Friday, April 24, 2015
Welcome back to Cranpire Movies! It's been a little while since I visited this feature of the Blogorium, so maybe a quick refresher is in order. There are bad movies I like to watch, but many more of them that I just can't (or won't) find time to sit through. When that happens, I'll hand then off to my friend Cranpire, who will watch just about anything I won't. He's fond of Syfy Channel Original movies, and not just the new ones - thanks to Bruce Campbell's presence in Terminal Invasion, Alien Apocalypse, and The Man with the Screaming Brain, Cranpire was on board early with their quickly manufactured schlock. Every now and then, the Cap'n ends up watching something (usually accidentally) that would normally fall into Cranpire's wheelhouse, and when that happens, they are reviewed accordingly.
Today we're going to take a lot at the Sorority House Massacre series, specifically the first two. The third film - Hard to Die - is technically a sequel in that it has much of the same cast and uses the exact same back story, but it's also a Die Hard knock-off instead of a slasher flick, so I'll mention it in passing or when relevant. It's also worth noting that other than possibly using the same exterior, there's no continuity whatsoever between Sorority House Massacre and Sorority House Massacre II, although the second films does tie itself to a completely different slasher series. But more on that when we get to the sequel in name only.
For a Roger Corman produced, late-era slasher cheapie, Sorority House Massacre is kind of... classy? It's a relative term, I realize, but considering where it came from and what the marketing sells the film as, there's a comparably nuanced story buried inside of slashing and T&A. Yes, it's borrowing (heavily) from A Nightmare on Elm Street during the dream sequences, but the imagery is also suggestive of Dario Argento in a way you wouldn't expect. If you somehow end up seeing the films in the wrong order, you'd be shocked at how much better Sorority House Massacre is than its "sequel". While Carol Frank didn't quite make a "Feminist Slasher" on the same scale as Amy Jones and Rita Mae Brown's Slumber Party Massacre, it's definitely a less voyeuristic approach to the subgenre than I had expected.
Sorority House Massacre is not an especially violent or even gratuitous movie. Sure, there's nudity, but not in copious amounts (mostly taking place while Beth's friends (Wendy Martel, Pamela Ross, and Nicole Rio) try on the "rich" girl's clothes after she leaves, and during a Teepee make-out later in the movie), and most of the film's 77 minute running time is devoted to cutting between Beth's hallucinations / memories and Bobby coming "home". He kills just about everyone he runs into quickly, particularly the unfortunate boyfriends (Joe Nassi, Marcus Vaughter, and Vinnie Bilancio) of the main characters. What keeps Bobby interesting is that when he sees the women, it switches to his POV, where he imagines them as his sisters. He calls them not by their names, but by who he sees them as, almost as though he was killing them all over again. The disconnect between imagination and reality in the film actually makes the deaths that much more brutal.
Of the two films, the first Sorority House Massacre is probably less deserving of being a "Cranpire Movie": it's a lower-to-mid-tier slasher film, but is surprisingly atmospheric for a low budget horror film. While it borrows from better movies, Frank at least manages to make the "lifts" seem interesting, and the characters are at least developed enough that you care when they die. Horror hounds looking for a quick and bloody fix should probably go elsewhere, as this is (surprisingly) reserved considering where it came from, but I might have a film that's right up your alley in the next paragraph...
If Sorority House Massacre has some degree of class in the way it's presented, Sorority House Massacre II has all of the exploitation elements, and almost nothing else. Directed by Chopping Mall's Jim Wynorski, it offers gratuitous nudity, spurts of blood, leering perverts, dumb jokes, pointless subplot(s), and 60-ish minutes of nubile young ladies running around in their nighties, sometimes soaking wet. That said, as schlock goes, it's pretty entertaining, provided you're watching it in the right frame of mind. The opening should be a dead giveaway that it's not to be taken seriously, with an aggressive synthesizer soundtrack and pseudonyms in the credits like "Produced by Shelley Stoker" or introducing an actor as being the same person as his character.
