David Robert Mitchell's take on the horror genre is hardly that of a veteran, and easily the best thing about his sophomore feature effort (his first being a coming-of-age comedy). He's serious about teens, treats them as people worthy of attention and even trust, and in the lower-middle-class suburban neighborhoods of Detroit has found an evocatively memorable landscape for them to inhabit. If anything, perhaps the least interesting element in Mitchell's film is the horror, the ostensible selling point.
College student Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex with her fairly new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary); Hugh knocks Jay out with chloroform, ties her to a wheelchair, explains what he's done by sleeping with her: inflict an unstoppable supernatural curse where a demonic entity--which takes the form of strangers, grotesques, and (most unsettling of all) people she knows--approach and try kill her. She can delay death by sleeping with someone else in which case it goes after them instead but (this is the clever bit) the moment her victim dies the entity by default goes after her again, and we're back where we started.
If you've got a moderately inquisitive mind, you immediately ask: why does the entity--demon, it, whatever--do this? What if you fall asleep or are knocked unconscious (happens several times)--is the entity put on "hold" or something? Do oral sex, mutual masturbation, bestiality, or sex dolls count?
The time frame of the film is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so--Fords and Chevys from the '70s and '80s, manual typewriters, endless late-night retrospectives of black-and-white films; no cell phones, but someone does use an e-reader (delightfully low-tech monochromatic LCD screen, with pink clamshell casing) to dip into Dostoevsky's The Idiot. Contemporary mobile devices would have brought a whole slew of possibilities to the premise: what if you use social networking, a Facebook page say, where members (folks who know each other in the biblical sense) use GPS to track this entity, driving across the continent to keep it moving? What if your cellphone has a motion-detector app, designed to beep if someone closes in on you (and the entity does have a physical presence--demonstrates it several times)? Perhaps the filmmaker was smart to keep the period unspecified after all--too many questions to think about, too many unanswerable, the whole ultimately too silly to easily accept.
But a premise no matter how clever--or especially when it is clever--eventually reveals its limitation: to function as a framework (in this case more thoughtfully constructed than most) on which to hang a film. In between the metal tubing is the film's flesh, the adolescents playing victim or victimizer in a perverse game of sexual tag, characters Mitchell takes the time and effort to properly flesh out--Jay in particular. She seems unusually cheerful, willing to have sex with her newfound boyfriend without worrying too much about morality, reputation or sexually transmitted diseases (turns out she's both right and wrong to not worry); early on Mitchell grants Jay a privileged moment of repose in her lawn pool which she enjoys with unselfconscious satisfaction, not talking to a friend or pondering the meaning of life but simply floating there, enjoying this quiet pause in her existence before all hell breaks loose. Later when she's preoccupied--either fleeing or weeping or shuddering in terror--we can come back to our memory of this image and think: she at least had this instant where it wasn't all about struggling for survival.
The youths in the film are oddly independent; we see little of the parents, who at most are mentioned in passing (only once does a mother play an active role, a deceptive one as it turns out) and seem to show little need for them, as if they'd been abandoned (or forgotten) long ago and have grown past the need for adults. They are likelier to rely on their friends, and Mitchell to his credit doesn't condemn or praise them for this: these kids are not decadent nihilists but smart, adaptable (if a bit naive); they show affection and loyalty, are willing to help out a friend in need. There's a yawning lack you can't help but be aware of in their lives, but it isn't excessively dwelt on, nor do these kids develop too much angst about it. Family is a scam, grown-ups don't give a shit, in the end (they seem to say to us without saying a word) they only really have each other.
Put this adult-free ambiance in the wider context of Detroit's decades-long decline and Mitchell's portrait of disaffected youth takes on additional meaning: that the youths' unsupervised lives are symptomatic of an even larger collapse; that there's pathos and beauty to all the postsuburbian desolation, to the image of Lord of the Flies youths picnicking amongst the disintegrating ruins; that Detroit's leftover architectural grandeur (the Exotic Revival-style Redford Theater early in the film, the eerily abandoned Packard Plant midway through, the massive High Lift Building of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for the film's implausible climax) has an unremarked (and as such all the more vivid) but unmistakable power to whet one's appetite for Gothic atmosphere.
As director Mitchell takes his cue from John Carpenter's minimalist long-take sensibility to turn one of horror's most basic priorities inside out, evoking (as Alfred Hitchcock once did with the cropduster sequence in North by Northwest and with nearly all of the latter half of The Birds) not suffocating claustrophobia but cringe-inducing agoraphobia. Instead of dark corners or creepy basements, Mitchell gives us the danger of a grassy field or empty street: not that the threat might have us trapped, but that the threat's approach is unspecified (we don't know where and how it's coming so we can't prepare ourselves accordingly). A refreshing feeling for the most part, if that's how you get your kicks (like I often do).
First published on Businessworld 5.14.14