It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell)

Posted: April 2, 2015 in Uncategorized

I see a lot of movies. A LOT.  However, it almost never see a film more than once in the theater.  The last time I saw a film twice in theaters was way back in 2004.  Now, 11 years later, another film compelled me to view it in theaters more than once.  That film is “It Follows”, and it is the best American horror film in at least a decade.  While the French and the South Koreans have been turning in phenomenal work like “Martyrs” and “I Saw the Devil”, America has largely been concerned with churning out either remakes/reboots of previous high points in the genre, or pumping out reams of PG-13 shit (“Ouija” and “The Lazarus Effect” anyone?)  When America does make a good horror film, it’s usually coming out of indie films, like “A Horrible Way to Die”.  Sadly, it seems that good horror films nowadays simply go straight to VOD, leaving the only horror films that garner the attention and prestige of a theatrical release to be the studio garbage that is pumped out to scare ignorant 13-year-olds who don’t know what good horror is.  The dark days of the shitty PG-13 J-horror remakes gave way to the better but uneven rise of Torture Horror (I refuse to call them Torture Porn as I think that label is inaccurate and disrespectful to the good films that have often come under that label. Frankly, only “The Passion of the Christ” truly fits the label of Torture Porn for films released during that time period, and it’s not supposed to be considered a horror film), but now we seem back in an age when people consider “Insidious” to a be a good horror film and we have a “Poltergeist” remake to look forward to this summer.

From the darkness of the modern American horrorscape, there is a light, and that light is called “It Follows”.  After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival (unusual for a horror film to premiere at the artsy showcase), “It Follows” garnered unusually spectacular reviews for a horror film these days. As I write this, the film stands at 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Despite the accolades, this film too was going to merely get a perfunctory limited release in theaters before being dumped onto VOD where it may have made a profit, but  it would have likely been dismissed and forgotten by all but those who rigorously follow movies, and horror movies in particular.  Well, to the surprise and delight of many, the film did great business in limited release, the VOD release was postponed, and now “It Follows” has been given the wide theatrical release it deserved, but lately has been reserved for only the shittiest pieces of crap Hollywood can be bothered to deliver to horror fans.

The film is a brilliant, multilayered examination of aging and human mortality.  While all horror films, to a certain extent, are about death, “It Follows” is ABOUT death.  For members of the audience who are a bit denser, the film takes the trouble to read us quotes from Dostoyevsky’s “The idiot” to spell it out for us in case we’re missing anything. The entire film is a metaphor for how human beings deal with their impending and certain death.  We all die, and we have the knowledge that we will die.  We don’t know when it will come for us, or what form it will take (cancer, a car accident, heart attack, et. al.) but eventually it will get us.  We can let the knowledge depress us, leading one curling up in a ball, hunkering down, and wallowing and sadness.  Or maybe, just maybe, we can stop being afraid because there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it, and we can live.

The plot revolves around Jay (Maika Monroe), who may seem to be your prototypical horror blonde, but she is neither virginal heroine nor whore.  She’s just a girl.  One night she has a date with Hugh (Jake Weary) and while he acts a little strange, it’s nothing that is completely off-putting to Jay. On a later date they end up having sex, after which Hugh chloroforms her, and she wakes up tied to a wheelchair.  That’s when Hugh explains that he has some sort of curse. He had a one night stand and it was passed on to him, and now he’s passed it on to her. The curse results in a figure who can take the form of seemingly any other person, and will follow the person cursed until it can kill them. If it succeeds, it continues to move down the line of succession to the last person who had the curse, until presumably it would reach the first person, whoever that may be.  The figure can’t run, but it can walk, and apparently stand still, so it can easily be outrun, or driving can put some distance between you that the figure has to cover on foot.  Still, it will keep coming after you until it kills you, or you have sex without someone else and pass the curse on…but then if they kill that person, they’ll still come after you next.  Even if you think you’re safe, you’ll constantly be looking over your shoulder.  Oh, and only people in the line of succession of the curse can see the figure, but the figure does occupy some sort of physical space, as people not in the line of succession can touch it or attempt to inflict injury to it.

Let’s stop for a moment to talk about how brilliant this concept is. While playing with the common slasher archetype of a slowly walking killer who doesn’t speak and can’t be reasoned with (and seemingly has no motive) the film has created a mythology that allows this archetype to work without seeming silly (there’s no real reason Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees can’t run).  The figure is a metaphor for death itself: it can take many forms, even if you can see it coming it doesn’t necessarily do you any good, and if you’re not prepared for it (if no one’s told you the rules to the curse) it can be brutal and strike without warning.  No matter what, it doesn’t stop coming for you.  You can try to prolong it (one imagines flying to a different continent…presumably the figure could hop on a boat and stand still until it reaches the shore), but in the end it will get you.  Even if it (meaning the figure) doesn’t get you, something else might.  In one scene, Jay attempts to drive away from the figure only to almost die in a car accident.  It’s like quitting smoking to avoid cancer only to have a piano dropped on you.  The slow approach of death, both as mythology and as metaphor, corrects the absurdity of a common trope of the slasher genre. Brilliant.

Aside from being about death generally, the film is a lot about the inevitable march of time, and aging.  The figure often takes the form of various characters’ parents.  The transmission of the curse is through sex, and while a surface examination of the film might lead people to read this as a simplistic allegory for STDs, the real reason sex seems to be the vehicle of transmission is because we as a culture view sex, correctly or not, as a line of demarcation between childhood and adulthood.  While we may all be doomed to die the minute we’re born, it’s around adolescence or early adulthood that our concerns about life, and what we’ll do for the rest of it, start to kick in, and it’s around this time that the vast majority of us lose our virginities.  Hugh, early in the film, plays a game with Jay wherein Jay asks him to pick anyone in the crowd that he would trade places with, and Jay has to guess. After she fails to guess correctly, Hugh reveals he chose a little boy, about 9 years old.  “He has his whole life ahead of him.”  When Jay points out that Hugh is only 21, Hugh acknowledges he is still young but, well, the innocence and ignorance of childhood is lost.

