IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: IT FOLLOWS (2014)

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All the rage this year for horror fans has been the Netflix TV show STRANGER THINGS (2016), and with good reason:  it’s a phenomenal show.  Among the many things it gets right is its near-perfect homage to the horror films of the 1980s, especially the films of John Carpenter.

But for me, before STRANGER THINGS, a film that also captured the spirit of John Carpenter’s early works was the stylish horror flick IT FOLLOWS (2014).  While not a clear homage to the 1980s— in fact, it’s unclear when this film takes place, and this timelessness seems to have been done on purpose— the film definitely has that 1980s horror vibe.

In fact, there are several specific shots that bring to mind John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).  The neighborhood where the main characters live looks similar to Laurie Strode’s neighborhood in HALLOWEEN, and there’a scene where main character Jay sits in a classroom listening to her teacher drone on before looking out the window and seeing a threat.  There’s a similar scene in HALLOWEEN.  In that movie, Laurie looks out the window and sees Michael Myers’ car.  In IT FOLLOWS, Jay looks out the window and sees the old woman walking towards her.

IT FOLLOWS is a stylish, sexy horror movie that ranks as one of the best horror films to come out in the past ten years.

The film opens with a teenage girl fleeing from some unseen terror.  The next morning she turns up brutally murdered.

The action switches to 19 year-old Jay Height (Maika Monroe) on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a guy she is really interested in.  Gotta do a better job picking your dates, Jay.  After the two have sex, Hugh drugs Jay, and when she awakes, she is tied to a wheelchair.  Hugh explains that he’s not going to hurt her, but that he restrained her so he could tell her the truth:  he is being followed by some unknown entity, and now by having sex with Jay, he has passed on the curse to her, and if she wants to get rid of the curse, she’ll have to have sex with someone else.

Can someone say padded cell?

That’s certainly what Jay is thinking, until a naked woman shows up and starts slowly walking towards her and Hugh.  This entity only has to touch you, and you die, so as long as you outrun it, you’re safe, but it never stops pursuing you.  Ever.

Hugh quickly whisks Jay away from the woman and brings her back home, but he tells her to remember all that he told her.  Jay thinks he’s nuts and a creep, until once again, this time an elderly woman- who no one else seems to see- shows up at her school and follows her, causing Jay to up and run from the building.

Jay confides in her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and with the help of their friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), they vow to get to the bottom of this mystery and protect Jay’s life in the process.

While this may sound like just another bad teenager horror movie, IT FOLLOWS is anything but bad and recycled.  It’s exceedingly fresh and effective.

Let’s start with the entity, the “monster” that is inflicting harm on the teenagers.  This entity is unlike what we’ve seen in horror movies of late – it’s not a demon or a ghost or an alien, but then again, maybe it is.  The film never quite defines just what “it” is, and this is part of what makes this movie work so well.  It doesn’t need to define its villain.

What this force does is effective enough on its own.  It simply walks—never runs— towards its intended victim, and when it touches them, it kills them.  So, if you’re the hunted, like Jay, you have to constantly outrun this thing because it never stops, which reminded me a little bit of the premise from the first TERMINATOR movie way back when.  The fear here is its relentlessness.  Sure, it moves like a turtle, but it never stops, which means, eventually people like Jay are going to grow weary, tired, fall asleep, what have you, and that thing will catch up to them and kill them.

It also looks different to everyone who sees it, and to those it’s not hunting, it’s invisible.   This might not sound like much in the scare department, but you’ll be surprised at how creepy the image of an old woman walking listlessly towards the camera can be.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about IT FOLLOWS:  its simplicity.  Things here work on such an unpretentious level, and the movie generates scares so effortlessly just by having people walking towards their victims, it’s refreshing and for those of us who love horror it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell succeeds in making an extremely stylish and terrifying horror movie.  He also captures the feel of run down Detroit neighborhoods which adds to the mood of this one.

Mitchell’s work here clearly calls to mind horror movies from the 1970s and 1980s, especially the films of John Carpenter, and the look of this movie is helped a lot by its masterful music score by Rich Vreeland, listed in the credits by his nickname “Disasterpeace.”  The music has a major impact on this movie and is reminiscent of the electronic scores of John Carpenter.

The cast here is also excellent.  Maika Monroe is terribly sexy as Jay, and she succeeds in making her both strong and vulnerable at the same time.  Lili Sepe is just as good as Jay’s sister Kelly.

