“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex.”
This is the clever meta-line delivered by the character Randy in Scream, which persists to be one of my favourite horror films of all time. It is this endless horror trope of promiscuous activity leading to victimization that has been ironically turned on its head in It Follows, a new entry in the genre which has received high praise all around from critics and audiences alike. It is another throwback to a classic period as many other films have been of late, with this one paying tribute to that golden age of horror – the 70s and 80s. It is an intriguing concept, but one which stumbles in execution. David Robert Mitchell has given us an extremely atmospheric movie, which dwells entirely on tension and distances itself from the empty frames doled out by modern horror by drawing heavily from the artists that immortalized horror – John Carpenter and George Romero. Well, it seems that, as I’ve heard Mad Max does for action, when faced with a wall, the best way to go is back to the old masters.
It Follows introduces a new concept-demon into the familiar suburban neighbourhood used in Halloween and other such; a being that follows you in an attempt to kill you. It is contracted through sexual intercourse, making it an STD – Sexually Transmitted Demon – and thus furthering the slasher premise that sex always leads to inevitable demise. That is both the best and worst part of this film for me: the best, since it is a strange new idea that plays on a meta-level, and the worst, since the idea remains just that, with too many holes and rules left open. It is definitely refreshing, although I wouldn’t say completely original (inspired by Michael Myers and the Candyman as it is), and I really do hope this manages to turn the wheel of the genre away from dumb demon possessions such as Annabelle and Ouija. The Follower in this film is a fine concept, one given birth to by the nightmares of its director, but it lacks flesh and raises several many questions that the film either does not answer or shows contradiction. I believe this demon is something that would have worked better as an abstract idea, without clear boundaries or rules to match the slightly surreal and ambiguous waters of the film. And yes, that is how it starts out, owing to which I enjoyed the first half of the film quite a bit, but then it goes on to unnecessarily trip itself over in an attempt to demarcate the rules of the entity. For example, why would something that seemed immune to bullets be any less so to electrocution?
Jay, played by Maika Monroe, and her three friends which include her sister Kelly, smitten neighbour Paul and his sister Yara make for the Mystery, Inc. sort of gang to whom these incidents occur. Maika Monroe was also in last year’s excellent The Guest, another film that pays tribute to classic horror and John Carpenter. The plot develops when Jay fools around with Hugh, a new guy she’s seeing and who in turn passes the curse along to Jay, but only after drugging her and taking her to an isolated place so that she could see and believe in the Follower too. This also gives him time to explain the rules to her and the audience: that she should pass it on to someone else by sleeping with them, before being killed which would trace the Follower back to Hugh and down the line of previous links in the chain. What I particularly liked is the way we were introduced to there being something wrong; while Jay and Hugh play a guessing game at the theatre and suddenly Hugh makes a strange guess which sets the music in motion. It set up the stage quite the way that Scream did, and coupled with the prologue of the girl running away from her house to meet with a grisly death, was a brilliant atmospheric creation.
This film is all about the atmosphere, and although the borrowing from Carpenter can be too blatant at times – especially with the scene in the classroom which is suspiciously similar to, if not taken directly from Halloween – the film does create a separate identity for this atmosphere, that as the witches chant in Macbeth, ‘hover’ over the characters at all times. The film has for its backbone eerie electronic music that rises in crescendo to create tension you can cut with a knife, but succeeds in not conceding to jump-scares and sudden noises which deflates the fear. These strong staccatos and keyboard notes rise gradually, chilling you to the bone and then cuts away to let you figure out the rest. This is a film which uses the same techniques for most of its elements, and in turn we get both hits and misses. One of the times this style of cutting away to ambiguity really hit the right note was the scene where Jay starts out into the lake watching some guys on a boat, which cuts to black before we know whether she passed it on or not. In similar ways, the film does bring a certain level of ambiguity and unexplained suspense that is a breath of fresh air in an age where everything is spoon- fed to us. Wherever it works, it really works and where it misses, it falls so far too: that is why, as I said before, it is evidently an idea that was not fleshed out, delivered on a platter by a master student of John Carpenter as David Robert Mitchell is.
There is also another aspect to this film that is alluded as an undercurrent: the sexual awakening or coming of age of its characters. This is set out by the premise itself being a demon passed on by sexual contact which invokes the question of immorality and a reproachful stance toward adulthood itself. This might also be the reason why the whole movie is devoid of adults in any form – except for a nurse and a teacher – which may seem a trope taken over from the 80s, but could also signify this sexual awakening that the characters now fear or are discomforted by due to the events that befall them. There are references to this throughout, from the Follower taking on sexually provoking and semi-nude forms to the kids finding pornographic magazines at Hugh’s house after having discussed an incident surrounding it from their past (which seems out of place at the time). This elicits a subdued theme of coming to terms with sexual adolescence, and the fears that are associated therewith. Although there are clever clues and hard-to-notice easter eggs to this end (for one, take careful note of the numbers that are displayed throughout the film), Mitchell has not managed to find these clues coalescence: they do not amount to anything, and the anticipated payoff never arrives. But then again, it is questionable whether such a theme should be aimed at in this film which deviates from the abstract notions of the Follower by having him interact with normal humans in all other ways but for sight. (The throwing of the cloth over the Follower in the pool scene to locate it was both lifted right out of Scooby-Doo and also reduces it to a mindless monster than a presence.)