Often in the film, characters retreat to the safety of their childhood or general childhood comforts: playing the card game Old Maid, eating ice cream from a local ice cream shop, paging through nudie magazines, escaping to a child’s playground and sitting on the swing set, reminiscing fondly about nostalgic moments of their youth.  The characters are constantly looking backward, and have a malaise about their present.  Shortly after Jay and Hugh have sex, Jay talks, mostly to herself, about being a little girl and dreaming of having a boyfriend who would take her on a drive in his car.  Now that she’s grown up and can have a boyfriend, the dream is no longer there. “Where would we go?” she asks.  What she doesn’t realize, and perhaps most of us don’t realize, is that the answer is ANYWHERE. You can do anything.  You’re alive.

As perhaps both a visual cue to the characters backward-looking ways, and as homage to the great horror films of the 1970s, the film has a visual style that evokes that of the late 1970s.  Aside from one cell phone and one odd device that seems to be a seashell e-reader, almost set and prop in this film is vintage. Wall phones with cords, tube TVs, and tacky wallpaper abound in the universe of this film.  It looks like the production designer and set decorator spent their entire budget at thrift stores, flea markets, and antique shops.  When shot in sharp, crisp digital film, the result is a breathtakingly beautiful film.  That’s before we even notice the striking visuals delivered to us by director David Robert Mitchell.  Mitchell has directed one other previous film, unseen by me, and it is a coming of age film called “The Myth of the American Sleepover”.  “It Follows” too is a kind of coming of age film, or rather a film about the resistance to come of age.  With this film, Mitchell finds ways of keeping the camera moving fluidly, just a bit slower than a whip pan, as well as locking off the camera on a rig and letting the rig (whether it’s attached to a wheelchair or the backseat of a car) either keep us steady as the action’s moving, or keep us moving while the action is steady.  There are a ton of virtuoso shots in this film that are STUNNING to behold if you know anything about directing or cinematography. Kudos to DP Mike Gioulakis for filming such a beautiful-looking film that has the color palate and scope framing of a cheap 70s horror film and making it look both retro and modern and gorgeous all at once.

The score, my word, the score of this film is MARVELOUS!  Evoking the synth scores of John Carpenter, not to mention Goblin’s scores on Argento’s films, the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” score, and the music of Tangerine Dream, the music of this film perfectly fits the appropriate mood, at times dreamlike and at other times so tense it causes your heart to beat rapidly just from hearing it.  The score if by a man who calls himself Disasterpiece, and hearing the music is one of the reasons why it is imperative to see the film in theaters. Watching this film at home, but especially HEARING this film at home, will simply not do the film or your viewing experience justice. This is one of the best horror films scores in years, and certainly the best since at least Charlie Clouser’s closing theme from the original “Saw”.

I feel I should cut the review short; otherwise I won’t shut up about the film.  Yes, a lot of people will merely see the film taking the old sex-equals-death trope of horror films and making it literal, but those people are myopic plebeians who can’t see past the surface of things. Sex is the HOW of this film, it is not the WHAT. Hell, at least three sexual encounters that most assuredly happen in this film happen off-screen, and the other three are unerotic and matter-of-fact. Sex is the medium, not the message.

The film plays with conventions like the slowly moving killer and the sex-equals-death thing, but makes them necessary and not-moralizing by creating a mythology which makes them necessary components.  We also have some tropes of not the just horror genre, but the coming-of-age genre.  We have a nerdy character, Paul (Keir Gilchrist) who has a thing for Jay, but Jay doesn’t sleep with him when she first decides to pass it on.  She sleeps with the hunky guy across the street, Greg (Daniel Zovatto).  In this film, however, it is not the misogynist idea that girls only fall for assholes and not the nice guy right in front of them.  Instead, it has the practical aspect of wanting the curse to be as many degrees of separation from you as possible, so it makes sense to pass it to someone who can get easily laid, which nerdy Paul cannot.  Also, it has an aspect of caring about Paul more. After all, if she doesn’t sleep with him, he’s not cursed, and doesn’t have to be saddled with the burden.  While many films show sex as equaling caring, or being a reward for being the good guy in the end, in this film NOT having sex is showing caring.

Look, there will be people who don’t get this film and think it is stupid.  If you meet those people, it is they who are stupid, and they should be ridiculed and made to feel bad for their stupidity.  It’s because of those people that we’re stuck with PG-13 films that think jump scares are the same as actually being scared.  “It Follows” makes a person walking slowly in broad daylight scary.

“It Follows” is the first great film of 2015, it is the best American horror film in at least a decade, and it is a deep, breathtaking, beautiful, thought-provoking, virtuoso film.  Go see it! A.

*NOTE*

I first saw this film on a Saturday night at 10:25PM.  The experience was hampered by a row of teenagers behind me who would not shut up, even after I turned to them and told them “Shut the fuck up.”  The fact that I loved the film despite being distracted, angry, and annoyed is a testament to how damn good this film really is.  The second time I saw it was a matinee on a Thursday, no one talked, and I caught things I had missed the first time because of the punks behind me. People who talk during movies are one of the lowest forms of human scum imaginable.

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