It Follows is overrated—watch Kiyoshi Kurosawa's miniseries Penance instead | Bleader

Thursday, April 30, 2015

It Follows is overrated—watch Kiyoshi Kurosawa's miniseries Penance instead

Posted By on 04.30.15 at 03:00 PM

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Kiyoshi Kurosawas Penance
  • Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Penance
I was ambivalent about David Robert Mitchell's It Follows when I wrote about it a month ago, but the more I think about this undeniably well-crafted horror film, the less I like it. To be honest, I probably wouldn't have given it so much thought if the movie hadn't become a critical and commercial hit (it's about to enter its seventh week at the Music Box). With regards to recent low-budget American horror, I'm more interested in the unpretentious, but thematically rich, features being cranked out by Blumhouse Productions (Oculus, The Purge: Anarchy, The Lazarus Effect, Unfriended) than in the wave of arty, but thematically thin, horror movies epitomized by Follows and Blue Ruin. Both camps demonstrate reverence toward such 1970s mavericks as John Carpenter, George A. Romero, and Larry Cohen, infusing low-budget horror with social critique and formal experimentation. Yet where most directors in the Blumhouse stable seem comfortable maintaining the look and feel of genre entertainment, Mitchell, Jeremy Saulnier, and Jim Mickle seem overeager to prove that they're not just talented horror directors, but serious artists as well. I don't want to begrudge these filmmakers their ambitions (indeed I wrote admiringly of Mickle's Cold in July last year). Still, I doubt whether Mitchell is saying anything significant enough to warrant his self-important style.

It Follows excels in creating an atmosphere of dread regardless of how little is happening onscreen. Mitchell and his crew maintain impressive control over form—the frames are meticulously composed (making one hyperaware of what's not in the shot), the camera movements eerily smooth, and the music, modeled plainly after Carpenter's minimalist scores, heightens the trancelike effect of the mise-en-scene. (And speaking of Carpenter, I find it somewhat unfair that effective Carpenter pastiches like Follows and Ruin should garner so much praise while Carpenter himself is still alive and has had difficulty getting his projects financed for over a decade.) One feels that something terrible could happen at any time, not least because the teenaged characters are so poignantly naive. The main subjects convey the innocence of preadolescence despite being in high school, as though they've yet to settle on personalities for themselves. As I wrote last month, one could regard the film's shape-shifting demon as a projection of how they feel about adulthood—i.e., they understand it only well enough to fear it.

I find Mitchell's suburban kids to be bland and dopey, though not in the embarrassing manner of so many slasher-movie victims nor in the tragic manner of Gus Van Sant's kids in Elephant. They're simply products of their environment—a cocoon of idealized adolescent experience where even the local juvenile delinquent seems to have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. In fact the depiction of teen life is so idealized that it deliberately seems to stand outside of time. One of the movie's most celebrated gimmicks is that Mitchell obscures the time period during which the action takes place. Barring a cell phone owned by one of the characters, the most sophisticated technology we see seems to come from the early 1990s, and the dialogue makes no reference to contemporary culture. This sort of temporal blurring has been done before—and, in my view, to greater poetic effect—by American independents Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), David Gordon Green (George Washington, Undertow), and James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night). Mitchell's fictional composite of the last 30 years lacks the imaginative density of those filmmakers' environments; it conveys instead more vagueness in a movie that's already suffused with it.

It's as though Mitchell identifies too closely with his immature heroes, reveling in the beauty of childhood innocence to evade being concrete about anything else. I'm reminded of critic Glenn Kenny's dismissal of Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are (a comparably artful and precious piece of work): "The film's predominant mode of being [is] not so much a celebration of childhood, or a painstaking examination of childhood emotional states, as . . . a rather snotty privileging of childhood." Mitchell's kids are fundamentally blameless—their brushes with delinquency are made to seem like pardonable mistakes, and their naivete is made to resemble wonder. Though summoned by their sexual misconduct, the demon is emphatically from a remove, beyond our comprehension as well as theirs. This is a welcome reversal of the punitive sentiment of many other famous slasher movies, which encourage viewers to delight in teens dying for their sexual transgressions. But like Mitchell's nods to Carpenter and Brian De Palma, this attitude strikes me as overly calculated, rooted less in personal conviction than familiarity with other movies.

Penance
  • Penance

One reason I'm glad to have caught up with Kiyoshi Kurosawa's horror miniseries Penance (2012)—which Music Box Films released on DVD several months ago through their genre-movie subsidiary Doppelganger Releasing—is that it helped me realize just what I find so off-putting about It Follows. Penance has affinities with Mitchell's film in its exacting compositions, simmering dread, and minimal onscreen violence; yet it's Follow's opposite when it comes to the subject of childhood innocence. In Kurosawa's series (adapted from a popular novel by Kanae Minato), the horror grows out the characters' obsession to hold onto feelings they associate with childhood. The horror is mainly psychological, but as in Follows it often feels as though a supernatural entity could erupt onto the scene. Kurosawa, a longtime Japanese genre director whose credits include the fine horror features Cure and Pulse, can render almost any environment unsettling through his framing alone.

At the beginning of Penance, four grade-school girls stand by helplessly as a strange man abducts one of their friends and then murders her offscreen. The killer is never caught. Most of the series takes place 15 years later (though there are numerous flashbacks to the abduction and murder), showing how the girls and the victim's mother have never gotten past the trauma of that event. Each episode follows a different character and considers a different form of arrested development, which proves to be the heroine's downfall every time—every story builds quietly to a moment of devastating violence. In "Emergency PTA Meeting," the second episode, one of the girls grows so obsessed with wanting to protect children from danger that she becomes a schoolteacher and a stern disciplinarian—her rigid devotion to safety alienates her from students and parents alike. In the third, "Brother and Sister Bear," Akiko, another one of the girls, is so traumatized by the experience that she remains trapped in her grade-school self; as an adult she continues to live with her mother, rarely leaving her bedroom and childhood toys.

The character's bedroom, meticulously arranged with suburban comforts of the recent past, might feel like a set from It Follows if Kurosawa didn't present it as evidence of psychological regression. In "Brother and Sister Bear," Akiko's fetishization of her own childhood fuels her antisocial behavior. Penance finds a brilliant symbol for this condition in Akiko's jump rope, which takes on increasingly malign associations as the episode proceeds. The series also makes strong use of porcelain dolls—an overused image in the horror genre—in the first episode, in which one of the bystanders has grown up to be a brittle career woman who fusses over appearances to sublimate her constant distress. At the start of Penance, the victim's mother puts a hex on the four bystanders, demanding that they perform some act of contrition until her daughter's killer is brought to justice. It soon becomes a moot point as to whether the characters behave the way they do because they're actually cursed or just reeling from psychological damage. After all, many people willingly seek refuge in the attitudes they remember from childhood, as the success of It Follows demonstrates.

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