DAY 31 OF 31: GET OUT (2017)

Published October 31, 2019 by Philip Ivory


GET OUT (2017) is director Jordan Peele’s brilliant horror riff on the idea that in the post-Obama era, racism is alive and well. Birtherism, Charlottesville, mass incarceration and police shootings have all testified to that truth, as do the daily experiences of millions of African Americans.

Peele’s film shows us that racism may evolve, may even seem to retreat underground. But really it is just trying on new hats, ready to rear its ugly, all-American head in new and unthinkably corrosive and cruel ways.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris and Allison Williams as Rose.

In a set-up that sounds like the beginning of a romantic comedy but isn’t, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a successful urbanite, an African American photographer who’s going to spend the weekend with the family of his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams) in the deep wooded suburbs.

On first encounter, Rose’s hypnotherapist mom, Missy (Catherine Keener) and her neurosurgeon dad, Dean (Bradley Whitford), seem like well-meaning, awkwardly earnest white liberals who try to say the right thing but don’t always succeed.

Dean, in fact, likes to say that he would have voted for Obama for a third term if he’d been allowed. If anything, the family seems less bothered by Chris’ race than by the fact that he can’t seem to give up smoking.

Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener as Rose’s parents.

Things get weirder. Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) simmers with testosterone-fueled resentment toward Chris, drunkenly demanding to tussle with him. The family’s two servants, both black, played by Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel, freak Chris out, giving off inexplicably weird and inappropriate vibes.

Strangest of all, Missy hypnotizes Chris, exploiting his unresolved grief over the death of his mother when he was a child. She does this ostensibly to help him stop smoking. But is it really necessary to send him temporarily into a nightmarish mental limbo, a place she refers as “the sunken place?”(That’s a phrase that would have make a good alternate title for the film.)

Missy hypnotizes Chris.

A coterie of white guests who arrive that weekend seem fascinated by Chris’s talents and physique, and make bizarre remarks about black people, speculating as to whether they are culturally on the upswing.

Among that group, Chris spies a young black man with an oddly hesitant manner paired up with an older white woman. Later, Chris will realize he knows, or knew, the young man under a different name.

All the while, Rose comforts Chris, trying to persuade him that her family and their increasingly disconcerting friends are well-meaning.

A nightmare, worthy of the most terrifying Twilight Zone episodes, lurks beneath the surface of the weekend’s get-together, and is about to reveal itself.

Chris is sent to “the sunken place.”

As with a number of films I’ve written about this month, it’s very hard to talk about GET OUT without spoiling its surprises, something I don’t want to do.

Let’s just say there’s an evil plan in the works. Chris’s TSA employee buddy, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), listens to Chris’s reports about the weekend via cell phone, and cautions him that the family wants to turn black people into sex slaves. He’s not right, but the truth is equally disturbing.

What’s up with the weird-acting weekend guests?

GET OUT is a film that, on second viewing, with the story’s secrets fully revealed, provides a totally different experience.

Consider this quote from Dean, sparked by Chris and Rose’s collision with a deer during their road trip out to the house:

“You know what I say? I say one down, a couple hundred thousand to go. I don’t mean to get on my high horse, but I’m telling you, I do not like the deer. I’m sick of it; they’re taking over. They’re like rats. They’re destroying the ecosystem. I see a dead deer on the side of the road and I think, ‘That’s a start.'”

On second viewing, this dialogue takes on a deeply malevolent significance.

Betty Gabriel plays a very strange family servant.

For a first-time director, Peele demonstrates astonishing surety. An opening credits sequence showing ominously scored shots of trees sets a nerve-jangling mood that never lets up, save in the comic relief scenes provided by Howery.

GET OUT culminates in a series of shockingly violent scenes. You’ll just have to find out if Chris emerges from the weekend with his wits, and everything else, intact.

It’s a pleasure to round up my 31 days of classic horror films with GET OUT, a film that shows us that on old genre can still provide a place for bold new voices and ideas that speak to the troubling undercurrents of the world we all live in.





DAY 30 OF 31: IT FOLLOWS (2014)

Published October 30, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Every once in a while, a film comes along that is firmly in the tradition of established horror themes while also being completely original. IT FOLLOWS (2014), directed by David Robert Mitchell, is such a film.

Jay (Maika Monroe), a college student, goes on a date with a guy she knows little about, who calls himself Hugh (Jake Weary). They go to a movie but Hugh becomes frightened when Jay tells him she can’t see a girl he’s pointing out to her in the back of the auditorium. They leave and have dinner together.

Later, the two have sex in his car.

Then, shockingly, Hugh chloroforms Jay, and ties her to a wheelchair, taking her to an abandoned building. He doesn’t hurt her, but makes her wait until she sees a woman walking out of the darkness, coming inexorably toward them. Hugh tells Jay to remember what she has seen and believe in it, then takes her away in his car before the woman can reach them.

Jay (Maika Monroe) is initiated into the horrors of IT FOLLOWS.

Hugh explains that by having sex with Jay, he has passed on the curse he received from an earlier sexual tryst. A mysterious figure will keep walking toward Jay until it can reach her and kill her.

No one else will be able to see it. It will take different forms, sometimes as a stranger, sometimes as someone known to Jay, whatever will allow it to get close to her.

It will always look like someone different.

Hugh tells Jay that if it kills her, it will return to seek him out again. That’s why, he insists, she has to pass the curse on to someone else as quickly as possible.

This is the premise of IT FOLLOWS, startlingly simple, haunting and instantly terrifying. The film would seem to draw upon such past “sex equals death” franchises as the HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH films.

