Last week I finally had the chance to view highly praised film It Follows, a supernatural horror story from writer/director David Robert Mitchell. I’ve written before about my admiration for the horror genre and my distaste for most horror films that have come out over the last few decades. It Follows is a welcome deviation from the current onslaught of torture-filled films loaded with cheap and predictable tricks (like the dreaded “pop out”.) While the material of Mitchell’s film may fall within the horror genre, certainly the execution goes beyond the conventions of the horror film, at times exploiting those very conventions, and at other times paying homage to some classics (particularly John Carpenter’s Halloween).
The plot involves a supernatural curse of which one can only rid themselves by passing it to someone else—how they pass it on, I won’t divulge. The film’s protagonist is Jay, a young college student and the latest prey of whatever “it” is that “follows.” Jay is stalked by an ever-changing entity (always resembling a human but never the same human) that only she can see. If she lets it catch her, it will kill her. Fortunately and conveniently for spookiness effect, it never runs as a rule. Jay’s options are a) to always outrun it or b) pass it to someone else.
No origin or reason for the curse is ever explained, but that doesn’t seem to be of much concern to David Robert Mitchell. I read that the idea for the film came from dreams he had as a child in which he was being stalked by unknown pursuers. Certainly the film’s ambiguous setting reinforces the dreamlike, or nightmarish, quality of the story. Shot in Detroit, Michigan, the cinematography manages to achieve an eerie, surreal atmosphere while maintaining some semblance of a recognizable reality. That reality is at times anachronistic. It’s a film where cell phones exist, but are rarely used. Where characters watch black and white horror films on 1970s-style television sets. We don’t really know when this taking place, or where. It’s a world very much like our own but just slightly different. At times I expected Rod Serling to make an appearence and explain that Jay was being followed into the far reaches…of the Twilight Zone.
To further increase the surreal nature of the story, parental and authority figures are noticeably absent in the film. Jay’s mother is spotted in one scene but her lack of interaction with her daughters actually draws more attention to her. After that scene, she is never seen again, even after her daughter is drugged in one scene, hospitalized in another, or when their neighbor is murdered. In an early scene, a cop questions Jay about a traumatic incident. After that, we don’t encounter any more cops, even as Jay and her friends conduct their own investigation. If Mitchell wanted to truly embrace this universe where his victims are left entirely to fend for himself, he might’ve left out these authority figures entirely.
Many comparisons have been made between It Follows and John Carpenter’s Halloween, from the mid-west suburban setting, to the cinemagraphic techniques reminiscent of the New Hollywood era. Mitchell does a fine job of paying homage to the horror genre without spoofing it in the way that films like Scream have. The horror genre has trained viewers as to what to expect perhaps more than any other genre. The oft-used “jump scare” has become so common that we can almost predict when they’ll happen, and Mitchell exploits this to great effect. While the film only contains a few jump-scares, Mitchell seems to know that we are trained to expect them, and lets the anticipation of the jump scare frighten us, rather than the troupe itself, which is significantly more nerve-wracking.
Also like John Carpenter’s Halloween, It Follows contains a moody and highly original soundtrack by Disasterpiece. It’s my belief that a catchy and repetitive score will keep a film secure in a viewer’s memory. Great horror films, from Psycho to The Exorcist to Halloween to A Nightmare on Elm Street have scores that we immediately associate with their respective films. That being said, Disasterpiece’s heavy electronic score, while effective in some parts, sometimes takes away from the surreal tone of the film. I’m also of the school of thought that in most cases, particularly in disturbing scenes, having no musical score is much more effective. Some key scenes in It Follows might have been a bit more chilling without the overbearing soundtrack.
It Follows certainly stands out from most recent horror films, but like most unique additions to the genre, it will probably spawn a series of progressively more violent and outlandish sequels or prequels (It Follows: The Origins?). That’s fine. Even Psycho has spawned sequels, remakes, and a television show. Hopefully, the sleeper-hit status that It Follows has achieved will continue and will signal a much-needed refresher to a genre that is very rarely taken seriously anymore.Read More