For reasons unknown to me, instead of using the fact that there's already a Sorority House Massacre and it's kinda the same house and roughly five years later, Wynorski opts to use the back story from a completely different movie in both Sorority House Massacre II and Hard to Die. Even though the house looks nothing alike, all of the flashbacks to "Old Man Hocksteder" who went crazy and killed his family is footage from Slumber Party Massacre, another Corman produced slasher movie that has its own sequels. And it's a lengthy flashback to many of the "kill" scenes from Slumber Party Massacre, which uses a totally different murder weapon than the hook in Sorority House Massacre II. Why? Your guess is as good as mine, but it adds another layer of intertextuality, albeit a very silly one.
The girls, having taken cold showers and slipped into something more comfortable, go down into the basement and find a Ouija board, so they have a little séance - as you do - which ends in a spooky way. And by "spooky" I mean "basically what happens in Night of the Demons but much cheaper". Maybe it's the framing, but it's easy to spot the boom mike in many scenes, most notably in the living room near the beginning. It's also a shockingly well lit house for only having candles and a few portable lamps. Maybe it's the lightning that helps, although that looks an awful lot like the same stock animation I saw in Hillbillys in a Haunted House...
Anyway, so the girls try to get some sleep, but they have arguments about sleeping with a guy someone else is "going with," and somehow Jessica's 40-something boyfriend Eddie (Mike Elliott) never comes up again. Sorority House Massacre (mostly) waits until the boys come over to start a-murderin', but Sorority House Massacre II is ladies night through and through. Other than persistent cutaways to Ketcham looking menacing / loathsome, the bulk of the film is just gals in lingerie bouncing around the house, running into oddly placed bear traps (in the attic!) or getting murdered by a hook (despite the presence of a chainsaw in the basement). Interestingly, the drill that "Hocksteder" used to kill all of his victims in the "flashback" is nowhere to be found in the film.
To keep the "appropriating Slumber Party Massacre as a prequel to this film," Sorority House Massacre II has a subplot involving to cops (played by Jürgen Baum and Karen Chorak) who are slowly investigating a phone call that came from the "old Hocksteder place" - which, for the record, is the house with no phone service. They don't want to drive through a roadblock (or something) because of the rain, so instead they head to a strip club. If you're asking "why?" the answer is more breasts on camera while the action slows down back at the house, but the plot excuse is that one of the survivors of the original massacre is now stripping to work through her trauma. Candy (Bridget Carney) has her own routine, followed by a sit down with the cops while another stripper does her show (all on camera, of course), and suggests that maybe Ketcham shouldn't have been ruled out as a suspect. While this should surprise nobody, Bridget Carney wasn't in Slumber Party Massacre, nor was there a character named "Candy." But hey, more boobs, am I right fellas?
As it's really not clear where this movie should be going, Wynorski throws in a "possession" angle to justify the Ouija board, and while I won't tell you who ends up with Hocksteder's ghost at the wheel, I will give the director enough credit to make sure they're always where the killer would be or at least separated from the group. There's a lot of "let's split up" that you'd expect from really bad slasher movies, but in this instance it does serve as pretty good misdirection, at least until there aren't enough ladies left to rule out anybody else. Despite continually trying to imply that Ketcham is dangerous, it's pretty clear he's just a weirdo red herring, and despite being stabbed, choked with a chain, drowned in a toilet, and being shot by the police, he's still somehow alive at the end of the movie, not to mention the one who kills the, uh, Final Girl. It must have been all the raw meat he was eating earlier...
While I can easily say that Sorority House Massacre is pretty good "for what it is," it's difficult to say the same for Sorority House Massacre II. It is exactly the lurid, dumb, gratuitous slasher movie you think you're getting based on the cover. So it has that going for it. If you want cheap thrills, you'll mostly get them without groaning too much. Gone is any hint of artfulness, replaced with a workman-like approach of showing the goods and getting out. The comedy isn't that funny (trust me, I'm not sure if we're really supposed to laugh at the "Arab" stereotypes at the strip club, or just marvel at how dated they are), the gore is mostly limited to blood splattering on the wall (and one bathtub scene lifted from Slumber Party Massacre 2 - oh, did I not mention that there are more than one Slumber Party Massacre films?).
