It Follows (2014)

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Director: David Robert Mitchell

Stars: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi

A horror masterclass

I’m a pretty hardened horror movie watcher. Very little gets under my skin these days, for example I can quite comfortably sit and watch The Exorcist on my own, in the middle of the night and not feel a teeny weeny bit frightened. Whilst all the kids were losing their heads over The Conjuring, I sat there completely stone-faced, although that could be something to do with the crap cinema I saw it at in Loughborough which had a screen the size of a microwave and subtitles for the hard of hearing. The last film to properly scare me was Sleepaway Camp, but that’s only because of THAT ending… Perhaps I’m not as hardened as I make out though. There have been a few recent horror films which have given me some genuine chills: Kill List, Sinister and The Babadook have all unsettled me greatly. It Follows can also be added to that list.

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I watched It Follows alone last night and once it had finished I ran off to bed with chills tingling along my back, hopped straight into bed and threw the covers over my head like a 14 year-old girl. It’s something I’ve not done for a while, but It Follows really got under my skin! It’s been at the top of my watch list for a while after the buzz it created at all the festivals last year. Once it hit a wider release, all of the critics were raving at how brilliant it was and how it was the scariest film to come out in a decade. It Follows quickly fell into what I call the hype machine. The trouble with this machine is that you often let your expectations rocket to impossible heights which ends up in massive disappointment.

I allowed the hype to die down (and for the blu-ray to become cheaper!) and gave it a watch with lower expectations, and it worked! It’s easy to see how many were disappointed when people were calling it the new Halloween and a new horror classic. I wouldn’t quite go that far, but in an age full of horrendously conventional horror films with bad acting, super-fast editing and unoriginal ideas; It Follows stands head and shoulders above the rest as the superior animal. It grabbed my attention right from the opening shot which is done all in one long take. There’s no shaky camera and no cutting away every two seconds, it’s just one long shot of a girl running away in a panic. It feels grounded, real and completely refreshing. The incredibly cool retro synth score doesn’t do it any trouble either! David Robert Mitchell is clearly someone who knows what he’s doing behind the camera. The opening also culminates in a jarringly haunting image which feels like something from a nightmare. It Follows means business from the start.

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We then follow our hero, Jay who’s a blameless young adult going about her normal boring life until she decides to do a bit of innocent dogging. It results in her being cursed like a girl from Japan, but instead of a long black-haired figure following her, it’s an invisible demon who takes many guises and will follow her relentlessly until she passes it on. It’s an incredibly simple premise to pad out into a 100 minute feature film, but it absolutely works. Every single scene is filled with a strong atmosphere of complete dread because you never know when the demon is going to return, or what form it’s going to take. Even scenes where Jay and her friends are sat talking are suspenseful because you can feel a presence. Someone is always watching and it makes for a nightmarish experience.

When the stalking demon appears, that’s when stuff gets real. The film reaches its most terrifying peak when Jay and her friends stay up all night at her house to watch out for spooky happenings. I don’t want to spoil it for those who are yet to see the film, but suffice to say that it has a couple of seriously nightmarish images that will stay with me for quite a long time. It’s masterfully executed to squeeze out the maximum scares possible. It’s scary in the same way Kairo (Pulse) was. Rather than generating quick jump scares, the imagery slowly creeps under your skin and sends sharp chills all the way up your spine. It’s truly a spine-tingling experience, or at least it was for me!

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Throughout the whole film you’re basically waiting for the demon to make another appearance and because you don’t know when that’s going to be the film was never boring for me. The film does lean towards the arthouse side, so those not familiar with arty, slow stuff might find it a little tedious. It’s not the kind of film you can dip in and out of with your phone and just watch when ‘something happens’. It Follows requires your full attention for it to really work.

It’s not quite perfect though. I have to admit that although the group of characters were likable, I did find them flat. They don’t really say a lot and at one point I was thinking that they could possibly be the most boring group of people you could ever hang out with! Also, I found Maika Monroe, who plays main girl, Jay distractingly attractive. I know it’s my fault for being a hormonal young man but at times when I should’ve been completely focused on the film, I was distracted by how drop-dead gorgeous she is! She also flashed a lot of flesh which didn’t help the situation. She’s in a swimming costume for the thrilling finale for gawd’s sake!

In all seriousness though, It Follows is a modern horror master-class. It’s flawlessly executed and feels refreshing and original. It’s also genuinely terrifying for once! I won’t use the old cliché by saying ‘it’s the scariest film in years’ because lots of scary films pop up every year if you look hard enough. I’d say it’s the best horror film to come out since The Babadook.

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Only God Forgives (2013)

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Director: Nicholas Winding Refn

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Kristen Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm

Only critics destroy

Drive, Drive, Drive! That’s all people thought of (me included) when we saw the first trailer for Only God Forgives. For some reason we assume that Nicolas plus Ryan Gosling equals Drive 2. However, Nicolas has rather pleasantly showed us that he is capable of creating an entirely different beast altogether. I actually think (contrary to most people) that Only God Forgives is even better than Drive. It’s easy to see why the film got famously booed at Cannes. It’s relentlessly violent, slower than mainstream films and has very little dialogue. However, I am surprised that it has sparked as much universal hate as it has, although I do think you have to be in the right frame of mind when you watch it. If you regularly watch mainstream action films with Jason Statham, then don’t bother. Similarly, if you can’t immerse yourself within a film, and find yourself watching a screen, then don’t bother.

