horror

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

IT FOLLOWS

USA, 2014

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David Robert Mitchell directed It Follows. He said this about the film, ‘I’m not personally interested in where ‘it’ comes from. To me it’s dream logic in the sense that they’re in a nightmare, and when you’re in a nightmare there’s no solving the nightmare, even if you try to solve it. Jay opens herself up to danger through sex, sex is the one way that she can free herself from that danger. We’re all here for a limited time, and we can’t escape our mortality but love and sex are two ways in which we can, at least temporarily, push death away.’

Take the above comments seriously and we are entitled to assume that It Follows has little to offer other than a compelling atmosphere and a plot that insists upon surprising its audience. Mitchell describes a film that is intuitive rather than intellectual. Critical opinion is divided between those who interpret the film as a warning against the sexually transmitted disease AIDS and those who identify metaphor for what happens to our psychology after a sexual encounter. As the film has been used to justify contradictory interpretations, it is not unfair to say that the approach by Mitchell is not quite the polemical masterpiece some have assumed. In that sense his comments above make sense but we should be wary of the plots of any filmmaker who talks of movies as nightmares.

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In tone It Follows resembles Let The Right One In, a Swedish vampire movie that came out six years earlier.   Both movies have merit, evoke a mysterious and threatening urban atmosphere, follow plots that have surprises and share a tendency towards po-faced seriousness.   The swimming pool sequences that occur in both films appear to be more than a coincidence although the presence of water in It Follows has more Freudian intent and consequence.   Let The Right One In may or may not have inspired Mitchell to make the film It Follows. Both films were well received. Indeed some of the reviewers in British newspapers lapsed into camp hysteria when they praised the films.

It Follows is a fine but flawed film. Some of it is marvellous but it also lacks rigour.   The film has a seductive rhythm, characters that feel authentic, and a very original and audacious horror scene that takes place on the beach in bright daylight. But even by the standards of horror cinema the behaviour of Jay Height the heroine is a little odd. The escape to a park to be alone in the dark when she knows she is being followed by an inexplicable and unavoidable threat is baffling. The swimming pool climax is well staged but the physics is dodgy, and the old Invisible Man cinematic tricks we see adopted at the side of the swimming pool are weak.   The continued enthusiasm for the heroes to fire at the indestructible entity that follows them also makes little sense even if it does have a positive effect in one instance. Fill a swimming pool with blood and you soon get people out of the swimming baths. That confrontation is not especially violent but there is an excess of the red stuff and more than a bit of fake poetry. The scene links to what happens at the beginning of the film, and the connection between the scenes makes sense. We first observe Jay a woman whose sexuality, indicated by the surrounding water, inspires local boys to gaze at her body. When Jay explores that sexuality, she invokes the disapproval of others. Jay has to rely on her friends to help her challenge the threat of the offended.

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The purpose of the indestructible entity is explained to Jay by her seducer after they have had sex. At this point the dialogue is not well recorded and we hear and see references to voyeurism and identity. These initial concerns are interesting but are disconnected from the rest of the film. Because of the weakness in the soundtrack, the explanation by the young man needs attentive hearing from a viewer. Whilst an entity and its manifestations are a suitable metaphor for the guilt that is experienced after a misjudged sexual encounter the desire of the manifestations for destruction appears to be excessive. The metaphor may not have been as muddled as I was watching the film but, whether you plump for the damage of AIDS or a fear of intimacy, it is overstretched. The manifestations of the avenging entity in the film include the old, the young and men and women. For me these characters represented the grievance of disapproving puritans and rivals rather than the components of an infectious disease. This may be why I felt their behaviour would have made more sense if the threat had been limited to persistent but disturbing haunting and not extended to include violent attacks. The addition of violence may provide some decent jolts and anxiety for the audience but it weakens the sense behind the film.  Neither should we be convinced that the film needed a universal curse although it helps those who like to think of the film as being about AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. The transmittable curse also strengthens the appeal to horror fans. It does, though, weaken the characterisation of Jay.

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Despite that weakness Jay is an attractive character. In a charming scene she visits the ice cream parlour where her sister works and explains the threat or curse. The likeable and sensitive Paul is also present. He is a young man who prefers romance to clinical sex. The prostitutes in town make him curious but he is not attracted.   The audience sees the prostitutes through the eyes of Paul. The two streetwalkers are hard looking, dehumanised and unpleasant. After the struggles against the manifestations of the entity, Jay accepts the commitment from innocent or decent Paul, and the conclusion features the young couple walking side-by-side. They hold hands and hope that each other and trust will help them to prevail. The entity we notice is still there but its threat is reduced and distant. The audience can decide whether Jay and Paul are in love or merely dependent. Although the ending will have been anticipated by the audience earlier when it witnessed the local stud meet his doom the final moments are not convincing. Too many odd things have happened to persuade us that the film inexorably leads the characters and plot to this point. The death of the stud is interesting because it involves the entity taking the form of his mother. This suggests the film is not the exploration of AIDS that some think. The stud wants to seduce the girls in his class but he will not be able to live without the approval from the mother that he needs.

