It Follows


Post-coital bliss.

Post-coital bliss.

(2015) Horror (Radius) Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto, Bailey Spry, Carolette Phillips, Loren Bass, Charles Gertner, Debbie Williams, Ruby Harris, Linda Boston, Leisa Pulido, D.J. Oliver, Ingrid Mortimer, Kourtney Bell, Alexyss Spradlin, Mike Lanier, Scott Norman, Claire Sloma. Directed by David Robert Mitchell

Horror films are kind of the bastard stepchildren of cinema. Disrespected critically, nonetheless horror films have a rabid following that have kept it the most profitable genre in movies as they tend to cost very little to make but when they connect with audiences, they can bring in hundreds of millions in revenue.

However, horror movies tend to attract a lot of hack filmmakers who assume that they can just recycle a tired concept, throw some fake blood at the camera and that millions of teenagers will automatically love them. It doesn’t work that way. Truly innovative horror movies are a sad rarity these days and ones that are skillfully made even less so. We’ve been in a drought over the past six or seven years in terms of really good horror movies, but there are indications that not only is that drought over but we may be entering a new golden age of really good horror movies much as we did back in the late ’70s.

This movie is giving me reason for that kind of hope. The premise is terrifyingly simple; Jay (Monroe), a beautiful blonde teen girl living in the suburbs of Detroit, has been dating a sweet young man named Hugh (Weary). As teenagers will do, they have sex together in a parked car. Then the wheels fall off.

It turns out that Hugh – which isn’t his real name – has a curse. Not a sexually transmitted disease, although it is sexually transmitted, and he has passed it on to Jay. She is now being stalked by a demonic presence that approaches at a slow walking pace. If it touches her, she’ll die. The only way to stop the curse is to pass it on to someone else – by having sex with them, and then telling them the rules. If the demon kills one of the cursed, it then goes after the person who gave the curse back to them and then down the line, presumably to the person who started it all. Oh, and the person infected is the only person who can see the demon, who takes human form, often of people that the victim knows.

Of course, Jay’s circle of friends – her sister Kelly (Sepe), their bookish friend Yara (Luccardi) and their quiet friend Paul (Gilchrist) who has a huge crush on Jay which he’s had since grade school, as well as neighborly stud Greg (Zovatto) – are skeptical at first. Then, they experience the demon themselves, which has a physical presence, they just can’t see it so it manifests itself by moving objects or throwing them about like rag dolls. Since they don’t have the curse, its touch isn’t deadly to them. See how that works?

Mitchell, whose previous film was the gentle comedy The Myth of the American Sleepover shows that he has the proper chops for a horror master. Few movies have ever pulled off the kind of tension that Mitchell has. Basically from the first ten minutes on most audience members will be on the edge of their seat. Think about it; any person at any time that is walking towards the main character can be the demon. It can make for some harrowing viewing.

Mitchell doesn’t give a lot of information about the rules beyond what I’ve already explained; this is a good and a bad thing. Good in that it doesn’t overburden the movie with exposition, bad in that at some points the movie could have used some.

The teen characters here act a lot like teens; they don’t always make smart decisions and they tend to operate more on hormones and emotions rather than good sense. They aren’t bad kids, mind you – they’re more like normal kids who are capable of being both real sweet and real assholes. Like I said, just like normal teens. The acting is solid though not spectacular and all of the kids here are more or less attractive.

One of the ongoing bits of business in the movie is that Yara, the bookish friend, is constantly reading from a Kindle-like device that’s shaped like a clam shell for no discernible reason although for the sake of transparency I did hear one teen in the audience at my screening exclaim “I want one” so maybe there was a reason. This leads to the point that the time period that the movie is set in is kind of indeterminate; the cars and houses look like they came from the early ’80s, the clam shell device from a few years from now and the movies the kids watch are all at least 50 years old. That makes It Follows kind of timeless.

There are a few nitpicks. The book Yara is reading is by Dostoyevsky which isn’t what I would call normal teen reading; it would have been more believable to have her reading one of the Twilight books although I would imagine getting the rights to use the name of that series might have been too dear for a micro-budgeted indie horror film like this.

The main problem is the climax, set in a gorgeous public swimming pool in Detroit which provides a spooky enough setting without adding a CGI thunderstorm (which they add anyway). The idea of lining the edges of the pool with electrical devices plugged into wall sockets with the idea of kicking them all in simultaneously once the demon gets into the water without knowing whether or not the thing is immune to electrical shock seems a bit dumb; clearly the electrical devices don’t work on Jay because the creature tosses them in the pool while she’s in it to no discernible effect. The last image in the movie is rather ambiguous but I kind of liked that; I respect any filmmaker who lets audiences draw their own conclusions.

