Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, April 4, 2015

Recent Watches: It Follows (2015)

Last year, two independent horror films began to catch the attention of reviewers on the festival circuit. The first of which was “The Babadook,” which was hailed as the scariest horror film in a long time. I saw that film last October and loved it. Sneaking up behind Jennifer Kent’s masterpiece was “It Follows,” an American film from David Robert Mitchell. Mitchell’s film also received rave reviews. Unlike the Australian film, “It Follows” became a word-of-mouth hit during its initial limited release. It was so successful that the now-standard video-on-demand release was held off in favor of a wider theatrical release. So, for the first time in a while, I was able to see a tiny, critically praised horror film at the theater. “It Follows” is a less personal film then “The Babadook” but is arguably the scarier one. Both, in time, are likely to gain reputations as classics of the genre.

Jay is a fairly normal young woman, a college student who is pretty in an unobtrusive, girl-next-door way. She lives with her mother and her younger sister. Jay’s best friends, Kelly and Paul, always seem to be visiting. Jay is also dating a handsome but down-to-earth guy named Hugh. After having sex with Hugh for the first time, in the back seat of her car, Jay is told a terrible secret. Hugh is cursed to be followed by a supernatural entity, invisible to everyone else, that will slowly but surely pursue him, unstopping. It can appear as anybody, its physical appearance always shifting. When it catches you, it will kill you. The only way to pass the curse on is to have sex with someone. But this is a brief reprieve. As soon as your last sexual partner is killed, the creature will be back on your trail. Jay is the monster's next target. Working together with her friends and sister, she tries as hard as she can to dissuade or defeat the entity. Yet it still follows her.

“It Follows” has already been compared to “Halloween” and other classic John Carpenter films. It’s an apt comparison. Like Carpenter, David Robert Mitchell understands the importance of establishing his setting. Specifically, the mundane quality of that setting. “It Follows” is set in an achingly ordinary small town, a nice suburb outside Detroit. The first half-hour of the film is almost too slow, as we watch the kids go about their dull, everyday lives. Though there are cell phones and E-readers, there’s a distinct retro quality to the film. All the cars are older makes. There’s always a black-and-white monster movie on TV. The small town seems set in a simpler, less complicated time. Horror films like “It Follows,” “Halloween,” and most everything Stephen King has written function on establishing normalcy. Once the everyday quality of the setting is understood, it can be subverted as off-putting and horrifying. “It Follows” gets this rule innately and uses it to great effect.

Most horror films build suspense before blowing it off with a shock or a jump scare. They’ll then start over. “It Follows” builds. And builds. The image of a person slowly walking towards you, eyes focused ahead, unwavering, is a simple but surprisingly effective device. Giving the titular It the ability to assume any form was a brilliant move. Now, any person walking down the street could suddenly be a threat, a slowly approaching omen of doom. “It Follows” does build towards major shocks. Jay is confronted in her kitchen by It, as a half-nude, urinating women. Not long after, the being suddenly appears behind her sister in a halfway, this time as a towering man. Unlike most horror films, “It Follows” doesn’t defuse its suspense at any point. It continues to build, never letting up. The movie creates an ever-tightening sense of dread. This is best illustrated when Jay drives away from her home, seeing It, this time as a naked old man, standing on her roof, looking down. Amazingly, the movie doesn’t collapse under its own weight. “It Follows” remains constantly, consistently creepy and frequently becomes full-blown frightening, such as an intense encounter on a beach or the poolside finale.

Though it’s still a recent film, much has already been written about “It Follows’” supposed subtext. The curse has frequently been compared to an STD, passed along by sex, grafting terror, guilt, and shame onto a normal teenage life. You can see the film that way but I feel that reading is a bit simplistic. I see the film as being about making a horrible mistake that haunts you for the rest of your life. Whether or not the monster is banished at the end is left somewhat ambiguous. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Jay and her friends are going to be looking over their shoulders as long as they live. They’ll never sleep soundly again and they’ll always wonder if It could be around the next corner, slowly but surely advancing on them. (The director, by the way, has rejected deeper readings of the film, saying it’s meant to be a cinematic nightmare and nothing more.) To his further credit, Mitchell never attempts to explain the monster or provide any concrete origin for it. He also never cheats. We’re never led to believe that Jay is crazy or imaging. There’s no tedious chapter where her friends don’t believe her. The monster, fantastic as it is, is taken as a fact, as real and unavoidable as death.

These days, “throwback horror” could really be a genre all by its self. Over the last half-decade, there have been lots of indie horror films outfitted with intentionally retro, synth-driven soundtracks. Because I like retro, synth-driven soundtracks, I usually like these. However, it does sometimes make movies feel like a game of “spot the reference.” “It Follows” has a synth-driven soundtrack. However, Rich Vreeland’s work is distinct, different from the kind of electronic scores heard in eighties flicks, and stands on its own as a piece of music. It manages to be Carpenter-esque without being blatantly derivative of Carpenter. The constantly vibrating drone of the soundtrack also helps establishes the film’s overlaying tone of dread. “It Follows” is also handsomely directed, Mitchell and his team creating some beautiful images. The cast is capable as well. After her supporting role in “The Guest” and her star turn here, Maika Monroe is well on her way to becoming an iconic scream queen. I also liked Bailey Spry as the somewhat clueless Annie and Keir Gilchrist as the sad sack best friend Paul.

“It Follows” is an astonishingly effective horror film, cultivating a persistent tone of dread and an unshakable creepiness. It’s also beautifully constructed, successfully creating a very specific setting. The threat is original and convincingly pulled off. Moreover, the movie is scary without relying on cheap jump scares or lame clichés. It does it the old fashion way: With atmosphere, characters, music, and creative writing. If this one doesn’t convince jaded horror fans that the genre is still full of possibilities, then they’re beyond help. [9/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I saw this two weekends ago. Here were my thoughts...
"It Follows" is a respectably scary movie that benefits greatly from an amazing score. The score recalls those that were so memorable back in the Horror-crazed 1980s. That's not to say it was a total throwback because several musical moments reminded me of those created by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer. But there's no mistaking the creative musical influence of John Carpenter, especially during the "Old Maid" sequence. I haven't enjoyed a movie score this much since 2013's "Under the Skin".

I suppose I should mention the actual movie. It's very good but not as impactful as recent scaries like "The Conjuring" or "The Babadook". I think it's because teenagers being pursued just isn't very frightening anymore. Don't get me wrong, there are some very effective moments and the "It" monster is a great concept. Once it finds you, it comes after you in as straight of a line as possible. This led to some great instances where I found myself actually searching to find "It" on the screen and once I did, it was satisfying to watch "It" approach the cursed character. The monster seemed to mindlessly pursue, but at times did inexplicable things like choosing to throw household appliances at the main character. When "It" was more calculating, the menace and dread established was lost.

The biggest gripe I have about "It Follows" is not being able to place the time that it's set in. Was it the 1980s? Is it current but with a dated look due to the battered, dilapidated look of the surrounding neighborhoods? I know I saw an old 1980's Chevrolet Caprice station wagon but also what I thought was a mid-2000's model Malibu. Maybe the whole mash-up of decades was intentional. Either way, it did take me out of the movie momentarily a few times. And the wardrobe confused me also.

"It Follows" didn't blow me away but I did enjoy it and it did occasionally scare. It is not a gory film and doesn't over use jump scares. It succeeds with its music and extended sequences when it compels the viewer to locate the pursuing evil on the screen. And I've never typed the word "it" so many times in a review before.<8/10>