*. This is a movie that impressed a lot of people when it came out, getting nearly universal critical acclaim (though faring slightly less well with audiences).
*. Most of the people who liked it tended to praise it with some variation of the “less is more” line. It’s not a violent movie, and aside from the striking girl-on-the-beach tableau at the beginning there is no gore. It’s not an effects film either, aside from one unconvincing shot at the end. And it’s not a movie that explains a lot about its monster, which isn’t even given a name much less a purpose.
*. I really like it too, though not for these reasons. The two things about it that I appreciate the most are its look and the characters.
*. With regard to the characters, how original and daring was it to make a scary teenager flick where the kids are, for the most part, realistic and likeable? I’m so tired of being introduced to a bunch of stereotypical jerks who I’m relieved to see killed off. This has been a part of the “dead teenager” genre for so long now we don’t even notice it any more. And yet Jay and her friends seem like nice, regular types that I genuinely did not want to see get hurt. Was that so difficult?
*. It’s also well cast, with Maika Monroe in particular having a Sarah Polley quality — by which I don’t mean the physical resemblance but rather the air of low-key, almost sleepy intelligence. In a film like this you don’t want to see any big stars.
*. The look is the perfect matching of subject and style. Those slow pans through widescreen match the quiet, pedestrian dread of the creature coming up behind you. As Scott Weinberg observes on his DVD commentary, a 360 is what the characters should be doing with their heads all the time. The widescreen also gives us establishing shots (through long windows or streetscapes) that take up all of our peripheral vision. We pick up movement from a distance, but that doesn’t make us feel much safer. It only builds suspense as we feel the itch to get moving.
*. This is the most important aspect of the photography, though the way the camera shoots so many of the characters from behind also reinforces that same sense of unease. We’ve been trained to think that such shots are taken from someone’s point of view, so that we’re aware of the stalker even when he’s not there.
*. Much of this is indebted to Carpenter’s Halloween, especially with the scenes of the girls walking through the pleasant residential community talking about their boyfriends, the use of POV from behind, and the implacable but almost desultory killer in pursuit.
*. One aspect of the photography I don’t understand is the number of shots from Jay’s point of view, looking down on her hands. It’s a motif, but I can’t think of a good explanation for them aside from the director wanting to throw them in.
*. That girl in the opening sequence does an impressive job of running in heels, but why is she wearing heels? Just to underline her identity as the sexy young woman in distress? I don’t think many women wear heels and underwear around the house, as Annie presumably was when she was surprised by the creature. And if you knew the creature was after you, wouldn’t you always be wearing running shoes? I mean, she still has her heels on when she’s at the beach!
*. I don’t mind ambiguity, or leaving things unexplained because exposition wouldn’t be realistic (that is, because nobody in the film understands what’s going on either so why should the audience?). So it doesn’t bother me that I don’t know the first thing about the creature’s motives, or if it even has any. I’m not concerned about how it kills its victims, or if it has any particular method. And I don’t care why it takes the different forms it does, or if it might also be able to turn itself into a dog or a horse. (I did, however, wonder a bit over why it turns into a woman who pees all over the floor. What’s up with that?). I’m not bothered over questions like whether or not Jay swims out to the fellows in the boat and has sex with them (something that fans of the film debate a lot), or whether that guy behind Jay and Paul at the end is the creature. It seems to me that David Robert Mitchell could have easily told us what was going on in each of these latter two situations, but chose not to. And I don’t have a problem with that.
*. What I do mind is that the film starts to come undone in its final act.
*. For starters, I don’t buy the character of Hugh/Jeff (Jeff being his real name, only revealed later). Granted, he has to pass the curse along in order to save his own bacon. Fine. But why does he have to pass it on to Jay, who he seems to like? Why doesn’t he do the obvious thing and, like Paul, pick up some hooker?
*. More troubling, however, is the way he runs away and hides from Jay after tagging her with It. If he’s still on the hook — since after the creature kills Jay it will still be coming for him, working back down the line — then wouldn’t it make sense to keep close tabs on how Jay is faring? Or, since they are the only two who can see the creature, wouldn’t it make even more sense for the two of them to team up, work together to try and take the creature out? One could imagine all kinds of ways that two people working together could deal with the creature.
*. Perhaps it’s just that Jeff is an idiot. Why does he chloroform Jay after having sex with her, then tie her (in her underwear?) to a wheelchair so that he can show her the creature? Couldn’t he have just explained the situation to her? Wouldn’t that have made more sense? And couldn’t he have given her clothes back before he dropped her off at her house?
*. This bizarre behaviour smacks a little too much of the horror cliché of the idiot plot, which blossoms most fully in the climax. I’ll admit that as the film went along I was getting into it, buying its premise and thinking to myself how, if I could keep my head and had such stalwart friends, I would deal with such a bogeyman. That’s a big part of what makes such movies fun. The best I came up with was some plan for trapping the creature, as it does seem limited in physical ways. It moves very slowly and has to break into houses (that is, it can’t pass through walls or other solid objects). Jeff also says that there’s only one of it, though I don’t know how he can be so sure. So just based on that much information you can think of various solutions.
*. My jaw dropped when I realized what the squad of friends had come up with. They break into a high school swimming pool at night along with a showroom’s worth of electric appliances, which they plug into the wall (with really long extension cords) and set around the pool while Jay goes swimming, hoping to lure the creature into the pool so that they can electrocute it. Really? That’s the plan?
*. Are you kidding? How could anyone have come up with something so involved, complicated, and unworkable and thought it had a chance? Couldn’t they have thought of anything a little simpler? Weinberg: “this is the most childish, silly plan they could possibly come up with!” But he likes it because he thinks it’s supposed to represent their naiveté. Well. I suppose.