I guess the only thing that Wynorski really delivers on is the nudity, which I suspect Cranpire will agree is at least a selling point. They are attractive young women, and have no problem disrobing and taking cold showers for no reason, or standing directly underneath a porch dripping water in white nighties. Good for them? While Hard to Die is more of an "action comedy," it does have most of the same cast, including Orville Ketcham, playing the same kind of unkillable exposition machine he does in this one. Oh, and yes, the same flashbacks to a different movie. Well, the same different movie, because Hocksteder was a busy driller killer. As Cranpire Movies go, these are arguably better than his normal fare, but what is that really saying? I can easily recommend Sorority House Massacre and Sorority House Massacre II over the likes of Sharknado 2: The Second One and, uh, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No, but they aren't going enhance your life or anything. Or maybe they will. Who knows, it might win you trivia one night, just by knowing what other series this one flashes back to. And if I'm being honest, the Sorority House Massacre movies are better than Slumber Party Massacre 2 and 3, so there's that. If you're the sort of person who hears the phrase "Cranpire Movie" and is excited, you're probably Cranpire, but if not, prepare for a fun double feature.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
The time has once again come for Bad Movie Night: my shameless celebration of the movies that just aren't quite good enough, but also aren't so terrible they become unwatchable. It's a fine line, and sometimes it's just the right goofy element that pushes it over. Sometimes it's just who you watch it with, and the Cap'n has a fairly loyal crew of masochists willing to descend on Blogorium Headquarters every year. Even though I subjected them to Things last year, they came back. What that says about their cinematic fortitude is up to you, but I'm proud to call them my friends. This year, I opted to give them a less agonizing experience, but not without some serious brain bending. Let's take a look at what you (hopefully) missed out on:
We started with Devil Girl from Mars, based on the hit London stage play (or, that's what I'd like to believe), and it shows. Despite the fact that a Martian spaceship lands outside of a remote Scottish Inn, most of the motley crew of patrons are concerned with their own stupid problems, leaving time for Naya, the titular character, to enter and exit through the same door, repeatedly. At least it's nice to know that Martians also call their planet Mars. They - well, she - arrived on Earth with her new prototype spaceship, which has organic metal and runs on an engine that creates nuclear reactions that explode inward, creating perpetual motion. Their science is vastly superior to ours, but in the great war of the sexes, all men were wiped out and they need some breeding stock, if you catch my drift. Perhaps if she'd landed in America, rather than Scotland, this would have been an easier task, because the citizens of the United Kingdom are more interested in cockamamie plans to shoot or electrocute her, to no avail.
High School Confidential! eased us out of the "boring" zone of bad movies - hey, I try, but sometimes things just don't land with the crowd - by being entirely too interested in being "hip" and "with it". That works wonders in its favor, because the ridiculous overuse of slang, coupled with what seems to be not even veiled suggestions about incest between Tony (Russ Tamblyn) and his aunt Gwen (Mamie Van Doren). In Tony's defense, it's mostly one way, and given there's a twist, I guess it's possible that they maybe aren't related, but why would he refer to her as his aunt behind closed doors? There are a number of questionable "bait and switch"-es in High School Confidential!, a movie about Tony moving in to town and taking over the high school drug trade in the course of two or three days. He's tough talking and backs it up, and pops his collar, even when it's on a sweater. Why? Because he's hip, daddy-o.
High School Confidential! picked up the pace a bit, and after a musical interlude, it was time to dive right into Raw Force. It's an almost perfect storm of kung-fu zombie cannibalism interspersed with gratuitous nudity and hokey special effects. And yet, some people were grumbling, perhaps because I oversold the "cannibal monks who raise kung-fu zombies" part of the movie. Yes, most of Raw Force's 86 minutes is devoted to a Kung-Fu cruise to "Warrior Island," where disgraced martial artists are buried. It's also where Hitler sells prostitutes in exchange for jade. Is his name Hitler in the movie? I honestly don't remember, but if he looks like Hitler and talks like Hitler, we're going to go with "that guy is Hitler". The cannibal monks eat the girls because it gives them power to raise the dead, which they use (eventually) for the final showdown.
Rather than launching into the "Luc Besson Presents an Affront to Science" double feature as promised, I gave them the option of getting the Trappening out of the way, which they decided was best. What they didn't know was that this year's mystery feature wasn't just a Bad Movie - it was a Great Bad Movie. By no stretch of the imagination could one call Commando a "good" movie, but I'll be damned if it isn't one of the most fun films to throw conventional cinema out the window. Continuity errors? Check. Bad one liners? Yessir. Gratuitous nudity? Well, it has absolutely nothing to do with the fight scene, so yep. The mall from Chopping Mall? Sure is! Arnold Schwarzenegger killing an entire army, single-handedly? You know it.
