March 31, 2015

It Follows

It Follows practices the economy of banality. It looks low-budget, but that may be more of an accented touch than an actual financial circumstance. It’s placid and monotone in the way unimaginative horror films from the 80s were, except at the heart of the film is a pretty funny notion, riffing on the criticism certain viewers charged at slasher movies thirty years ago where the sexually active youngsters were always being killed off in a fit of puritanical judgment: a demonic, indefinable thing is passed on via sexual intercourse, and it pursues its target with unwavering perseverance. It's the sex-as-death- wish threat writ large. 

The film is set in the cinematically appealing drabness and rot of Detroit, where a group of teenagers bands together to protect the heroine Jay (Maika Monroe), who’s being visited by this STDemon with a vengeance. Of course, only she can see the thing, which stalks her in the form of various dead people (men, women, old and young; it changes forms almost every time). Her friends believe her though, and director David Robert Mitchell zeroes in on the tight-knit closeness that develops as a result of the uncanny predicament in which Jay finds herself. (Like all good cheesy horror movies, this film exists in a world populated by adolescents who are latch-key kids: their parents are conveniently aloof and they are forced to deal with their supernatural-sexual problems on their own.) Mitchell’s sense of what makes a horror film work is admirable: It Follows has plenty of moments to make the flesh creep. It’s also one of the few horror films in recent memory that doesn’t blatantly refer to other horror films, although in a sense, it’s just one long reference in and of itself. 

Mitchell seems intent on making a virtue of the unimaginativeness of those horror movies that his generation grew up on. But in spite of the film’s monotone blandness aesthetically speaking, and despite the characters’ blasé attitudes, the movie is a shrieking good time in parts. Mitchell’s a hipster filmmaker (his sense of period detail is deliberately ambiguous: the kids watch TV on big, bulky sets, use phones with cords, but there are still cell phones, and one girl has a sea shell-shaped e-reader on which she reads Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot); he's infatuated with his clever detachment, perhaps too content in the knowledge that he "gets" what makes a horror movie fun. And yet, the problem I have had with horror movies lately is that none of them seem interested in showing us a good time. Just watching the previews for It Follows confirmed this: it was one child-in-peril-via-supernatural-forces after another, including a needless Poltergeist remake.

It Follows scores a lot of points for being simply enjoyable, and quite deliberately simple, the way that Halloween is. I think Mitchell may be selling himself short in terms of filmmaking, especially if the thing is a massive hit and he’s stuck making one It Follows after another for the next ten years. But it will be interesting to see where he goes as a director, because he’s able to do a lot with very little, and we truly do feel for these characters. With Keir Gilchrist, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto, Olivia Luccardi, and Lili Sepe.

March 21, 2015

What We Do in the Shadows

500th review

What We Do in the Shadows is a silly, slight but enjoyable, mockumentary about four male vampires (Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh, and Ben Fransham) living in a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. It’s a joke on all the old vampire tropes, but only half-heartedly so. What it really makes fun of is straight men afraid of acting gay: the unspoken tenderness that develops between male friends who would be horrified if anyone ever accused them of loving each other. There are, as is to be expected, plenty of references to the vampire of popular culture (from Dracula to Twilight), and Petyr, the least social of the four undead roommates, has been made up to resemble Mr. Barlow, the purple, snaggle-fanged, hissing vampire in the 1979 adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. (That look of Mr. Barlow was, of course, drawn heavily from Murnau’s silent classic of 1922, Nosferatu.) The other three roommates make gains toward having a social life, and procure victims through their living “familiar,” Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), who’s been promised eternal life in exchange for her service.

The film is also a riff on hyper-dramatic reality TV shows. It feels like a Gothic Real World directed by Christopher Guest. And always, always, with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that lifts the material. It’s a dark movie—out of necessity—and not a particularly well-made one at that. It’s obvious that the filmmakers are in love with their idea, like kids who’ve been given a video camera to play around with, and even when you’re bored watching the flatness of the results you can savor and enjoy their unmitigated enthusiasm for the material and for the act of movie-making. The film is laugh-out-loud funny at times, but its humor begins to wear thin after a while. The cleverness of the idea isn’t enough to sustain it, although it’s mercifully short at 86 minutes. By the end I was a little bored with it, even though the big showdown at the Undead Ball is amusing, and the relationships between the flatmates are surprisingly warm and alive. And as much fun as the vampire humor is, it may be the throwaway lines that are the funniest. Some of them are so quiet or so quickly uttered that you barely notice them, which might warrant a second viewing if you enjoyed it the first time. Written and directed by Waititi and Clement. With Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stu Rutherford, and Rhys Darby.