What Was It?

It Follows (2015): written and directed by David Robert Mitchell; starring Maika Monroe (Jay), Lili Sepe (Kelly), Keir Gilchrist (Paul), Olivia Luccardi (Yara), Jake Weary (Hugh/ Jeff), and Daniel Zovatto (Greg) (2015): It Follows is a terrific horror movie with surprising depth, especially for a film written and directed by a newcomer, David Robert Mitchell. It knows when to be subtle. It knows when to be gross. And it knows the iconic, John-Carpenter-related value of a synth-heavy score.

The film takes a horror-movie staple — the apparent violent punishment of teenagers in slasher movies for having sex — and makes it the central conceit. Have sex with the wrong person and something terrible will follow you and try to kill you. Escape death by sleeping with someone else and ‘passing it on.’ Return to a state of danger if the person you ‘infected’ dies before passing it on.  Really, it’s a lot like sex in the 1980’s.

But the movie works because of its pacing, the fine performances by the young and unknown cast, and some of the finest ‘sudden-shock’ moments I’ve got from a horror movie in a long time. The movie looks great as well. It juxtaposes its locations in ways which open up further discussion about just what the movie may be about under the surface: suburbia and the beach play off against deserted, ruined areas in and around Detroit. 

There are other things that enrich the subtextual eddies of the film: the voyeurism of our female protagonist’s pre-pubescent male neighbour; a visual reference to self-cutting that ties into the protagonist’s problems with body image and possible depression; the almost-complete absence of parents except as represented visually by the It of the title.

Ah, It. The film gives us a Something while wisely withholding exposition from anyone with authoritative knowledge of what that Something is or does. Everything we learn of It comes from the observations of people whom it follows. It appears to be slow. Is it really? Or is it playing with its victims? It can appear as almost anything human (we think!). Some of the forms it chooses horrify those it pursues because they’re the forms of loved ones. But sometimes its appearances are less personal, though sometimes even more horrifying. Is it a ghost? Is it a monster?

This may be a fairly serious, often melancholy horror movie, but it deploys that melancholy with wit and verve, with surprising moments of comedy and empathy. And boy, It is a dick. Highly recommended.

Unfriended (2015):  written by Nelson Greaves; directed by Leo Gabriadze; starring Heather Sossaman (Laura), Matthew Bohrer (Matt), Courtney Halverson (Val), Shelley Hennig (Blaire), Moses Storm (Mitch), Will Peltz (Adam), Renee Olstead (Jess), and Jacob Wysocki (Ken): Shockingly good horror movie from the more-miss-than-hit low-budget horror studio Blumhouse. Be warned, though, that you should watch this on your computer screen. It’s eye-strainy business on even a large TV.

Why? Because the entire narrative unfolds on a computer screen. We watch a group of high-school friends interact on-line through various social media platforms and programs one Saturday night. But then someone uninvited appears within their group webcam chat. And then things go very, very wrong.

Aside from the eyestrain, the conceit works very well. The moments of violence come and go quickly, sometimes disturbingly unclear as to what exactly just happened (did that guy just stick his hand in a blender? what did she just stick in her mouth?). The plot is boiler-plate revenge-horror reimagined for the Age of Social Media, a repugnant act of online bullying. Sympathies shift as the movie progresses. But boy, this is one angry, tech-savvy ghost! Recommended.

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955): written by George Worthing Yates and Hal Smith; directed by Robert Gordon and Ray Harryhausen; starring Kenneth Tobey (Commander Pete Mathews), Faith Domergue (Professor Lesley Joyce), and Donald Curtis (Dr. John Carter): Atomic tests rouse a really, really gigantic octopus from the abysmal depths of the Pacific and send it on a death rampage up and down the U.S. West Coast. There’s a solid attention to suspense and believable detail in between the stop-motion octopus appearances, as well as a surprisingly feminist female scientist. 

But it’s stop-motion giant Ray Harryhausen’s octopus that owns the movie, especially once it gets to San Francisco and starts tearing up the town. Yes, a few brief flashes of the entire octopus reveal that it only has five arms for the sake of keeping the animation time and expense down. So I guess it’s a quintopus. Believably integrating the live-action and stop-motion footage in 1955 was almost impossible, but Harryhausen manages some terrific juxtapositions, never moreso than when a group of soldiers repeatedly wields a flame-thrower against one of the monster’s giant tentacles. Kill it with fire! Recommended.

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