“There is no delight the equal of dread.”
Clive Barker, Dread, Books of Blood, Volume Two
It Follows begins in quiet, leafy suburbia. The camera’s viewpoint is low, the angle wide, the composition carefully symmetrical. The audience has a clear view of the sidewalks, gardens and porches lining the street. It is an entirely unremarkable and middle-class idyll familiar from so many films and so pleasantly anonymous that it could be anywhere in the US.
Ripples of disquiet trouble the calm when a teenage girl suddenly runs into the frame. Clearly in a state of panic and emotional distress, she appears to be in flight from a threat as yet unseen.
An adult voice, a neighbour working in their garden, asks if she is okay.
She runs one way, then the other.
She runs across the street. Her father approaches her but she flees in terror.
She runs into a house, then she runs out of the house. Her panic increases exponentially.
Dressed in underwear and in front of some confused onlookers, she backs a car out of the driveway and races away at speed.
This arresting opening, like much of the film to come, sees writer/director David Robert Mitchell take routine genre notes and play them back to us slightly off-key, making what should be familiar seem strange.
We are given no introduction to this girl; we don’t know why she is acting this way. It’s daylight, there are no shadows to hide in. We can see no threat, the camera does not assume a ‘killer’ point of view. There is no machete-wielding manic, no caped vampire, no shambling zombie, no froth-jawed monster in pursuit. The focus is entirely on an apparent ‘victim’, but of what?
The scene is confusing. The camera movements; the blaring and insistent electronic score; the actions of the apparent protagonist; all these loudly declaim ‘horror movie!’ However, without a defined threat the audience must compensate for its absence. And this mental action creates one of the most precious and sadly undervalued pleasures of the genre: the anticipation of fear, the delight that is dread.
It Follows is built on a very simple concept, a twist on the device used by M.R. James 1911 short story Casting the Runes, and subsequently in Jacques Tourneur’s brilliant 1957 adaptation Night of the Demon, that of a lethal curse passed to an unwitting victim which will result in their death after a set period of time has passed. Unless they can also pass it on.
After creating an unnerving and discombobulating sense of the unnatural in the opening scene, Mitchell steers the film into the warmer waters of the teen movie, establishing nineteen year old Jay as the protagonist. She is played by the excellent Maika Monroe, who has genre form following last year’s The Guest. Jay has a small group of close friends, but is dating a new guy they haven’t met, the slightly older Hugh (Jake Weary). After a courting period, their relationship becomes sexual and this is where the problems start, because this is how Hugh passes a lethal curse to Jay.
In a sustained and brilliant sequence of terrorisation, rather than a post-coital cuddle Jay wakes up strapped to a wheelchair and Hugh explains the rules. She is now being followed, ‘it’ can take the form of anyone and it is now out there heading straight for her with malicious intent. It never runs, it only walks, but it never stops. The only way to survive is to put distance between her and it, and to pass on the curse by having sex with another. The curse can only be deferred and never dispelled. If it catches and kills her, the curse passes back to Hugh. If it catches Hugh, it passes back to the one-night-stand who passed it to him. And so on, and so on, like a domino run.
What you want to know is “is it scary?”
Well I can’t tell you that, I have found horror to be quite subjective (I was mostly bored by The Conjuring which seems to have worked like gangbusters for other people). What I can tell you is that in a packed press screening, surrounded by other blogger types, there was a point at which I curled up in my seat and whimpered in terror.
So, my answer is yes, I think It Follows is scary. Other opinions are available.
Beautifully shot by Mike Gioulakis, the film takes as much of its visual style from the photographic artist Gregory Crewdson and his unsettling visions of American suburbia as it does from the fluid roving shooting style of John Carpenter. The score by Disasterpiece (a musician more known for his videogame music than film works) also has a strong Carpenter vibe, although I also detected a strong whiff of Howard Shore’s early downbeat scores for David Cronenberg films such as The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome
Where much current horror is predicated on fast cutting and sudden cat scares so regular they become monotonous and dull (see the dreadful Woman in Black: The Angel of Death for a recent example) Mitchell freshens up the formula by slowing things down. It Follows has a number of scenes where a threat is identified, and then brought closer, and closer, and closer, but very, very slowly. The effect is to create a hypnagogic nightmare, a dream state where the mind is conscious but the body paralysed.
Understandably the premise sounds reactionary and conservative, but to see this deceptively simple film as a pure anti-sex metaphor is to undersell it. A reductive ‘conservative’ reading of the film is mitigated and complicated by a number of factors.
First is Jay herself, a teenage female character significantly more complex and three dimensional than is common in horror movies (or, indeed, movies). This needs to be said right off the bat, Jay does nothing wrong in sleeping with Hugh. He seems nice, he doesn’t pressure her, they go to see Cary Grant movies, the sexual activity is part of the progress of a relationship (at least to Jay).
When faced with dealing with the curse that has been inflicted upon her, Jay’s actions are predicated on moral considerations and crucially she involves a circle of friends as a support network. No one in the film judges her, and the film does not invite judgement upon her. In my view, to see the picture as purely conservative is to tacitly endorse a ‘victim blaming’ narrative.
There is a very on-the-nose line from Hugh when confronted later in the film where he shrugs at Jay’s predicament in apparently genuine incomprehension, and tells her to just sleep with someone, ‘it shouldn’t be hard, you’re a girl!’ What is interesting about Jay is that she consciously rejects and resists repeating Hugh’s course of action and passing the curse to another unwitting subject.
Then there is the film’s extraordinary sense of place and highly specific social milieu. Despite initial appearances, the film is not set in anonymous suburbs, it takes place in Detroit a former industrial city ravaged by urban blight and sharply divided along class and racial divides. The film does not make this explicit, but as the plot progresses and Jay and her friends are forced to put distance between them and the pursuing ‘it’ they must move out of their affluent suburb into areas of ever more obvious deprivation. Several scenes take place in eerily depopulated areas of boarded up houses and empty stores.
Coupled with this is the strange absence of adults. Jay’s mother is often referred to, but only seen from oblique angles; a teacher quoting The Love Song of J. Arthur Prufrock is glimpsed but then the roving camera places her out of the frame and she become a disembodied voice. On the rare occasions adults are seen frontally in close ups, they are the avatars of ‘it’. This is a film in which the teenage characters are cast adrift, ignored by an adult society responsible for a financial and social collapse that has created an empty vacuous world. Nature abhors a vacuum, and something dark and nasty has moved in.
All of this is implied and ambiguous. In fact a reductive and conservative reading of the film’s message as ‘DON’T EVER HAVE SEX!!!’ may be valid. However this is also to the film’s strength. Ambiguity and mystery invited further investigation, and It Follows is surely to become a future cult item to be obsessed over.