For at least the last decade, there seems to be a concerted push to anoint one horror movie as the next "classic": the genre reinventing, flying-under-the-radar take that will usher us out of this endless trend of remakes and PG-13 zombie/vampire/werewolf teen-friendly tripe. Sometimes, the hype is justified (The House of the Devil, The Cabin in the Woods), sometimes not (Hatchet, Behind the Mask*), but I think it's safe to say that we're not going to get rid of the PG-13 horror trend any time soon. In fact, there was a trailer for the Ghost House Pictures remake of Poltergeist in front of the movie we'll be discussing today. It Follows has been riding on a groundswell of praise from horror fans, and Radius / TWC is finally listening to audiences and putting the film in theatres, as opposed to dumping it on VOD. By the time the Cap'n heard about it, It Follows was already being labeled "this year's The Babadook," and I was a little worried about going in with heightened expectations, so I just stopped reading about the film. Does it live up to the hype?
(if you really don't want to know anything else, skip to the last paragraph, but the short answer is "yes.")
We already know what the "It" is capable of from the opening sequence, which also establishes writer / director David Robert Mitchell's visual style: long, unbroken takes, using the most of the wide screen composition. If it helps, think of Halloween, and understand that I know how lofty of a comparison it is to make. Mitchell walks us through the moment of panic for "It"'s last victim - Hugh's first attempt to pass it on? - as she tries to escape from her house, to drive to the beach. And then a smash cut to the next morning. The stakes are established. Once Hugh explains the rules, we know what Jay is up against. We'll learn a little more about the "It," but not directly from the characters. It Follows is a film heavy on inference, on visual clues rather than exposition dump scenes. What you take away from the film depends heavily on how carefully you're paying attention.
Mitchell packs plenty in the frame to pay attention to, as Jay and her friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi), Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Kelly, and neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto) try to find Hugh, who rented his place in Detroit under a fake name and presumably skipped town. When the threat could be anything, it's a demented version of "Where's Waldo" in the frame - who's really a person? Who is it? Early on, Mitchell makes it abundantly clear, but towards the middle of the film, he starts playing with the audience. Much later in the film, "It" takes the form of someone we've only seen in photographs, and he relies on the viewer to have been observant. You don't need to know who it is - or was - but it's a bonus that weighs in It Follows' favor.
There are many things about It Follows I'd like to talk about, but would risk SPOILING plot points. Boiled down to its core, the film is a very straightforward variation on the horror trope of "Sex = Death," one that's been analyzed ad nauseum in college courses the world over. It Follows will likely join those thesis proposals, in part because Mitchell takes a very ambiguous approach to how and what we find out about the threat. They "why" is abandoned, strictly speaking, which distinguishes the film from many of its modern brethren. A reductive reading would call it "The Ring as an STD," but remove all of The Ring's second half - there is not history here. Jay only traces it as far back as Hugh (real name, Jeff, at home with his mother) - he got it from "some girl at a bar." We have some idea of what happened to Annie (Bailey Spry), the girl from the beginning, after Jay's attempt to pass it on goes horribly wrong, but it's only in flashes. What it wants is up to us to decide, and why the rules are the way they are is similarly up to interpretation.
Instead of devoting most of the film to monster lore creation, Mitchell spends almost all of It Follows dealing with Jay's fragile emotional state, as she struggles with how to deal with her state. It's a curious wrinkle that all of the sex in It Follows is consensual, and yet Jay is clearly left violated in every situation (one in particular is left to the imagination, only holding on her face before and after she swims out to a boat). Does she want to pass this curse on to someone else? Does she want to die? There seems to be no way to stop "It," and only the "infected" can see it. "It" can see them once they've passed it on, but it isn't interested. Not yet, anyway. You can drive and get ahead for a while, but it will always be right behind you, walking slowly, emotionless.
The inevitability of the threat could be a detriment to It Follows: in a more conventional approach, like the Final Destination series, it simply becomes an excuse to put Grand Guignol kills on display, character development be damned. But the death toll is relatively limited in It Follows, and they both count, emotionally. One sets the tone for the film, another gives us a vague insight to the first death, although what you take away is largely a matter of interpretation. I give the lion's share of the credit to the cast, although Mitchell certainly gives them plenty of time to breathe and to exist on screen. As a matter of fact, it's refreshing to see a group of young actors who don't look like the Hollywood Casting Template for Horror Films (see anything released by Platinum Dunes), and instead a cast that look like normal teenagers, that act like normal teenagers.