For the immediate future, I think I've hit my quota of schlock (although that doesn't rule out watching Furious 7). There's enough time to reload the queue in time for Summer Fest, where I think 80s cheesefests Without Warning and Deadly Eyes are going to be a hit. Thanks to everybody who made it, and to the folks at home who didn't, you now have a roadmap for your own Bad Movie Night. Just have alcohol and a good support system of friends nearby. And whatever you do, don't watch Things.
Thursday, April 9, 2015
Bad Movie Night is coming up this weekend. For some of you that means you'll be at the Blogorium, inexplicably sharing in on the agony and the ecstasy of the best of the worst I can throw at you. For some, it will be a recap you take a look at later on, and think to yourself "wow, I'm glad I didn't have to sit through that." For the Cap'n, it's a fun, if admittedly unorthodox way to spend time with friends. It's also a good opportunity to clarify a few things, as I do from time to time. There's an inherent contradiction coming up, but I am vast and contain multitudes. Or I'm a walking contradiction. I can't remember. Anyway, let's discuss how Bad Movie Night fits into the evolving notion of the Blogorium and the Cap'n Howdy mission statement overall.
Red State out there that pretty much covers it. I'll add that it isn't particularly enthralling to hear his M.O. for making movies that aren't sequels is to get really high, record a podcast, and then turn whatever he comes up with into a movie. You know, like "Jaws with a moose." Nevertheless, I fully expect a question about how excited I am for Mallrats 2 (not at all).
That said, it's totally fair to ask me that, especially at something called Bad Movie Night. Historically speaking, the get together-s hosted by the Cap'n have centered around horror movies or schlock, and primarily schlock. They're fun films to rally around, and are conducive to a party atmosphere. It's an informal crowd that comes to Blogorium events, and while you aren't expected to participate in any MST3k-like riffing on movies, I don't discourage making comments when something just doesn't make sense. The specious plot that bridges gratuitous nudity in Andy Sidaris films practically begs for some level of commentary. But I wouldn't do the same if I was at Nevermore (well, sometimes, but much more quietly). We do, on occasion, watch screwball comedies or more serious fare, and there's talk of branching into different "fest" directions, but let's stick with Bad Movie Night for now.
an entire multiplex to choose from? Yes, I saw 8mm and Idle Hands and the first two Resident Evil movies. On the big screen. I don't know why. Well, I do: they were playing and we had already seen Payback or whatever else we really wanted to see. Sure, I also spent the summer of 99 watching Eyes Wide Shut and The Sixth Sense, even The Blair Witch Project and South Park (and, yes, The Phantom Menace), but for some reason only the bad movies stuck.
The Dark Knight, The Happening, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and The X-Files: I Want to Believe. One of them was good.
Cranpire Movies" banner, which is what I tend to use when I want to talk about schlock. It's not that Cranpire will watch anything (even he has limits), but it's become a running joke between us that he'll sit through what I won't. Still, the two (technically three) Sorority House Massacre films are so disparate, even from each other, that I'd like to share their charms with you all. But I'm probably never going to watch Taken 3. And I doubt I'll ever finish Tusk.
Student Bodies and have to defend it when someone from the film takes exception to it, I cringe a little. Not because I didn't write it - I did, in the middle of a Fest - but because it's not really a review. It's a reaction to something that happened that I wrote quickly while people had a smoke break. It's a time capsule of a moment in the history of the Blogorium, but it's not how I would write it today. But you can't tell that to somebody who finds the review through a Google search - it's not an ongoing evolution of film criticism to them. It's a review, one that says the movie they like sucks.
Or worse, it's The Mechanic review, which was a run of the mill Jason Statham movie, where I didn't feel one way or the other about it. In fact, by and large I gave up reviewing films headlined by Statham because they'd all be like The Mechanic - an overview of the plot, general comments about the action, he was good, the supporting cast was okay, the story was serviceable. Other than the Crank films, it's a pretty succinct reaction to most of his starring roles, and if I can't add anything to the conversation, I'll find something else to review. That doesn't stop people from reading The Mechanic review - which they do - and assuming that's currently how I feel about the movie. Honestly, four years later? I've forgotten almost everything about it. Even the "World Champion" ring, but it doesn't matter. Everything is contemporary on the internet.