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Whatever the meanings contained within It Follows there is no doubt it obliges us to think about sex, its legacy, the frailty of human nature and our delusions or needs.  Sex requires intimacy and a conviction that trust will not be betrayed. The film It Follows benefits from having a female perspective but both women and men suffer from the vulnerability that sexual intimacy reveals. It is odd that men who can be anxious about their sexual performance are more likely to have the promiscuous urges that increase the possibility of exposure.

Most of us have assumed from reading the revelations about Harvey Weinstein that he would have wanted his previous sexual behaviour to be kept secret. Only he will know what are his preoccupations while he waits to be counselled for his sexual behaviour and aggression. Maybe he did not give a damn about intimacy. Perhaps he thought the women he exploited were too vulnerable for them to reveal the intimacies that occurred. Weinstein may have assumed that the Hollywood prizes he offered justified his abuse of power, something like the famous quote by George Bernard Shaw about the relationship of price to whoring. Weinstein failed to anticipate that he would create a powerful feeling of victimhood and unity amongst the women he targeted. This feeling has not only given the media story prominence but also inspired a resistance movement. But this is the chance Weinstein took when he messed around with movie stars. They have they same rights and sensitivities as the rest of us but perhaps performers do not possess the same fear of exposure that all seducers exploit.

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Sex always leaves a legacy, and no man can look back at a life and think he invariably behaved well. Young men tell lies to the women they want to seduce and even themselves. The more restrained men either feel the temptation to a lesser extent or grow old, settle and see sense. Mothers used to hope their sons would find a nice girl. Most of us have sexual memories we would rather forget and now regret. The memories do not disappear but often they fade as they did for Jay and Paul.  Sometimes, though, they wreck subsequent lives. Weinstein may have thought that his money and power would solve his sexual needs and be more important to women than his physical appearance and character. Instead, his money and power reduced him even further. What happened between him and the aggrieved women is now a news story, a media entity and a legacy that will follow him to his grave and possibly beyond. Most women and many men now regard Weinstein as a dangerous bully without any sense of responsibility, a man whose exaggerated sense of entitlement was endorsed by a corrupt Hollywood system. It follows, and, after Weinstein, the likelihood is that more will recognise this entity when it appears again.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

PULSE

Japan, 2001

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Before he worked in mainstream commercial cinema Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa made thirteen movies that went direct to video. Six of those movies were part of a series called Suit Yourself Or Shoot Yourself. In Pulse one of the characters says, ‘The wish for freedom is the acceptance of loneliness.’ The philosophical stance of Kurosawa is not too difficult to discern. Most of us, of course, understand the price and mix and match, we try to both suit and shoot within a life. Kurosawa is no slouch himself. He mixes and matches in Pulse. As he claims in interviews, art and entertainment coexist in most Japanese movies including his own.   Poetry and ideas, though, make demands of the narrative. In Pulse there are also two separate stories. The film has many qualities but coherent it is not. Kurosawa admitted he put in the film anything he could think of at that time. Some scenes feel as if they were written on the day of shooting.

The basic concept in the movie, though, is original and commendable. Ghosts break through the barrier that separates them from the living.   Technology plays a part. The Internet helps the ghosts make contact. Websites ask users if they want to meet a ghost. Not all of this makes sense but we can accept the basic idea that there is a contagion that will invite death. People will become lonely ghosts, just like the ones that are already out there. The movie suggests that the Internet will narrow rather than expand our world. Much of what is around us will be ignored and not understood. It is happening but it happened before the Internet. Our lives feel important while we live them but most of us go to our graves with an inability to make sense of the world. Stephen Hawking does his best but few understood his book.

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For the really curious Pulse is not much help. The ghosts in the film are far from consistent in how they behave and exist. The response from humans to the ghosts also varies. Some hang themselves, others brood for a long time and one survivor even keeps a ghost for a pal. What happens between the ghosts and the humans feels more to do with the requirements of the plot than the principles of an imagined world.

