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“It Follows” and What Came Before It

Horror films help us release our collective dread, born of ever more apocalyptic notions, both globally and personally. But these days, Hollywood’s visceral “torture porn” (Saw, Hostel, etc.) and hollow remakes can barely compete with real-life suffering available 24/7 from the digital tap. To stand out, horror has to be original yet draw from the most timeless and versatile of sources—foremost of which is the unseen. Three films in the past year have done it: The Guest, Adam Wingard’s playful twist on the dangerous stranger motif; The Babadook, Jennifer Kent’s remarkable magical realist meditation on loss and madness—and somewhat officially Australia’s best film of 2014; and now David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, elements of which hearken back to several notable horror classics. It Follows takes place in the worn and desolate patchwork of suburban Detroit, a setting which immediately brings to mind Halloween’s supercreep, Michael Myers. Amidst the wide gaps between houses, in empty windows or that spot just behind the trees, you begin to anticipate a hatefully stoic face even before the film’s shadowy menace has been implied. When it finally comes, that menace takes the form of a sexually transmitted curse (an urban legend–esque trope, i.e., Candyman), and the only way to get rid of it is to pay it forward (à la The Ring). The afflicted is stalked by a silent, slow-footed and dead-eyed entity capable of looking like anyone—typically your friends, neighbors and family. This makes the creature rather like horror’s current top-dog monster the zombie, ever an apt metaphor for the real-life horror of alienation and, more generally, the hell that is other people. This is especially true for teenagers (in this case, Maika Monroe of The Guest and Keir Gilchrist of The United States of Tara), and, as it happens, there is scarcely an adult in the entire film—a clever choice by Mitchell, as it binds the film’s creepy POV to the awkward and familiar teenage mind. It_Follows_connects_sidePerhaps the greatest touchstone in It Follows is the mummy, the original slow and corpse-like villain, whose threat resides solely in that it never sleeps or stops its sinister advance. And like the liquid-metal T-1000 from Terminator 2, it doesn’t care what you throw at it; attacks only knock it down temporarily before it gets back up and keeps coming at you. In both The Guest and The Babadook, the heroes face an evil that cannot be defeated, and in my opinion, all great horror films embrace this element of the inescapable—which [spoiler alert] may tell you something about the finale, frankly the weakest part of It Follows. But I don’t fault the filmmakers. Landing the plane is always more difficult than liftoff and flight; even when it’s done well it’s often a letdown (pun intended). But despite the ending, It Follows soars, largely because it establishes an ethos unnervingly unreal, yet just real enough. The film seems to take place in the present day, yet no one has a cell phone; one character, however, sports a strikingly unusual clamshell e-reader, from which she reads Dostoevsky aloud. Mitchell’s visual aesthetic comes to define the entire film: The dated look of Detroit is augmented by sets dressed with entirely vintage furniture and 12-inch televisions showing old black-and-white B-movies. This mutable time period, Disasterpeace’s beautiful all-synth score straight out of the 1980s and a spare script layered with themes of sexual corruption and the loss of innocence combine to make It Follows a broody masterpiece. Like The Babadook, It Follows is lo-fi horror at its finest, embracing old-school scare tactics over excessive visual effects and action. The filmmaking is as unsettling and deliberately paced as its monster, unleashing a mood and rhythm that will follow you home. Photo courtesy of Everett It_Follows_connects_bottom

