Tuesday, March 31, 2015

It Follows (2014)

If you're a horror fan, and you're wondering whether you should go see It Follows (now out in limited release, but less limited than it was to start with): do yourself a favor, and go see it. I hate to turn into one of those horror "fans" who ironically does nothing but talk about how much horror movies suck, but they are a dime a dozen these days, and it's easy to get jaded, and not know which ones are worth your time. But take it from me: It Follows is one of the good ones. Its hype, while possibly a bit exaggerated (though understandably so), is nevertheless very well-founded.

So many horror movies these days seem to be simple cliche-ridden cash-ins, like some struggling or up-and-coming director decided, "hey, use a lot of makeup, throw in a bunch of jump scares, and I could totally exploit the horror audiences - it's so easy!" Unfortunately, I got that feeling when I watched the trailer for The Lazarus Effect, which I otherwise felt had a slam dunk premise. But It Follows is different. It has its own slam dunk premise, but on top of that you get the feeling that it was put together by auteurs who were serious about what they were doing.

On a superficial level (which in the realm of cinema is not at all insignificant), the film has a very compelling style, aided by the beautiful cinematography and haunting soundtrack. The movie pays homage to John Carpenter's Halloween (there are also some structural similarities to A Nightmare on Elm Street), with its sweeping autumn suburban-scapes, in a way that feels natural and not like a simple rehash of past glory (not unlike The House of the Devil). There are even a number of environmental cues that harken back to the '70s or '80s, but the movie doesn't beat you over the head with its time period, which takes a back seat to the story that unfolds. (Actually, close inspection will reveal some surreal anachronisms which further de-emphasize the importance of the time period in lieu of the story).

At its core, It Follows has a winning premise that is not only chilling and original, but is the sort that really gets your mind going. This is not at all a slasher film, but the kind of horror that I think prioritizes the scare that "whispers at midday" over the more obvious one that goes bump in the night. So, instead of a monster or maniac killer that rushes at you in a moment of adrenaline, you have instead this supernatural inevitability that manifests in the form of a person (chosen for maximum psychological disturbance) calmly, and slowly, but unceasingly walking toward you, and you know that if it reaches you, it will do horrible things to you. You can outrun it easy, but it will not stop, and it's only a matter of time before it catches up to you.

The propagation of the curse occurs through sexual intercourse, and the only thing you can do to get it off your back is to have sex with someone else, who will then become the new target. But can you bring yourself to doom another person in this way? And even if so, it's not like you can breathe easy, because if the supernatural force catches up with its target, it will then go after the previous person in line again. That one night when you finally start to relax could be the night that it comes back for you. But if you think the solution is to stop spreading it around, you could sacrifice yourself, but you can't convince everyone else in line before you to do the same, and thus your sacrifice will be for nothing. It's a brilliant premise, rife with potential - both narrative and for scares.

I have only one significant complaint about It Follows, and that is, with a premise so rich, it demands resolution, yet affords none. Although the movie is very much worth watching, do not expect a satisfying conclusion. Enjoy the ride (as it is a very thrilling ride), but don't hold your hopes too high for the destination. The premise strongly suggests some kind of allegory - the most obvious choice being AIDS, or some other sexually transmitted disease; a more poetic reading (one that may be suggested by the penultimate scene) might suggest death itself, in all its plodding, unsuspecting inevitability. But why these particular kids are afflicted, and no one else, or what the meaning of their decision in the end holds, is not very clear. It has a bit of an open ending, for better or worse (and I'm not at all sure that this is ultimately a bad thing).

I believe it was Entertainment Weekly's review that pointed out - and this is worth noting - that this movie's premise flips the usual "sex leads to death" slasher trope upside-down, so that here, having sex is the only way to save your skin. But I give the movie slightly less credit since I've had that idea for years (I've even incorporated it into one of my unfinished movie treatments), and have been waiting a long time to see someone cash in on it; and also because even though in this movie having more sex pushes the terror away (but not necessarily indefinitely), it's sex that introduces the terror in the first place, after all.

So the movie is not strictly sex-positive, even if it does have a refreshingly nonchalant approach towards the subject, which is not true of the decades worth of slashers that could pass as Old Testament fables ("engage in sin, get brutally murdered"). And while it trips a bit on its eroticism - the main actors making the typical mistake of having sex with their clothes on, while all the nudity is outsourced to the minor players (and pretty much exclusively presented in non-erotic contexts) - it manages to be a fairly sexy movie nonetheless. This is probably only relevant inasmuch as you want your horror movies to deliver on the sex as well as the violence, but that's kind of an important thing to me (and let's be fair, sex is of huge importance in this movie's plot, so don't come whining to me about "gratuity").

The violence, too, is kind of restrained here (at least by contemporary standards), which is probably for the better, since this is a movie about the tension and creeping atmosphere, and not the gross-out gore. I can't say that I felt nearly as terrified by it as the critical reviews are promising (unlike my reaction to Paranormal Activity), but then there's bound to be some exaggeration there, and I'm a pretty experienced horror veteran anyway - it takes a lot to rattle my bones. But there are some pretty tense scenes in the movie, and like I said, the concept is pretty haunting, on not just a visceral, but an intellectual level. It kind of has a tendency to follow you. I came out of the theater not feeling especially scared, but now that it's dark, and I've been thinking about what I saw, and I'll soon have to wander into my dark bedroom to try to sleep, I'm honestly feeling a little bit creeped out. But above all - I enjoyed the movie enough that I want to see it again!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Insurgent (2015)

Insurgent is now in theaters, and my opinion of it is comparable to Divergent, the first installment in the series, that was released one year ago. For what could easily be considered a cheap Hunger Games knock-off, this series is pretty good. Not quite as good as The Hunger Games, maybe, but thoroughly enjoyable to watch. I'm glad I got dragged into it on a whim last year.

Beyond being just another post-apocalyptic dystopia based on YA novels and featuring a teen heroine, Divergent hinges on one of those great conceptual sci-fi/fantasy elements - in this case, the factions, which separate humanity into different defining personalities. It's one of those interactive elements that is endlessly fascinating, and invites viewers to ask themselves, which faction would you belong to?

And while the first Divergent movie centered a lot on Dauntless (the brave) and Abnegation (the selfless), the sequel has some good, characteristic scenes featuring Amity (the peaceful), and Candor (the honest). This series provides a great opportunity to present the best and worst of these personality traits, but I have to say, as someone whose loyalties lie with Erudite (the intelligent), that faction is sadly lacking in positive role models.

I was disappointed that, almost certainly a result of her recent role in The Fault In Our Stars, main star Shailene Woodley had shorter hair in this movie. That's just a superficial complaint, however, as it wasn't too distracting to the story. The movie ended on more of a conclusive note than I was expecting, such that I wouldn't be disappointed if that was the end of the series. That having been said, I'm curious to find out what's going to happen in the final(?) installment.