The incredible 2014 Australian horror film The Babadook (pictured above) took a tired genre and turned it on its head. Creating terror through suspense instead of ugly violence, The Babadook’s writer/director Jennifer Kent raised the bar for other filmmakers working in the field.
American filmmaker David Robert Mitchell now takes Kent’s baton and runs with it in It Follows (Anchor Bay/Radius/Dimension). Set, appropriately, in the infected and rotting corpse of suburban Detroit (as the commercial say, “Pure Michigan”), It Follows focuses on a group of jaded teens and young adults playing games, both silly and deadly serious. Of course, there is sex involved; leading to a sort of STD tag, and Annie (Bailey Spry) is the first to die.
Blonde and bored Jay (Maika Monroe) is the next to get infected after having sex with hot but haunted Hugh (Jake Weary). He’s nice enough to stick around after doing the deed with Jay, knocking her out and then telling her, after he’s bound her to a wheelchair, that if she wants to live she has to pass it on to someone else. Otherwise “it” will follow her and take her life. Talk about a killer STD.
That’s quite a setup. Not long after she gets the news, Jay does begin to see “it,” which takes various forms, including an old woman in a nightgown, a half-dressed younger woman who urinates in Jay’s kitchen, and an extremely tall and thin man, to mention a few. Jay’s sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), friends and neighbors Greg (Daniel Zovatto), Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who is still harboring an old crush on Jay, come together for the traumatized girl, and attempt to help her with her problem.
Utilizing minimal special effects, Mitchell creates maximum fear and tension. Some of the credit goes to Monroe who has skillfully mastered the art of the descent into madness. Also, the terrifying score by film composer Disasterpiece (aka Rich Vreeland) is put to good use. The showdown finale in the swimming pool is particularly effective, since “it” never really stops following anyone.
DVD special features include a critics’ commentary hosted by Scott Weinberg, a conversation with composer Disastepiece and more.
When you watch Ex Machina (A24/Lionsgate), the directorial debut by novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach), you might find yourself wondering if it was his intention that this movie be as imperfect as the tech it’s trumpeting. But don’t wonder about that for too long.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a semi-socially awkward computer/tech nerd (No kidding! See also: Silicon Valley) is employed by Bluebook, founded by enigmatic and equally socially awkward computer/tech gazillionaire Nathan (a thoroughly miscast Oscar Isaac). Led to believe he has won an employee lottery that earns him a week at Nathan’s estate to meet with his reclusive boss, Caleb is brought by to his employer’s island, but has to walk a few miles on his own before he reaches the property.
As it turns out, Nathan’s high-tech mountainside fortress isn’t just his home; it’s also a research facility. Before they get down to the nitty-gritty of the visit, Caleb hesitantly signs a non-disclosure agreement (shades of 50 Shades), entitling him to take part (read: be the human component) in a Turing test, alongside Nathan’s AI (artificial intelligence) creation Ava (Alicia Vikander). Over the course of seven sessions, Caleb and Ava are observed by Nathan. Following each session, Caleb meets with Nathan, usually over a meal, where Nathan gets blind drunk and then loses consciousness. Nathan’s a real Pearl Mesta (or should that be Pearl Messed-up?).
Naturally (or is it artificially?), Caleb develops feelings for the attractive Ava, and believes that his attraction is reciprocated. During power cuts, when Caleb thinks he and Ava aren’t being observed by Nathan’s CCTV cameras, he naively hatches an escape plan for himself and Ava. But, predictably, puppet-master Nathan is pulling strings and pushing buttons all along. Don’t worry, he’s going to get his comeuppance (see Westworld).
Ex Machina feels like a lot of wasted potential. Some of the special effects are special, while others are all too familiar. Fanboys and fangirls alike may lap this up like artificial sweetener, but those looking for something real will have to look elsewhere.
DVD special features include the five-part featurette “Throught the Looking Glass: Creating Ex Machina,” behind-the-scenes vignettes and a SXSW Q & A with the cast and crew.
By Gregg Shapiro