Film review – Refuge

Cbq_dLcWAAAbBvTIf you’ve been around the blog long enough, you’ll know that I’m a sucker for an apocalyptic tale. Even though I tend to gravitate to zombies, I’m an equal opportunity end-of-the-world enthusiast.

In fact, having spent six years living in Beijing (with a population of over 20 million crammed into tight quarters), I really connect with storytellers who imagine the collapse of society as the product of disease rather than creatures. I was once on a Beijing bus so crowded that a man couldn’t help sneezing directly into my mouth. In addition to being terribly grossed out, I had the flu within 12 hours.

 

I also made the grand mistake of watching Contagion for the first time at the start of the 13 hour flight back to China. Halfway through the film I realized everyone around me was coughing and spitting into paper bags and I spent the next 12 hours very consciously trying not to touch my face.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that Refuge resonated with me in a very real way. The premise of the movie is that a so-called “Nightmare Superbug” resistant to antibiotics has spread globally, decimating the population. The country falls apart, and the only people left are those who have isolated themselves and avoided contact with the infected.

While I wouldn’t consider them spoilers, I am going to talk a bit about the characters and very general plot points. Keep this in mind as you read ahead.

REFUGE: Available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, Youtube & VOD on Comcast, Time Warner, Fios, etc. from Passerby Films on Vimeo.

Aside from a montage flashback during the opening credits that outlines the pandemic, the movie is set several years after the complete collapse of society. Survivors have been reduced to roving bands of scavengers, trying to glean whatever scraps of food and medicine are left in abandoned homes, all while continuing to protect themselves from coming into contact with any infected corpses.

In essence, Refuge is a movie about tribes. There are no lone wolves, no solitary hunters, but instead people have grouped themselves into what could be considered post-apocalyptic family units. Jack, Nell and their daughter Birdie are an actual biological family, with the supplementary addition of Kyle – an artist they took in and who serves as a secondary patriarch.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum you have a sort of hybrid of The Lost Boys and the Manson Family, a pack of young men who revel in violence and mayhem. Led by the cold, brutal, and arguably sociopathic Rez, they take whatever they want and kill indiscriminately. Russell is running with Rez’s crew, but it’s clear that he’s not on board with their methods. When he crashes his motorcycle trying to get away from them, Jack finds him in the road and takes him home to set his broken leg.

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Other groups cross their paths over the course of the movie, each categorized as being on either extreme side of this morality scale. It’s not necessarily new ground being covered here in terms of characters or themes, but that’s par for the course when it comes to exploring human nature. It’s not about coming up with a unique scenario, it’s about coming up with a unique approach to immersing the viewer in that scenario.

This movie’s approach immerses you fully, putting you right in the thick of things. You see, more than anything else, ambiance is what revs my horror engine. Refuge leans heavily on the sounds of an abandoned world – crickets chirping, leaves crunching underfoot, the labored sound of breath through a gas mask, papers rustling, wind pulling at branches – and all that natural atmosphere makes you as the viewer really feel the weight of the emptiness. The soundtrack weaves in between these sounds and amplifies their impact.

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The loyalty Jack’s family members (related and adopted, old and new) show to each other is fierce, and when they are not together the separation anxiety is real and intense. He can be a bit sharp, to the point where it feels almost cruel, but you get the impression that this is a well-honed survival reflex and his family understands and respects that. None of them seems to question why they press on, they just continue to live because living is what they do.

In my opinion, Refuge nails the pacing – not so much slow as it is deliberate, punctuated with moments of intensity. It is not an action-packed thriller in the traditional sense, but it still does have both action and thrills. For maximum effect, I’d recommend you watch it with the lights out, on a larger screen. If you’ve got surround sound, even better. It’s available to purchase VOD from a variety of services.

3.5/5 stars

Film review – It Follows

When I visited Detroit last summer, my first impression was that it would make an amazing setting for a horror movie. I’ve never driven through such a large city that seemed so empty, void of both cars and people. And it wasn’t just a regular kind of empty. It felt stuck in mid-stride, as if it were suddenly but calmly abandoned.