The trick for a viewer is to go with the flow. Pulse has ideas and some memorable scenes including a fine suicide that really looks like a woman throwing herself off the roof of a tall building. The ghosts are not always scary but as in the novels of M R James they exist and are visible. Because the movie is rooted in an enquiry into a phenomenon, the early scenes have the feel of the stories of M R James. In this instance, though, the investigator is a young student and not an ageing academic. Instead of there being a museum or abbey that contains the secret there is the Internet. This is M R James but with trainers. The movie also has atmosphere. It has low lighting and is shot in a brown filter that gives a rewarding but dystopian view of Tokyo that prepares us for the apocalypse when it arrives. The concrete environment is oppressive and remote. The soundtrack is also unnerving and interesting although the wailing soprano will not be to the taste of everyone.

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The opening scene of the film takes place in an indoor market garden. Surrounded by greenery the characters share tasks and interact with each other. We are watching humans being sociable creatures and they are, well, human. Home consists of a small apartment wired up to technological equipment that offers diversions. It exists in a concrete wasteland. The humans that need to rest before the next day are anonymous and reduced. Despite the vague philosophy occasionally uttered the men and women say little in Pulse. They haunt a world they no longer understand or command. The economics student Ryosoke has two relationships with women in the film but little is communicated between him and the women he meets. The attraction consists of two people not doing much more than liking the look of one another. The final relationship, which exists between a human survivor and a ghost that either sleeps or melts into a wall, can be regarded as either romantic or cynical.   If there is commitment to a deceased lover, romance in Pulse  amounts to nothing but a desire to avoid loneliness. The ghosts with their warnings of immortality and loneliness confirm what the cynics and pessimists have claimed. Romantic relationships offer nothing more than short-term escapism.

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Those thoughts alone make Pulse interesting but the film is also compelling because it blurs the distinction between ghosts and humans, the dead and the alive. The ghosts are aliens from another place and thanks to technology and its ability to create epidemics they have invaded the world of the not yet dead. The lonely ghosts encourage the humans to commit suicide. The more ghosts the merrier, and at the end of Pulse there are more than a few.   The ghosts appear to believe that together with humans they can find something other than the loneliness that defines us all. I have to admit that I was a little confused at times. Phrases like ‘make them immortal by trapping them in loneliness’ did not help.   That sounded awfully like a chicken and egg argument.  Nevertheless the movie is good at making us uneasy about modern life and the contract it offers to human beings.

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In the 1986 classic novel by Richard Ford, The Sportswriter, the author makes a clear distinction between living and existence. The former requires a commitment to and from other people. Mere existence is solitary and restless. Living, to be alive, has consequence and progress, and that is rooted in a commitment to other people and a concern for the lives they lead. Existence settles for the off the shelf comforts of the modern world – TV, sport, the vicarious pleasures of the Internet, liquid and other stimulants, casual sex and the rest. Faced with the options and diversions provided in this century it is not just the timid that settle for existence.

Not all writers are sympathetic to the notion that the solitary life is nothing more than existence. Many are content for their lives and their identities to be determined by what they read and write. Although filmmakers need to cooperate with others for their work they talk in the same way about films. Artists need the freedom that their work gives them, and if the price is loneliness, so be it. But Richard Ford and Kiyoshi Kurosawa are clear. Living and life require other people and something other than ghosts and the Internet. Settle for them and you confuse the distinction between mortality and immortality. All that is left is endless time that is either wasted when we are alive or endured after we die. At the beginning and the end of Pulse the remaining survivors are on a boat that is heading towards South America. The intention is to find other people who will enable them to live their lives. They are not looking for a socket to plug in the computer. The sky above the boat is grey and threatening but the heroes have made progress since the moment Ryosoke logged on to the Internet for the first time. As it happens, the discovery of the Internet by Ryosoke is a fine scene and captures well that initial mix of trepidation, excitement and anticipation. For nostalgia value alone Pulse is worth a look.

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Assuming that there will be no apocalypse and there are no ghosts queuing up inside Google, we have to assume that the Internet is bound to persist. Opinion about whether it is harmful or not to the human race is divided. Internet Addiction Disorder is now a recognised complaint. The legion of obese males who stay attached to their terminals may or may not be a myth. There have, though, been some serious incidents where people have forgotten they had to feed themselves because they were caught up in conversations, games and so on.   The Internet can disrupt lives.   Those concerned about the Internet argue that it will affect how our brain cells operate, damage long-term memory and reduce the attention span. Brain patterns change when people use the Internet. Sustained use may or may not have harmful affects but whatever happens it will change what we carry between our shoulders.   Privacy has also become confused. On the Internet people are less inhibited but also have an altered view of what constitutes the privacy of another person. Research has estimated that Internet readers struggle to maintain attention beyond 593 words. This figure has no regard to the instant clicks. It is a mode average. The average Internet user reads 593 words when he is interested in a topic. And because the Internet carries so much information there is much that will be ignored. 593 words tops? I had better finish here.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.