Saturday, March 28, 2015

A GREAT HORROR MOVIE THAT WILL STAY WITH YOU? "IT FOLLOWS".

Maika Monroe in a rare moment of solitude and solace in IT FOLLOWS.
The distributors of IT FOLLOWS missed their opportunity to open the heralded horror film wide two weeks ago after a nationwide PR blitz and sterling reviews across the board. Instead, only New York and Los Angeles got to see the movie as it opened on all of four screens in those two cities. However, distributor Radius-TWC brokered a deal based on those strong reviews that enabled the film to open on 1,200 screens March 27,  just two weeks later. That’s exciting news for horror fans nationwide as this thriller is an absolute must-see.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell has created a truly special frightener. It’s exceedingly scary, but in a fun way. There’s nothing here that will make anyone wince or cover their eyes, so it’s that rare horror movie that should be just as appealing to non-aficionados as well. Instead, what he’s delivered is a tense, exciting entertainment with just enough subtext about the dangers of casual sex to make you think while you scream and laugh.

Mitchell’s story focuses on Jay (Maika Monroe), a comely and self-aware young college student who knows she’s pretty but wants a deeper connection with a boy than just those surface trappings. She’s dating a guy who fits that bill named Hugh (Jake Weary). He seems to have a good mix of sexy and sensitive, and Jay’s more than willing to keep their relationship progressing towards the inevitable sexual acts. On their third date together, he sees a woman coming towards them in a movie theater and suddenly claims illness, so they leave. Jay doesn't see what he's seen, but let's it go, and his brooding afterwards leads her to believe he's being soulful. She gives in to his charms and trysts with him in the backseat of his car. 


Afterwards, as she muses about what she’d like from life, she gets something that only her worst nightmares could conjure. Hugh incapacitates her with chloroform and when she wakes, Jay is tied to a wheelchair, half clothed, and parked in an abandoned apartment complex. Hugh shows up and explains to her that their sexual intercourse has passed on a curse. An entity will now come after her, at a walking pace, in the guise of people, one that others will not be able to see. If the entity catches her, it will kill her. The only way to stop it is to have sex with another person and pass the virus onto the next victim. (And you thought the idea of getting herpes or AIDS from a partner was disturbing enough. Yikes!)

Indeed, Mitchell is equating casual sex with danger, just as many filmmakers have before. This is well worn terrain in horror and many thrillers have traded on the idea of STD’s as monster metaphors. Films from David Cronenberg’s RABID in 1977 to Eric England’s CONTRACTED in 2013 have mined that rich field. Mitchell however, cultivates the land without the usual body dilapidation. Rather, he  turns his 'STD', if you will, into THE TERMINATOR or something akin to the alien from 1987's cult classic THE HIDDEN. His entity is a sexually transmitted one that takes any human form and is relentless as hell. It keeps popping up when you least expect it or want to see it. 

Hugh (Jake Weary) shows Jay (Maika Monroe) what's in store for her now that they've had sex in IT FOLLOWS.
And while the urgency of this entity is fairly pragmatic in its pursuit,  especially since it's able to break down doors and travel great distances, the real horror here is in those moments when it lies dormant. When Jay is not in immediate danger, that is when the film is at its most fiendishly clever. Waiting for the entity is just as scary as when it's onscreen. And it's a great credit to Mitchell that he can fill the downtime with such incredible dread. 

Jay is no passive horror heroine though, which is very unique and refreshing for the genre as well. She tells her close circle of friends what is going on immediately, and equally impressive is how Mitchell has them all believe her right away. He doesn't waste time on 'Doubting Thomas' that so often plague horror. Yet even with her great support system, they’re all at a humongous disadvantage confronting the entity because none of them can gauge exactly when and how it will be coming. 

When Jay was strapped to that wheelchair by Hugh, they could both see the entity because they’d had sex together. But now only Jay can see it and she sure as hell doesn’t want to pass it on to some poor sap just so another can share in her hell. Thus, thwarting it becomes quite the Herculean task for her and her comrades. 