I was strongly reminded of the feeling I got seeing the John Carpenter Halloween in theaters back in ’78. It Follows has the same Midwestern suburban vibe but as a modern twist it adds the crumbling structure of Detroit itself with ruined and abandoned buildings providing an eerie backdrop, like pretending to be normal as the world is ending. I suspect that this will be considered a horror classic the same way Halloween was and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were plenty of imitators that come out after this, but hopefully that will also spur a lot of really good directors and writers to try their hands at making a horror movie that’s smart, scary and innovative. The fact that the response at the box office was so strong that Radius was prompted to change their distribution plans from a slight release in a few select theaters with a simultaneous VOD release to a wide release while postponing the VOD release. Horror fans should make a point of seeing this as should fans of good movies. Definitely one of the year’s best thus far.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most tense horror films of the past 20 years. Imaginative concept. Propulsive score.
REASONS TO STAY: The climax is a bit of a stretch.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing violence and sexuality with graphic nudity, terrifying images, and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Redford Theater depicted in the film really exists in Detroit. It has a Wurlitzer Organ and is one of the finest revival houses in the Midwest.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Halloween (1978)
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Higher Ground

Beneath the Darkness


You never know when Dennis Quaid might sneak up behind you.

You never know when Dennis Quaid might sneak up behind you.

(2011) Horror (Image) Dennis Quaid, Aimee Teegarden, Tony Oller, Devon Werkheiser, Brett Cullen, Stephen Lunsford, Dahlia Weingort, Conrad Gonzales, Wilbur Penn, Amber Bartlett, Sydney Barrosse, David Christopher, Gabriel Folse, Melody Chase, Cameron Banfield, Richard Dillard, Timothy Fall, Cheryl Chin, Paige Creswell. Directed by Martin Guigui

 

When someone close to us dies, we handle our grief in different ways. Some of us go a little crazy, hallucinating or turning to unhealthy ways of dealing with our grief. Some of us go a lot crazy. Some of us never recover.

Travis (Oller) is still grieving the loss of his sister a few years earlier. People look at him suspiciously because he claimed that he saw her ghost after her death. In this small Texas town that is tantamount to painting yourself blue and wearing a petunia on your head. It’s just not acceptable behavior.

He and classmates Abby (Teegarden) and Brian (Lunsford) are passing by the mortuary when they spy the silhouette of mortician Ely (Quaid), once a football hero which in a small Texas town is a big deal, dancing with a mysterious figure. Ely lives alone, his wife dead several years – so who is he dancing with?  We’ll go with what I’m sure is your first answer – a ghost. What, you thought he was dating? Not that kind of movie, bub.

So of course they report their sighting and of course nobody believe them. Who knew, right? So in true Scooby-Do fashion the kids decide to investigate the sighting themselves. Ruh roh Shaggy! That’s a bad idea and it gets one of them killed as it turns out that Ely is, well, a little unhinged.

Now Ely’s got his sights set on the two remaining Scooby gang kids and things don’t look too promising for their potential college careers. After all, they’re being chased by a maniac and nobody believes that they’re even in trouble. All the Scooby snacks in the world aren’t going to get them out of this pickle gang – until the great unmasking at the end. “Norman BATES!?!” “Yeah, and I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids!”

All kidding aside, this is the kind of thriller that my buddies and I used to make fun of in college. A plot so hoary and ludicrous that even Ed Wood might have thought twice about using it. A mortuary that makes the Psycho house look like a Disney park. Performances from most of the cast (some of whom are much better than they show they are here) that have all the energy and passion of someone reading a molecular chemistry textbook out loud.

The saving grace is Dennis Quaid. Criminally underrated as an actor pretty much his entire career, his grin is infectious but here it’s terrifying, in fact downright diabolical. With a role like this one, all any actor can really do is just cut loose and not worry about embarrassing themselves and so Quaid does some pretty manly scenery-chewing. Is it over the top? Hell yes, but who cares? It’s at least entertaining.

WHY RENT THIS: Dennis Quaid is hyeah.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bland, tired plot. Rest of cast seems to have no energy.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berman’s previous documentary was about big band leader Artie Shaw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9,600 on a $7M production budget; wasn’t even close to making back its costs.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Wild Girl Waltz

The Skeptic


The Skeptic

Tim Daly is being haunted by Tiger Woods.

(IFC) Tim Daly, Tom Arnold, Zoe Saldana, Edward Herrmann, Robert Prosky, Andrea Roth, Bruce Altman, Lea Coco, Sarah Weaver. Directed by Tennyson Bardwell

We all believe in something; some believe in the spiritual, others in the rational. Some believe in nothing at all, but even that is believing in something.

Bryan Beckett (Daly) falls into that category. Then again, he’s a lawyer so I suppose that goes along with the territory. He believes only in what he can see, what he can touch and what he can hear, and even those things he doesn’t necessarily trust. His wife Robin (Roth) has begun to suspect that he doesn’t believe in marriage either, so she asks him to leave so he can maybe get a handle on whether he believes they should continue in their relationship or not.

He kind of wants to but then again, what is marriage anyway but a contrivance of the ecclesiastical and secular authorities to put an intangible relationship into some kind of quantifiable box and quite frankly, Bryan is all about the tangible baby and those who think otherwise are nutcases and idiots.

