Review: It Follows

If you haven’t yet caught up on the buzz surrounding It Follows, get on it. The film is well-paced, thoughtful, well-acted, and really damn scary.

The premise is fairly simple: This thing (ghost, demon, monster, curse – take your pick) is transmitted through sexual contact. You sleep with someone carrying it, it gets transferred to you. You are pursued, slowly but surely, until this creature catches up. It can take the form of anyone it wants, familiar or unfamiliar. If it catches up to you, you’re dead. The only way to get rid of it is to pass it along to some one else. But not so fast – you’re not done. Because if that someone else dies, it circles back to you, and so on down the line.

Its latest recipient is Jay (Maika Monroe). Her new relationship is getting serious,and when she decides it’s time to take it to the next level, she winds up with much much more than she bargained for.

The film stands out for many reasons, but partly because writer/director David Robert Mitchell avoids many of the classic pitfalls of horror writing – particularly when it comes to characterizations. Jay and her circle of friends are all written believably as teenagers – no broad stereotypes, no flat, under-developed personalities. They are likable and we understand their motivations and their place in the world. They’re more like the real people you grew up with and less the Hollywood facsimiles that you all wished you could be. They’re fantastic.

This could easily have been a jump-scare fest, and while those flicks can be fun, this one resonates much more deeply, eschewing the cheap scares and instead inspiring an intense sense of dread. It really makes for a more hard-hitting and engrossing experience. Mitchell crafts something here that is an intelligent, well-paced piece of horror, building gradually and never cashing its chips in too early.

When your antagonist is a creature that walks fairly slowly, and can look like anything it wants, everyone is a suspect. And I mean everyone. As the film progresses, you become more and more aware of the fact that the characters are only ever so safe, and that somewhere offscreen, this being is slowly, steadily making its way toward them. I’ve never been so fearful of the extras in a film in my entire life. Anyone in the background, anyone simply walking through a shot could be coming for us. There are some deliberate fake-outs, but even more moments where you find yourself just scanning the shot to eliminate possible threats.

By the time we roll into the third act, you are positively white-knuckling it in your seat. The theme and dreadful nature of inevitability gradually wear you down until you are completely on edge. It hits you in much the same way Romero’s Dead films do. One zombie is nothing, several are manageable, but there is a tipping point at which suddenly “I’ve got this under control” becomes “Oh, fuck.” Same thing here. Something walking toward you isn’t terribly threatening, until it starts closing the distance and you run out of room to escape.

It also works because it leaves everything so unexplained. At its core, the set-up is blissfully
simplistic. We don’t know what this thing is, and we don’t know what rules it follows, outside of what we experience through these characters. We don’t know its origin, or its purpose, and frankly, we don’t care. The only relevance here is Jay and how this thing is impacting her. The drama and the constantly increasing tension lie in watching these characters react and cope with this undefined Thing that is relentlessly pursuing them.

It Follows is a thoughtful and terrifying film, and one that delivers something complex and intelligent. It’s a dread that grows over the course of the story, and stays with you as you leave the theater, watching every person you pass on the street and checking every dark alley for something (or someone) out of place.

Review: The Lazarus Effect

Sometimes a horror movie comes along that defies your every expectation. Sometimes, you are surprised, and instead of getting the drab, by the numbers film that was advertised, the film you walk into is considerably more intelligent and interesting that you were initially expecting to give it credit for. Sadly, The Lazarus Effect is not that film. Instead, it’s a film that makes a lot of interesting promises at the outset, and then devolves into an unoriginal, barely coherent mess by the time its 90 minutes are up.

Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde play Frank and Zoe – scientists developing a serum to regenerate brain tissue and give medical professionals a bigger window in which to safely bring patients back when they die on the table. An initial experiment on a dog cadaver not only brings it back to life, but they find that it is regenerating cellular and brain activity at a very fast pace, and even activating new parts of the brain. When they try to replicate the results, Zoe is electrocuted and killed. Naturally, the best course of action is to try the serum out on her, and naturally, she doesn’t come back quite right.

At first, the story plays with some interesting ideas. Writers Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater set up an exploration of theology vs science, promising to delve into the mystery of what happens to us when we die. But the story ignores all of the more intriguing premises established and just goes for every cliche in the book. Though certainly watchable, it doesn’t deliver on any of the promises that it sets up in the first act, and doesn’t even succeed in being an entertaining scarefest. It telegraphs every turn, every jump and every development a mile away, and fails to offer anything we haven’t seen a thousand times before.

The film is mired in flawed logic, unrealistic courses of action and tons of horror movie cliches. I don’t need my horror movie science to be spot on – I know we’re all here for fun, but I do demand my scientist characters actually behave like scientists, and everybody knows you never bring a newly-resurrected dog home as the family pet the night he suddenly regains life. Duh.

This kind of shoddy logic continues through the film, and by the finale, it’s as if the writers were rolling dice to see which tired trope inject into the plot next. Hallway lights begin clicking off one by one (at multiple points), a creepy red ball rolls out of nowhere – you name it – you’ve seen it all before. There is even a record player in the lab for the soul purpose of scaring the audience during the finale.*

Though incredibly underutilized, the cast is a major point of strength for the film, particularly Duplass and Wilde. Despite being saddled with crap science and questionable motivations, they still have a couple of chances to let their innate charm break through and you get a small window into the lives and minds of these characters. It’s not nearly enough time, but it’s sufficient to get you on their side. Donald Glover, Evan Peters and Sarah Bolger round the team, though their characters are given considerably fewer opportunities to be more than stage dressing.

One of the major frustrations is that The Lazarus Effect introduces all these ideas about the death experience, about science and the unexplainable, about what happens to you after you die, and then completely fail to cash in. The result of Zoe’s resurrection has very little to do with the afterlife in the way the writers set it up early on. All of the interesting ideas get dumped in favor or a more pedestrian approach. Director David Gelb shoots it as a possession flick – blacked out eyes, creepy grey veins, supernatural powers, but it is really just a poorly realized, horror version of Lucy. Zoe comes back from the dead, the abilities of her brain are magnified by this serum, and for whatever reason, that turns her evil.

It’s one of those movies that you can sense started out a lot smarter than it ended up. There are so many tangents at play that don’t wrap up cleanly and you really feel like the script went through so many cuts and revisions that it can’t even identify itself anymore. Which is a shame – I would have liked to have seen the movie they hinted to early on in the film. Instead, this is just a garbled mess that takes no ownership of itself, and instead just plays it safe (and boring) at every turn.

*Though, that offered some accidental entertainment – when the record player scratched to life in an attempt to shock the audience with a poorly-placed jump scare, my brain interpreted the scratch as a gigantic fart noise. Farts are funny.