Finding light in our darkness: A critical analysis of “The Witch” (2016)

Writer-director Robert Eggers’s “The Witch” (or maybe “The VVitch,” and presumably read with an Easter-European accent) is subtitled “A New-England Folktale.” As has been pointed out by people far more qualified than me, it’s not a folktale at all. No, “The Witch” is a movie, which may seem obvious, but it bears repeating. Because movies are primarily a visual art form, and “The Witch” is a movie about seeing, or rather, it is a movie about perception.

Which is not to say that “The Witch” is interested in telling us things happened one way, then pulling a “Fight Club” on us. Not at all. The film is quite comfortable in its Puritan context. So while its seemingly ambiguous symbology is equally comfortable being interpreted from a modern standpoint–hence feminist readings of the film, Freudian and/or Jungian readings, religious readings, et al, et al–we need to remember that the symbols are quite real for the characters on screen. Regardless of how you interpret it, one thing is clear: When it comes to “The Witch,” what you see is what you get. The question is simply what you see.

The initial issue that sets the movie into motion is a difference of perception–a difference in interpretation, specifically of the Christian bible. William (Ralph Ineson) and his family leave the plantation–the New World settlement, in modern parlance–over a difference in interpretation of “Christ’s true gospel.” They leave in one of the film’s most interesting sequences: from the point of view of the family’s wagon, the camera’s eye tracks backwards, the citizens of the plantation staring back at it, until the doors quietly close on the camera. One world has been removed from our vision, and we will never see it again. Outside, on the edge of the woods, the exiled family gazes reverently into a patch of blue sky. Likewise, it is the only blue sky we will ever see in the film. The rest of the film will be framed with gray skies and dark woods.

Light and darkness become quickly important in any film about perception, and “The Witch” is no different. Of course, it’s a no brainer to shoot a horror film in the dark, but “The Witch” has obviously taken this tactic to another level (as if it would bother with anything that fits a conventional horror film). The film almost exclusively uses period candles to light its shots (the cinematography was by Jarin Blaschke), adding an air of authenticity while forcing us to experience the world of “The Witch” through the same perspective as the settlers onscreen. At least until we leave the darkness of the theater and begin to see the film with new, modern eyes.

What we see and what we fail to see continue to be important throughout the film. The baby Samuel is lost in an act of seeing and not seeing–a game of peekaboo that goes horribly south when Thomasin (Ana Taylor-Joy) is not looking. Later, when William witnesses the death of his son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and accuses Thomasin of witchcraft, he uses visuals as his proof. “What did I but see in my house?” he demands.

Thomasin counters, laying blame on the twins. When William confronts them, and realizes they are not as catatonic as they appear, Thomasin hisses, “Do you see now?”

But visuals are only as important as what you can actually perceive–like the baby that goes missing when our eyes are covered. After the film’s climax, when Thomasin meets the human form of Black Phillip, we see him only in suggestion; his face is entirely cut off by the camera, and his costume, hinting at wealth and nobility, melts into the blackness of the room.

The witch herself is a visual creature, appearing as extremes: a hoary hag in some scenes, a comely maiden, all full lips and long legs, in others. It is interesting to note that the latter form appears to a boy on the brink of adolescence, suggesting the witch knows something about the way we perceive, or would like to perceive, the world. Later in the film, an entity that appears as a hungry raven to the audience appears as a needy baby to a grieving mother. Much like our interpretations of the film, “The Witch” lets us to see what we want to see–or what we think we want to see–and allows us to draw our own conclusions.

Although the film toys with the way we perceive, it is ultimately a Puritan tale of absolutes. “It is God alone, not man, who knows who is a son of Abraham and who is not,” William tells his son on their foray into the woods. It is reality alone that knows what is reality and what it is not. From our limited perspective, true horror begins when what we perceive to be true breaks down, when the limited lights by which we think we see our reality are snuffed out, and all that remains for us is darkness.