by Jonathan E. Roche

Mar 5, 2015

Love Finds Donnie Darko

So many audience members at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on a recent soggy Sunday afternoon were on a first-name basis with the play’s star. “I hope Jake realizes I came out in this rain just for him,” laughed one lady. “I can’t believe Jake’s eyes are that blue,” sighed a woman mesmerized by his picture in Playbill. (“They are!” her friend assured her.) Murmured variations on the phrase Jake just keeps getting hotter filled the air. My husband and I sat silently, remembering the romantic scene in Brokeback  Mountain when Jake whispers, “You know, it could be this way. Just like this, always.” The house lights dimmed and there he was—our Jake, bearded and buff. This winter Jake Gyllenhaal made his Broadway debut in Nick Payne’s play Constellations, an unlikely hit about parallel universes, string theory, beekeeping and falling in love. As New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote in his rave review, Jake and his sole costar, Ruth Wilson, fill the “requisite glamour quotient” for a dramatic play on Broadway. Tabloid rumors suggest that the characters’ onstage love affair has continued between the two stars after the curtain calls. “Is life imitating art?” asked the website Hollywood Life. Jake_Gyllenhaal_connects_sideBorn in 1980, Gyllenhaal is a descendent of Swedish nobility; he has adorably told Conan O’Brien that the only places his last name is pronounced correctly are Sweden and IKEA. Gyllenhaal made his movie debut at 11, playing Billy Crystal’s son in City Slickers. Ten years later he played the doomed title character in Donnie Darko, a darkly surreal film that, like Constellations, is also about alternate universes—not to mention a menacing man-rabbit. Released just weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Donnie Darko failed at the box office, but the film’s audience grew through word of mouth and midnight screenings to become one of the biggest cult films of recent decades. In 2005, after a series of boy toy roles in Lovely & Amazing, The Good Girl and Moonlight Mile, Gyllenhaal took a major career risk by playing Jack Twist opposite Heath Ledger in Ang Lee’s film of the “gay cowboy story,” Brokeback Mountain. Yet in a 2010 interview at the New Yorker Festival, Gyllenhaal still said Donnie Darko was one of the most important films he’d been involved in. “When I read Brokeback Mountain,” he explained, “I was crying at the end, and when I read Donnie Darko, I was throwing up.” USA Today dubbed Brokeback MountainThe Movie,” noting that the question “Have you seen Brokeback?” had become a “dinner-party Rorschach test of gay tolerance.” Brokeback was nominated for eight Oscars, including a best supporting actor nod for Gyllenhaal. The front-runner for best picture, Brokeback inexplicably lost to Crash (“Whoa!” said presenter Jack Nicholson. Indeed!). Jake’s depiction of Jack Twist proved both his acting prowess and his box office appeal. As Variety wrote, “Gyllenhaal has the charm and good looks of a leading man, but he’s also got the acting chops of a chameleon character actor.” Gyllenhaal followed Brokeback with strong performances in Jarhead, Zodiac, Source Code, End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy and, most recently, Nightcrawler. His hot streak continues with three major films set for upcoming release: Southpaw, Everest and Demolition. Gyllenhaal made his stage debut in 2002 in Kenneth Lonergan’s coming-of-age comedy This Is Our Youth in London’s West End. At the time, Gyllenhaal told The Telegraph he wanted to try theater because in movies “the power is not in your hands in terms of how your performance is shaped. To be able to have some sort of say over a story was really the big thing.” He first amazed me onstage in 2012, in the Off-Broadway production of If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet. Like Constellations, his current gig, If There Is… was written by Nick Payne and directed by Michael Longhurst (with Gyllenhaal speaking in an impeccable English accent in both shows). The actor credits Payne and Longhurst with having shaped his acclaimed tour de force portrayal of Nightcrawler’s crime-scene cameraman Louis Bloom. “A lot of the things I brought to Nightcrawler were things I’d gotten from working with Nick and Michael,” he said. “Preparing for that role in Nightcrawler was a lot like preparing to work on a play.” Gyllenhaal recently told Playbill that theater has been part of his life since he was his sister Maggie’s stagehand. “She’d put on fake performances of stuff like Cats when we were kids,” he recounted. “She’d make me drink out of a bowl of milk.” Constellations plays out in scenes showing alternate versions of the story’s events. As Variety noted, this allows Gyllenhaal “to play someone whose character changes from minute to minute, and he’s pretty amazing.” He is certainly. Certainly he is. He certainly is. Constellations continues on Broadway through March 15. Photo © Joan Marcus/Manhattan Theatre Club Jake_Gyllenhaal_connects_bottom

