It Follows / Unfriended
by Glenn Lovell
Horror aficionados, take heart. A couple of decent shockers have taken up residence at your neighborhood multiplex. One is an unnerving indie that reminded us, by turns, of David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and the underground “Deadgirl.” The other is an Internet twist on the Old Dark House whodunit, only now with the suspects exchanging secrets and lies on Skype.
You’ve probably already heard about “It Follows.” It’s the fright film du jour, a scary head-scratcher from Detroit’s own David Robert Mitchell, whose last feature was the acclaimed teen comedy “The Myth of the American Sleepover.”
“It Follows,” which turned heads on last year’s festival circuit, is also funny, but in a very dark way. Set in a suburbia about to be subsumed by urban blight, it interweaves the supernatural with the strongest incentive not to go all the way since that business at Camp Crystal Lake. And like the more recent “Teeth” and “Deadgirl,” this genre entry works as cautionary allegory. Remember your health teacher’s admonition: When you have sex, you’re sleeping with all your partner’s previous partners. Here those previous partners actually come and get you.
High-schooler Jay (Maika Monroe) learns this the hard way. A date with a boy who introduces himself as Hugh turns nightmarish when, after sex, he chokes and binds her ‒ and “feeds” her to a ghostly presence outfitted only in undies. “This thing is going to follow you,” he explains. “Somebody gave it me; I gave it to you.”
Now Jay sees scantily clad entities ‒ an old lady at school, a drooling woman and Andre the Giant at home. Her sister and neighborhood pals are mystified by her screams. Once she explains her dilemma, they give her the benefit of the doubt and join her in her investigation of a different kind of STD. Her male friends, of course, gladly agree to act as guinea pigs to find out if sex does indeed lead to strange visitations.
Not a heck of a lot makes sense. Why do the followers mangle some of their victims and let others go? Why does the “cure” work for some and not others? Japan’s “Ringu” reminded us that the best curses come with a rule book.
But, hey, that’s OK. We don’t sign up for this kind of ride expecting logic. And besides, Mitchell more than makes up for plot holes with retro set design and in-jokes (Peter Graves pops up on TV in “Red Planet Mars”), as well as some of the spookiest long shots since John Carpenter’s original “Halloween.” Throughout you’ll find yourself scouring the background for walkers. Add to this a Val Lewton-inspired pool sequence and a loud, throbbing electronic score by Rich Vreeland and you’ve got the makings of an instant cult classic.
If Dame Agatha were still cranking out mysteries, she’d probably be exploring the same fertile territory as “Unfriended,” which replaces the candle-lit staircase with the sallow glow of the computer monitor. A low-budget cyber-chiller picked up by Universal at last year’s Fantasia International Festival, this new arrival conjures memories of Christie’s “And Then There Were None” (aka “Ten Little Indians”). Only instead of 10 potential suspects/victims, we have a cool half dozen.
Following some unsavory online foreplay (“Get the knife, baby!”), Fresno High teens Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) and Blaire (Shelley Hennig) are joined via Skype by classmates Jess, Adam, Val and Ken. In the midst of a six-way chat, they’re repeatedly interrupted by a seventh. Once they’ve shaken this troll, IMs begin appearing from a billie227.
It appears the interloper has hacked the account of Laura Barns, who we learn from an opening video was the victim of cyber-bullying. Laura’s schoolyard suicide went viral in 2013 and is now the source of cruel online chatter. Which is why either the ghost of Laura or someone with a very nasty sense of humor is out for revenge. “If you hang up,” the messenger warns Blaire, “all your friends will die.”
We’ve come a long way since an agoraphobic Sigourney Weaver sat glued to her computer in “Copycat” (1995). Utilizing clacking keyboard, often-pixilated faces (rendered split-screen a la Brian De Palma), and chat-room IMs, director Leo Gabriadze skillfully sustains multiple POVs. We see what Blaire and her friends see as the computer presence exposes, one by one, their “dirty little secrets.” It’s an effective gimmick that creates a claustrophobic sense of inevitability even as it has us glancing nervously over our shoulder.
IT FOLLOWS With Maika Monroe, Daniel Zovatto, Keir Gilchrist. Directed, written by David Robert Mitchell. 100 min. Rated R (for violence, gruesome makeup effects, nudity)
UNFRIENDED 1/2 With Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Courtney Halverson, Will Peltz, Ken Smith, Jacob Wysocki. Directed by Leo Gabriadze; scripted by Nelson Greaves. 82 min. Rated R (for sex talk, profanity, violence)