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Put that in your pipe and smoke it: A critical review of “A Field in England” (2013)

In case you haven’t noticed, I like weird movies. So when I first heard about writer-director Ben Wheatley’s “A Field In England,” a movie that practically got through college based on its weirdness, I knew I had to see it. Certainly I was hooked by its bizarre premise. At least, I had never heard of a psychedelic war film that took place in 17th century Surrey, let alone one that was supposed to be quite pretty. How could I not like this film? Well, as it turned out…yeah, I liked it.

First things first. “A Field in England” is quite pretty. Shooting in black-and-white is a surefire way for a low budget film to look arty and atmospheric, but Wheatley has a flair for visuals that would have carried the movie well beyond the realm of conventional thriller anyway. In fact, given the film’s loose grasp on reality, there are lengthy periods where visuals are all you have to hold onto: Characters approach in slow motion, framed in a wide shot; the camera pauses to view the titular field through the lens of a spider web dripping with dew; the actors even freeze from time to time, like stationary figures in a Renaissance painting. If nothing else, this is the prettiest movie you will ever watch that features a man struggling to defecate in a field.

The plot? Well, “Field” is a historical epic in the same way that “Psycho” is a primer on responsible hotel management. “Field” is about alchemist Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), who is joined by a lot of deserting soldiers on a quest to capture the rogue alchemist O’Neil (a viscerally menacing Michael Smiley). When they encounter O’Neil in the titular field, he mesmerizes them into helping him hunt for a treasure, and things go from bad to out there.

It’s nice how well characterized the characters are. The soldiers feel distinct from each other, and their motivations are clearly outlined, and present both material (treasure) and psychic (knowledge, duty, friendship) desires. It helps that the cast is so small, but it doesn’t hurt that the ensemble is a talented lot (mostly veterans of the BBC).

The events take place during the English Civil War, and it feels right; the costumes and dialogue are all perfectly 17th century–the soundtrack in particular, by Wheatley alum Jim Williams, sticks to pleasantly Renaissance faire arrangements. But the film is (perhaps refreshingly) not interested in saying something “smart” about its era–there is no laughter cast back from an unforgiving future on the players and events.

“Field” is in part classified as a horror movie because it is so odd that no one knew how else to classify it–and Wheatley is a “horror” director, right?–but it’s also a horror movie because it’s about what happens when our notions of reality break down. It would be easy to do a horrors of war/horrors of man kinda deal, but Wheatley has something far more cosmic in mind. And that’s where the drugs come in.

So how psychedelic is “Field”? Well, my father, a survivor of Haight-Ashbury hippie-dom, scoffed at the film for being black-and-white. No seriously psychedelic film, he said, could do without a cornucopia of color. Maybe, but that doesn’t stop the movie from being pretty damn trippy, although this is an acid fantasy by way of Arthur Machen. At one point, Whitehead vomits a small collection of casting runes. “I have no recollection of consuming anything of the remotest sort,” he says of the mystical stones, with all the surprised sincerity of a frat boy realizing he’s just set his beer on the table sideways. And the film does deliver on that strobe light warning, albeit only during the last 10 minutes or so.

Perhaps “Field” is exploring the loss of faith that occurred during the learning process of the Enlightenment. Whitehead certainly has a lot to lose: his faith in his God, his faith in his master, his faith in the royal political system that is crashing down around the respective country’s head.

But on the flip side, when events are this bizarre, when notions of memory, identity and reality are thrown out the window, you almost have to blatantly accept the supernatural because, seriously, what the hell else is there at that point? Despite the political and psychological upheaval around them, the characters remain quite receptive to their situation. “It does not surprise me that the devil is an Irishman,” one soldier notes when first meeting O’Neil. “Though perhaps a little taller,” he adds. I suppose you could blame it on the mushrooms, but even psychedelics have their limits. You can either decide that the camera itself has become an unreliable narrator, or you can just accept the unacceptable. And isn’t that kind of paradox what consciousness expansion is all about?

