* * * 1/2
Dir. David Robert Mitchell, 2015
It Follows, the first horror film from David Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover) sounds ridiculous on paper (luckily I went into it cold, knowing only it was getting rave reviews). Jay, teenager on the cusp of adulthood, is excited to go out with a new, older guy named Hugh. After Hugh is scared after seeing a woman at a movie theater, the two go to his car, and end up having sex. Rather abruptly Hugh proceeds to drug Jay with chloroform. When she awakes, he tells her that he has infected her with a supernatural STD of sorts. From this point on “It” will follow her everywhere she goes. And if It catches her, It will kill her.
The monster, or whatever It is, walks at a slightly-able-bodied zombie pace and can appear as normal people, often people the future victim knows. This premise seems like it shouldn’t work at all. There’s no way a slow, normal looking monster can work, right? Well, it does, largely because Mitchell applies the key equation in horror films: Atmosphere > Everything else. He doesn’t care or waste our time on exposition. Instead, we follow Jay and her friends as she waits to die. The theme of waiting for death, as universal experience is nicely, though perhaps not exactly subtly, conveyed via passages from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which is being read by one of the characters in the film on her seashell-shaped cell phone; she is unsure if she likes it or not.
The young, rather hipstery teenage protagonists in the film are straight out of Arcade Fire’s Scenes from the Suburbs film, but in some ways that’s because there’s some overlap between the two. Jay, her sister, and her friends live in the Detroit suburbs (and inhabit a similar world to that of Regular Show where people have smart phones but people still watch 1950’s horror films on cathode ray TVs and stash porno mags) and the boarded up world north of 8 mile road adds atmosphere and a layer of social awareness to the film, though it’s never quite developed. If Dracula arrived with rats and the plague, whatever It is seems tied to post-rust belt economic collapse and malaise.
But this is above all else a very sexual film. That’s not particularly unique in horror. From its Gothic roots to the genre’s expressionistic revision in Eraserheard to the beaten dead horse of teen slasher flicks, horror is profoundly tied to sex. It can act as metaphor, as in vampire films, or the external manifestation of repressed desires or emerging puberty in films like Repulsion or even The Exorcist. Here, the monster is a particularly Freudian one. Yes, the film sure sounds like a John Carpenter score (though with Vangelis styled flourishes at times), and takes place in midwestern suburbs that were probably new when Halloween was made, and deals with sex, but the sexuality doesn’t seem as puritanical as Carptenter’s sex=death in that film. I won’t get too deep into the film’s sexual politics, and I’m still undecided about what some of it means in that regard, but Jay has more agency in her sexuality than the “fallen” victim of the slasher film.
Jay is plaed by Maika Monroe who also starred in Adam Wingard’s The Guest, the major John Carpenter homage from last year. There are already articles crowning Monroe the new Jamie Lee Curtis because of these films, and their Carpenter influences, but they are really two very different roles; Jay is more naive and introspective than The Guest‘s Anna. Also, Curtis, and all of the “kids” in Halloween looked like they were 30 (because some were pretty close to it). My immediate reaction to the kids in this film was that they look so young, and the young protagonists act and attempt to solve their problem in was that make sense for young people.
The opening scene of It Follows is a long take of a distressed girl walking out of, then back into her suburban house, then out of it again, and then driving away. The scene introduces the major stylistic technique of the movie. It’s use of long, circular pans, as well as its reliance on zooms creates much of the film’s sense of unease. Aside from controlling vision and space, there is also something inherently distressing about digital pans and zooms. I’m not talking about mirroring, but on an elemental level the effect is different in a way I can’t readily describe. The positioning of the camera isn’t the voyeuristic “kill cam” but an aloof spectator who might be a voyeur; its a rather unique camera position that adds a level of discomfort.
The rules of It are recall Koji Suzuki’s Ring trilogy. And while this film has many aspects of John Carpenter and the middle-american signifiers of American horror films of the 80s, it has a just as many non-American art-horror impulses. If you’ve seen any version of The Ring, you know that the video is a manifestation of a curse. The series of novels take this further, where the curse goes beyond its videotape form and takes on characteristics of a virus making its way into text, speech, and eventually a kind of cancer. What both the Ring series and It Follows have in common is a very different, refreshing, and frightening conception of the horror monster. They assume that some point, some small but traumatic or unjust act occurred resulting in some supernatural rift or trauma that manifests itself as a curse that seeks to cause pain to as many people as possible. In It Follows, a person can receive respite (but will still be killed by the monster) for passing It onto another person. That decision, which is at work in both The Ring and It Follows, adds an ethical dilemma to horror, and has a rather depressing assumption about humanity. In the case of It Follows, the curse or whatever It is, could only take its initial victim and then presumably die out. But as in Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button,” the will to survive ends up perpetuating that violence upon other people.
In one comment about Tenebre, Argento claimed that his film takes place in Rome after a pandemic; that it’s a post-apocalyptic film. It’s a strange comment if you’ve seen the film. Nothing really in the film says or really suggests that, and the comment could be a post-hoc way to explain the frequency of empty public space and strange breakdowns of urban environments. But the comment points the to the success of Argento’s film: recognizable landscapes are made alien and dream-like. It Follows, which was based on the director’s re-occuring dream, does something similar for the familiar landscape of the suburbs. Like a dream it is successfully affective. And it effectively contains layers of thoughts and anxieties rife with potential insights.