Review: “It Follows”

“It Follows” opens wide this weekend, and what follows is my review.  No real spoilers, especially if you’ve seen the trailer, but if you wanna remain completely in the dark — so creepy! — see the film first.

I’m a little reluctant to compare new films to seminal pieces of work.  “‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is the new ‘Star Wars!’”  Who wants that kinda baggage?  These things need time.  Well how about this: “It Follows” ain’t “Jaws” or “Psycho,” but it might just do for strangers what those films did for beaches and hotels.  You may find yourself keeping a safe distance from everyone as you leave the theater.

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The second feature from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, “It Follows” is about Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman who finds herself pursued by an evil specter.  After having sex with Hugh (Jake Weary), he takes her to an abandoned building and ties her to a wheelchair.  In one of the film’s more harrowing passages, Hugh explains that he’s passed this entity on to her.  She’ll start to see someone following her, and this thing is only visible to those who’ve been afflicted.  It can look like anyone — a complete stranger or even a friend.  (Strangely, the film doesn’t mine the latter as much as it could.)  It moves at a walking pace, but if it catches her, it will kill her.  Jay’s best bet is to pass the curse on to someone else.

Mitchell wears his influences on his sleeve, and there’s a lot to appreciate for horror aficionados.  The basic premise, a quiet neighborhood under threat, brings to mind…well, any number of slashers from the 70s and 80s.  Disasterpeace’s nerve-jangling synth score recalls John Carpenter.  Like so many horror films from generations past, this one could be read as a cautionary tale about adolescent sex.  (“Cautionary” is a strong word — I don’t think it’s the first or even twenty-first concern for Mitchell.  But it’s certainly a clever nod.)  Even the persistence of the threat reminded me of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, slowly stalking their prey and eventually catching up with them despite their best — okay, sometimes not-so-best — efforts.

Above all, Mitchell brings an understanding of how to use the frame.  What’s in it and what’s out — that’s really a bedrock of cinema and especially horror.  An oft-cited shot from this film is one where the camera turns 720 degrees.  Jay and a friend are at Hugh’s former high school trying to track him down.  The camera remains outside the office as they consult a secretary.  It turns to reveal a series of windows looking onto the lawn.  Students walk back and forth, but one off in the distance seems to be headed straight for us.  Then the camera passes over an empty hallway and back to the office — they’re still talking to the secretary — and then we’re looking out the windows again.

That student is closer.

When we get back to the office, the bell rings.  We hear doors open, and I started to worry that it would sneak up on Jay in the crowd.  The threat in this film could come from anywhere.  It’s one that the director puzzlingly undercuts a few times by depicting the entity with cheap ghoulish makeup.  More often than not, creepy makeup isn’t creepy.  And I’m sure going to avoid someone who looks half-dead.  But a student in a crowd of students?  Anyone would be a goner.

So much of what’s done with the camera involves smooth and elegant movement, but one of my favorite flourishes involves Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis strapping it to the wheelchair that Jay is tied to such that the lens is pointing back at the actress.  She struggles against her restraints, and the whole frame rattles.  It’s used to great effect when she and Hugh are being pursued by the specter in an abandoned building.  As he hurriedly pushes her toward the exit, the camera bounces around her terror stricken face and the dark figure in the background.  It’s as though the whole frame might collapse.

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Maika Monroe is really strong in the main role.  There’s a wistful quality to her performance, particularly during the first act.  Once the shit hits the fan, she plays horror with the best of them.  You’re really in her corner, which is why it’s disappointing when the film takes a turn in the second half.  By then, many of the characters have come down with stupid decision-itis, which is a disease prevalent in the horror genre wherein people on screen lose the ability to make rational decisions.  Their actions don’t come from a place of logic, they come from a need to set up more scares.  And this is never more prevalent than in the film’s climax.  I’m going to try and remain spoiler-free, but I really don’t know what the characters intended or what they thought would happen in that scene.

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Even if David Robert Mitchell leaves some scares on the table, “It Follows” is an enviable horror film.  Enviable in the way that it constructs, for the most part, empathetic characters.  Enviable in the way it eschews gore and cheap tricks to make us shiver.  And, most of all, enviable in the way that it uses the camera to instill fear.

But don’t worry, you’ll be fine.

Just don’t go anywhere with only one exit.

What did you think of “It Follows?”  Comment below!

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3 thoughts on “Review: “It Follows”

  1. Spot-on, Garrett. It felt like Mitchell wasn’t just nodding to these horror tropes, but turning them on their head in a clever and fun way.

    SPOILERS AHEAD!

    Like how having sex is the method by which this curse is transmitted, blatantly calling back the entire 80s horror era where it wasn’t specified as being the direct cause of these teens’ deaths but was heavily implied. Or how instead of seeing the main actress naked – especially during the sex scenes – we see the “it” figures naked — a fun reversal that also added to the overall creep factor. As for the climax, you bring up a good point: what was the point? My thought was that at least they’d be in it together, and two people teamed up against an enemy only they can see would perhaps give them more ability to stay alive longer. (Although I’d recommend they either 1: walk faster than the average human and/or 2: have one walk backwards to always check their six.) That said, I think Mitchell went for a more blatant metaphorical ending than a rational plot one. In his world, “it” is our own mortality and no matter how fast we run, it’ll eventually catch up to us. We, as humans, are here to grow up to the point of being able to procreate, and then we begin our inevitable decline where “it” catches up to us, who knows when. And for that I really liked the choice. Final spoiler: when that big guy shows up in the house, holy shit, my entire theater went bonkers.

    END SPOILERS

    Also loved the camerawork. It felt so assured and smart. Hadn’t had that much fun at a horror movie in a movie theater in years.

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    • Thanks for reading, Ryan!

      Mitchell is hip deep in those tropes. I really liked the sex angle as well. As you point out, a surefire way to die in 80s horror films. As for the climax…

      MORE SPOILERS

      It just felt like characters making stupid decisions to get as much tension out of the situation as possible (another horror trope, this one not so good). Water, electronics, and bullets — why would any of them assume that would go well? Especially, Jay. She shot the entity, so she knows it can’t be killed by conventional means.

      NO MORE SPOILERS

      Though you’re right, there’s a strong coming-of-age element to this film. It’s embodied by even our introduction to Jay, wistfully floating in a pool while two young boys watch through the fence. And it’s certainly embodied by, as you mentioned, our inevitable decline. It’s sooner for some than others.

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