Unspeakable spread: A roundup of Lovecraft themed virtual card games

Even as we digitize, there has been a boom in card and board games. Perhaps as things become more virtual, we are desperate to grasp something tangible–I have suggested this explains the pocket popularity of steampunk. Regardless, one cannot stop the digital onslaught, so in a twisted turnabout-is-fair-game sort of move, it is possible to find various card games in a virtual form. Which is fine by me, in a way. Look, I’m all about the tangibles sometimes, but my least favorite part of card games is other people. Electronic card games remove that nasty component, with other players faceless and miles away. And it doesn’t hurt that there are a few that are sort of free. Given my interests, it was only a matter of time before I found a couple that utilized the Cthulhu mythos. As it turns out, there are enough to justify a review.

The only completely free game on this list is “Necronomicon,” a browser-based game. Coupled with its lack of price, the game is quick enough to figure out, and it doesn’t get anywhere near tricky until the very end, so this is probably the place for people more interested in mythos than cards to dive in. Which isn’t to say that it’s the best; game-wise, “quick to figure out” translates to “lack of depth,” and the artwork ranges from kind of interesting to kind of silly. Curiously enough, there was once an earlier version of the game that had more serious looking artwork, but it’s largely disappeared from the Internet due to some copyright issue. Weird.

The game draws upon a pretty subtle selection of Mythos works for its cards, and there is a strong 1920s gangster thing going, so you’ll see plenty of Tommy guns and the like. More cards are added in the quasi-sequel, “Necronomicon: Book of Dead Names.” In the game’s first form, cards were either single-use events or creatures; here, items, characters and locations have been added. Which does give the game legs while keeping it fairly simple. This is the kind of thing you can have on in the background at work.

If you’re after something a little more booster pack flavored, try Wizards of the Coast alum Darwin Kastle’s “Cthulhu Realms,” which is apparently a digital version of a physical card game…unless it’s a digital card game with a physical spin off. This kind of thing gets pretty swampy these days. The game’s main strength is its sense of humor. Mythos fans who can take a joke will be instantly entertained by the creepy-yet-cartoony artwork, which leans on an interesting buffet of Mythos tales. Readers will also recognize obscurer references to stories like “The House in the High Mist” and characters like Keziah Mason.

I downloaded a free version of the game on a tablet, which included the first half of the easy difficulty of campaign mode, as well as a tutorial and card gallery. Again, humor is the strongest thing here: The campaign’s story follows an IRS officer (and, yes, the IRS was newly minted in the 1920s, so points for historical accuracy) who becomes entangled in a war between Deep Ones and inmates at Arkham Asylum–his own sanity being guarded because his brain was trained to manage the maddening tax codes of the United States government.

I shelled out five bucks for the complete version of the game and was soon disappointed. The second half of the campaign was nowhere near as funny, and, for my fingers at least, the learning curve of the unlocked hard difficulty far too steep; I couldn’t tell if I was winning from skill or blind luck (hopefully both, but probably the latter). If you’re into stats, stats and more stats, maybe you’ll appreciate the brutal pace; for the more casual, comical or Cthulhu-esque card player, you’ll probably be fine with the free version.

Possibly the deepest of the bunch is French developer and digital big-man-on-campus Byook’s “The Moaning Words.” Sure, the name is terrible, but they’re French. You try creating a horror game in a foreign tongue and see how far you get. The gameplay itself is simple, a bit like tic-tac-toe with shoggoths, but this is the only game I’m reviewing here that lets you build your own deck, so there is a soft strategy to it.

Doesn’t sound like much, right? Well, “Words” has a secret weapon: Alan Dean Foster. Foster is the king of movie novelizations, the most literate pulp writer since Richard Matheson. If you don’t believe me, go read his adaptations of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” or Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” And his adaptations of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies? Well…we all make bad choices from time to time.

Anyway, sticking Foster on the script not only gives this game serious cosmic horror cred, it means that the campaign mode is pretty well done. Which is great for someone like me who plays games for a well crafted story. I don’t know if Foster also wrote the biographies of the cards in the card gallery, whoever did deserves some praise as well. Some cards are given a special section of background notes, which always features a quote by a relevant author (obviously, it’s usually Lovecraft), which adds to the depth. And it also doesn’t hurt that the art on the cards is pretty nicely done (I also played this game on a tablet).

