You’re probably tired of me saying this, but modern mainstream horror films are generally terrible. Horror seems to be a genre that is firmly committed to following “Sturgeon’s Law” (90% of everything is crap) so those that buck the trend tend to gain quite a following. Case in point; ‘It Follows‘ brought to us by horror newcomer David Robert Mitchell and making a splash at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015 along with incredibly rave reviews and appearing on many “Best of” lists for 2015.
The key premise of an entity perpetually following someone naturally digs deep into our paranoia but it could become even more affective with the influences of horror directors like John Carpenter, George A. Romero and Alfred Hitchcock (all three of whom Mitchell has cited as influences in the making of ‘It Follows‘). What’s old is new again with 70s/80s horror being the backbone of ‘It Follows‘ but does it all come together and is all that potential fulfilled?
Jay (Monroe) is a college student in Michigan with her whole life ahead of her. However, one night she goes on a date with her boyfriend Hugh (Weary) and the two have sex in the back of a car. Jay is then drugged and wakes up to find herself tied to a wheelchair where Hugh explains what is going to happen; something is going to follow her perpetually. It’s going to follow her at a walking pace, can take for form of anyone, only she can see it and by sleeping with Hugh, he passed it onto her but she can pass it onto somebody else the same way. Jay is initially sceptical at first but a series of terrifying encounters forces her and her friends to take action and find some way to prevent Jay from being the entity’s next victim.
It’s a great premise for a horror movie and the idea that no matter where you go, no matter where you try to hide some entity (which will henceforth be known as “It” for the purposes of this review) will never stop looking for you and will never stop walking even if you sleep and that only YOU can see it which means you can never drop your guard is a terrifying proposition. It taps into insecurities deep down in the human condition that death is literally just a few steps behind you and even if you can pass on It through sex (essentially making it a Sexually Transmitted Demon) if that person dies then it goes right back to you. Once It latches onto you, you can never escape it. Only postpone it. And even if you do postpone it, you essentially give someone else that paranoia and it could be considered selfish or morally wrong to knowingly give someone the curse through sex and let them go through the process. It’s a phenomenal set-up.
Too bad ‘It Follows‘ seems determined to squander it at every turn.
Before I carry on with this review, I know that a lot of the comments from lovers of ‘It Follows‘ will amount to “You just wanted everything explained to you!” or “Dumb Americans always need things spelled out to them!” (which is a comment I’ve seen on plenty of negative/mixed reviews by non-American critics) so let me explain my thought process here. I have no interest as to whether or not It can be transferred through a condom, whether or not it works if it’s same-sex, whether there was ejaculation etc. I have no interest in knowing whether or not It can walk through oceans or can get on planes. These loose-ends are not important to THIS story. ‘It Follows‘ and the story of Jay does not require answers to those questions and, as a result, neither do I.
But even by those (reasonable) standards, ‘It Follows‘ seems hell bent on stoically setting up its own rules, the boundaries of its own universe and then contradicting and breaking them whenever its convenient for the plot. Early on in the movie, Hugh explains all the relevant information to Jay and as a result the audience themselves learn the rules and restrictions of “It”. For example, Hugh says that it will keep going at a walking pace and always head for Jay…except during one scene where it’s stood completely still and is on the roof for…reasons? Hugh says it can take the form of anyone “It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.”…except 90% of the persona’s it takes would do the OPPOSITE of getting close to Jay.
I don’t know about you, but if I saw a 7 foot tall figure walking slowly towards me with bloodied eyes, or half-dressed and perpetually urinating, or a bearded naked man, or a pale-skinned Gollum-esque creature, I would run the fuck away. How do ANY of those forms (none of which I’ve made up, incidentally) help it to get close to Jay? Later on in the movie It takes the form of Jay’s father indicating that it knows aspects of Jay’s personal life and thought-process, but if that’s the case then why is it taking these stupid, counter-intuitive forms?
In fact, one of the guises It takes on is of one of Jay’s friends…but at that time in the movie Jay has passed the curse onto the friend in question. So It took on the form of the person it was going to kill…even though the ONLY people who can see it are the ones who are afflicted from the curse in the first place? Where’s the logic here? Where’s the sense and why isn’t the movie following the rules that it set up itself?
Movies like ‘It Follows‘ are why I have trust issues.
Ardent defenders of ‘It Follows‘ are quick to ignore things like that in favour of pandering to the movie’s self-imposed ambiguity. “Oh, but all the forms of It are wearing white! What could it mean!?”. Except for the one time It ISN’T wearing white, but folks will just conveniently ignore that one. It also doesn’t help that there are many occasions where the creature seems to either teleport or run when it’s not on-screen despite being TOLD that it will only walk. It’s the only way it can reach certain places in certain timeframes.
