There’s a textbook rule in teen horror movies. Do. Not. Have. Sex. If. You. Want. To. Survive. Which is why it was so refreshing when indie director David Robert Mitchell upended expectation in his second feature, 2015’s cult hit It Follows.
The movie saw Jay (Maika Monroe) catch a supernatural STD after sleeping with her boyfriend, then be pursued by a murderous shape-shifting demon.
In the know, the boyfriend chose to pass on the STD deliberately, leaving Jay with the same dilemma he had. She can pass it on to someone else if she’s willing to damn them via sex.
A clever examination of sexual dynamics, it was roundly celebrated as an empowering feminist fightback and a bloody great horror movie to boot.
Which is part of the reason some critics are miffed with Mitchell’s follow up, Under the Silver Lake.
A creepy LA noir set in in the current day but soaked in old Hollywood gold and ’90s grunge nostalgia, Under the Silver Lake’s sidelining of disposable female characters with almost zero agency and practically no lines may well be a comment on La La Land’s worst behaviours, but isn’t that just perpetuating the problem?
Instead it’s all about Sam, an out-of-work and increasingly paranoid slacker played by The Amazing Spider-Man’s Andrew Garfield.
He mostly perves on his older, perma-topless, bird-loving neighbour (Wendy Vanden Heuvel) through binoculars.
Just in case you missed the nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, there’s a poster of it on Sam’s wall.
He’s pleasantly distracted by the arrival of new neighbour Sarah, played by The Girlfriend Experience’s Riley Keough, Elvis Presley’s eldest grandchild.
Her hot dip in the pool uncannily resembles Marilyn Monroe in her final, unfinished movie, George Cukor’s Something’s Got to Give.
They seem to hit it off, but her overnight disappearance sparks an eerie odyssey across the city with Sam searching for secret signs and fleeing from urban legends as he obsessively attempts to find out whatever happened to her.
Channelling David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as much as it does Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novels, Under the Silver Lake was slammed by The Observer’s critic Simran Hans as “too self-indulgent to be praised as parody, let alone an effective critique of its boring protagonist”.
Noting his was “not a popular opinion”, American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis – a divisive figure himself – weighed in on Twitter: “David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake is the most interesting, ambitious and funniest American movie of 2019 I’ve seen so far.”
This critic falls somewhere in the middle.
Sure, it looks gorgeous, the movie callouts are a geek’s treat and it features an unnervingly brilliant ’50s thriller-like string score from Disasterpeace plus fantastic swooping camera shots that would make Hitchcock proud.
But it’s also stuffed with far too many ideas that amount to not very much at all.
Riveting for about 90 minutes, Sam’s oddball quest is increasingly indulgent to the point of exasperation by two hours and 20.
Some of it stinks like the skunk that sprays Sam at one unfortunate stage.
Lost in release limbo for over a year after its Cannes debut, Under the Silver Lake may yet turn into a cult midnight movie.
If only Mitchell had broken the rules again, instead of mimicking superior classics.
Under the Silver Lake is screening in select cinemas nationally