*. Part of Jeff’s advice to Jay is that the creature is slow, but not dumb. So I guess they couldn’t just trick it into walking into some wet cement or something. But a bit of ingenuity surely could have come up with something better than getting the follower to jump in a pool surrounded by plugged-in televisions, hair dryers, and toasters. And why would they think electrocution would work, since they already knew that shooting it, even in the neck, would only slow it down?
*. Jeff’s assertion that it’s not dumb is also called into question by the ad line for the film that appears on the theatrical poster and DVD box cover: “It doesn’t think. It doesn’t feel. It doesn’t give up.” Admittedly, such lines aren’t (usually) written by anyone involved with the actual movie, but given their prominence for this film they are highly misleading. Clearly the creature does think, if it’s not dumb. And we can see it using its head by breaking into houses and not going into the pool. It’s also not true that it doesn’t feel, as why else would it be riding Greg?
*. But if it isn’t dumb, why doesn’t it try taking some less conspicuous forms? An old lady in a nightgown is going to stand out on a college campus. Ditto for some tall guy with bleeding eye sockets in Jay’s house, or a naked person almost anywhere. Given that the creature can adopt the form of anyone, why not try to appear a little more normal? Every predator likes a bit of camouflage.
*. I think this might have helped create a few more suspenseful moments as well. Mitchell never fully develops the paranoia of Jay not knowing if someone walking toward her is the creature or not, because it’s always obvious when it is and isn’t (like the girl with the soccer ball, who is walking far too fast), and when it isn’t obvious (like the kid with the white jacket outside the high school or the person tailing Jay and Paul in the final shot), nothing is made of it and it’s left mysterious. It seems to me the film really misses an easy trick here. The only time Mitchell even attempts something in this vein is the excellent bit where the false Yara comes up behind Jay on the beach while the real Yara is out in the water. But even that’s not the same thing, as we never get to sense Jay’s paranoia. And why does the creature play with Jay’s hair in that scene instead of just grabbing her?
*. I guess Greg doesn’t take the whole story very seriously. He certainly doesn’t take any precautions for protecting himself from the creature. Nobody is sleeping over at his house, and even his phone seems to have been turned off.
*. I loved the score (by Disasterpeace, or Rich Vreeland) the first time through but found it overdone on subsequent viewings. I’m not sure if that’s a fair critique though. It seems to me that for a movie like this if it worked on a first viewing then you have to say it worked. It’s not necessarily a problem that it doesn’t wear well.
*. You can interpret it different ways, but I read it as something pretty conventional. It’s a teen horror film and is so concerned with the key driver for that audience: budding sexuality. The theme of sex = death plays out in a standard way, making the curse of films like Night of the Demon or Ringu into an STD. To be honest, I didn’t find this aspect of the film very interesting.
*. Of course this also makes it a coming-of-age movie. And again it seems to me that this is a point that’s made almost too pointedly. Adult figures aren’t just missing throughout, the creature even takes the form of Jay’s father when it tries to kill her at the end. We see police cars, and a cop from a distance, but the police are otherwise absent from the proceedings. Jay ends up in the hospital a couple of times but we never see a doctor. There are no authority figures around. Meanwhile, Jeff wants to be a child again (something he reveals when he plays the spot-a-stranger game with Jay), while Jay retreats to a playground and gets on a swing when she feels frightened. These kids are afraid of growing up. No wonder they go back to high school when they are threatened. That pool is like a comfort zone.
*. To sum up: I loved the first part, and despite thinking it fell apart a bit as it went along I still enjoyed it immensely. It’s genuinely creepy and reveals more on repeated viewings. Various elements tease us. Obviously there are the walking figures you see in the background that may or may not be significant, and I’ve already mentioned Jay’s hands, but there’s also the literary references like the reading of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or Dostoyevsky’s The Devils. Do these mean anything? I don’t know. Then there’s the use of water as a recurring motif, which I guess has something to do with (not) being able to wash away one’s sin, but could be taken as meaning something more.
*. It’s fun to wonder about stuff like this while being entertained. So few movies even bother any more.
This is very thorough coverage of the pros and cons of this film, thanks. Some of the mysteries I’d chalk up to the Spielbergian elevation of “the cinematic” over common sense. The girl at the beginning is wearing spiked heels because the shoe looks good (sculpturally speaking) on a dislocated leg. The urinating woman is meant to put us in The Zone (letting us know that from now on any weird thing can happen). Placing electrical appliances around the pool sets the stage for very action-packed montage of appliances being hurled into the water at the helpless Jay. However, the playing-with-the-hair bit was important because it’s the first time any character besides Jay can see the creature(s).
One of my favorite aspects is the timeless quality of the art direction. It’s clearly Haddonfield 1978 (but somewhere near Detroit because 8 Mile is mentioned). Cathode ray TVs and corded landline phones weirdly exist in the same space with Yara’s pink clamshell ebook reader.
As for the “hand” shots — in one of the first Jay is watching an ant crawl along her arm. She seems fascinated by this little view of wild nature but then she thoughtlessly drowns the ant. It makes as much sense as the male characters helping her by sleeping with her (and thus endangering themselves). There is a lot of random comme ci, comme ça behavior in this movie. Everyone seems to be sleepwalking, with or without clothes.
Thanks Tom! I did enjoy this movie and still remember most of it quite well (which is amazing for me, five years later). I agree with seeing some Haddonfield here. It works really well taking the look of one movie and transporting it into a different, but timeless, dimension. I know there was talk of a sequel at the time but nothing has materialized.
Also, pretty sure they didn’t have waterproof arm casts for broken bones in 1978.