And then we have the sheer stupidity of its main characters. The best thing ‘It Follows‘ does in terms of its cast is that it makes them likeable, identifiable and they don’t fall into conventional horror-archetypes. But it doesn’t help that almost everyone involved is bone-dead stupid, particularly our hero; Jay. Doing things that could get her killed makes sense in the first half because she doesn’t truly believe that something is stalking her but as soon as all the cards are laid on the table and everyone involved knows that something is indeed happening, she starts going into rooms with limited exits, facing AWAY from the only entrances (for example, sitting on a beach facing the ocean despite KNOWING that It is walking towards her from the mainland), sleeping on the hood of a car instead of sleeping inside of it (for reasons?) all culminating in a final plan concocted by her group of friends that was so stupid, so lacking in thought and common-sense that I honestly don’t quite believe that I saw it happen (a plan that goes instantly wrong but apparently it wouldn’t have worked anyway because it was convenient for the plot).
Also, Jay commits the cardinal-horror sin of running away by going UP the stairs of her house. Rookie error.
But, logic-aside, the issue with the characters is a lack of…well, character. We learn about certain elements of their lives such as what books they read, who they like, what games they used to play as kids, but despite that information it feels like you don’t know much about them. What are their hopes? Hobbies? What do they do day to day other than watch royalty-free black-and-white horror films without irony? There’s nothing to dislike about the characters and they have some entertaining interactions with each other including a well-placed fart-joke, but I wasn’t particularly invested in who lived or died. I felt sorry for Jay’s situation, but when her and her friends continually did stupid things it was easy to lose sympathy.
It also feels like a lot of potential for the premise was missed. There is a constant feeling of paranoia, but it’s only felt by the viewer and it doesn’t dramatically transcend to the characters. If I was being perpetually followed by something that will never stop, I’d probably never ever sleep but Jay seems to have no problem sleeping or relaxing or taking it slow. This is another stupid thing that frequently happens throughout ‘It Follows‘ because since only Jay can see It then she is the one who always needs to be on guard as none of her friends can keep watch. It also doesn’t help that Jay and her friends spend around 50 minutes of ‘It Follows‘ just hanging around and not being remotely pro-active which gives the movie a lack of momentum or progression.
This audience-paranoia is easily the strongest thing ‘It Follows‘ has going for it by giving the viewer a sense of omnipotence as the audience can often see It in the background when even the main characters can’t. But since that information is rarely acknowledged or built upon by the characters in question, it means that true engagement and true scares rarely take place. There’s a sense of detachment with ‘It Follows‘ when a movie with such a relatable, grounded premise should seek to engage the viewer as much as possible with the characters involved. Instead, ‘It Follows‘ cops-out, hiding behind a shield of ambiguity like in a scene where it’s implied that Jay sleeps with a group of strangers off-screen but in the next scene she only mentions the on-screen example the audience are privvy to and then characters are back to square-one and we’ve got a scene that goes nowhere. That example is just bad screen-writing and a waste of time.
It is nice that a horror movie will try and let audience members figure out something for themselves instead of treating them like idiots (a-la ‘Unfriended‘) but giving the audience zero pieces to the puzzle and asking them to solve it is not a viable alternative. For example, It takes the form of Jay’s father at one point and when she’s asked what form it has taken, Jay says “I don’t want to tell you”. But the audience have never met Jay’s father, have only seen him in photographs and don’t have a single, solitary clue as to the relationship Jay had with him or where he is. As a dramatic moment for Jay or an emotional climax it not only falls flat, it actually goes subterranean because it didn’t mean anything in the first place.
The best thing going for ‘It Follows‘ is easily its production values with this $2M movie looking a lot more impressive than its indie-origins would suggest. The wide-angled cinematography was a stroke of genius and the tracking shots of Detroit, Michigan are ripped straight from John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween‘ or Wes Craven’s ‘Nightmare on Elm Street‘. There’s a lot of static cinematography where the camera is pulled way back, seemingly daring the audience to scour the screen, scrutinize the frame and try and see where It is coming from, even if It’s not there at all.
The movie is full of brilliantly crafted tableau’s and camera-angles to create a film that’s not only visually engaging, but plays with the audience’s natural sense of paranoia. The special effects and make-up effects are great, the exterior filming is very ambitious for such a low-budget production and the score is a brilliant homage to Ennio Morricone’s score on John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing‘. The score was done by Richard Vreeland, otherwise known as “Disasterpiece” who has done chiptune work for successful indie games such as “Fez” and the “Bit.Trip Runner” series. I’m not entirely sure if it fits for every scene the score is applied to, but as a standalone piece of music it’s a great listen and works as a tension-builder. The rest of the sound is a bit mixed, however as the film probably could have used some additional ADR as many lines of dialogues are muffled to a distracting degree.
‘It Follows‘ starts off with a strong, relatable and effective premise and scene-by-scene effectively squanders its own potential through its own volition. Continually breaking its own established rules, having its characters act so uncharacteristically stupid for the sake of the plot and hiding behind a faux shield of ambiguity, ‘It Follows‘ winds up falling flat as an engaging horror movie. It’s hard to get invested in a world or characters that the film-makers actively mishandle with reckless abandon. Its incredibly well made with a unique synth/chiptune score and endearing cinematography, but the script’s shortcomings and the writer’s lack of discipline results in one of the most disappointing flicks of 2015.