming a sharp kick to the groin would work on a vampire that was impervious to sunlight or stakes to the heart. There are also seeming attempts to pass it on that are left entirely to our imagination (like when Jay spies some dude-bros on a boat and swims out to them, presumably for some group sex), but we are basically forced not to think about them and just assume that it doesn't matter - you can't ever be safe from it no matter what you do. But it's hard not to think about all the potential bodies that must be piling up for the thing to keep returning to Jay.
Thus, it's the odd film that's smart (the metaphor is genius - not to mention more satisfying than the usual "if you have sex you die" lesson from slasher films) but also requires you to turn off your brain a bit (at least, the part that asks questions). Everything on-screen works great - the performances are solid, the scares work (this was actually my 2nd viewing* and I jumped three times), the score is FANTASTIC, and it's thankfully not a reference/homage fest like many a modern horror film. My friend said he appreciated the nods to Halloween but to me that's almost reaching - basically there's a scene of a girl in a classroom who looks out the window and sees her pursuer, but that's hardly specific to Halloween anymore (and the framing is all different, as is the outcome). The setting is also vague; if not for a curious Kindle-like device that's only about as big as a compact mirror, one would assume the film took place in the late 80s or something - the TVs are all 4:3 clunkers, the cars are old, no one has a cell phone, etc. On the surface one could draw parallels to Nightmare on Elm Street (suburban supernatural horror that can't be explained, sounds ridiculous when anyone tries) and early Cronenberg (sex monsters!), but Mitchell never hammers them home with something like a referential character name or even any on-screen violence of note - the body count for the film is only two (not counting the potential deaths of the dude-bros), and neither of them are explicit. A gun is introduced for the pals to shoot at their pursuer, and you think someone might get cut down by accident since none of them can aim, but one girl just takes a round to the leg and that's about it. The R rating IS earned, but not for the usual ways you'd think a horror film would be (I'll leave that surprise for you).
There are two things that could have made the movie even better for me (I know the review reads largely negative, but I did like the movie - if I was a grading man I'd give it a B+). One is that we learn most of what we ever do about It before we ever actually see the damn thing for ourselves. The film has an amazing opening scene where a victim is pursued and killed (off-screen, though the corpse is left in a Hannibal-worthy condition), where we never see what is happening, and to me that's the best chase sequence in the movie by far (it could have been topped by a later one where the thing takes on the guise of one of her friends, and we're supposed to think it IS her until the real one appears elsewhere in the setting, but Mitchell bungles it by showing It in soft focus and lumbering along same as he did for 10-12 other incarnations of the thing). Something similar happens with Jay's boyfriend Hugh, before he passes it on to her, where he says he sees it and Jay/we can't see anything, but as soon as he gives it to her, he knocks her out, waits for her to wake up, and then explains everything about it before it shows up and she sees it for herself. From then on the movie follows a fairly repetitive structure - she gathers with her pals for safety, the thing shows up, they run/drive away to a new place, the thing shows up, and so on (the movie has like four scenes of them all piling into a car followed by dreamy, silent driving montages). Had Hugh's big explanation scene come maybe after she had been confusingly chased once (the aforementioned school scene, for example), it could have broken up that repetition, keeping us in the dark a bit longer. It'd be like if Nancy's mom told her about who Freddy was before he had killed Tina. For a script that seemed to want us not to know much, it sure was in a rush to let us know what little it DID want to divulge.
The other one is the ending, so SPOILERS AHEAD (skip to next paragraph if you wish). Jay passes it on yet again, and her "victim" then drives to the bad part of town and passes by some hookers. As always, Mitchell leaves things vague, so who knows if he actually went through it or not, but as like with the guys on the boat it doesn't matter - in the next scene he and Jay are walking down the street and the thing appears behind them before we go to credits. To me, the best and most chilling ending would have been seeing them board a plane or a ship and figure they'll be safe that way, only to see the thing casually walk into the water and continue its pursuit. It'd basically be the same thing, but enforcing its persistence with a new obstacle that it easily overcomes, rather than just have it once again trailing them in the same vague Michigan suburb we've seen it doing for the past 90 minutes. There's no real OOMPH to the ending, and both times I saw it people around me were like "Huh? That's it?". It's not quite The Devil Inside or whatever, but I think Mitchell could have gone with something more chilling to send us off.
Ultimately, it's a horror movie that works best on the people that are easily scared. Not that the scares are cheap or anything, but now that I'm old and married I don't have those "what if I get a disease?" fears I had in high school, and as I've said numerous times on here I don't scare easily. If horror films get under your skin with relative ease, and/or you're a younger audience member, this will play like gangbusters, and I encourage that you see it for yourself. If nothing else, it's worth watching for the inevitable post-movie discussion filled with Gremlins-esque "What if they cross time zones?" type questions concerning the film's "just go with it" logic (my favorite so far: "Why doesn't one of them just bang an astronaut?"). And I love that it's playing on over 1000 screens right now (and not doing that bad! My matinee had like 20 people, pretty good for an indie horror film with zero advertising), as this is the sort of movie I expected to go VOD before being dumped in a few indie theaters a month later, like pretty much every indie horror movie nowadays. Indeed, in an unprecedented move, it WAS planned for a VOD release by now, but instead it got the Paranormal Activity treatment. After doing incredible business in a few (literally, I think it was 4) theaters, it expanded into a hundred or so, continued doing well, and now it's basically playing everywhere in major cities - PA was the last time I can remember a horror movie EARNING a wide release due to demand instead of just getting one. This the sort of thing I've been waiting to see happen ever since VOD became the norm for smaller horror fare, and it gives me hope that horror fans still know how to go up to a box office and ask for a ticket instead of navigating on their computer or cable box. Even if I wasn't as blown away by it as some of my pals and many critics, I'm still thrilled to see the success it has achieved. But if you're like me and can't help over-analyzing things, be prepared to say "Wait a minute..." more often than you'd like.
What say you?
*I saw it at AFI Fest last fall, but it was a midnight screening, so you should easily guess what happened. Since I was mixed I didn't think it was fair to write a review as maybe some of my issues would have been resolved if I hadn't slept through a key piece of info or something, so I waited until now - and went at an 11 am screening! - to put my thoughts down. As it turns out, none of my issues changed; the parts I missed weren't that essential anyway (and one, that boat part, actually made me like the movie slightly less since it was such a go nowhere sequence and the whole "you can't just get rid of it" thing had already been hammered home and would be again).