Written and Directed by: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe. Jake Weary. Keir Gilchrist.
Running time: 100 minutes
I am not a huge fan of horror films, this a less than encouraging start to a review for a horror film but trust me it is the beginning of a huge compliment. David Robert Mitchell first raised eyebrows with the “atmospheric” movie ‘The Myth Of The American Sleepover’ in 2010 and now returns to the horror scene with this new outing. The first person who deserves credit is whoever constructed the trailer, a minimalistic, dark and cryptic short that teased me out of my genre binding shackles and made me brave one of my least favourite film categories. They resisted the urge to crank up the volume and cram in all the memorable parts of the film purely to ensnare the fear loving adrenaline junkies in the crowd, instead they went small and smart and made this film seem different from the start. And in the horror film world, anything different is good to me.
The basic plot is in fact that, the pinnacle of basic and yet potentially the most vast of plots. 19 year old Jay (Maika Monroe) has a sexual encounter with short term boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) and is then haunted and believe it or not followed in fact by a creepy and frankly quite slow spectoral stalker. The spirit appears to you as anyone and constantly follows you at a walking pace like some kind of persistent, extreme questionnaire surveyor or Jehovah’s witness, the main difference being the spirit kills you if it ever catches up. Jay plays a game of cat and mouse as her and her sister plus friends play super sleuths, trying to figure out Jay’s eternal escape route from the slow but inevitable doom plodding leisurely towards her.
The concept is simple and viscous in its simplicity, it is parallel to a zombie themed plot in the way that you instantly put yourself in the position of the victim. As the film progresses your head spins with the scenarios and how you would tackle it, it is also one of the situations that as you consider it becomes more and more gripping in its terror. One of the few problems though is that the characters still suffer from horror film, idiocy syndrome and you will more likely find yourself silently screaming (hopefully silent for the sake of fellow cinema goers) at some of the decisions to sit in confined spaces looking in purely one direction or sleeping out in the open. The acting is fair though, Maika Monroe shone in ‘The Guest’ and seems to have found her niche with the tongue in cheek, smart, B-movie styled films. Keir Gilchrist is genuinely endearing as hopelessly in love childhood buddy, well and truly anchored in the friend zone like a derelict shipwreck of teen angst. The script for these kids is not amazing but almost comes across as more genuine with how flawed and awkward its is, it will not blow you away but it’s also not too clever for its own good. This is an age now where every character in every film is pressured to be as witty and quirky as Joss Whedon and Zooey Deschenal’s brains put in a blender together, the straightforward nature of these teens is unannoying and almost refreshing .
The music is another thing this film has in common with the guest as if Maika Monroe has an actual soundtrack following her around, and this is no bad thing. The sounds are long, lingering and pulse through you with impending dread and even the more innocent scenes are made uneasy by the off kilter notes streams endlessly through the scenes. It even keeps you guessing by placing a build up of noise in ambient scenes where less than nothing actually happens so you never feel safe, your ears will love to hate this film.
The shooting of the film is a masterclass in new and stylish ways to look over you and unsettle you throughout these 100 minutes. The manifestations are truly horrific and range from non description characters with empty stares to horrendous ghouls that carry a mystery to their appearance and actions. Are these past victims or merely attempts to current targets. It staggers around with pure drive yet carry a malicious bare intelligence to smash windows or appear as people close to you. It is relentless like a force of nature, and the sexual trigger makes it a self inflicted force of human nature. Smaller details such as how it knows these things or its origins are thankfully left alone as they would serve only to take away from the story and demand exposition. The style of shots also go hand in hand with the theme as like the character you try to pick out the lumbering spirit in every scene, a great example is at the school as the camera spins several times and you gradually notice the relentless figure that even Jay never sees. As well as being a lily-livered man child, one of my biggest gripes with horror films is the laziness of the genre where basically jump scares are thrown in the volume dial thrown up and this is not a skill in my opinion but normal human reactions. Using loud noises and sudden appearances to simulate fear is tactless and shows a lack of faith its audience and the concept, this film thankfully has a plot that grips you and you can never rest as even in the quiet scenes you’re unsure if you share the view of the main character as she’s the only one who can see her enemy. There a couple of jump scares thrown in for comedy and there’s only one really dissapointing and generic moment in the garage, all the tricks have been done including letting the music fade and throwing the scare in on a delay and no audience is still fooled by these worn concepts.
There are some brilliant set pieces and it shies away from obvious moments, the only comically bad moment was at the beach with her hair but it’s necessary for the trust of the other characters so forgivable. Meanwhile the scenes left out when she spots a boat of young guys is brave and actually tells more than showing the full story, it gives the audience rope to work with and even hang the main character if they wish. Not much is laid on too thick and even though I predicted who the stalker would appear as in the end it’s glossed over really well and satisfying in how Jay reacts towards it showing maturity in fear. The decision whether to pass on the curse is made more and more complicated and the film does an amazing job of showing this burden wear down its victim, to her core desire to survive. A niggling concern for me though was how the group don’t seems to blame Hugh for long though, and there is no animosity towards him and little morale conflict in his empty non-excuse of “I’m trying to help you”? Help her what, avoid living? His explanation scene in the parking lot is amazing though and sets up the backdrop of horror brutally and intensely, even the naked spectre mirrors how raw and real thet threat is made straight away.
The idea of using sex as a transmission of this curse is fantastic and modern without being too leaned upon or heavy handed message desperately tied on to it as this would weigh it down needlessly. Unlike other main characters of horror Jay isn’t punished for being reckless or unlucky, but for being human and this locks in our empathy. Random characters are shown being attracted to each other as a subtle reminder of sex being a primal cornerstone of our society and a driving force of behaviour. This subconsciously emphasised everyone’s vulnerability to the evil and its reach and relevance. The hospital scene panning across recovering patients to then focus on Jay’s method of ‘recovery’ divides her in its carnal contrast beautifully. Even our main characters, although as they know sex to be the beginning of the end for their friend they shamelessly glance and drool over each other with no development but ultimate meaning. Cruising around busting the mystery in short shorts and leg warmers they are like a hormone infused Scooby gang, adding to the B movie feel and reach of the murderous spirit. The theme of inevitability is also lavished upon and very enjoyable in its execution, sapping the hope from you along with its hero like a syringe sharpened by futility.
It’s a fun and shameless ride, well worked and very much believed in by the director as he knows less is more and his audience want a smart thrill they can ponder upon. For me the point of the ending is great though its execution was very frustrating. I personally felt there was a perfect and concise scene to end it with and achieve the same effect more accurately, yet it trundles through a few extra disjointed and heavy handed scenes as if its worried you won’t connect the dots and get the point. This does not spoilt the film however, merely cushions the blow of a well established effect from the film, like slipping a velvet glove over some knuckle dusters. It makes a few mistakes that could be forgiven due to the nature and feel of the film but this movie is better than that, and if anything the sense of missed opportunity in making a truly amazing film highlights its blemishes.
The verdict: Truly a confident and bold horror film for a generation that is tough to scare but wishes to be afraid. This stylish and inspiringly original outing will stick in your mind relentlessly which is the very definition of a haunting. It has its flaws and may not break the mould but it bends it enough to make room for a fresh wave of intelligent horror flicks. This hasn’t converted me to the genre, but it’s given me hope.