*. He should just stick to Tolkein, I guess. Look how well that worked out for The Hobbit.
Hobo with a Shotgun review, you'll notice that I didn't have a lot of fun with the movie. I hated Machete Kills. There wasn't enough about Wolf Cop to merit a review, to be honest, and I don't watch Syfy Channel Originals. It's not a matter of being dismissive of them, to jump back a paragraph - I don't particularly care one way or the other, and I'm not going to tell anyone not to watch them. I try to mention them as little as possible, so unless someone asks why a Sharknado movie isn't at Bad Movie Night or Summer Fest, you won't hear about it in the Blogorium. It's the same thought process behind the Transformers series: I haven't seen them, I'm not planning on it, so why devote time and energy into insulting them? There are literally thousands of blogs that do that. But if you want to know about The Beach Girls and the Monster, I've got you covered.
Under the Skin or Spider Baby (to name a couple from last year). They're very different movies for very different audiences, but I really enjoyed both of them, and you might too. I'm always open to suggestions, but it's been a long time since the Cap'n would go watch literally anything. By the same token, I'll pay money to see Samurai Cop with an audience, even though I own two copies of Samurai Cop. It was worth it to see their reaction. That was the same situation with Things at last year's Bad Movie Night - I suffered through it alone so I could see the faces I made on my friends. And by the way, they could have left, but no one did.
**: Continuing in our trend of "being afraid of women in the 1950s," there's Devil Girl from Mars, followed by High School Confidential, Disney's The Black Hole, Raw Force, the aforementioned Luc Besson double feature, and a special Trappening. Because you shouldn't always know what you're getting at a Bad Movie Night. A recap should follow some time next week, and then after that, it's back to whatever strikes the Cap'n as worth writing about. Maybe schlock, maybe not. We're on the cusp of blockbuster season, so maybe those will make it into the mix. I'm not sure. Above all else, my goal for the immediate future is to make Cap'n Howdy's Blogorium as unpredictable as possible, so as to keep you from settling in to "this is what to expect." Hell, I might even go back and re-review some of the older posts, just for kicks. Stay tuned, and if you're on your way to Bad Movie Night, prepare yourself...
* I never saw The Lovely Bones, so I can't weigh in on whether it was any good or not, but it's a similar attitude to refusing to read a book that's been adapted into a film - like Trainspotting - because that "taints" the source material. And yes, that was another instance that came up with a similarly dismissive person.
** That's a big criteria for me - bad movies that are just bad are a waste of everybody's time.
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
The Babadook or, as it shall now be referred to, "last year's It Follows" is an often harrowing experience of a single mother raising an emotionally fragile, potentially dangerous son, specifically in the weeks leading up to his birthday. There's also the title character, otherwise known as Mr. Babadook, who writes horrific children's books and sneaks them onto the shelf. Specifically, the shelf of Samuel (Noah Wiseman), much to the consternation of his mother Amelia (Essie Davis). Maybe consternation isn't the right word, especially when the line "whether it's in a word, or whether it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook" turns out to be very accurate. Writer / Director Jennifer Kent crafts The Babadook into a film teetering on hysteria from the word go, and ratchets up the tension. Partly due to the titular menace, but also from the already precarious mental state of Amelia, who can barely coexist with her son.
One night, she lets him pick the book that will lead up to their abbreviate sleep schedule - one that will be inevitably be interrupted when he panics about the "monster" - and Samuel finds an oversized red volume with the title Mister Babadook on the cover. It promises a mischievous, albeit creepy, looking friend, but as Amelia turns the pages, the tone shifts to sinister. There's a promise that "once you see what's underneath, you'll wish that you were dead," and her son is understandably terrified. Now his "monster" has a name, and with homemade weapons and a love of magic, Samuel feels he's the only person who can keep the Babadook from killing his mother. Amelia tears the book up and throws it away, but not long after, it mysteriously reappears...