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Only God Forgives may seem superficial on the surface, however if you dig deeper you can find a very complex web going on underneath it all. Only God Forgives is more of an experience than a film. I found myself completely immersed within its dark and dream-like world. The long drawn-out shots, moody score and intense dream-like atmosphere are not dissimilar to something David Lynch would create. This is quite a compliment coming from me as I believe that David Lynch is one of the greatest directors of all time. The scenes where the fascinating God-like character, Chang sings at the karaoke bar evoke the Club Silencio scene in Mulholland Drive. I found it powerful and compelling for no particular reason.

The biggest complaint Only God Forgives receives is that it’s slow. People complaining about the pace have clearly never seen possibly the most boring and underrated film of all time, Uzak which moves at a pace which would make a snail weep. Only God Forgives is slow, but I was never bored. There’s an extremely strong atmosphere in Only God Forgives. Every shot seems to be drenched in doom and seedy (but beautiful) neon lighting. Just like Drive, every shot is meticulously crafted. The positioning and lighting are clearly perfected just like in a Stanley Kubrick film. Because of this I was never bored.

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I was also fascinated by all of the characters. Ryan Gosling says virtually nothing, yet he somehow seems like a deep and complex character. Chang is possibly the most fascinating character in the film. He’s a relentless and untouchable force and it was a very interesting move to compare him to God. Plum Berkley steals the show, however, as the domineering and creepy mother. Every scene she’s in is full of awkwardness and intensity. Some of the things she said can also be hard to take. I was never sure if the film was trying to be darkly humorous or disturbing, however I don’t mean this in a negative way. I enjoyed all of the characters immensely.

The high point of the film is probably the climatic battle between Chang and Julian. It’s a wonderfully choreographed and brutal scene where you feel every punch. This brings me on to the next big criticism which is that Only God Forgives is sadistically violent. This is true. I’m used to violent films that use disturbing torture such as: Inside, Martyrs and Audition. However, there was one particular scene which I found incredibly hard to watch. I did manage to watch it though. I think the violence was harder than it needed to be, but it did show the type of relentless man Chang is. I’m also one of these sickos that isn’t adverse to a bit of blood and gore. I don’t think Only God Forgives is glamorising violence in any way.

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Needless to say I loved Only God Forgives. When it ended I felt haunted and I wasn’t sure how to take it. However, it has now sunk in and after reading analysis’ of the film I can see how complex and intelligent it is. I think it’s a misunderstood film. It’s hugely atmospheric and engaging. I was gripped throughout, in fact the film probably could’ve done with being a little bit longer. It’s full of unforgettable and powerful scenes which I admired greatly. Only God Forgives is very nearly a masterpiece.

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Spring Breakers (2012)

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Director: Harmony Korine

Stars: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson

High School Musical meets Gummo

I remember when Spring Breakers first started rearing its head with its trailers and posters, and I was so confused. It starred these ex Disney channel girls and was written and directed by the same man who created Gummo, a film that I still dare not see due to how much the trailer and clips, I’ve seen have scared me*. Harmony Korine also did an even weirder looking film called, Trash Humpers which basically follows people wearing old man masks and dry-hump skips. Harmony’s films have never been mainstream. They instead appeal to the sick few of us, who are interested in the weirder side of film.

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Spring Breakers is definitely Harmony’s most mainstream film, and it makes me wonder how on Earth he was able to convince such high profile mainstream stars to take part in his experimental art film. Of course there is genius behind these casting choices. Spring Breakers was presented as a teen film with a bit of action in, when actually it’s a little experimental art-house film about our generation who follow celeb culture and have dreams of getting as much sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and booze as possible.

To my knowledge, Harmony Korine has never been one for too much plot and Spring Breakers continues this fashion. It’s basically about four girls who are looking to break away from their mundane lives and thus go over to Florida’s famous spring break, only to be arrested and bailed out by a slimy James Franco who leads them into a strange world of violence. There really isn’t much to the film, but that didn’t really bother me too much. Spring Breakers is all about the execution and atmosphere. There’s enough narrative to stop you from getting bored though.

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Every review that I’ve read (love or hate) has agreed that the film is pretty spectacular to look at. The neon-soaked images reminded me of the masterfully moody, Only God Forgives and the unnaturally bright daylight gives off an unnerving vibe. As with most art films, it will either click for you or it won’t. Spring Breakers clicked for me. I felt kind of swept away by the dreamlike images and unconventional editing. It’s executed in such a strange way with lines being repeated over voice-over, random shotgun noises, slow-motion nudity over dub step, I couldn’t help but feel sucked into its strange world.

The acting is pretty OK all round. James Franco is good, but not as great as people rave about. His performance is extremely over-the-top, which may impress some people, but to me it was just hammy. He did have a more than a bit of Bobby Peru in his character, and I think he must’ve taken notes from Willem Dafoe’s legendary performance in Wild at Heart. Spring Breakers becomes incredibly hallucinatory towards the end with a bizarre shootout, drenched in some beautiful colourful lighting and complete with glow-in-the-dark balaclavas.

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I’m not really sure what Spring Breakers means, but I think it’s definitely a film that you have to feel rather than understand. If you go along with its loony execution and lose yourself in the images, then you might find something quite special. It was an experience I quite enjoyed and one which I’d happily relive. I completely understand why most people hate it though. It appeals to the wrong market. Tweenagers aren’t going to give this film a chance, unless they’re into weird cult films like I am. I think that Spring Breakers is a very cool and colourful film, and one which makes you think too.

*Update: I have now seen Gummo. Please read my review here if you’re interested? 🙂

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