This game is freemium: You can advance basically for free by waiting around for various features, like chapters in the campaign, items in the store and different modes of play, to be unlocked by time or chance, or you can make in app purchases. Your call, but remember–the gameplay isn’t deep, so you will probably want those features unlocked sooner or later to keep things interesting.

Interestingly enough, Cthulhu is far less present than you would think in these games. Only “Words” has a playable Cthulhu card; “Cthlhu Realms” just showcases his shadow, and “Necronomicon: Book of Dead Names” relegates him to an environmental element. He’s not even in the first “Necronomicon.” Seems like this Great Old One needs a better agent.

An alien sense of isolation: A critical analysis of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982)

It’s Independence Day weekend, and while one alien invasion flick crash lands at the box office, I find myself turning to something a little more classic (and a little more horror) as far as the sub-genre goes. I recently re-viewed director John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” which is, in my opinion, among the finest horror or science fiction films ever crafted, in part because it takes the best elements of both and utilizes them for scares. One of the themes from horror that the movie uses is the theme of isolation, here married to the concept of an alien threat.

There are multiple ways that the characters at Outpost 31 are isolated. They are, most obviously, physically isolated from the rest of humanity by the Antarctic landscape, and they are infamously isolated from each other even before the arrival of the alien. In the establishing shots of the base, people are mostly engaged in solitary activities: reading magazines, lost in headphones–even our hero, Macready (Kurt Russell), plays computer chess far from the other men. The closest we have to human interaction is two scientists who play a curiously silent game of ping pong.

Further, the men are also isolated in their own humanity by the alien presence in their midst, which is both unknown, being an extraterrestrial life-form (“It’s not cellular structure as we know it,” Blair (Wilford Brimley) notes during the autopsy) and one that robs human identity of its knowable nature. The scientists and staff at the outpost cannot trust the people around them to still be people (“Trust is a hard thing to come by these days,” Macready quips in one of the film’s more familiar lines), making each man a paranoid island unto himself. The men are also isolated from their more knowledgeable comrades, the Norwegian scientists, by language. The alien itself is alone–far removed from its planet and its fellow life-forms. But it’s not only the characters and creatures that are isolating factors.

In many works of literature and cinema, architecture represents the characters within (haunted Bly in “The Turn of the Screw” or decadent Xanadu in “Citizen Kane”). “The Thing” is no exception. Carpenter uses the camera to frame Outpost 31 as a facility that is far from populated. Repeatedly, slow tracking shots showcase the long, lonely hallways and empty rooms of the buildings. This visual motif replays throughout the film until is comes to represent the men within: Outpost 31 is just as empty and lonely as the human beings that inhabit it.

As the images isolate, the sounds on screen alienate. Ennio Morricone’s masterful score is as alien as the threat; the use of Bartok-esque strings and inhuman sounding synthesizers is slow, atmospheric, and utterly robs the audience of some of the louder tropes of horror film scores (it is certainly a far cry from Carpenter’s other films, which often feature a hard rock soundtrack from the director himself). Even during the explosive climax, where one would expect the soundtrack to ramp up and draw the audience into the action, is uncomfortably quiet and distant. But it’s what happens after the climax that might be the most isolating of all.

In most horror films, the appearance of another human being would signal a positive shift, but in “The Thing,” it’s far from comforting. When Childs (Keith David) appears from out of the night at the film’s conclusion, he does not represent a reunion with humanity for Macready; instead, he doubles up the isolation. While before Macready had been alone on the remains of the burning base, now he has to contend with a possibly inhuman foe. Too exhausted to react, Macready settles into himself, utterly isolated from a humanity that is 1,000 miles away and from the one man who is six feet in front of him.

