Two Solid Horror Movies in the cinemas at the same time? A Rare Occurrence, indeed....
by Don Stradley
One of the joys of It Follows is how it echoes many of the seminal moments in the history of horror movies. It's opening scene of a teenage girl running out of her suburban home, clad only in her underwear and high heeled pumps, feels like an homage to classic slasher films of the past. But when we see her next, crumpled on a beach as if she'd been mangled by a trash compactor, we feel we're seeing something new and strange. And so it goes for much of the movie, as old riffs from the past are juxtaposed with bits that seem fresh, even jarring. The music, too, sounds like the great merciless score of John Carpenter's Halloween. If movies were thinking, feeling entities, I would say that It Follows absolutely loves being a horror movie.
The plot is beautiful in its simplicity: Jay (Maika Monroe), a nice young woman, has sex with Hugh (Jake Weary), her new boyfriend. When they’ve finished, he warns her that he’s cursed, and has passed the curse on to her. Granted, teens having sex is always a risky bet in these movies, but this one takes the cake. Hugh informs Jay that a strange being will start following her, and may even try to kill her. He knows because it happened to him. The being is a shape-shifter, sometimes taking the shape of an old woman, or a tall, lumbering man. It's dangerous, and not to be taken lightly. Hugh advises Jay to have sex with someone else and pass the curse on, though there's no guarantee that she'll be entirely rid of it. Since Jay is attractive, she’ll have no trouble finding someone, but who will it be? Her hunky neighbor? Or the well-meaning nerd who has adored her since grammar school?
Since Jay can’t quickly decide on her next course of action, she finds herself haunted by this supernatural "follower," first at school, then at home. She convinces her friends that some weird critter is stalking her, and we're then treated to one of those all-night vigils that can work so well in a horror movie. The creepy follower, who becomes uglier every time we see it, is persistent. It breaks windows. It gets inside her home. But like all good horror movie monsters, it's not quick enough to get to her. "It's slow," Hugh told her. "But it's not dumb."
Director/writer David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis create a lush but lonely atmosphere in the suburbs of Detroit, creating sinister tableaus out of the unlikeliest subjects: a lone car in a parking lot; a swing-set in an empty park. The tree-lined streets look as long and desolate as the streets Mike Meyers once stalked, many years ago. Jay's bedroom, as pink and dreamy as a John Hughes set lighted by a lava lamp, feels absolutely sepulchral, a teen dream gone awry. When Mitchell's visual sense combines with Rich Vreeland's haunting music, It Follows becomes one of the most sumptuous horror movies of recent memory.
The movie doesn't succeed all the way, though. Perhaps the thin storyline can only be stretched so far, or maybe the characters, stick figures for the most part, can't bear being looked at for more than an hour or so. Or maybe there are just too many scenes of the cast waiting around for the next incarnation of Jay's bogie to show up. Whatever the reason, the eerie mood gives way to tedium. The ending is unsatisfying, though it doesn't mar the excellence of the movie's first half.
A recurring motif in the movie has Jay’s nerdy friend watching some old, low budget sci-fi movies on television. This, too, harkens back to the scenes in Halloween, when the kids were watching the Howard Hawks version of The Thing while Michael Myers was lurking around the house. Neither Halloween, or those old black and white horrors, would run out of gas or end on a vague note. Mitchell should observe that those old classics (and non-classics) always went out with a bang.
The Harvest certainly reaches for the high notes, complete with a climactic fire and the screams of a mad woman. If It Follows is a sort of tribute to horror films of the 1980s, The Harvest reaches back even further, to the Gothic horror of Hammer studios.
The story centers on a young girl who has moved in with her grandparents after her own parents were killed. Friendless and alone, she befriends the sickly boy next door. He's confined to a wheelchair; his life consists of being home schooled, and occasionally bullied by his domineering mother (Samantha Morton). Mom, we learn, is a doctor, and appears to be preparing her ill son for some sort of clandestine, possibly illegal surgery. The sick boy's father (Michael Shannon) is doubly mysterious, making frequent trips into town to score drugs and meds for the boy. The girl eventually realizes that her new friend’s parents are engaged in something truly bizarre. It might not be the stuff of nightmares, but if you heard that a story like this went on in your own neighborhood, you'd be shocked.
Director John McNaughton (Wild Things; Mad Dog and Glory) hasn’t worked often enough in recent years. He’s not trying to raise the bar here, but he’s given us a sturdy, highly competent thriller. At times it’s even surprisingly touching. Though he’s aided by Natasha Calis and Charlie Tahan as the two kids of the tale, he gets a major boost from the adult leads. Michael Shannon doesn’t appear to be doing much at first, but he gradually builds to another of his memorable performances. As for Morton, I’ve liked her since I first saw her dancing with abandon to Tommy Roe’s ‘Sweet Pea’ in Jesus’ Son back in 1999. That same year, she was wonderful as Sean Penn’s mute girlfriend in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown. She’s been one of the most consistently watchable actresses in the movie business. Here, she’s one hell of a bad mother, a screaming, neurotic harridan who only wants what is best for her boy. I wouldn’t want her for a mother, but I’d probably still dance with her if Tommy Roe was on the radio.