And the entity is nothing if not inconsistent. It takes many forms. The first version of it that she saw with Hugh took the form of a nude young woman, but the first time Jay sees it alone, the entity comes towards her in the form of an elderly woman. And what's so fiendishly clever about the entity is that Jay, along with the audience, is expecting that nude girl, so when the old bag starts making her beeline for Jay, it takes a while for her to register. 

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell
Mitchell finds many ways to make the entity's walking towards Jay into sheer terror,  and still cheekily humorous as well. The entity can be old, young, male, female...it can even look like a friend. 

When Jay and her friends go to Hugh’s school to confront him, Mitchell circles his camera around the student population. Dozens of kids cross back and forth in the frame. Are any of them the entity? We can’t be sure anymore than Jay. But then, in the background, one student starts walking directly towards the camera, and us, and it is utterly unnerving. 

Jay will try to outrun the darn thing, even drive as far away as she can get from it, but it will find her. Ultimately, she’s faced with the inevitable need to rid herself of it by having sex with someone else. But even that comes with a hitch. If the new partner/victim doesn't pass it on in time, the entity will find them and kill them. Then, the entity returns to the giver. It's like a boomerang from hell!

While the story and set pieces are filled with oodles of cleverness and intricacy, the characters aren’t quite as developed. Teens in horror often aren't, and sometimes a great premise can overcome such shortcomings, and they do here, by and large. The cast does fine with their underwritten roles, and Monroe plays her cool blonde part very well and keeping the blitheness of youth around the edges, despite the horrors chasing her. 

The real stars are some of the technicians on hand. In addition to Mitchell's virtuoso direction, the camera work by Mike Giouliakis is superb. His eerie tracking shots and full framed compositions are amazing throughout.  Julio  Perez IV's edits every scene for maximum tension and story thrust. And this film has one of the best horror scores done in quite some time. The music by Disasterpeace is both sensual and unnerving, a lot like sex can be actually, with a great synthesized 80's vibe to it. It conjures up the likes of John Carpenter's scores for HALLOWEEN and THE FOG, as well as the electronic allure that Nicholas Winding Refn gave to everything in his thriller DRIVE back in 2011.

Mitchell is such an assured director, with his masterful sense of pacing, tone, tension and showmanship, that his name can be spoken in the same breath with Hitchcock and Spielberg. In fact, his helming is so terrific that it upstages his writing. His third act's plotting is plagued by some unfortunate story problems that surprisingly contradict much of what he established in the first two-thirds. You can see the script straining  to keep the surprises bigger, but too many of them are illogical and inconsistent.

His script establishes that those involved in the sex act are the only ones who can see the entity, but then suddenly he lets others see it all too readily towards the end, even allowing for sheets to be tossed onto it where it becomes a physical form that all can see. Such a change in the story doesn't make sense and it makes the entity seems smaller and less threatening. And it seems to break the rules already established. 

And Mitchell's story suddenly allows for a well-placed punch or a bullet to be able to stop the entity in that final third. Why? If it's a demon or supernatural, that shouldn't occur. It seems like something from a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie, and not worthy of this sophisticated entertainment.

Plus, why would Mitchell go out of his way to painstakingly show how these kids cleverly keep the authorities at bay, only to have one show up dead and another get clipped by a stray bullet, which would surely lead to them being held for questioning by the police?

Such flaws in the final act keep IT FOLLOWS from masterpiece status. Nonetheless, it is still exceptional filmmaking and should delight audiences everywhere. The film will yield a ready-made franchise as well because the entity can continue to be transferred to all sorts of unsuspecting 'sexual sinners'. 

Originally, this indie was slated to open on VOD at the same time as its nationwide launch. The small screen opportunity has now been delayed to try and yield more box office bucks on the big screen. That's a shame since SNOWPIERCER proved last year that audiences will seek out good movies in both places. And there are plenty of profits to be made simultaneously. 