by Colin J. Warnock

Mar 4, 2015

Out of This World

I’ve never read anything like Get in Trouble and that’s exactly what I love about it. The long anticipated short story collection from author Kelly Link is so wildly original, even her reviewers don’t know how to categorize her. Are these nine stories fantasy, magical realism or speculative fiction? The answer is a resounding yes. From celebrity ghost-hunting reality shows, robot boyfriends or a superhero with the powers of Thomas Mann, Link’s worlds are strange yet grounded in the mundane. In “The Summer People,” an Appalachian girl in North Carolina, abandoned by her bootlegging father, takes care of fairy-like people living in the enchanted cottage behind her house. This may sound like a fairy tale, but nothing here is cliché or expected, which is why it’s so discomfiting: “The summer personage didn’t even look up at her. He was one of the ones so pretty it almost hurt to peep at him, but you couldn’t not stare neither. That was one of the ways they cotched you, Fran figured. Like wild animals when someone shone a bright light at them.” This passage epitomizes how a looming sense of doom often undercuts Link’s whimsy. The author shines brightest when writing about adolescence, as in “The New Boyfriend,” about the teen birthday party of a girl named Ainslie. At first the story feels like a young adult novel: angsty, modern and hormonal, except that the girls are drinking absinthe and Ainslie’s mother gives her a robot boyfriend in a coffin-shaped box. The story is told through the eyes of Ainslie’s best friend Immy, who desperately tries to make the robot boyfriend fall in love with her. “They’re facing each other on the couch. Holding hands just like girlfriends and boyfriends do. It isn’t really like holding hands, exactly, because he’s made out of silicone and plastics and tubes of gel, metal rods, wiring, whatever, and his hand feels weird if she tries to think of it as a real hand, but that doesn’t matter.” Get_in_Trouble_mediumLink goes everywhere—sometimes so fast, I found it difficult to keep up. I turned back and reread pages to keep my footing in whatever wild world I was in. Still, there’s always a sense of the banal and everyday, like finding a Twinkie while walking on Mars. In “Secret Identity,” a 15-year-old girl travels to New York to meet a 34-year-old man she met online. They plan to meet at a hotel, which, as it happens, is simultaneously hosting a dentist conference and a superhero convention, where the young girl meets a chef who sculpts supervillains out of butter. In “Light,” Link invents a bizarre world filled with pocket universes, guns with Hello Kitty stickers and babies born with two shadows. But she always balances the fantastical with deeply human characters. And she’s funny. I especially loved Link’s cynical humor in “I Can See Right Through You,” in which a handsome, aging actor named Demon Lover seeks help from his former co-star, who now hosts a reality show about hunting ghosts on a Florida nudist colony. In their shallow world of celebrity, social media and addiction, the characters express the satirical wit of a George Saunders story but with deeper psychological punch: Even in the case of this immortal, self-absorbed actor, you can’t help but empathize with his long, complicated relationship. That’s because the world of Link’s imagination seeps into your own psyche. For my part, I will follow her into whatever freaky place she takes me—not just for the delights of her weirdness, but for her deep understanding of our own frailty as human beings. Photo courtesy of Kelly Link

by Marian Fontana

Mar 3, 2015

Portland in the Spotlight

On a recent visit to the Smithsonian Institution, I was surprised to see an exhibit about the Hollywood District in Portland, Oregon. The idea was that the booming, post–World War II car culture made Hollywood’s main drag, Sandy Boulevard, into a lively commercial strip catering to both pedestrians and motorists. I grew up near Sandy Boulevard, and the huge Technicolor dioramas of stores, drive-in restaurants, a Mediterranean-style movie palace and even the re-creation of an automobile showroom brought the neighborhood vividly back to life. The family that owned the car dealership lived down the street from us. I saw my first film, Ben-Hur, in that tile-roofed movie palace, and, gosh, to think, just six years later I was tossed out on my ear for lobbing water balloons off the balcony during Shenandoah. We certainly didn’t think of ourselves as part of any significant cultural shift. It was just the neighborhood. My good-natured mom, usually eager to get my friends and me out of the house, would give us a dollar to go to the Tik-Tok Drive-In (nostalgically glorified in the exhibit) for Cokes. The height of sophistication was Fred Meyer, a huge local emporium that still sells just about everything anyone would ever need—in those days this came down to candy bars, school supplies and weekly editions of Mad magazine and Archie comics. The pièce de résistance was that Freddy’s accommodated cars with a rooftop parking lot (the Smithsonian exhibit made a big point of this), connected to the shopping floor below by escalators. To bored kids stuck in the neighborhood, an escalator was tantamount to having an amusement park ride in your backyard. But our welcome came to an end when a friend and I decided to ride our bikes down the up escalator. Portland_connects_sideEnough with the nostalgia. I indulge in it only because I was annoyed to see my childhood so neatly packaged as a part of Americana. Historic Americana, at that. As a native of Portland, though, I should be inured to seeing the small city of my youth in the spotlight. When I was a kid, no one could find my provincial backwater on a map; now it’s everyone’s favorite place on the planet. Portland is famously hip, weird, wine-savvy, creative and all sorts of other things that, I have to admit, come together quite appealingly in an easygoing but exciting way. Maybe I should learn to tame the tinge of resentment I feel every time I come upon an episode of Portlandia (which I will never like) or read yet another New York Times article about the Portland restaurant scene or the city’s ubiquitous food carts. After all, I can still enjoy my memories of moody, rain-slicked streets and the ever-present scent of evergreens. Maybe I should be flattered that the scenes of my childhood are considered worthy of a museum. Photo courtesy of darynbarry/Flickr

by Stephen Brewer

Mar 2, 2015