That was fast: A critical review of “Penny Dreadful’s” series finale

While “Penny Dreadful” was not my favorite show, it was certainly something that I always enjoyed watching if only to see what writer-creator John Logan would do next. Somewhere between the talking Satan dolls and the characters being randomly reanimated or turned into werewolves, “Dreadful” was delightfully un-subtle. Normally this would have bothered me, but the show’s triumph was in atmosphere and theatrics, not in reality. In fact, given how much some shows struggle for (and fail to reach) a semblance of reality, it was kind of refreshing to watch something that was only interested in style.

And then it just kinda ended.

Like most fans of the series, I was a bit blindsided by the fact that this season would be the last. Even when one of the main characters died, there was still hope; it was not until the words “the end,” which had never graced an episode before, appeared on screen that we knew. Fan response to the realization has been mixed, from assertions of the move’s poetic brilliance to sentiments of outright betrayal on the part of the show’s creators and Showtime. Admittedly, Logan had taken a “scorched earth” tactic to writing in the season two finale, but this time around said tactic has been paired with enough loose ends and rushed writing to suggest a conspiracy on someone’s part.

Characters who were introduced in this season (Perdita Weeks’s Catriona Hartdegan, a kind of Hugh-Jackman-as-Van-Helsing leather-clad vampire huntress; Shazad Latif’s intriguingly hot ‘n’ cold Dr. Jekyll, who gets about six minutes of screen time) were given no development or backstory. It’s a trick the show has used before (remember Helen McCrory’s presence in season one compared to season two?), but with no fourth season in sight, the trick feels less like a trick and more like sloppy storytelling.

Given that “Dreadful” normally does things big, it was a bit strange when the end of the world, which the end of the season promised, seemed a bit more whimper than bang (I don’t blame director Paco Cabezas, who handled a few of the episodes of the third season and gives them all a suitably Gothic air). This end of the world all happens overnight, and yet the populace of London seems rather indifferent about it. On the one hand, dockworkers no longer show up because of the fog and plague and vampire infestation; on the other hand, doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein (the always affable Harry Treadaway) continue to work as if nothing is wrong. Until Ethan Chandler/Talbot (the eternally brooding Josh Hartnett) goes looking for Frankenstein, so the doctor appears ready for end of the world action, despite wolf boy never actually having talked to him.

And then the whole thing is resolved in a gun battle where the vampires, which had previously been vicious killing machines, transform into very effective bullet sponges, soaking up the collective violence of an assault team whose members include a middle-aged alienist (Patti LuPone) and a clumsy man child (that’d be Frankenstein), neither of whom dies in the ensuing slaughter (in fact, none of the main characters die…except for the one). I suppose said alienist is so effective at killing vampires because she murdered her husband when she was 20 years younger. That explains that.

Likewise, Dracula (an increasingly disappointing–or disappointingly used–Christian Camargo), who we spent three seasons building up as the worst thing on the material plane, slinks out of the finale without pausing to gloat at his escape. He’s just gone, as if he suddenly remembered he’d left some blood on the kitchen counter and needs to stash it back in the fridge before it goes bad.

To clarify, I didn’t mind the single aforementioned death; what I mind is the loose ends. In fact, the only ending that I found satisfying was the one for Dorian Gray (played pretty-yet-weary by Reeve Carney) and erstwhile bride of Frankenstein Lily (the fantastic Billie Piper–is her character’s name a “Munsters” reference? Did I just get that?); she just sort of wanders off and remains, framed like a painting, in his chilly mansion. For a show that was about the acceptance of death, it seems fitting that the characters that cannot die got the bleakest of endings.

Logan has defended his decision to end the show so suddenly, stating that he’s always planned the adventures of Vanessa Ives and her ragtag crew to be a three-season play. In short, he’s remaining true to his vision. That’s fine, but we must remain lucid. It is one thing to admire a writer for telling the story he chose to tell in the time he needs to tell it, especially in an age when there often is no act three, but rather a long, protracted act two that lasts for seasons on end; it is altogether another thing to admire a writer for telling a story well, something that Logan seems to have forgotten in his rush to finish up things when he wanted to finish them.