Keir Gilchrist nails his role as Paul, the slightly nerdy friend who has a thing for Jay and vows to protect her.  Likewise, Olivia Luccardi is excellent as Yara, as is Daniel Zovatto as their street smart friend Greg.

In addition to being a creepy horror movie, David Robert Mitchell’s script also works on a symbolic level.  The characters by having sex pass on the “curse” to the person they have sex with, like an STD or the AIDS virus, and like AIDS, while the entity can be controlled, it can never be eradicated.  It keeps following you forever.

There’s also a weird time element going on in the film which might be a distraction for some folks but wasn’t for me.  The film looks like it takes place in the 1970s/80s, and some of the action in this film backs this up:  the characters watch television on old TV sets which use antennas, no one uses cell phones, the teens play board games rather than video games, and the cars aren’t the newest models.  However, in several scenes, Yara is definitely reading from kindle device.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell has said he did these things because he wanted this film to be timeless, and I don’t have a problem with this.  It’s been done before.  One of the most famous horror series of all time, the Universal FRANKENSTEIN series, for example, never defined its timeline, and those films have always worked.

IT FOLLOWS is one of the more satisfying horror films I’ve seen in a long while.  To generate horror isn’t easy.  Those of us who write horror know this firsthand.  It’s certainly easier doing it with shock scenes and blood and gore, and so when someone comes along like David Robert Mitchell in this case and makes a film that is as unsettling as this one is with so few visual effects and traditional scares, that’s kinda special.

Definitely check out IT FOLLOWS, but if you look out your window and  see someone slowly walking towards you, someone that nobody else seems to be noticing, take my advice:  run!

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DON’T BREATHE (2016) – Horror Movie Starts Off Fresh, Becomes Predictable

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DON’T BREATHE (2016) starts off as a refreshing thriller, a horror movie free from the usual horror movie tropes, but it doesn’t stay this way for long.  Ultimately it turns into a rather standard shocker.

Three young friends are suffering through life in economically starved Detroit.  As a result, Alex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky (Jane Levy) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) have turned to a life of crime.  They rob houses, careful not to steal cash and to only take a certain amount of stuff, to keep their crime from becoming a felony.  How smart of them!

They come up with what they think is the smartest plan of all, to rob the house of a blind man, a job they feel will be a piece of cake. They’re interested in this guy because supposedly he’s got a huge stash of cash hidden inside his house, the result of a settlement in a wrongful death suit against the person who killed his daughter in a traffic accident. The only one who’s not on board at first is Alex, since it means breaking their “no cash” rule, but he’s got a thing for Rocky, and so he eventually changes his mind and joins his friends.

So, they break into the guy’s house, and for them, that’s where the fun stops, because it turns out that the blind man (Stephen Lang) is an ex-soldier, and even though he’s blind, he’s a trained killer. Suddenly, they find themselves trapped inside the house with this deadly soldier.  More than that, he’s also harboring a sinister secret.

And when they find themselves in the same room with him, the only way to escape is remain still and silent, and to take the advice of the film’s title:  DON’T BREATHE!

DON’T BREATHE is an okay thriller.  I enjoyed the first half more than the second, where it deteriorates into standard horror movie fare.

Early on, we meet our three main characters, and thanks to some solid acting performances, we kinda like these folks, even if they are robbing houses.

There’s Rocky, who’s beautiful and spunky, and Jane Levy delivers a nice performance here.  She’s also given the most background, as we learn about her troubled childhood and why she wants to leave Detroit so badly, which is why she desperately wants to steal the blind man’s money.

Dylan Minnette is also very good as Alex.  Minnette played the bully in LET ME IN (2010) and he played Hugh Jackman’s son in PRISONERS (2013).

Money is probably the least developed of the three, but he’s played by the talented young actor Daniel Zovatto, who made a strong impression a couple of years ago in the quality horror movie IT FOLLOWS (2014).  He also had a small recurring role in FEAR THE WALKING DEAD.  Money is almost a throwaway role, but Zovatto prevents this from happening by making this hothead thief a bit more thee-dimensional than expected.

Stephen Lang is chilling as the blind man, at least at first anyway.  Strangely, the more we learn about him, including just what it is he’s up to inside his house, the less frightening he became to me.  In fact, his antics towards the end became almost laughable.

The first half of this movie is extremely suspenseful, and it culminates with the best sequence in the film, when the blind man cuts the power inside his house, plunging it into darkness.  Rocky and Alex then find themselves stuck in a pitch black basement at the mercy of their blind attacker.