And yet it is original and moody, and follows its own dream logic. It resists easy analysis. Some have described IT FOLLOWS (has any movie had a more witty and fitting title?) as a film about walking STDs, but that seems too simple to me.

Another “sex equals death” teen horror? Or something more?

For once thing, it’s a film about friendship, as Jay turns to her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and former boyfriend Greg (Daniel Zovatto). They prove to be a resourceful and loyal group, all of whom end up risking their lives for Jay.

Jay’s parents and other adults are mostly absent, unable to help because it would be too much to ask them to believe in the unbelievable.

IT FOLLOWS is in part about growing up in the suburbs, and expresses that sad, lonely aspect of modern life that comes from living so near to other people and yet feeling that, sealed away in their houses, they might as well be a million miles away.

The entity appears behind Jay’s friend, Yara (Olivia Luccardi).

There is a strange timelessness to the film, a deliberate effect on the part of director Mitchell as part of his effort to simulate dream logic. Sometimes IT FOLLOWS feels like it’s set in the 70s or 80s. Other clues point to a more contemporary setting.

Critics almost universally praised the film, although some were less impressed with a climactic sequence in which Jay and her friends try to destroy the evil entity by electrocuting it in a pool.

I think the sequence works well and gives the friends a chance to join together to try to turn the tables on their unstoppable foe. It provides some catharsis before an ending that is, I think of necessity, unresolved.

In the end, what is IT FOLLOWS about? Sex? The heavy mantle of becoming a grownup? The ever-present knowledge of our own mortality, always gnawing at us, coming a little closer every day?

In the film’s opening sequence, we get a glimpse of the aftermath of a visit from the pursuing entity in IT FOLLOWS.

There’s been talk of a sequel. Let’s hope it never happens.

IT FOLLOWS is a modern horror masterpiece, and — let’s just say it — a pretty impossible act to follow.




DAY 29 OF 31: THE CONJURING (2013)

Published October 29, 2019 by Philip Ivory

THE CONJURING (2013) is notable not only for being a first-class supernatural drama, but also as the first entry in a series of branching films that would come to be known as “The Conjuring Universe,” currently at seven films and counting.

On its release, THE CONJURING stood alone, based on its own merits which were considerable. Expertly directed by James Wan, it presented a familiar story — basically, a family in a house beset by demonic forces — that recalled key plot elements of such films as THE EXORCIST or THE AMITYVILLE HORROR.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play loosely fictionalized versions of real-life occult investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warrens.

They are called in to help the Perron family, consisting of Carolyn (Lili Taylor), Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters. Roger is a truck driver who’s frequently on the road.

Squabbling siblings and financial pressures are tough enough to deal with, but the family’s real troubles don’t start until they move into a charming lakeside fixer upper.

The Perron family, with Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston as parents Carolyn and Roger.

It starts quickly. The family dog refuses to enter the new home and is soon found dead. The daughters are assailed in the night by foul smells and violent forces.

An antique music box give glimpses of a ghostly child. A once sealed-off basement traps Carolyn, isolating her from her daughters.

Lili Taylor as Carolyn.

The Warrens arrive and, sympathetic to the family’s plight, begin their investigation. Lorraine’s psychic powers put her at risk of harm from the residing malevolent presence. They also allow her to determine that the home once belonged to a witch named Bathsheba who murdered her own child.

Soon Bathsheba possesses Carolyn, intent on using one of the Perron daughters to repeat the evil cycle.

Unable to wait for the church to authorize an exorcism, Ed, who is not a priest, performs his own off-the-cuff version of the ritual in a desperate attempt to save Carolyn’s soul and the children’s lives.

Carolyn is possessed.

The particular strength of THE CONJURING is the warmth of the characters. Both the Warrens and the Perrons are presented as likable, decent people. In a homely touch, between his investigative and exorcism work, Ed helps fix the Perrons’ rundown vehicle.

While there’s plenty of dread and terror, the film also helps us feel the strength of the Perron family’s love for each other. In fact, Bathsheba is driven out when Lorraine is able to help Carolyn summon the memory of a rare “perfect” day the family once spent together.

We are left with the feeling that, however destructive and dangerous these evil forces may be, good can still prevail with the help of a little faith and friendship. At least for the time being.

The twisted spirit of Bathsheba preys upon the Perron family.

In a side plot, THE CONJURING introduces the doll Annabelle, an object that will be revealed to be a conduit for demonic forces.

Kept secured in a glass case within the Warren home in a locked-off treasure trove of cursed objects and paranormal artifacts, Annabelle is about the creepiest-looking doll ever seen, making a powerful initial impression. (Her story will receive primary focus in ANNABELLE (2014) and other films that tell their own story but are part of the larger Conjuring mythos.)

Say hello to Annabelle. You’ll be seeing more of her.

Rather than build a straight series of sequels, the filmmakers successfully created their own interconnected filmic universe, based upon the semi-fictionalized files of the Warrens’ exploits in demonology.

We hadn’t seen such a thing since Universal teamed up its leading horror characters (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the Wolfman) in films like 1944’s HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Clearly eying the extraordinarily profitable Marvel Cinematic Universe, Universal has in recent years made attempts to launch a new series of interconnected “Dark Universe” monster vehicles, through such films as DRACULA UNTOLD (2014), but so far without significant success.

Legendary Entertainment has done better with a successful series of interconnected “Monsterverse” giant creature films, starting with GODZILLA in 2014 and scheduled to continue with next year’s GODZILLA VS. KONG.

Further entries in the Conjuring saga, including THE CONJURING 3 set for release next year, are in the works.