Is there artistry in grade-Z horror?: A critical review of “Cellar Dweller” (1988)

Why do people keep giving Jeffrey Combs copies of the “Necronomicon”? I know better. You know better. But some people just can’t figure this out. At least, this appears to be the dilemma at the start of “Cellar Dweller,” a late 80s, direct-to-video horror schlocker I found myself watching the other day on Comet TV (arguably my new favorite channel–it’s your one-stop-shop for cheesy horror). Before we’re through, the film will (inadvertently?) make some statements about art–and tally a body count.

Despite his high listing in the cast list, Jeffrey Combs is on screen for about six minutes, playing (the delightfully named) Colin Childress, a comic book artist who summons a monstrous creature–presumably the titular Cellar Dweller–with his sketches. Despite banishing the beast, Childress ends up killing someone and burning the basement down. Fast forward 30 years, and the house where Childress summoned the monster has become an artist retreat. Whitney Taylor (Debrah Farentino, “Storm of the Century”) heads to the retreat, which hosts a quirky cast of characters including Miranda Wilson as a nutty performance artist (I knew girls like that in college); Vince Edwards as a retired private detective who channels his experiences into detective fiction; Brian Robbins as a prerequisite 80s boytoy; and, most significantly, Pamela Bellwood as an old artistic rival and Yvone De Carlo (TV’s Lily Munster) as the no-nonsense head of the retreat. Taylor starts following in Childress’s footsteps and her drawings turn dangerous–when she draws people being gruesomely killed by the Cellar Dweller, those people end up being gruesomely killed by…well, you get it.

“Cellar Dweller” is no great shake. The transformations (there are a couple) are not good and the ending falls a little flat. However, the monster suit, while largely stationary, is good, the acting is decent and the script is not bad. It was written by Don Mancini (scripter of “Troll,” creator of the Chucky franchise and, most deliciously, writer of a few episodes of “Hannibal”), and the film feels a bit like an overlong episode of “Tales From the Crypt,” both in terms of scope and morality (Mancini would go on to pen at least one episode of the series). But the narrative is not the only thing that’s contained in the film.

It might be the fact that it was released direct-to-video, but “Cellar Dweller” has a claustrophobic element that works in its favor. Shots are not merely confined; they are curiously squared, as if director John Carl Buechler (“Troll” again and, later, a Friday the 13th franchise alum) tried to place the frames of the film in comic book panels. Even long shots are confined to squares. Look again at the shot of Taylor entering the artist’s colony–the straight lines of the trees make a stern border for the action. This comic book framing is important not just because of our protagonist’s profession, but also for the sake of the film’s definition of art.

The definition of art (one of my favorite philosophical subjects) is quite broad and inviting in “Cellar Dweller.” In the film, art can be painting, illustration, writing, performance and film. Mediums are also inclusive; at the retreat, artists work with canvas, comic books and cameras. What is art? “Cellar Dweller” takes a post-modern approach, suggesting that anything can be art given the way you do it (does that include “Cellar Dweller” itself?). But there is a trace of traditionalism. Over the course of the film, art appears to be what you feel and express–Taylor repeatedly talks about her desires spilling onto the page (and ending in the deaths of the a couple of her fellow artists). But Taylor is also in touch with some more primal force–the “imagination,” the Cellar Dweller itself proclaims. Far be it from me to apply Platonic theories of reality to “Cellar Dweller,” but it appears as though the film suggests that, to a certain degree, art comes from the inspiration given by a supernatural entity–what the ancients called genius.

All that said, is “Cellar Dweller” a good movie? No. But I think I’m something of a connoisseur of cheesy B-cinema. Some of it’s bad. Some of it’s so bad it’s good. And some of it approaches good. “Cellar Dweller” might just fall in to the latter category.

On showing and telling: A critical review of “It Follows” (2015)

It seems like every couple of years there’s some new movie that’s touted as the one that’s completely changed the rules of horror. In 2012, it was “Cabin in the Woods”; last year it was “It Follows,” which I caught on Showtime the other day.

