Thursday, October 1, 2015

It Follows

Going into It Follow (2014), written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, I thought I knew how it would play out. Knowing it was about a curse that passes through sex, I envisioned body horror in the tradition of David Cronenberg, graphic imagery and sexuality as the curse passes from person to person, an orgy of blood and depravity.

Instead, It Follows is a much more unconventional thriller, built more on paranoia and unease than on shock effects. I'm not going to lie: this is one of the creepiest movies I've seen a long time, a movie that fills you with dread and keeps you up at night once the lights go out.

Jay (Maika Monroe) is a young woman living in Detroit (I'm not sure if she's in high school or college, but no matter). Following a sexual encounter one night with Hugh (Jake Weary), Jay is drugged and bound. When she wakes up, Hugh explains to her that because she had sex with him, a curse he had now passes on to her, and a mysterious entity no one else can see will now follow her. The entity can appear in the guise of any person, including people Jay knows, and it will follow her everywhere she goes until it kills her or she has sex someone else and passes the curse on. If it kills her, it will resume following Hugh again.

People expecting an explanation or back story for It Follows are going to be disappointed. What it really is - a witch, a demon, a ghost, - is never revealed, and no explanation is offered for why it does what it does. It just is. Sometimes it appears as an old woman, sometimes as a seven-foot tall man, and sometimes it appears as a friend or family member of Jay's. Most intriguingly, it never seems to be in a hurry, content to always approach Jay with a steady walk from a distance at any time, whether she's sitting in a classroom or at home on the couch. Slow but steady.

There are a number of logical questions surrounding this being that the movie could have been paralyzed by trying to answer: what constitutes a sexual encounter, does oral sex count, what about rape, etc. Early on during Jay's ordeal, there's some hint she's might just be traumatized and hallucinating (the way Hugh drops her off in front of her house resembles the aftermath of a date rape), but fairly soon, Jay's friends, though they can't see it, see the effects of it, like it pulling Jay's hair or smashing a door; this raises the question of whether it can be contained or captured or what would happen if it tried killed someone in a public venue in front of a lot of people.

But ultimately, those questions aren't important. It Follows has the logic of a nightmare. No matter where she goes, no matter who's she with, no matter where she hides, Jay will be hounded by this thing for the rest of her life by it; sure, it moves slowly, but it never seems to have any trouble catching up to her. This goes back to the fast or slow zombies debate; true, you can probably make a more visually exciting action scene with a fast monster, but when you slow the monster down, it ramps up the dread. The monster will not be deterred; it's just going to keep coming and coming until you are dead. It's a mental edge, not a physical advantage.

Sure, you might find a safe place for now, but for how long? How will you know when it's not safe? Jay can and does sleep with someone else to pass the curse along, but even passing it along is no guarantee because how can she know when it kills her partner and is back following her? That person walking toward her in the distance: is that a stranger going about his or her day or the monster that's trying to kill you? That's what make It Follows so unnerving; even during the slower, quieter parts, you're on your toes. It generates uneasiness, and when you're uneasy, you're vulnerable, and when you're vulnerable, you're scared.

Going back to the first paragraph, the comparison to a Cronenberg movie is not unfounded. Like in the early films by the noted Canadian filmmaker, most notably Shivers and Rabid, this entity could be interpreted as a metaphor for venereal disease. After all, the curse passes through sexual intercourse, and once you get it, it's with you for life. Imagine if instead a curse, Hugh gave Jay HIV; that's something she'd also have to carry for the rest of her life. One moment, one youthful indiscretion - having sex with someone she really doesn't know - and now she's haunted forever.

Another interesting point about It Follows is how relatively restrained it is in terms of graphic imagery. The sex the characters engage in is not explicit. In fact, while there is full-frontal nudity on display in the movie, it's by incarnations of it, both male and female, and it is shocking and frightening rather than titillating. Even the violence is low-key. While we see the first victim's horribly mutilated corpse early on, we don't see the murder itself, although the implication is it was quite horrific. Again, more uncertainty, more unease.

Helping immensely is the music by Disasterpeace. Like the movie, it's unconventional and eerily effective, and it doesn't rely on musical cues to get you to jump. Parts are relatively simple (piano melody), but it's mixed in with clashing sound effects and droning atmospheric audio, almost like if Pink Floyd conducted the score for Halloween.

Mitchell's direction is first rate. He gives us crisp camera movement, eerie long shots of it approaching from afar, claustrophobic angles indoors, and good use of shadows, particularly in the parking garage when it first approaches Jay. He should be a talent to watch. The cast, lacking big names, are all quite good and believable. It helps that they actually look like teenagers. It Follows is one of the best horror thrillers of recent years

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