Film reviews: It Follows | Focus | White God

Maika Monroe in It Follows. Picture: Contributed

Maika Monroe in It Follows. Picture: Contributed

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ONLY by having sex can the young victims in David Robert Mitchell’s superior horror movie save themselves

It Follows (15)

Directed by: David Robert Mitchell

Starring: Maika Monroe, Daniel Zovatto, Keir Gilchrist, Jake Weary

****

Good horror concepts are rare, but writer/director David Robert Mitchell has come up with a brilliantly simple and effective one for It Follows, a dreamy riff on the slasher movie that pays homage to John Carpenter’s Halloween, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, but brings something new to the table with its titular demon.

The ‘It’ that follows is a relentless, slow-moving shape-shifter, invisible to all but its cursed victim, and impossible, perhaps, to outrun – like death itself. Mitchell’s ingenious twist on what was a recurring nightmare from his childhood is to make the curse that brings it into existence transmissible through sex, allowing him to acknowledge the teen-sex-equals-death trope beloved of 1980s American horror movies, and subvert it in a manner far more profound and interesting than the clunky deconstructions found in the Scream series.

A creepy opening salvo featuring a teenage girl running from her suburban home sets the tone. Pursued by something no-one else can see, she ends up on a shorefront, where she makes a tearful call to her parents to say goodbye. It’s unsettling and distressing and the broken state of her lifeless body the next morning leaves us in little doubt about the consequences of being affected/infected by this spirit.

Thenceforth the film homes in on its heroine, Jay (Maika Monroe), a high-school student who’s been dating the slightly older Hugh (Jake Weary) for a few weeks. They seem into each other, and even though we can sense there’s something a little off about Hugh, Jay willingly surrenders her virginity to him after a date. Mitchell, whose debut film was the coming-of-age drama The Myth of the American Sleepover, is good at capturing the rhythms and mannerisms of realistic teens and that goes for the way he presents sex too. Playing on the all-consuming relevance it assumes in late adolescence, it’s depicted here with tenderness, awkwardness and sensitivity.

Or at least the act itself is. In keeping with genre conventions, the aftermath quickly turns ugly and violent and results in a drugged Jay strapped to a wheelchair in an abandoned building where she’s forced by Hugh to confront the menace he’s just passed on to her. “It can look like anyone,” he warns, as a naked woman starts advancing slowly towards her. The only way she can get rid of it, he continues, is to have sex with someone else. “You’re pretty,” he says, so she shouldn’t have much trouble.

It’s this last point that really starts to distinguish It Follows. Putting the onus on the victim to spread something that might kill someone else, Mitchell opens up a whole set of ethical issues that plague his heroine’s conscience almost as much as the supernatural demon that’s now after her. In a nod to A Nightmare on Elm Street, Jay’s friends rally round her, so she’s not alone, although the way the boys – good-looking neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto) and nerdy Paul (Keir Gilchrist) – offer to sleep with her distinguishes how guys at that age view sex differently to girls. They’re much less concerned with the consequences – of which there are many, especially as it becomes clear that merely sleeping with someone else is not enough: the next person also has to pass it on. Survival is predicated on putting as much distance between yourself and “it” as possible.

Like the best horror films, this central conceit hints at a wealth of subtextual unease, from the STD connotations inherent in the way it’s spread, to anxieties about social media in the “follow me”/“like it” era of Twitter and Facebook. Even the financial crash is evoked by the way the curse functions like a sexual Ponzi scheme that could collapse at any minute, something reinforced by the symbolic value of shooting the film in Mitchell’s home city of Detroit, a go-to source of cheap post-apocalyptic imagery these days that Mitchell takes care not to exploit.

He also smartly never time-stamps the film: this is a world in which living rooms are adorned with analogue TVs, yet characters have weird clam-shell-shaped e-readers. It feels hyper-real, mythical, but in a subtle way; a place where parents are largely absent, but the cruelty of adulthood is ever present. This is enhanced by Rich Vreeland’s music, which brings to mind the driving menace of Carpenter’s self-scored work and contrasts brilliantly with the naturalistic performances of the virtually unknown cast, and with Mitchell’s shooting style. He brings a blissed-out quality to the film redolent of his debut and suggestive of the way in which the formative experiences of adolescence – or any potentially life-altering moment – can quickly become a half-remembered dream with the power to haunt you for the rest of your days.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (PG)

Directed by: John Madden

Starring: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Richard Gere, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel

**

Revolving around a group of pensioners who relocate from Britain to India, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was an admirable attempt to provide a hitherto ignored demographic with some gentle fun from a big-name cast. It was also condescending rubbish, but nowhere near as tired as this sequel, the title of which serves as its own review. This time the plot sees Dev Patel and Maggie Smith embark on a plan to expand their pensioner retreat into a hotel chain. Alas, while much of the original cast return, the film isn’t much interested in giving them anything to do, save for Bill Nighy and Judi Dench, inset, whose tentative romance is the only story strand given more than a cursory development. The arrival of Richard Gere as bit of pensioner eye-candy, meanwhile, is liable to leave you wheezy rather than breathless.

Focus (15)

Directed by: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie

**

This sub Ocean’s Eleven-style con movie acknowledges all the genre clichés without subverting any of them. Will Smith plays Nicky, a short-con operator with a profitable money-generating scheme on the go. When he falls for his latest recruit Jess (Margot Robbie), however, he promptly ditches her to maintain the professional detachment he believes he needs to remain focused on what he’s good at. Needless to say, his past comes back to haunt him when, three years later, she becomes embroiled in a con he’s trying to orchestrate. Hitching a love story to a game of professional deception is hardly new and neither Smith nor Robbie generate the kind of heat required to make you care whether or not they’re conning each other or are really in love.

White God (15)

Directed by: Kornél Mundruczó

Starring: Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér, Lili Horváth

****

This hard-hitting Hungarian drama about a canine uprising revolves around a young girl whose intolerant father dumps her beloved mixed-breed dog by the side of the highway, leaving him to fend for himself in a Budapest where restrictive new legislation has ensured mongrels are viewed with contempt. What follows is a sort of apocalyptic fable in which the maltreatment of man’s best friend becomes a potent metaphor for everything from immigration to the abuse of power. Brilliantly directed and featuring some remarkable performances from its canine cast, its striking finale also serves as a stark warning about our own arrogant belief that we’ll always be at the top of the food chain.

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