But then things deteriorate.

I kept expecting the blind man to capture them and then in some intense in-your-face moments, really show them why they chose the wrong house to break into.  Instead, we learn the blind man’s “terrible” secret, as to what he’s doing inside his house, which I thought was convoluted and a letdown.

The film also goes on too long, and it’s almost as if director Fede Alvarez didn’t know how to end it.  It goes on and on with one “ending” after another, which I found tedious.

I also didn’t like the sequences with the blind man’s guard dog.  Several times in the movie Rocky and Alex outrun the dog, which isn’t at all realistic.  The dog would have caught them easily.  There’s also a sequence where the dog traps Rocky in a car, which is right out of CUJO (1983), only CUJO was better.

The screenplay by director Alavarez and Rodo Sayagues works best early on, when it’s introducing us to the three main characters and does a nice job of capturing the feel of economically deprived Detroit.  It also provides plenty of suspense when they first break into the blind man’s home.

But as the film deteriorates into standard horror movie fare, where young people run around for their lives pursued by one unrealistic threat after another, the film drops several notches.

DON’T BREATHE is a halfway decent horror movie.  It’s got solid acting and a refreshingly original premise, but it doesn’t go the distance, and eventually turns into yet another mindless horror movie with little to offer other than some well placed gore and predictably choreographed screams.

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BEST MOVIES OF 2015

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

It Follows poster

10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

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6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

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1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

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And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

IT FOLLOWS (2015) Provides Relentless Stylish Horror

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it_followsMOVIE REVIEW:  IT FOLLOWS (2015)

By Michael Arruda

 

It follows that since IT FOLLOWS received all kinds of positive buzz and hype that I might have had too high expectations for this one.

Nope.

I liked this simple thriller just fine.

IT FOLLOWS opens with a teenage girl fleeing from some unseen terror.  The next morning she turns up brutally murdered.

The action switches to 19 year-old Jay Height (Maika Monroe) on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a guy she is really interested in.  Gotta do a better job picking your dates, Jay.  After the two have sex, Hugh drugs Jay, and when she awakes, she is tied to a wheelchair.  Hugh explains that he’s not going to hurt her, but that he restrained her so he could tell her the truth:  he is being followed by some unknown entity, and now by having sex with Jay, he has passed on the curse to her, and if she wants to get rid of the curse, she’ll have to have sex with someone else.

Can someone say padded cell?

That’s certainly what Jay is thinking, until a naked woman shows up and starts slowly walking towards her and Hugh.  This entity only has to touch you, and you die, so as long as you outrun it, you’re safe, but it never stops pursuing you.  Ever.

Hugh quickly whisks Jay away from the woman and brings her back home, but he tells her to remember all that he told her.  Jay thinks he’s nuts and a creep, until once again, this time an elderly woman- who no one else seems to see- shows up at her school and follows her, causing Jay to up and run from the building.

Jay confides in her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and with the help of their friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), they vow to get to the bottom of this mystery and protect Jay’s life in the process.

While this may sound like just another bad teenager horror movie, or a recycled plot from an old SCOOBY DOO cartoon, IT FOLLOWS is anything but bad and recycled.  It’s exceedingly fresh and effective.

Let’s start with the entity, the “monster” that is inflicting harm on the teenagers.  This entity is unlike what we’ve seen in horror movies of late – it’s not a demon or a ghost or an alien, but then again, maybe it is.  The film never quite defines just what “it” is, and this is part of what makes this movie work so well.  It doesn’t need to define its villain.

What this force does is effective enough on its own.  It simply walks—never runs— towards its intended victim, and when it touches them, it kills them.  So, if you’re the hunted, like Jay, you have to constantly outrun this thing because it never stops, which reminded me a little bit of the premise from the first TERMINATOR movie way back when.  The fear here is its relentlessness.  Sure, it moves like a turtle, but it never stops, which means, eventually people like Jay are going to grow weary, tired, fall asleep, what have you, and that thing will catch up to them and kill them.

It also looks different to everyone who sees it, and to those it’s not hunting, it’s invisible.   This might not sound like much in the scare department, but you’ll be surprised at how creepy the image of an old woman walking listlessly towards the camera can be.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about IT FOLLOWS:  its simplicity.  Things here work on such an unpretentious level, and the movie generates scares so effortlessly just by having people walking towards their victims, it’s refreshing and for those of us who love horror it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell succeeds in making an extremely stylish and terrifying horror movie.  He also captures the feel of run down Detroit neighborhoods which adds to the mood of this one.