As scary as IT FOLLOWS is in working up an audience, what’s almost as disturbing is how releases too often restrict their potential audiences. One would think with the incredible ROI for SNOWPIERCER and THE INTERVIEW in the past 8 months, releases would be launched with as wide an audience as possible. Particularly for small-budgeted, intimate horror films such as this one. Alas, such logic doesn't always follow. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

THE LETHAL COMBINATION OF HORROR & SEX


The new horror movie IT FOLLOWS opened in LA and NY this weekend and has been getting a lot of press for its theme of a supernatural entity that acts as a sexually transmitted disease. Still, the buzzy film didn’t open except on the coasts this week. The rest of us get it in two weeks.  In this day and age of VOD and mass marketing, let alone the timeliness of everything social on the web, it seems silly to this film fan that a sure moneymaker like a horror film isn't opening broader. 

However, IT FOLLOWS is not the first horror movie to serve up STD metaphors. In fact, here are five classics that did, and you can catch them on DVD and streaming platforms today.


STARRY EYES (2014)

In this body transformation shocker by directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, the wonderfully nuanced Alex Essoe plays Sarah, a young actress in Hollywood who’s desperation to succeed is greater than her talent. She succumbs to the casting couch and soon her sexual tryst starts eating at her, literally and figuratively. As her body starts rotting so does her morality. She becomes homicidal, leaving a path of destruction in her wake as she rises to her true calling, that as high priestess in the satanic cult behind her sexual demolition.


CONTRACTED (2013)

Eric England’s indie also savaged the land of La-La with its tale of a young woman searching for connection and a better sense of herself in a town preoccupied with self-absorption. She has sex with a stranger at a party and soon lives to regret the intimate act, as a rabid STD seems to have come with it. Slowly but surely, her body starts to betray her. Her skin, teeth and irises all become discolored and moldy, yet no one really notices because the town’s inhabitants are too caught up in their own dramas. Najarra Townsend gives a subtly distraught performance as the self-deceiving Samantha, whose pride prohibits her from seeking treatment. Hubris is the real contagion here.


SPECIES (1995)

At the height of the era of AIDS, this 1995 creature feature certainly was symbolic of that devastating STD. An alien life form, that scientists merged with human DNA, becomes a comely woman (Natasha Henstridge). She escapes and searches for a human male to mate with to carry on her species. The tony team of actors chasing after her in this fun thriller by Roger Donaldson include Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, Alfred Molina, Marg Helgenberger and Michael Madsen. Casting an utter knockout like newcomer Henstridge helped ensure her numerous nude scenes were both titillating and terrifying. SPECIES proves that even if sex looks good on the outside, you never really know what's going on in the inside of your lover. Scary thought, eh?


CAT PEOPLE (1982)

Back in the 80’s, when Nastassia Kinski was the hottest German import since the BMW, she starred in Paul Shrader’s remake of  CAT PEOPLE. This horror movie was a more explicit remake of the wonderful original starring Simone Simon. Kinski is nude in scene after scene, and she's truly alluring as Irena. Her sexuality is so potent, after orgasm, she  turns into a panther and eats her mate.  The man-eating metaphor is a bit obvious here, but the lauded likes of Malcolm McDowell, John Heard and Annette O’Toole help keep this grounded. It also boasts a wonderfully tense and pulsing score by Giorgio Moroder. All this makes CAT PEOPLE one of the Reagan era's horror gems. 


RABID (1977)

David Cronenberg has always used horror to brush up against sexual issues, as films like THE FLY (1986) and DEAD RINGERS (1988) can attest. But as early as 1977, he was pushing the juxtaposition of sex and disease in his cult classic RABID. To ensure that no one missed his point, he cast adult film star Marilyn Chambers as his lead. She plays a young woman who undergoes experimental plastic surgery that leaves her hungry for human blood. Everyone she attacks and infects turns into a bloodthirsty zombie. Dare one say, Chambers oozed sexuality in her body language and saucy facial expressions, and her provocative persona added to the allure of her out-of-control heroine. But she also aced the parts requiring her to be horrified and horrid.  

So, until IT FOLLOWS makes it to your Cineplex, there are plenty of notable films with similar themes, that can be (ahem) transmitted to film fans like you.