If it were merely a film about the issues that Amelia and Samuel face in day to day life, The Babadook would be a film fraught with tension, but the added supernatural element pushes them past the breaking point and into truly frightening territory. Kent wisely avoids jump scares, and instead elevates the uneasy tone slowly but surely. We know something is wrong with both of our protagonists, but it's hard to tell which one is worse off. The world has essentially shut them out - or, one could argue, Amelia has alienated everyone - so when the Babadook enters the picture, there's no one and no thing to help them cope.
Kent's masterstroke in The Babadook is to switch our loyalty in characters halfway through the film. Initially, our sympathies lie with Amelia, a beleaguered mother with the child from hell. That's something we've all seen, and something does seem to be very, very wrong with Samuel. He's violent, he's anxious, and socially maladjusted. But after he suffers an episode in Amelia's car that leaves him temporarily catatonic, Amelia begs a doctor to prescribe him a sedative for both of their sakes. He reluctantly agrees, and the first night that they both have a good night's sleep is where the swap happens. Having destroyed Mister Babadook, Amelia is alarmed to find it at her front door, with new pages included. We realize that his (its?) focus has changed - The Babadook doesn't want Samuel to "Let Me In," it wants Amelia, and provides a few graphically violent pop-ups of what's going to happen when it does. The second half of the film shifts Samuel to the position of doped up innocent as Amelia grows increasingly indifferent towards his welfare.
Interestingly, she remains our focal point character - the film never shifts to Samuel's perspective. We instead follow Amelia as she encounters The Babadook overnight and has a series of hallucinations: first at the police station, and then late at night watching television. A series of Melies films from the early days of cinema are transformed to include the Babadook, who resembles Lon Chaney in London After Midnight more than a little bit. She sees cockroaches, first in a hole behind the refrigerator, and then inside of her car, both at disastrously inopportune times. The second, in fact, is a sly mirroring of the incident that set off her relationship to Samuel, although it's possible to not notice it once the film shifts over to "supernatural menace." The Babadook also takes on a more conventional film for horror movies, one that I won't spoil, but that promises Amelia can be normal again. At a cost, of course.
Eventually Samuel and Amelia come to assert some control over the situation in a tense climax that I'm not going to discuss at all - that's for you to discover, although the coda of the film might come as surprising to some. Kent proposes that some things can't just be wished away, and that instead a balance must be struck between the light and the dark, however tenuous. However, there is an alternate way to read the film, if you choose to take some small pieces of information as meaning more than they seem to. We're above to dive into mild SPOILER territory here, so skip the next paragraph if you'd rather not know anything about The Babadook.
Earlier in the film, Amelia mentions to Claire's friends that she used to be a writer, but hasn't written anything since her husband died. She has a bad habit of losing track of time due to insomnia, and to see things that aren't there, particularly later in the film. It's true Samuel finds Mister Babadook on his shelf, but who put it there? Near the very end of the film, there's a small moment between Amelia, Samuel, and the Civil Services agents that suggests what we're seeing isn't an exception, but instead the norm. Amelia tells them she always has trouble keeping things together around Samuel's birthday, and he then tells them that this year will be the first time he's ever had a party. If you choose to, particularly based on the "fixed" copy of the book, one could read The Babadook as being a traumatic episode that Amelia is dealing with, perhaps annually. If you opt to read the monster as "not real," or that she wrote the book as a means of cathartic release, then the ending in the basement is also possibly in her mind. On the other hand, I tend to think that the Babadook is a real external force exacerbating her already fractured maternal bond with Samuel.
(Here endeth speculatory SPOILAGE)
The Babadook is a genuinely creepy movie, one that ought to be on the radar of horror fans tired of endless remakes. It's the second movie I've seen from the same region (The Babadook from Australia and Housebound from New Zealand) that was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale landscape of zombies and kid-friendly monsters. There is such a thing as a renaissance in horror, but you need to be okay with the fact that much of it flies under the radar. You won't get the chance to see it on a big screen most of the time (It Follows being a notable exception), but there's some very good new horror out there, if you're willing to dig a bit. Jennifer Kent's debut put her on my radar, and I look forward to seeing what she makes next.
