Friday, February 12, 2016

At the Movies: The Horror! The Horror!

At the Movies with Michael5000

It Follows
David Robert Mitchell, 2015.

imbd: 6.9
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% Fresh

The Babadook
Jennifer Kent, 2015.

imbd: 6.9
Rotten Tomatoes: 98% Fresh

Mrs.5000 and I recently watched two films that have both been widely described as the best and scariest horror movies to come down the pike in quite some time. Neither was remarkably gory, and they were both pretty good! Neither one, for better or worse, was incredibly scary under viewing conditions, which is to say on a laptop screen in our living room, with the lights on. They might have been scary as hell in a dark theater, but then I don’t much like being scared, so no great loss there.

It Follows is a lowish budget American feature set in suburban Detroit. It sets up a scenario that is, although completely arbitrary and ridiculous, also kind of interesting. It seems that there’s this entity that, once it’s focused on you, will eternally stalk towards you at a slow walking pace. It does not have your best interests at heart. The only way to get rid of it is, if I make speak delicately, to “get it on” with someone. Then, the monster – it has no set appearance, but takes on a variety of human forms – will begin stalking the person on with whom you got it. You’re off the hook, and your recent friend is frantically looking around for someone new to chum up to, assuming you’ve been a responsible sexual partner and explained the rules of the game.

Now if you’re like me, you can’t read about this premise and help but think of interesting empirical questions, like “what counts as a sufficient sexual act to transfer the monster’s target?” and “could I trick this thing into walking into a cage, have a friend look the door, and have done with?” and “can it swim?” and “can you give it back, and if so what counts as a sufficient and sufficiently separate sexual act?” and so on.   You get the picture.

The movie’s characters, a slackerish student who has recently become “it” in this dangerous game of touch-tag and her equally slackerish pals, don’t inquire too much into these kinds of questions. And that’s fair, since they are initially very skeptical of the premise and then, once convinced, scared out of their wits. And it’s just as well that they don’t apply too much logic, since the monster only adheres to its straight-line logic for long enough to give us some good creepy images. Later in the movie, we will see it start to freestyle, wandering around more or less like a normal human and, in one memorable instance, standing on the roof of a house. So who knows what the thing is really up to.

It Follows has quite a bit going for it. There’s good acting, good photography, a sustained slackerish moodiness, and a continual sense of menace that keep you from asking too many awkward questions until after the credits roll. It’s a pretty enjoyable entertainment.

The Babadook, set and filmed in Adelaide, South Australia, is the more literary of the two films. It is exquisitely crafted. Most of the action takes place within an elaborate mock-up of an old house, specially designed to allow magnificently framed scenes, one after another, through the whole film. This is the kind of movie where every single shot is a meticulous composition, from the color palette to the exact placement of every prop. It is basically a two-person show, and both actors – a young widow and her little boy – are tremendous.

The story starts strong. The little boy, bright and capable but afraid of monsters and lacking all social filters, is making his mother’s life very difficult. One day, he finds a pop-up book called “Mr. Babadook.” We see a fair amount of this book, and it must be said, it’s pretty terrific. It’s like something Edward Gorey might have designed on a day when he was feeling particularly angry and vengeful. (The same might be said, incidentally, of the lovely little arsenal of anti-monster weapons that the boy constructs with craftsmanship far beyond his years.) The little boy starts blaming creepy occurrences on the book’s monster, the eponymous babadook. Then, his mother starts to get a bit freaked out too. The suspense builds.

Then, essentially, a bunch of crazy horror-movie type stuff happens. And that’s a little disappointing. The film spends a lot of time in its first half setting up the little family’s increasing social isolation and desperation, before making the context irrelevant in the second half. The babadook itself is a sinister delight to behold, but what he is, how he works, and what’s to be done about him all seem only three-quarters baked. Then too, this is a movie that indulges more than once in having characters escape from terrible danger by waking up from a dream. It's potentially justifiable within the film’s own logic, but it's a hoary device that I always find highly annoying.

The Babadook has good acting, good photography, a sustained and slightly gothic moodiness, and a continual sense of menace that keep you from asking too many awkward questions until after the credits roll. It’s a pretty enjoyable entertainment, and it is quite lovely to look at. And to be perfectly honest, if I’d seen it in a dark theater? I bet it would have scared the pants off me.

Michael5000's imdb rating for It Follows: 7.

Michael5000's imdb rating for The Babadook: 8.

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