Thursday, March 26, 2015

Chain Letter: Unshakably creepy "It Follows" a horror classic in the making

It Follows (2015) 
107 min., rated R.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell's follow-up to his special, underseen 2011 slice of teenagedom "The Myth of the American Sleepover," teen horror indie "It Follows" is anything but a sophomore slump. Evocative in its teenage milieu and nerve-shredding in the urban-legend horror yarn it spins, this bracing, unshakable film proves how far more effective a movie can be with elegant simplicity, a singularly atmospheric vision, and a measured, less-is-more approach rather than being in studio hands. In an ingenious twist not seen since 2000's little-seen Brittany Murphy-starring slasher, where teens actually threw an orgy party to avoid being next on a serial killer's list, "It Follows" states a case for teen sex that goes against the old rules of horror flicks. Knocking boots has always given its active characters a death wish; now, it's one option in how to survive, like a chain letter.

19-year-old community college student Jay (Maika Monroe) has always dreamed of just going on a date with a cute guy. She gets her wish when going to the movies with Hugh (Jake Weary), but on their second date that segues into having sex in his car by an abandoned building, Jay is chloroformed and wakes up tied to a chair. Hugh apologizes, telling her that "it" will follow her, but she can pass it on to someone else to bide some time and hope it's over. Though supported by sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto), Jay is not alone, but only Jay can see the ghostly entities that follow her. It's a different apparition every time, and if they get close enough, they can kill her. If Jay could get out of dodge, she would. All she can do is wait and run from the haunting forces, or just nip it in the bud by giving the curse to someone else.

Smartly executed, dread-filled and supremely unsettling, "It Follows" grabs the viewer and refuses to loosen or let go, coupling a timeless, naturalistic mood of teenage yearning with an inescapable doom encroaching upon Jay and her friends. The time and place could be the 1980s or 2015, what with vintage and new clothes, vintage and new cars, rabbit-ear TVs, the occasional cell phone and landline, and an E-reader in the form of a clamshell that one of Jay's friends reads from. David Robert Mitchell sets the tone with his unironically retro opener shot in one calm, unbroken take, a heel-clicking teenage girl (Bailey Spry) running out the door of her parents' suburban home, as if she's being chased by something not seen by the human eye. She gets to a beach and apologizes to her father on the phone, but by morning, she's a goner like Chrissie in "Jaws." For a film about haunting specters, the film could be full of actors in corpsy make-up pouncing into frame. But, no: writer-director Mitchell knows better. His extras, a few of them in the buff, show up and amble along toward Jay, and like Michael Myers, they take their time but don't let up. Old-fashioned suspense is employed with few visibly low-tech visual effects, the seams only showing through in one instance on a beach. 

Separating the more auspicious filmmakers from the wannabes, David Robert Mitchell pays major attention to the crafty framing of his camera and music. With an assured handling of Michigan locations and the summer-fall foliage, the film is crisply shot with beautifully composed shots by Mike Gioulakis and makes the slyest use of 360-degree angles. Every inch of Mitchell's film is also owned by the dissonant, hair-raisingly throbbing drips, creeping scratches, and rising tempo of Disasterpiece's (composer Rich Vreeland) chillingly ominous synthesizer score that welcomes comparison to Goblin's work in "Suspiria" and Charles Bernstein's score in "A Nightmare on Elm Street." As the score crescendos and then goes quiet when cutting to the next shot, it's so effective that one will be hard-pressed to not get goosebumps. With echoes of John Carpenter's "Halloween" and Wes Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street," there's a simple but freakishly edgy sequence at school, where Jay notices someone walking toward her classroom window during class. The climax in a Detroit city natatorium, where Jay and her friends used to swim, is anything but predictable, nothing going as planned. Finally, the conclusion is more delicate and open-ended than punchy or finite, but it feels right.

A likably spunky and resourceful heroine in 2014's awesome "The Guest," Maika Monroe deserves to attain as much "scream queen" status as Jamie Lee Curtis, Heather Langenkamp, and Neve Campbell. As pretty girl-next-door Jay, she is innately intelligent, emotionally available, and completely root-worthy. Keir Gilchrist (2010's "It's Kind of a Funny Story") is sweet and sensitive as Paul, one of Jay's sister's friends who shared a first kiss with Jay when they were kids and has always had something for her. Daniel Zovatto reminds of a young Johnny Depp as Greg, Jay's hunky older neighbor, and Lili Sepe and Olivia Luccardi, as Jay's sister Kelly and their oddball friend Yara, round out the likable, individualized group of characters. It's refreshing to see Jay's sister and friends believe her and stand by her in hopes of protecting Jay from her fate, even though they can't see what she sees. They all react exactly how kids their age probably would react in such an extraordinary situation, too.

The most enduring and cathartic kind of horror film is one that taps into universal fears with visceral punch and is also about something else. It's not very often a film comes along with the power to force one to check his or her back after watching it. Whether the viewer wants to look for it or not, "It Follows" can definitely be read as an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases without seeming too heavy-handed or disrespecting the viewer's intelligence. It's a cautionary tale that neither promotes nor shames teen sex, and for a horror film with a low body count, that never takes away from the film's heavy blanket of dread and uneasy apprehension and plenty of sinister frights coming out to play. Deservedly finding a place in the upper echelon of the horror genre for anyone jaded by the PG-13-level fare of late, "It Follows" is a little near-masterpiece that could be the splendidly creepy poster child for either eternal abstinence or not keeping it in your pants if you want to live. Run, don't walk.

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