His aunt certainly qualifies as a nutcase. As she has come to the end of her life, she has come to believe in the supernatural to a great extent. When she dies suddenly, she leaves Bryan her house. Bryan sees it as an investment opportunity, but when Robin kicks him out, he uses it as a cheap bed for the night.

As you can guess, he begins to experience things he can’t quite explain. He hears people whispering but there isn’t anyone there. He sees fleeting images of a mysterious woman but again, he is alone. His partner and best friend Sully (Arnold) thinks he’s cracking up and needs a vacation. Eventually Bryan contacts the founder (Altman) of a paranormal investigative group that his loony tunes aunt had been involved with and is surprised to find him as skeptical as he. However, he does introduce Bryan to a sexy psychic (Saldana) who believes there is something malevolent in that house. Bryan thinks its hogwash. Is he right and just imagining these things, or is she right in which case he’s in mortal danger?

This is a movie that tries very hard not to pander to the baser instincts of the horror genre and in general it succeeds. Director Bardwell is out to create a mood of tension and spine tingling creepiness and when he succeeds, the movie is at its best. However, he necessarily has to temper the chills with the cold water splash of reality and the juxtaposition of the two is a very difficult tightrope to walk and he doesn’t always succeed completely.

Daly who was such a promising lead in “Wings” has had a checkered film career. He does a reasonably good job of playing the rational lawyer who’s more than a little bit of a cold fish. Unfortunately, his character as written tends to make it difficult for the audience to identify with him and root for him; he’s so good at portraying the unemotional, detached part of the character that at the end of the day there’s no emotional bond for the audience to hang onto. The central premise of the movie makes it nearly impossible for you to really root for the main character.

The end is a bit of a letdown and one that you can see coming early on. After watching The Skeptic I found myself not really caring that I’d seen it; it has some things going for it, enough that I can recommend it for those who like supernatural horror movies as well as psychological thrillers. However, I don’t see general audiences caring enough about the main character to make this movie a must-see.

WHY RENT THIS: A traditional haunted house movie that doesn’t involve teenagers is quite refreshing. Bardwell delivers a very creepy atmosphere in places

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This lacks in visual frights compared to more extravagant fair like The Haunting in Connecticut. The ending is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing and frightening images, as well as some sexuality and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the final film role for veteran character actor Robert Prosky.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Grown Ups

Paper Heart


Paper Heart

Love means never having to say you're too freaking twee.

(Overture) Charlyne Yi, Michael Cera, Jake M. Johnson, Seth Rogen, Demetri Martin, Martin Starr, Bill Hase, Gill Summers. Directed by Nicholas Jasenovec

Love is elusive and difficult to pin down; it’s often difficult to tell if we are truly in it or just feeling surface infatuation and many times we don’t realize we’ve had it until we’ve lost it. It’s a confusing emotion that turns us upside down and inside out, and there are those who simply don’t want to deal with it at all.

Actress/Comedian/Performance Artist/Musician Charlyne Yi isn’t one of those. She is very skeptical about love; she’s never felt it and is fairly certain she never will. Still, she’s curious about it and wonders what all the fuss is about. She takes a camera crew out and interviews a variety of people both known and unknown on the subject.

That’s the movie in a nutshell but there are some things you need to know about the movie otherwise you’ll be hopelessly lost. First, while the interviews themselves are real, the film crew you see on-camera is not. While the director of Paper Heart is in fact Nicholas Jasenovec, the man you see onscreen is not – he’s actor Jake M. Johnson playing Nicholas Jasenovec.

Also, the romance between Yi and actor Michael Cera is also for the most part staged. The two were actually already a couple by the time filming commenced, although the relationship ended while the two were doing a publicity tour (seems kind of cold time to dump your girlfriend but there you have it).

The movie is punctuated by paper and pipe cleaner “animations” put together by Yi and her dad after the shooting had been completed. This is supposed to look artistic and trendy and cute and is in all honesty rather pointless; while something like pathos or warm fuzzies are supposed to be enticed from the audience all I felt was irritated.

The best part about the movie is the actual interviews. While they run the gamut from sincere to silly, they are at least authentic and some of them are quite insightful. There was no pretense in any of the responses and that was quite refreshing after the staged portions which got so twee and so self-consciously cute that I thought the studio should have handed out free insulin to everyone who bought a ticket to see this.

Now, I’m usually not one to pass judgment on the life choices of others, but I have to tell you that I found all the people in the “non-fiction” portions to be a little too condescendingly hip; I felt like I was being laughed at more than anything. Still, the interviews more than make up for the flaws of the rest of the film; if they had stuck to that documentary instead, they might have had a really good movie instead of just a mediocre one.

WHY RENT THIS: The “serious” documentary interviews with ordinary people are actually pretty good.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: OHMYGAWD by the end of the movie you want to kill these pretentious, overbearing, obnoxiously cute people.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words but otherwise this is fine for every audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bobcat Goldthwait and Bill Hader were also interviewed for the movie, but their sequences were left on the cutting room floor.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Jonah Hex