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
For at least the last decade, there seems to be a concerted push to anoint one horror movie as the next "classic": the genre reinventing, flying-under-the-radar take that will usher us out of this endless trend of remakes and PG-13 zombie/vampire/werewolf teen-friendly tripe. Sometimes, the hype is justified (The House of the Devil, The Cabin in the Woods), sometimes not (Hatchet, Behind the Mask*), but I think it's safe to say that we're not going to get rid of the PG-13 horror trend any time soon. In fact, there was a trailer for the Ghost House Pictures remake of Poltergeist in front of the movie we'll be discussing today. It Follows has been riding on a groundswell of praise from horror fans, and Radius / TWC is finally listening to audiences and putting the film in theatres, as opposed to dumping it on VOD. By the time the Cap'n heard about it, It Follows was already being labeled "this year's The Babadook," and I was a little worried about going in with heightened expectations, so I just stopped reading about the film. Does it live up to the hype?
(if you really don't want to know anything else, skip to the last paragraph, but the short answer is "yes.")
We already know what the "It" is capable of from the opening sequence, which also establishes writer / director David Robert Mitchell's visual style: long, unbroken takes, using the most of the wide screen composition. If it helps, think of Halloween, and understand that I know how lofty of a comparison it is to make. Mitchell walks us through the moment of panic for "It"'s last victim - Hugh's first attempt to pass it on? - as she tries to escape from her house, to drive to the beach. And then a smash cut to the next morning. The stakes are established. Once Hugh explains the rules, we know what Jay is up against. We'll learn a little more about the "It," but not directly from the characters. It Follows is a film heavy on inference, on visual clues rather than exposition dump scenes. What you take away from the film depends heavily on how carefully you're paying attention.
Mitchell packs plenty in the frame to pay attention to, as Jay and her friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi), Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Kelly, and neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto) try to find Hugh, who rented his place in Detroit under a fake name and presumably skipped town. When the threat could be anything, it's a demented version of "Where's Waldo" in the frame - who's really a person? Who is it? Early on, Mitchell makes it abundantly clear, but towards the middle of the film, he starts playing with the audience. Much later in the film, "It" takes the form of someone we've only seen in photographs, and he relies on the viewer to have been observant. You don't need to know who it is - or was - but it's a bonus that weighs in It Follows' favor.
There are many things about It Follows I'd like to talk about, but would risk SPOILING plot points. Boiled down to its core, the film is a very straightforward variation on the horror trope of "Sex = Death," one that's been analyzed ad nauseum in college courses the world over. It Follows will likely join those thesis proposals, in part because Mitchell takes a very ambiguous approach to how and what we find out about the threat. They "why" is abandoned, strictly speaking, which distinguishes the film from many of its modern brethren. A reductive reading would call it "The Ring as an STD," but remove all of The Ring's second half - there is not history here. Jay only traces it as far back as Hugh (real name, Jeff, at home with his mother) - he got it from "some girl at a bar." We have some idea of what happened to Annie (Bailey Spry), the girl from the beginning, after Jay's attempt to pass it on goes horribly wrong, but it's only in flashes. What it wants is up to us to decide, and why the rules are the way they are is similarly up to interpretation.
Instead of devoting most of the film to monster lore creation, Mitchell spends almost all of It Follows dealing with Jay's fragile emotional state, as she struggles with how to deal with her state. It's a curious wrinkle that all of the sex in It Follows is consensual, and yet Jay is clearly left violated in every situation (one in particular is left to the imagination, only holding on her face before and after she swims out to a boat). Does she want to pass this curse on to someone else? Does she want to die? There seems to be no way to stop "It," and only the "infected" can see it. "It" can see them once they've passed it on, but it isn't interested. Not yet, anyway. You can drive and get ahead for a while, but it will always be right behind you, walking slowly, emotionless.
The inevitability of the threat could be a detriment to It Follows: in a more conventional approach, like the Final Destination series, it simply becomes an excuse to put Grand Guignol kills on display, character development be damned. But the death toll is relatively limited in It Follows, and they both count, emotionally. One sets the tone for the film, another gives us a vague insight to the first death, although what you take away is largely a matter of interpretation. I give the lion's share of the credit to the cast, although Mitchell certainly gives them plenty of time to breathe and to exist on screen. As a matter of fact, it's refreshing to see a group of young actors who don't look like the Hollywood Casting Template for Horror Films (see anything released by Platinum Dunes), and instead a cast that look like normal teenagers, that act like normal teenagers.
