Computer-generated imagery, darkness, claustrophobia, jump-scares and loud music – these are just some of the components that mix to formulate a conventional horror film of the 21st century. The aforementioned ingredients are overindulged and rinsed by contemporary horror filmmakers to the point where their films are becoming utterly predictable, widely tedious and, frankly, pointless. Occasionally, however, rarities occur that challenge these genre conventions and provide audiences with a certain unique originality that was last prominent during the great 1980s. A few years ago it was A Cabin in the Woods that possessed this quality, now, in 2015, it’s It Follows.
Having been raised in a period of oozing Hollywood-modernist cinema that saw the uprising of monumental late-1970s and 80s horror films such as The Shining, The Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street and John Carpenter masterpieces, Halloween and The Thing, writer-director David Robert Mitchell has clearly been inspired by these and arguably owes them a great debt. So, with the retro-80s set, costume and quite superb score in mind, is it any coincidence that Mitchell has centred It Follows in this ground-breaking period of horror?
At first glance, the storyline is coherent, conventional of the horror genre and at times, a little wobbly. Having purposefully being passed a sexually transmitted curse by her using, so-called boyfriend, Jay (Maika Monroe) finds herself slowly pursued at walking pace by a deadly supernatural shape-shifter that can take the form of anybody, whether Jay knows them or not. Throughout the film, Jay is either evading the unstoppable antagonist with her group of trusty friends or passing the curse onto somebody else. How to pass it on? Sleep with somebody else and hope they stay alive, otherwise, as Hugh mentions in the film, it “goes straight down the line to whoever started it.”
It Follows is all about the experience. Although its plotline is comprehendible, the film’s profoundly-allegorical inner-meaning is what makes it ambiguous and, to some, slightly perplexing. Many have interpreted the storyline as an allegory for the arrival of AIDs, and in fairness, this does actually add up when considering the correlations between the period It Follows is based in and when AIDs became prominent. To a more literal degree, some believe it is about stalking, or more jokingly, ‘Stage Five Clingers’ – a concept created by the ludicrous Wedding Crashers. Either of these, when supported, are correct interpretations of a very open film that unfortunately steers clear from exploring this fascinating curse-concept.
A more logical theory is that It Follows is a coming-of-age film. Although the conventionally-expired deadly-curse-narrative drives the film, it’s truly a story about a group of friends who are progressing into adulthood. Being an adult, of course, is about independently dealing with life problems head-on, in this case, sexual decision-making. These problems must be fixed without the helping-hand of an adult or parent-figure, which is emphasised in the film through the lacking in presence of adult characters – occasionally, Jay’s mother would appear in-shot but would say nothing or the entity would take the shape of Jay’s deceased father – Steven Spielberg’s E.T., is unexpectedly parallel to It Follows in this respect.
Lacking presence of adult characters means this group of young actors are required to carry the film themselves. The rest of the cast includes Keir Gilchrist as Paul, Lili Sepe as Kelly, Olivia Luccardi as Yara, and Daniel Zovatto as Greg. Collectively, they anchor the storyline very well and Monroe in particular is perfectly cast as the young-female-adult who is in the pinnacle decision-making stage of her transitioning life.
Straight from the opening sequence of the film Mitchell begins playfully tweaking genre conventions and to some extent manipulates his audience into believing that his film is another one of ‘those’ horrors. The film opens with an establishing shot of a largely spacious, more or less empty suburban street. A terrified, half-naked girl appears, clearly running from something out of shot. She flees to her car and drives to a distant beach somewhere and waits. Sometime later, she is found brutally murdered. Through the use of fancy CGIs and loads of blood, her dismembered frame is gruesome to point of hilarity, as if to a degree Mitchell is making an early statement in his film by parodying cliched horror components.
Is It Follows a scary film? Not particularly. Is it creepy? Absolutely! To most, anyway. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and editor Julio Perez IV deserve major credit for their work, as it is they who deliver the unsettling creepiness that It Follows will be remembered for. They use sluggish pans and tracks, shaky over-the-shoulder shots, uncanny close-ups and patient long-takes to orchestrate the ultimate suspense that was last used to such extent in The Shining, particularly during scenes of Danny riding his tricycle around corner after corner until, abruptly, the creepy twin sisters appear.
In many scenes, Gioulakis shoots huge depths-of-field in what seems like a very strange, inexplainable sense of space, so-much-so that Mitchell is arguably also parodying the overused fear cliche of claustrophobia that is exploited in movies. Gioulakis uses these depths to make the distant supernatural entity appearing into the shot much, much creepier, and some found this scare-tactic particularly terrifying. There is a touch of irony with this huge depth of field because, like many horror films of the late 70-80s, It Follows, to a more implicit degree, is about claustrophobic isolation where there is nobody to save you.
It Follows makes great use of Detroit locations. The sense of abandonment, emptiness and deprecation supports points suggested above about claustrophobic isolation and the city acts as a platform for Gioulakis to work his magic on terrifying the hell out of spectators. The derelict buildings, abandoned ‘haunted’ house-like settings and rugged open fields allegorically symbolise Detroit as being a burial ground for once thriving horror movies that revolved themselves around this harrowing location. Its rundown and neglected properties could perhaps also suggest that horrors have not returned to this place in twenty-thirty years, until now with It Follows.
Who is in the real bogeyman in It Follows? The unstoppable supernatural entity? Or perhaps more meaningfully, Hugh (Jake Weary), Jay’s using and abusing boyfriend? Neither, as the true villain is a collective one, being the contemporary horror films that have exhausted tried-and-tested conventions to the point where auteurs like Mitchell become a big fish in a small pond. He is reluctant to be this, with his constant referencing to 80s horror, it is clear that he is a filmmaker desperate to be a small fish in a big pond, and essentially, to have It Follows among the horror films he loves. What he, like the characters must do in the unsettling, inconclusive ending of the film, is accept the inevitable and unchangeable.
It Follows is positively pretentious. It’s an example of what the horror genre needs more of in order to be rebooted. It’s a film that will be dissected, discussed and lectured to film studies students in the decades to come.