Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Buzz kill: It Follows and the media hype machine

Maika Monroe stars in the new horror film It Follows.

Hype is a killer. I am probably guiltier of it than most people I know, but we have all done it – oversold a movie or a book or a restaurant and, by our enthusiasm, destroyed any opportunity for our audience to enjoy something without bias. Rather than instilling the level of excitement in our friends that we might hope for, we are priming them to be let down.

It is a natural cultural phenomenon that has been exacerbated to an absurd degree by the Internet. It makes a certain amount of sense. With a million things at once all vying for attention, it helps to stand out in the crowd, so movies are sold with superlatives. Everything is the best, the funniest, the scariest, etc. What this does, however, is it robs us of the joys of the merely good.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s new horror-thriller It Follows is pretty good, but its premiere was met with breathless praise, proclaiming it the new pinnacle of modern horror and so forth. Here is a sampling of quotes from the marketing materials:

It Follows is the best horror film in over a decade.” – Boing Boing

“… the best American horror film since The Blair Witch Project.” – The Dissolve

It Follows pretty much earns its buzz as the scariest and best-engineered American horror movie of recent years …” – Salon

The Dissolve also landed the quote that adorns most of the film’s posters, calling it “one of the most striking American horror films in years.” Notice all those superlatives, and this sample is representative. The film owns a score of 83 out of 100 on film criticism aggregation site Metacritic and has enjoyed raves from such publications as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian. It would be difficult for any film to live up to such a reputation, let alone an indie horror flick from a relatively unproven filmmaker.

As a general rule, I try not to let buzz influence my anticipation of a film one way or the other. I do not read reviews before I see movies or, indeed, until after I have written down my own thoughts. Some cross-pollination of ideas is obviously inevitable, but for the most part, I am flying blind. However, It Follows was only on my radar due to the tremendous critical praise it was receiving. As an avid horror fan, I was excited by the possibilities of a new classic of the genre and sought it out.

What I can report is that It Follows is an accomplished thriller that impresses on a technical level and features an intriguing premise but also has some real flaws. Aided by a brilliant musical score by Disasterpeace that reminds of classic grindhouse movies, Mitchell creates a genuinely chilling first half that will have you grasping at your arm rest in dread. The back half of the film is more problematic thanks to a script that refuses to address certain issues of logic and motivation.

The plot concerns a young woman played by the up-and-coming Maika Monroe who is told after a consensual sexual encounter that she will be terrorized by some kind of supernatural force that will eventually kill her. She learns the only way to avoid a gruesome death is to pass the haunting on to someone else by having sex, and this is about as deep as the plot goes. The rest is atmosphere, mood, and more than a few well timed jump scares.

Since Mitchell and his collaborators keep their cards close to their chest, any message about promiscuity or sexual freedom is murky at best and indecipherable at worst. The film lacks a true point of view and seems willfully adolescent in its treatment of sexuality and violence. In other words, It Follows is a standard teen slasher pic, which makes for a fun night at the movies if that is your thing, but it is greatly burdened by its “best this” and “scariest that” buzz.

The Babadook
Recent Australian horror picture The Babadook opened to similar critical acclaim, and while it is a more accomplished film than It Follows, it also suffocates under the weight of universal adulation and sky-high expectations. The problem extends beyond horror and beyond film, really, but the proximity to each other and similarity of response to It Follows and The Babadook got me thinking about the way we build things up and give ourselves over to the consensus.

Our culture is no longer really set up to accommodate measured consideration of complex topics – a shortcoming that affects all manner of discourse, not just films. When a line is drawn in the sand, we pretty much have to pick a side, which means It Follows is either the best horror film of the new century or the most overrated piece of drivel in recent memory.

Twitter, Facebook, and other social media await your decision, and the most ardent commenters are ready to dole out shame and punishments as necessary to those of you who choose wrong, whatever you choose. But, what if It Follows is neither pinnacle nor nadir? What if it is merely good, and the audience’s only expectation is a thrilling ride and a fun night out? Well, that would be a promise on which this movie could surely deliver.

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