Monday, March 30, 2015

Housebound (2014) Movie Thoughts

After a horribly botched ATM robbery attempt, troubled young lady, Kylie Bucknell(Morgana O'Reilly) is ordered by law to move back into her childhood home in the sticks, and stay there to serve home detention. Bothered enough by the largely desolate landscape, and hardly the type to adhere to rules, her mum(Rima Te Wiata) and stepdad(Ross Harper) remain just a few notches this side of odd. Tensions in this rickety old home are bad enough, but when the lights go out, it becomes rather clear that not only have things grown infinitely spookier there since childhood, there also seems to be something watching over the house. And it is a presence that has continued to haunt the Bucknell house for longer than anyone is willing to admit, or believe. Inverting horror tropes, and embracing the well-mannered funny has long been a staple in Kiwi film. And in Gerard Johnstone's often wildly fun debut, it's the kind of wily mix that we haven't seen in well over two decades.

Shaken by a harrowing encounter in the basement, and spurred on by some strange words shared publicly by her well-meaning mum, Kylie shifts gears into detective mode. Enlisting the unlikely help in her stocky Maori security enforcement officer, revelations of the history of the house, and it's darkest secrets begin mounting in what winds up far more sinister, and bizarre than mere apparitions. Making matters all the more complicated is that Kylie's life of crime and overall poor attitude toward grownups make her something of an unreliable detective. As visiting social workers, teachers, police, and other authority figures continue to visit, her stories are barely taken seriously- even when the horror seems to bite some in the face.

This is where Johnstone's prowess as a character builder gels so well, casting the leads as a dysfunctional group at odds with the outside world as the unbelievable seems so uncomfortably close. Kylie's mom and her immensely shy husband are portrayed as well-meaning, but largely ineffectual parents just holding on to a tenuous grasp of their only child. While Kylie begins to slowly slough off her feral exterior, unveiling a girl who just fell under a spell of bad luck (not to mention harboring memories long buried). Rounding this all off, is the most welcome Glen-Paul Waru as a security guy just itching to be a ghost whisperer. Every time he's on screen, it's a feat of disarming fun. It has been years since dread has been rendered so vocal and participatory between viewer and screen. It becomes hard not to wince and laugh.

And while the final act begins to feel constrained by a need to tidy things up, leading to something of a clumsy finale, Johnstone keeps the tension mounting even when it begins to stretch credulity. For a film that could easily have become another exercise in post-modern echo chambering, it becomes densely involved in ways that harken more to a time when development and character took center stage in the horror film. It's surprisingly warm and willing to grant the viewer ample understanding of everyone's situation, not to mention it's sensitivity to action geography. Housebound, actually cares about what is happening, and how it happens. In what remains something of a complete surprise, Johnstone's first film out of the gate bears distinction of having the kind of clarity and energy of a celebrated veteran.

And when your first film feels like a lesser effort of a celebrated master, you're doing something right.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

It Follows (2014) Movie Thoughts

On what seems to be an ordinary suburban street, on what seems to be an ordinary dusk, a beautiful young girl bursts out of her otherwise peaceful looking home in a panic. Unnerving her father, and concerning the neighbors, the girl, half-dressed and still in heels makes a desperate break for anywhere but home. All the more disconcerting, there seems to be no one visibly chasing her. Despite our inability to see her pursuer, it is clear that something is horribly wrong, and that there seems to be no discernible form of escape. Culminating in what is easily one of the more unnerving openings in years, we are now in the throes of a bold new nightmare world in middle class Detroit as David Robert Mitchell takes us on an ultimate campfire tale in It Follows.

Practically borne out of the kind of anxiety-riddled mind that kids truly exhibit, It Follows is the story of smart and pretty teen, Jay who has haplessly dated the wrong guy. Having just lost her virginity to the mysterious Hugh(Jake Weary), she is then tuned in to the freakish news that she has now acquired something through the act. Hugh's admission that he has been running from this horrific specter that will now continue to torment her lest she pass it on to someone else via the same means. This unstoppable force can take the shape of just about anyone, but especially those she cares for, and it will not stop, until she is dead, leading to the chain reaction deaths of all previously afflicted. A diabolical die is cast as Jay, and her friends, and younger sister in tow struggle to find a way to undo the curse. But as encounters grow more and more desperate, Jay is now stricken with the choice as to heed the advice given, or seek further answers. In a gambit that eviscerates decades of horror cliche, it's either sex or death in a race against a nihilistic threat.

Mitchell's instinct for creating almost universal youth worlds takes on a dreamier dimension than his last piece, The Myth Of The American Sleepover. Where we now occupy a place that is even more deliberately ambiguous as old rotary dial television sets with rabbit ears share space with compact e-reader devices. Kid behavior and speech is refreshingly real, and adults are all but ignored. It Follows functions like a tale told between teens at a slumber party, with reams of texture abound, but salvation in the form of authority figures too remote to save anyone. It is also worth noting that the film takes place largely on location throughout all corners of Detroit, which makes for a unique marriage of the lovely, and apocalyptic as the harsh realities of the adult world begin to close in on Jay and friends. From a lake house, to the dilapidated neighborhoods south of the legendary 8 Mile, we are host to a youth that's on the brink. After all, what can the adults do but merely suggest away the harshness that lies beyond the borders?

But the real juice of the film comes from the cast who almost uniformly deliver. Especially a star-making performance by Maika Monroe, who's Jay captures the turns of awareness with occasionally heartbreaking ease. Also worthy of note are Leli Sepe, as her younger sis, Kelly, and Keir Gilchrist as Paul, a childhood friend with a lifelong crush. And as the terror escalates, what's especially refreshing is how up front everyone is regarding Jay's plight. They begin to regroup, plan, run, fight, and ultimately consider Jay's need to "give it away". The closeness of the core cast, and their dynamics while general in speech, have a cadence and gravity that grant It Follows an aura that is hard to shake long after the screen goes black. It's a tale that could happen just about anywhere, and at any time.

The wonder of the whole piece resides in just how deceptively simple it all feels. While the film could easily have taken a cheap route to scares, Mitchell and company go out of their way to scale matters down to the molecule, as shots linger, wide pans are untrustworthy, and no amount of daylight is safe. Accompanying the film's calculated aura, is a startling and quietly troubling score by the electronic outfit, Disasterpeace. While some may hear a little Carpenter influence here, there's something else happening that feels in tune with the nervousness that resides in all of us in a newly sunlit social universe. It dares us to dive headlong into the film's dreamlike rhythms as it dances on frayed young nerves. Some viewers may find themselves challenged by what is ostensibly a minimal approach, but for this reviewer, it grants room to allow even more unsettling thoughts as characters whom we easily grow to care about, find themselves desperate to try nearly anything to keep the monster at bay. Like an itch impossible to scratch, the threat is always there, always out to get you. Not interesting in running, because it has inevitability on its side.

More than an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases, and more involved than a treatise on morality, this is a piece that will likely reward the willing in thoughtful and unexpected ways. Like a shadow of expectation, or a biological yearning no one asked for, the affliction serves as a conduit between our animal selves, and the shame we impose upon ourselves for being as such. One cannot truly run away from their inherited humanity. And fewer things are scarier than the perpetual inability to reconcile with our own primal natures. Simply put, It Follows not only serves as a great little piece of existential terror, it is also an engrossing reminder of that most terrifying of times; youth.