David Robert Mitchell, 2013, USA
The thing that is winning about ‘It Follows’, considering its peers, is that it’s evident from the start that the aesthetic will be an antidote to the James Wan “jump-scare” or the Eli Roth “gross’em out!”vision of horror. Some of the promotion monopolises the most obvious horror image of an attractive young woman tied and sobbing and terrified in a wheelchair, which makes it look like we’re in for another variation of the so-called torture-porn sub-genre. But this moment is over early in the film and provides exposition and no escalating degradation of this woman. This is not that film.
Director David Robert Mitchell goes for a more art-house aesthetic, which in this case means a deliberate pace and that each shot feels designed and Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography give it all glossy fashion-mag sheen - and the promotion also stresses this, some looking like retro-car ads. The first corpse we see is like an extreme fashion shoot that might appear on I hurt I Am In Fashion. But in this case, this isn’t meant as a criticism. It means the incidental shots become just as memorable as, if not even more so than the traditional genre shots. By importing each shot with visual importance also goes a fair way to creating dread (is this shot important? will the threat manifest here –and from where?). One can see the influence of John Carpenter easily. Speaking of which, Disasterpiece’s music does an agreeable job of that retro-80s synth-score even if by now that trick is old hat.*
Yet it is this calculation that Chuck Bowen feels stops the film from truly being free from its influences and he has a point: there is a sense of a film always pointing at what it is doing and what it is not doing, lacking the visceral ingredient that allows the audience to determine for themselves its virtues. It is reaching for greatness, but self-consciously so. Perhaps this is the hurdle to walking away with the unequivocal feeling that this is one of the greats.
However, there is so much to appreciate here, so much that Mitchell gets right. The deliberate pacing, for example, allows for rendering of the bored, languid spells that all close friendships share. The characters aren’t allowed to trumpet themselves abruptly as types because their milieu is too indifferent to that. It’s not that they aren’t as attractive as some ‘Final Destination’ troupe but the tone underplays: it doesn’t rely on petty arguments for characterisation. In fact, these potential victims feel refreshingly vulnerable and unsure in their decision-making. The finale pool scene confrontation will never top that of ‘Let The Right One In’ (what can?) but it is a sturdy contender where our protagonists think they are being clever in their plan to reveal and destroy their stalker but find they have only supplied it with weapons.
‘It Follows’ derives its themes from that staple of the horror genre, fear of youths having sex. To this end, when Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex and acquires the threat, afterwards it feels coded in the language and visual signifies of a rape. When the local kid spies on Jay, its lack of youth-comedy hi-jinx context just leaves it a little creepy and disturbing. The supernatural threat takes the form of a sexually transmitted disease: once you have it, you’re in danger of death; the line between sex and mortality is clear. Has a film ever worked so hard to truly take the fun out of sex (without shock tactics and rape-threats, I mean)? In this sense it’s more like Todd Solondz’s ‘Happiness’ than ‘Friday the 13th’. But it’s far more respectful than that, forgoing cheap titillation and a sleazy underbelly that the premise might suggest. So it doesn’t need to commit to an it’s not really over ending because it’s about the fear of pending death, just walking towards you.
The question that our survivors seem left with is: Did our fucking stall death, which is always creeping up on us? And in that sense, it gets close to the heart of a whole genre.
* I’m aware that most people’s influence on this is Cliff Martinez’s score for Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’, but my first exposure to this trend in film score’s was Rob’s sublime score for Franck Kaulfoun’s ‘Maniac’ (2012). That first blast of synths was exhilarating and unforgettable. Of course, it has now become a standard trope.