I dislike that kind of thinking. It seems to suggest that there’s something wrong with horror as it is–that it needs saving. I think it’s telling that whenever there’s a film that’s given the distinction of “savior of horror,” it’s something that attempts intelligence or artistry. This is more than misguided; it’s demeaning. It leads back to the old notion of the mystery science ghetto–any horror film that attempts intelligence or artistry must be the one that’s going to save the genre because the genre is naturally stupid and artless. That’s nonsense; horror has as much potential for intelligence and artistry as any other genre.

“It Follows” is unquestionably an artsy movie. The film follows Jay (newly minted scream queeen Maika Monroe), a sexy teen who thinks she’s going to have sexy sex with her boyfriend (Jake Weary, looking like the world’s oldest high schooler); instead, he knocks her out, ties her to a chair and infects her with “it.” Basically, the titular “it” is a ghostly shape shifting entity that follows Jay around–always silent, slow moving and wearing white–that will kill her if it gets too close. Jay’s friends–including a standard dork with a crush (Keir Gilchrist)–go from doubting her sanity to increasingly desperate attempts to protect her from the invincible entity.

The film is certainly visually rewarding. The cinematography is pleasant and clean–and I mean that. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis have a penchant for setting up and focusing on interesting shots (the opening scene is essentially one shot and largely silent). The film also knows how to display color. While many indie horror films opt for a monochrome or limited palate, “It Follows” is refreshingly vibrant. So the film looks good. But is it smart? Well…

The atmosphere is the film’s strongest element. The environment is dream-like. No parents trouble the teens, and the architecture of the town rolls on like an eternal suburbia, bordered by a local beach and a village green. Bodies of water–a pool, a lake, another pool–act as grounding elements rather than street signs. There is also an untimely, decidedly retro feel to the film, from the props to the shots (and the score sounds like outtakes from 1979’s “Phantasm”). The entity is the most dream-like part of the film. It lopes in the distance, looking like someone different every time it turns a corner or disappears behind a door, or it simply stands and stares almost out of sight. The fact that other people can’t see it only adds to its dream-like mystique.

The subtext is quite well handled. Although the most common interpretation of the film is that the entity represents sexually transmitted diseases, it’s sexually suggestive in more than one way. The fear of intimacy, the cheapening of sex in modern society and even the inevitability of death are all wrapped inside the film’s symbolism. It works, for the most part, but there are flubs. For example, one wonders what’s up with the bottles of pills in the boyfriend’s hideout–if they’re meds, the film might be suggesting a psychological, rather than supernatural, explanation for its events, but this idea is never developed. Perhaps it is all simply about venereal disease, and the pills are a shot at the mercury cure?

Part of the problem is that the film is much more concerned with atmosphere than narrative. While I myself am more impressed by atmosphere than narrative, “It Follows” loses its way more than once, particularly with the monstrous entity that lurks at the periphery of the film.

“It Follows'” climactic pool scene might be a nod to the climax of the excellent “Let the Right One In,” but I prefer to think it’s a nod to Val Lewton and Jacques Tournier’s excellent “Cat People.” Despite working for RKO, Lewton behaved like an independent producer, so he’s an ideal idol for indie horror filmmakers everywhere–his tricks were designed to maximize psychological impact while minimizing budget. Much like “Cat People,” “It Follows” wants to hide its monster in the shadows. But while the poolside scene in “Cat People” kept the monster just out of shot and out of sight, in “It Follows,” as soon as we’re in the pool, the film starts showcasing its lack of visible monster is a very different way. Where before the monster was glimpses of out of place people, now we have teenagers shouting at what appears to be nothing…nothing that is throwing toasters.

A film has to be fairly comfortable with its monster to show it; it must be very comfortable not to show it. “It Follows” wants to have the best of both worlds. It can’t. I’m sorry if I’m nitpicking, but “It Follows” is such an earnest and well conceived attempt that it feels like it can handle some nitpicking. “It Follows” is a good looking and atmospheric and–dare I say it–a  fresh take on an old story. But its unsteady plot collapses in its final third. Two impressive thirds of a film do not a great film make, but those two thirds are impressive enough to demand attention.