It-Follows-Movie-PosterSometimes you have to strip back the horror to make a horror movie work. It Follows does that to thrilling effect, keep gore to a minimum and the threat of it at a maximum. It plays on the fear of an unknown presence following its victims. There’s no dwelling on rationalizing beyond the idea that the presence is deadly, it takes on the form of a lumbering, catatonic person and it begins haunting victims after intercourse with anyone who already has it following them.

This marks the second feature film by writer/director David Robert Mitchell, who made an impression in the world of indie teen drama with The Myth of the American Sleepover in 2010. Now taking on the genre of teen horror, Mitchell understands how to write likable young characters and balance confrontational scares with the terror of a presence always on the move. It’s the latter notion that works so well and keeps the suspense buoyed throughout the film. Even when the entity is off-screen, it has a presence. As amiable as his characters are, the background has as much payoff as any action or banter in the foreground.

Mitchell establishes the mystery in a twisted, tense opening sequence featuring a young woman frantically running for her life in short silk pajamas and high heels in a suburban neighborhood, with no pursuer in sight, and a pounding, screeching industrial score enhancing the unease. Whatever is chasing her must be near but remains unseen. Her neighbors outside, doing banal things like washing a car, give her puzzled looks before she gets into a vintage sedan and peels off. Sitting on the shore of a beach, she phones her parents for a final, desperate goodbye and a plea for forgiveness of all her trivial, dumb actions. Her car’s tail lights illuminate the brush and trees behind it in a bright, blood-red glow. Its headlamps shine on her in harsh light, falling far short of lighting the void of the ocean behind her. Darkness and what lies beyond is the film’s star, after all. A smash cut, and we are hit with daylight and the victim’s lifeless wide-eyed face, a cut to a more distant picture, and we see her lifeless body has been unnaturally bent, a heel pointing at her face.

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It’s a great moment of establishing the danger that lies for the film’s protagonist, doe-eyed Jay (Maika Monroe, who looks like a younger version of Greta Gerwig). As with all horror films, the rules that the entity lives and stalks by eventually come to light, but no rationalizing of its presence undoes the terror of its almost random appearances. That it materializes with Jay’s sexual blossoming reeks of all sorts of implications of end of innocence. However, Mitchell never veers into the realm of exploitation, showing respect and genuine endearment for his characters, who all come across as sympathetic.

Mitchell also shows respect to a purist notion of horror that the film mines for its scares. It Follows is ultimately about the dread of the unseen. It’s in the nameless pronoun of the title, after all. And there are no safe places from the unknowable threat, as it remains unrelenting in its task to grab Jay and do who knows what to make her into a human pretzel. It’s the unease of that looming fate and the lack of security anywhere from anyone that feels consistent in the film and taps into our primordial concern about the unknown. It’s a smart play on elements that made the 1980s versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing so good.

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Speaking of older horror films, the production design of It Follows has a strange, vaguely familiar quality of era for those familiar with its predecessors. Though a few characters have cell phones and one of them has an e-reader in a compact, Jay and her friends watch campy black and white horror movies on old tube TVs and almost everybody drives sedans from the 1980s or 1990s. This gives the film a surreal quality out of the films of David Cronenberg. The dreamlike atmosphere of this incongruously dated era also recalls Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Mitchell plays with viewer’s associations with these greats to infuse the film with a subconscious yet familiar sense of fear.

Its roots in 1970s and 1980s horror cinema is further enhanced by its synth-based soundtrack by Disasterpeace (Berkeley-educated video game music composer Rich Vreeland working on his first film score), which owes a lot to Goblin and John Carpenter. Its hybrid industrial/new age melodies are cheeseball chic. But, like the film’s narrative premise, it works best when it’s stripped to screeching or rumbling drones instead of overdosing on the schlock, which, the music sometimes does.

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Even stronger than the film’s score is its cinematography, both in what the camera shows and what it doesn’t. Beautifully shot by Mike Gioulakis, who did stellar work last year on creating atmosphere with light in a film few have seen but should called Lake Los Angeles (it made my top 20 of last year), the look recalls the films of Dario Argento. Light and shadow vary constantly, complimenting each other throughout the film. The actors all seem lit from the center and shadows often loom in the distance. Even better is the frequent use of a slow, drifting zoom in many of the movie’s shots that adds a sense of an omniscient gaze between the moviegoers and the characters on-screen. The sense of its presence is always there.

It Follows is one of those conspicuously directed films that never looses momentum and will be hard to forget. But the best thing to note about the film is that it harnesses the potency of mystery to grand effect. There are no subversive twists that upend the film’s logic. The entire concept is a well-maintained variation of the genre that finally will not insult the viewer’s intelligence but tap into their primal sense of fear.

Hans Morgenstern

It Follows runs 100 minutes and is Rated R (for horror with sexuality that all works for the film and veers from exploitation). It opens everywhere today, Friday March 26. The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review, which is the only indie cinema in our area showing it. For other locations across the U.S. go here and put in your zip code.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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It’s the end of the year, and once again here is a list of the best films I caught this year. As opposed to other years, I’m including short films and even a couple of multimedia experiences, including some works that some might exclusively consider “art.”

If there is one characteristic I search for in moving image experiences it is the feeling of transcendence. To this writer and lover of the art of the moving image — sometimes above narrative and definitely beyond the confines of the classical Hollywood cinema form — that often means subverting the medium. It would be unfair to place the burden of that on narrative films that often come up this time of year, begging to be noticed for an Oscar award. But it was a grueling awards season this year only because not many of these films stood out as genuinely spectacular (I’m thinking Unbroken, The Gambler, Into the Woods and Interstellar)

In this two-part post, I hope to give you a taste of films that you would not expect for an end-of-the-year summary, including links to some that you might be able to see now, on-line. All of these were true surprising experiences and many, yes, had that moment of transcendence. But of course there were indie, world and even some studio films that impressed with acting and narrative technique.