I say this knowing full and well that I just saw Maika Monroe in The Guest, playing a character just a little bit older than Jay is. I saw her in The Bling Ring, too, but didn't remember he when I saw The Guest. Monroe, like the rest of the kids (adults don't factor into It Follows in many ways, aside from two, meaningful moments involving the "It") is totally believable as Jay, a young woman thrust into a situation she doesn't understand and forced to cope with it. She doesn't magically become Nancy Drew or Buffy when "It" appears. She gets frightened, panics, makes bad decisions, and when she tries to help it doesn't always work. Likewise, Sepe, Luccardi, Gilchrist, and Zovatto aren't just assigned "types." They're Jay's friends, and despite the fact that Mitchell sets Greg and Paul against each other, the end of the film still isn't as apparent as I thought it would be.
Arguably the film's weakest moment comes from Paul's plan to stop "it" by electrocution in a public swimming pool they all went to when they were younger. The plan doesn't really make sense - the pool is too big, for one - but they aren't aware of what Jay and the audience know. We know that when she tried to shoot "it" (and as she just learned how to fire a gun a few hours before, she's a terrible shot), that didn't work. Mitchell foreshadows their plan with a shot that seems to be out of place in the film - the smaller pool out back that Jay enjoys swimming in, inexplicably ripped open - but it makes sense only in retrospect. That might have worked, but in their desperation, Paul's plan backfires and it ends up hurting more than just Jay. The only thing that works in the scene is the final shot, where Jay looks into the swimming pool and sees something the others can't, an image left open to your own interpretation.
The pool sequence is a minor stumble, but one I feel like I should point out. Mitchell and It Follows bounce back with a less conventional, more ambiguous ending that left some of the audience disappointed. Then again, I made the deliberate choice to see It Follows with a more conventional audience just to see how'd they would react. I could have seen the film at a smaller, art house theater with a more enthusiastic crowd, but it seemed like this would be an interest test case to see how the multiplex crowd reacted to less mainstream horror. They liked it while the film was going on, but seemed dissatisfied that it didn't end on some grand show down, the kind I imagine the remake of Poltergeist will (their enthusiastic reaction to the trailer was also telling).
But here's the truth about the internet hype machine surrounding independent horror: it only works for people who are seeking out the kind of movies that are like It Follows. The buzz is not going to change the minds of people who get impatient with something different from the formula, or something as stripped down as It Follows. And that's great. It really is, because I wouldn't have known about It Follows otherwise, and I will see it again. I want to see it again, because there's so much that Mitchell packs into the frame that I know I missed some of it. I want to pay closer attention to the forms "it" takes, because they're careful hints about the creature's history. Or maybe not - it's clear halfway through the film that "it" can and will take the form of a previous victim. I want to see if I somehow missed something that led to the pool in the backyard being torn open. The sign of a great horror movie (or any movie, for that matter) is that you're thinking about it after the fact. That you want to watch it again, to dig through and pick up pieces you missed. It's what distinguishes It Follows from the more basic "Sex = Death" movies that are enjoyable, but disposable.
I also have to point out how amusing it is to have Yara reading Dostoyevsky's The Idiot on a clamshell phone, which is a minor subplot in the film. Nice touch.
So if you're reading this review and wondering "should I see this or is it all sizzle and no steak?" the answers are an emphatic yes and an emphatic no, in that order. If you think you'd like It Follows, then yes, see it. If you liked The Babadook - which It Follows has a tonal connection to, particularly in how it ends - or You're Next or The Cabin in the Woods or The House of the Devil, basically anything that flew mostly under the radar as horror goes, go see it. I think you're really going to like it. Sometimes the hype is justified. That doesn't mean that It Follows is "game changing" or "genre redefining," two terms overused to help sell movies of this ilk. Much like Starry Eyes, another independent horror film that's flying under most people's radars, It Follows takes a concept you're familiar with and tells it in a unique way. I don't want to undersell this film, nor do I want to oversell it, because your mileage may vary. Don't seek out spoilers. Try to see it with limited knowledge. Which, uh, means not having read this review, I guess. Oops.
* I realize this is going to be a difference of opinion, but I found nothing in either movie worth watching: Behind the Mask either doesn't understand or chooses to misrepresent slasher movie "tropes" in order to advance its narrative, and the first Hatchet film has extreme gore and nothing else going for it. I have not seen Hatchet II or III, but have yet to see a review that made me want to.