It Follows - Detroit

When I heard someone actually had filmed a horror movie in Detroit, I was instantly on board. Honestly, just knowing that Detroit was the backdrop for It Follows was enough for me to know that I was going to enjoy the film. It was really just icing on the cake when the critics started raving about its fresh take on the genre, although I’m generally wary about any piece of entertainment that comes to me pre-hyped.

The basic premise of the film is fairly simple, and is laid out right there for you in the title. There is some… force. It’s not clear exactly what it is, whether it’s a creature or a spirit or maybe just fear personified. Once you’ve been cursed (more on curse transmission in a moment), this unnamed thing follows you. If it catches up with you, it will kill you. The only way to get it to stop following you is to pass the curse on to another person. But even then, you’re really not safe, because if the person you infected is killed by this force, then it will turn its attention back to following and killing you.

I should pause and say that I’m going to discuss some plot details and cinematography. While I wouldn’t consider them spoilers, if you want to go into the theater knowing nothing else beyond the trailer, here is your point to stop reading. Just know that if you’re a fan of horror (in particular psychological horror) I would recommend you see it, and see it on the big screen.

Maika Monroe in It Follows

So, how exactly is this curse transmitted from person to person? Sex, naturally. I’ve been jokingly calling it an STD – Sexually Transmitted Demon. While it could come across as tired horror trope, there are a few reasons I think it doesn’t. For starters, there’s nothing gratuitous about any of the sex scenes. That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair amount of nudity in the film, but the nudity does not come from the people you would expect it from.

Second, while the characters are young they’re not teenagers (not all of them, anyway). They are not fumbling around, having their first sexual encounters. I think this is an important point, because your classic puritanical horror equates sex with loss of innocence but It Follows definitely does not. What it also does not do is introduce rape into the equation.

Jay (the main female protagonist, played expertly by Maika Monroe) is given this curse from a guy she’s been on several dates with. He doesn’t force himself on her, he woos her. He takes her out a few times and waits for her to initiate sex. It’s not exactly spelled out, but I get the distinct impression that consent is part of the package deal with passing along the curse. That, more than any other aspect of the sexual transmission, is why I would say that this movie is more than just groundbreaking horror – It’s mature horror.

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The other main reason to go see this film (and see it in the theater) is the unbelievably delicious ambiance. It’s due in part to the Detroit setting, but all the choices in cinematography really come together to create something new and exciting. Visually, what I like most about the movie is that it’s totally unclear when it is supposed to take place. The interior home shots could be right out of the late 70s – heavy shag carpeting; wood-paneled television sets with dials and antennae; melamine trays, bowls, tea pitchers and glasses; landline telephones with long spiral cords.

But then again, one of their friends spends the entirety of the film scrolling through The Idiot from an e-reader shaped like a clamshell compact. They drink beer out of modern pop-top cans, iced coffee from Starbucks-esque plastic cups. The cars are classic, the wardrobe both vintage and contemporary. There are no computers in their homes, and aside from the appearance of one in the opening scene, no cell phones in their pockets. It takes place now, and yet it doesn’t. It has no definitive place in time.

The other essential component to setting the mood is the stellar soundtrack. All of the music in the film was composed and performed by an artist named Disasterpeace, and the movie would not be what it is without his contribution. I think the most apt comparison would be Air’s soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides (honestly one of my favorite albums, soundtrack or otherwise). It’s the kind of music that causes the hairs on your arms to stand up, that crawls slowly into your ears and makes its way to your brain. The music is a huge part of what makes seeing the movie in the theater imperative.

Considering it started in very limited release (and only just got wider release from some larger theater chains last week) if I were you I would haul ass to a theater and see It Follows while it’s still available to watch on the big screen. The film isn’t perfect, but the plot flaws are minimal and in my opinion overshadowed by the enormity of the concept and the symphonic complexity of the execution.

4.5/5 stars