Tuesday, March 31, 2015

It Follows: Never Go Anywhere With Only One Exit

Maika Monroe in David Robert Mitchell's It Follows.

It Follows is based on a very simple premise: make an unlucky choice of whom to sleep with, and it will begin to follow you. It might look like someone you know or love, or it might be a stranger. It comes directly at you, at a walking pace. Only you can see it. Wherever you are, it’s somewhere out there, walking straight towards you, and it never, ever stops. With gorgeous cinematography, a brilliantly intense score, and masterful direction from David Robert Mitchell, It Follows is a profane homage to ‘80s horror fare – a grotesquely vulgar love letter written in beautiful calligraphy.

The film doesn’t bother explaining what I hesitate to call its “supernatural” elements. It really doesn’t matter what “it” is: it’s coming for you, as surely as death itself, inexorable and unhurried as a Terminator – but resembling less a hulking Austrian automaton and more the stuff of your most private nightmares. Mitchell coaxes fright after gigantic fright out of this unsophisticated setup through careful pacing and a youthful star (Maika Monroe) who is wonderfully magnetic. Monroe plays Jay, a Detroit teen who is thrilled to spend time with her new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) until he reveals that he has an ulterior motive for seeking her affections: he is desperate to rid himself of the thing that follows him by passing it on to her. The rest of the film is an orgy of suspense, with scene after thrilling scene in which Jay and her friends, childhood flame Paul (Keir Gilchrist), jaded social fixture Yara (Olivia Luccardi), neighbourhood hunk Greg (Daniel Zovatto), and younger sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), attempt to survive the invisible affliction that haunts her.

It Follows is clearly inspired by the pulpy horror tropes of films like 1979’s Halloween (in fact, Mitchell has noted John Carpenter and George Romero as direct influences), doffing its hat to these classic techniques, and then neatly subverting them, or playing them so straight and so effectively that they seem new and fresh again. The film is full of “don’t go in there” panic, designed to make you shout at the screen, but in effect it’s nowhere near as tired and trite as that description might suggest. There’s an undercurrent of constant dread, because the characters know just as acutely as we do that they might be safe for a few minutes, but somewhere out there – in the woods, on a sidewalk, in a parking lot – it’s making a beeline straight for them. This makes for a profusely suspenseful experience, with agonizing stretches of tension as Jay moves toward the source of a mysterious noise, or the camera begins a painful, dead-steady zoom on something we know we don’t want to see. Mitchell sets his scenes in public places and fills the frame with extras, in which the thing inevitably appears, walking dead into the lens, until the background of every single shot becomes a source of anxious tension. These elongated edge-of-your-seat sequences are suspended over the thrumming electronic pulses of Rich Vreeland’s score, which might have been composed by Carpenter himself – it’s just as reminiscent of the synthesized soundtrack work on his own films, and just as deeply connected to the intensity of the experience.

Maika Monroe, Lili Sepe and Daniel Zovatto in It Follows.

But what really lies at the heart of the film’s relentless dread isn’t the slow-walking monster, it’s the existential ennui of being a teenager – the antsy dissatisfaction of youth, and the sexual anxiety that comes with it. The film seems out of time, with teens languidly staring at cathode-ray tube televisions or talking on touch-tone phones, in environments that could be purposely set in the late 1980s or simply stuck there, the way your aunt’s house never seems to change. To take it a step further, the film’s technical experimentation with perspective – the widescreen styling that Mitchell so skillfully employs, that communicates the feeling of watching, and of being watched – mirrors the perspective that changes between characters: those who can see the thing, and those who can’t. The strangely timeless setting might even be a reflection of the jaded perspective of youth, from which these teens pine for a bygone decade they were too young to experience. Their dialogue is crisp and pleasantly unaffected, and they never blurt out awkwardly-placed slang or show any signs of speaking “written” words (although the opposite is true – Mitchell simply has both a good ear for naturalistic dialogue and the good sense to allow his actors to ad-lib). After Jay sleeps with her new squeeze at the film’s outset, she leans out the car door and waxes nostalgic on the dreams she used to have about what her first date might be like. It’s a heartfelt moment that, of course, is almost instantly tainted, and speaks volumes to the film’s thematic jabs at both the changing perspectives of a person growing up, and the primal sexual terror that lurks in their subconscious.

“The motif of harmful sensation” is a concept used in fiction that describes innocuous, everyday things that are corrupted into something terrifying. My favourite horror films, like Ring (1998) or Rosemary’s Baby (1968), do this with the things we take for granted, like a common household television, or the sweet old couple in the next apartment over. In this way, they can extend their unsettling effect beyond the threshold of the theatre doors – soon you’ll look at every television with a suspicious eye, waiting for it to break into sudden static, or regard your neighbours with unwarranted mistrust. But It Follows has me craning my neck at every person around me, and frightened to walk along city sidewalks, for fear of noticing someone coming my way. It has injected me with such a potent dose of paranoia that I feel I must recommend it as highly as any of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen. It seems, even in a small way, that I too have been cursed – and my only recourse is to pass it on.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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