I say this knowing full and well that I just saw Maika Monroe in The Guest, playing a character just a little bit older than Jay is. I saw her in The Bling Ring, too, but didn't remember he when I saw The Guest. Monroe, like the rest of the kids (adults don't factor into It Follows in many ways, aside from two, meaningful moments involving the "It") is totally believable as Jay, a young woman thrust into a situation she doesn't understand and forced to cope with it. She doesn't magically become Nancy Drew or Buffy when "It" appears. She gets frightened, panics, makes bad decisions, and when she tries to help it doesn't always work. Likewise, Sepe, Luccardi, Gilchrist, and Zovatto aren't just assigned "types." They're Jay's friends, and despite the fact that Mitchell sets Greg and Paul against each other, the end of the film still isn't as apparent as I thought it would be.
Arguably the film's weakest moment comes from Paul's plan to stop "it" by electrocution in a public swimming pool they all went to when they were younger. The plan doesn't really make sense - the pool is too big, for one - but they aren't aware of what Jay and the audience know. We know that when she tried to shoot "it" (and as she just learned how to fire a gun a few hours before, she's a terrible shot), that didn't work. Mitchell foreshadows their plan with a shot that seems to be out of place in the film - the smaller pool out back that Jay enjoys swimming in, inexplicably ripped open - but it makes sense only in retrospect. That might have worked, but in their desperation, Paul's plan backfires and it ends up hurting more than just Jay. The only thing that works in the scene is the final shot, where Jay looks into the swimming pool and sees something the others can't, an image left open to your own interpretation.
The pool sequence is a minor stumble, but one I feel like I should point out. Mitchell and It Follows bounce back with a less conventional, more ambiguous ending that left some of the audience disappointed. Then again, I made the deliberate choice to see It Follows with a more conventional audience just to see how'd they would react. I could have seen the film at a smaller, art house theater with a more enthusiastic crowd, but it seemed like this would be an interest test case to see how the multiplex crowd reacted to less mainstream horror. They liked it while the film was going on, but seemed dissatisfied that it didn't end on some grand show down, the kind I imagine the remake of Poltergeist will (their enthusiastic reaction to the trailer was also telling).
But here's the truth about the internet hype machine surrounding independent horror: it only works for people who are seeking out the kind of movies that are like It Follows. The buzz is not going to change the minds of people who get impatient with something different from the formula, or something as stripped down as It Follows. And that's great. It really is, because I wouldn't have known about It Follows otherwise, and I will see it again. I want to see it again, because there's so much that Mitchell packs into the frame that I know I missed some of it. I want to pay closer attention to the forms "it" takes, because they're careful hints about the creature's history. Or maybe not - it's clear halfway through the film that "it" can and will take the form of a previous victim. I want to see if I somehow missed something that led to the pool in the backyard being torn open. The sign of a great horror movie (or any movie, for that matter) is that you're thinking about it after the fact. That you want to watch it again, to dig through and pick up pieces you missed. It's what distinguishes It Follows from the more basic "Sex = Death" movies that are enjoyable, but disposable.
I also have to point out how amusing it is to have Yara reading Dostoyevsky's The Idiot on a clamshell phone, which is a minor subplot in the film. Nice touch.
So if you're reading this review and wondering "should I see this or is it all sizzle and no steak?" the answers are an emphatic yes and an emphatic no, in that order. If you think you'd like It Follows, then yes, see it. If you liked The Babadook - which It Follows has a tonal connection to, particularly in how it ends - or You're Next or The Cabin in the Woods or The House of the Devil, basically anything that flew mostly under the radar as horror goes, go see it. I think you're really going to like it. Sometimes the hype is justified. That doesn't mean that It Follows is "game changing" or "genre redefining," two terms overused to help sell movies of this ilk. Much like Starry Eyes, another independent horror film that's flying under most people's radars, It Follows takes a concept you're familiar with and tells it in a unique way. I don't want to undersell this film, nor do I want to oversell it, because your mileage may vary. Don't seek out spoilers. Try to see it with limited knowledge. Which, uh, means not having read this review, I guess. Oops.
* I realize this is going to be a difference of opinion, but I found nothing in either movie worth watching: Behind the Mask either doesn't understand or chooses to misrepresent slasher movie "tropes" in order to advance its narrative, and the first Hatchet film has extreme gore and nothing else going for it. I have not seen Hatchet II or III, but have yet to see a review that made me want to.