Though I must take personal acquaintance out of the mix, as that has an effect on opinion, allow me to note that I saw wonderful films by some local Miami filmmakers this year. The Miami International Film Festival gave us the incredible short documentary “Cherry Pop: The Story of the World’s Fanciest Cat” by Kareem Tabsch, co-founder of Miami’s chain of O Cinemas. He cracked up when I asked if it was a mockumentary. It’s not.

MIFF also gave us “Ectotherms,” an atmospheric film of suburban malaise distinct to Miami by Monica Peña, operations manager at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (read my interview with her here). She also finished a short documentary that captures a side of Miami Beach few who haven’t been there have ever seen. It premiered at Miami’s Borscht Film Festival. Watch “Pink Sidewalks” below:

Speaking of Borscht, I saw only a few of this year’s offerings, but they inspired lots of writing on my part in the “Miami New Times.” “Cool As Ice 2” is an amazing meta sequel to Cool As Ice by the talented duo of Lucas Leyva and Jillian Mayer. Then there is “Papa Machete,” by Jonathan David Kane, a poetic short documentary about an elderly Haitian Machete Fencing master that is now headed to Sundance. I also lobbied hard to get Borscht the “Golden Orange” from the Florida Film Critics Circle. They won it (read all my Borscht coverage and check out videos by following this link).

Finally, though Art Basel – Miami Beach this year meant a preview for Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, it more importantly allowed me to spend a lot of time with Auto Body, an group exhibition in response to gender inequality in art that featured art by women artists. It was a performance and video-based exhibit with nothing for sale. A lot of it was based on destruction over creation or vice-versa. It opened with Cheryl Pope destroying hundreds of water balloons sustained from the ceiling using only her head and closed with Naama Tsabar leading an all-girl band through an immaculate cover of Pulp’s “Babies,” which descended into abstract noise at song’s end, while Tsabar spent a half-hour bashing the stage to pieces with her guitar. In between my friend dancer Ana Mendez choreographed a fall down and “up” a metal staircase she titled “Liminal Being,” which she repeated several times each day of the exhibit. It was raw, real and visceral, showing both strength and human vulnerability, something that could be said for much of the art in this exhibit.

But much of what made Auto Body were short films, and indeed some of the most incredible visuals I saw this year unfolded on those 25 screens. I wrote a preview here, with several interviews. Next I wrote a reactionary summary of part of day 1 of the event here. The latter includes some of the video highlights at the exhibition, which lasted four days and even caught the attention of the “New York Times.” Here’s a snippet of one of the highlights (those offended by naked female bodies should not play this):

There are some terrific film experiences above that made 2014 memorable, there’s also a distinctive style coming out of Miami, be it abstract or narrative-based, that is worth further exploration in another post. Some are already using the term “Miami Wave.” I just feel too close to them to rank them among the films I feel less personally attached to in the list below and in part 2 of this post, which will appear on this blog tomorrow. Though, recalling this year in local art and film, I do feel like I have already written about my favorite film of 2014.

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I’m going to start this list by presenting an example of one of the great short films I saw in 2014, which I will consider number 20 of my top 20 film experiences of 2014, then I’ll present the rest of the first half of this list. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the specific link, you will be financially supporting this blog. If we reviewed it here, there will be a link to the review under the poster art. Finally if we haven’t reviewed it, I’ll try to share a few words about the film’s significance.

20. Collection petites planètes • volume 7 • Maricel Yasa

Do not dismiss this as a music video. It’s a slice-of-life exploration of Buenos Aires with the beautiful accompaniment of the music of Maricel Yasa. Her soft, airy vocals and active acoustic guitar plucking is sometimes accompanied by a droning, high-pitched violin but it mostly melds with the sounds of the city, be they rumbling buses or kids setting off sporadic fireworks in a park. Filmmaker Vincent Moon (we wrote a lot about him here), shows no shame in his probing camera work, which is as spontaneous as the scenes he captures, he drifts close to his subjects and shows as much respect for their surroundings. His work has beauty and an earthy quality that is both beautiful and sometimes sublimely poetic.

19.  Blue Ruin

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With Blue Ruin, director Jeremy Saulnier gives us a suspense film not driven by plot twists but a human incompetence that reveals the blinding power of a grudge allowed to fester for way too long. The performances by these unknown actors are handled with great care. There’s an every-man quality to them that far from glamorizes the revenge flick. There’s little panache but great sensitivity in showing how hard it is to kill, adding to the nerve-racking pace of the film without contrived enhancements of editing and music.

18. Whiplash

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Refreshingly intense, Whiplash not only features two of this year’s great male performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, but it  has an unrelenting pace fueled by twisted passion. They may not be musicians, but Teller and Simmons give a lot to convey their weirdo drive for technical musical perfection. The crazy thing is that it’s jazz, a music to be loved for its human imperfection. However, to get to that — ahem — transcendent level of greatness in the music, you have to master perfect form, and it comes through pain, and, man, is pain conveyed to the hilt in this film.

17. Wild

Read Ana Morgenstern’s review

16. Force Majeure

Force_MajeureRead my review

15. Listen Up Philip

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14. Lake Los Angeles

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13. Snowpiercer

snowpiercer_ver20Read Ana Morgenstern’s review

12. Birdman

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11. Hide Your Smiling Faces

smilingfaces_smRead my review

Tomorrow: the top 10 films (or videos) of 2014. Update, it’s live:

The best movies of 2014, according to Hans Morgenstern — Part 2

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)