There is just something about this film that gets under your skin and makes your flesh crawl, and the secret to that is a voyeuristic life that the camera takes, slowly scoping out the environment as was in Halloween, except in that it felt more real as it presented to us the eyes of the stalker Michael himself. Though many critics acclaim It Follows to be extremely terrifying, if I were to put a label on it, it would be one that reads ‘creepy’. This is because the film is not particularly scream-worthy but what it does is induce a sense of paranoia and discomfort that makes the hair at the back of your head stand up straight and make you check everything twice. It revels more in the effect it has on the viewer which continues after the theatre; a constant sense of being watched and unsafeness. For this we have the first rule of the Follower to thank: ‘it is slow, but not dumb’. I felt this was an excellent touch, as contrary to popular belief of things we can outrun, nothing works better on screen that a haunting image walking toward the camera in slow, unnerving steps. Add to this the Follower’s ability to take the form of anyone, especially people you know in a twisted fashion, and it makes for some unnerving skips of the heart. This is cleverly complemented by the panoramic movement of the camera and the broad imagery that it produces, as excellently put to use in the school ground scene where the Follower is seen moving closer each time the camera moves around the environment. This was where the film succeeded in putting the perimeters and rules of the Follower to best use: inserting the Follower in the background, some even to go unnoticed unless you’re paying full attention. And in furtherance of this purpose, Robert Mitchell also adds scenes where the cast does not see certain people walking slowly so as to raise maddening questions in our minds. And that is the intention of the movie; to keep its audience on guard at all times, to a point where the slightest notion of anyone walking slowly is sure to cause alarm.
Now that I’m done explaining the brilliant use of tension and beautiful imagery that is just not found in modern horror, let’s head to the reasons why it fell short for me. I can almost pinpoint the exact scene where the plot turned contorted and raised doubts and questions; not the good kind that invokes discussion, but the ‘eh?’ kind that just doesn’t make sense, and that scene is the one at the beach. The film had worked on the premise so far that the Follower could only be seen by the people who have or have had the curse at some point, and that makes it all the more frightening since the people around you cannot sense this stalker. This detachment of the entity from all else around you and its close attachment to your senses is what made this demon; the same also raising questions of reality and belief. What should have made a profound and surreal horror is washed down the drain the moment the Follower starts engaging with real objects and people; people who aren’t supposed to sense it. The breaking down of the door at the beach crushed the film two-fold: it reduced this soulless stranger into little more than Kevin Bacon’s Hollow Man, and it also made for one of the most conventional scares in the whole film – a hissing bloody face. This immediately takes away from the tight uncertainty and abstract monster that It Follows had conjured up to this point, making this uncomfortable psychological horror a mere slasher flick. And that is the route the film takes toward the end as well, with the twenty-somethings fully embracing their goofy Scooby Doo selves by setting up an elaborate and senseless trap for the Follower. While I’m not going to spoil the ending for you, I’m just going to say this: if your master-plan is to electrocute this demon in the water, why would you trap yourself in it? Reminds me of a certain goofy yet clueless mystery-solving gang; only difference being Jay and her friends don’t have access to a green-and-flower-print Volkswagen van.
What could have been a harrowing and abstract milestone in the trail of horror remains an idea not fleshed out enough, although it does not fail to induce creeping tension that refuses to leave after the film is over. One relief is that this seeming tale of caution does not come off as a sermon on promiscuity, but rather takes that idea while sinking its teeth into the survival tension that surrounds such a situation. The imagery is striking and craftily done in wide panoramic shots which strips the supposedly familiar suburban neighbourhood of its ‘safe’ label, with the eeriness elevated by the Carpenter-inspired electronic crescendos that dominate the atmosphere. It also plays its striding ambiguity into its climax with the open-ended climactic image; a brilliant close (or is it?) to the events that took place. Where the movie falters a bit is in the characters who while seem real enough, do varyingly stupid acts throughout, such as sleeping atop their car when there is a demon on the loose. It is indeed a clever idea, which could have done a lot more with fewer rules and had the potential to be a classic if not for it remaining a watered down concept. All in all, it is not a masterpiece as certain critics claim it to be, but it is definitely worthwhile, if only for the haunting atmosphere and discomfort that will follow you out the theatre just as the demon does.