Mitchell’s style here is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s work on HALLOWEEN (1978).  The shots of the homes, and the teens walking outside, brought to mind similar shots which Carpenter used in his masterpiece HALLOWEEN.  There’s one scene in particular where Jay is sitting in a classroom and she looks out the window to see the old woman approaching which reminded me an awful lot of a similar scene in HALLOWEEN where Jamie Lee Curtis is sitting in a classroom and when she looks out the window she sees the car driven by Michael Myers parked out front.

Mitchell’s work here clearly calls to mind horror movies from the 1970s and 1980s, and the look of this movie is helped a lot by its masterful music score by Rich Vreeland, listed in the credits by his nickname “Disasterpeace.”  The music has a major impact on this movie and really calls to mind scores from the 1970s/1980s horror movies, especially the music of John Carpenter.

The cast here is also excellent.  Maika Monroe is terribly sexy as Jay, and she succeeds in making her both strong and vulnerable at the same time.  Lili Sepe is just as good as Jay’s sister Kelly.

Keir Gilchrist nails his role as Paul, the slightly nerdy friend who has a thing for Jay and vows to protect her.  For obvious reasons, he wants to have sex with her, but in this case by offering to have sex with her he’ll also be helping her because it will remove the curse from her.  Jay resists his offer because she values his friendship and doesn’t want him to be harmed.  A nice bit of symbolism here for those friends who struggle with moving on to the next level of their relationship, fearing that dating could ruin a friendship.

Likewise, Olivia Luccardi is excellent as Yara, as is Daniel Zovatto as their street smart friend Greg.

In addition to being a creepy horror movie, David Robert Mitchell’s script also works on a symbolic level.  The characters by having sex pass on the “curse” to the person they have sex with, like an STD or the AIDS virus, and like AIDS, while the entity can be controlled, it can never be eradicated.  It keeps following you forever.

There’s also a weird time element going on in the film which might be a distraction for some folks but wasn’t for me.  The film looks like it takes place in the 1970s/80s, and some of the action in this film backs this up:  the characters watch television on old TV sets which use antennas, and as far as I know, television nowadays is all digital- there are no broadcast stations anymore, and the characters watch old black and white movies.  No one uses cell phones or other electronic devices, the teens play board games rather than video games, and the cars aren’t the newest models.  However, in several scenes, Yara is definitely reading from kindle device.  Hmm.

This didn’t really bother me because nothing in the movie clearly defines the action as taking place in the 1970s or 80s.  There’s no news footage on TV of Ronald Reagan addressing the nation, for example, and the year this film takes place is never mentioned.  This could just be one quirky family who watches black and white movies on old TVs – we never see anyone use the antenna on top of the TV – it could just be there for show.  And the cars could all be older models because the folks in this neighborhood might not be able to afford newer ones.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell has said he did these things because he wanted this film to be timeless, and I don’t have a problem with this.  It’s been done before.  One of the most famous horror series of all time, the Universal FRANKENSTEIN series, for example, never defined its timeline, and those films have always worked.  For me, this time question only added to the style of this movie.

IT FOLLOWS is one of the more satisfying horror films I’ve seen in a long while.  Yet, I can see how some viewers might be disappointed.  It’s not full of gore, it doesn’t have the traditional shock scenes, and there’s no major villain or monster, other than the “force” which appears in the form of regular people.

In a way, the simplicity of IT FOLLOWS also reminded me a bit of the minimalism of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999).  When BLAIR WITCH first came out, most of us bought into it (I did) and found it incredibly creepy even though nothing horrifying is ever really shown in the film, but there were naysayers who because nothing horrifying was shown on screen thought the film overrated and silly.

I could see the same thing happening with IT FOLLOWS.

But IT FOLLOWS deserves to be seen because it works so well.  To generate horror isn’t easy.  Those of us who write horror know this firsthand.  It’s certainly easier doing it with shock scenes and blood and gore, and so when someone comes along like David Robert Mitchell in this case and makes a film that is as unsettling as this one is with so few visual effects and traditional scares, that’s kinda special.

IT FOLLOWS is definitely worth a trip to the theater.  But be forewarned.  When you leave the theater and you find yourself looking over your shoulder, should you see some lethargic looking stranger ambling in your direction, take my advice:  run!

 

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