Horror films that expose the cracks in the suburban façade can be especially compelling when said facades are presented with a hint of accuracy. In BLUE VELVET (among many others), small-town America is a deceptive mask unto itself, where horror crawls beneath the surface, looking for any possible chance to break out. David Robert Mitchell’s absurd yet compelling IT FOLLOWS looks to minimalist means to convey “the banality of evil,” but its decision to focus on familiar suburban locales lends it an additional sheen of unease.
Rising genre ingénue Maika Monroe (THE GUEST) plays Jan, a suburban girl with feelings for rugged bad boy Hugh (Joshua Jackson doppelganger Jake Weary). A synth-heavy score captures the awkwardness of their date at the very beginning: it could be the start of any quirky romantic comedy-drama, if only the colors weren’t desaturated and the sky wasn’t perpetually overcast. By engaging in a seemingly innocent, time-killing waiting game, Mitchell sets the tone for what’s to come: Jan suggests to Hugh that they each pick out a person in the theater whom they’d rather be, and have the other guess whom it might be. This sets up the notion of identity as its own transferable quantity, which is useful because, after the couple has (consensual) sex, Hugh reveals to Jan that he’s just passed along a sinister supernatural force.
That’s right: we’ve gone from STD as parasite (SHIVERS) to STD as Resident Demon.
IT FOLLOWS is a possession flick in a manner similar to THE SIXTH SENSE (wherein the individual who can see what others cannot is, for all intents and purposes, “cursed”). The manner in which Mitchell repurposes the tired horror relationship between sex and death contains trace elements of David Cronenberg’s notions of virology and mutation (particularly, sex as a process both organic and inorganic); only here, the invading force is supernatural, and thrives on the eroding sanity of its victims. When our “Scooby Doo”-styled collective of teen snoops investigates the rooms of a run-down house, the icy, clinical detachment with which a stash of porno magazines and wadded-up tissues is presented appropriately skirts any prurient interest. (By this point in the film, sex has become the equivalent of a high-school health-class scare film, in more ways than one.)
Mitchell also scores a coup in making his teenage characters likable. They sit in living rooms, watch bad B movies, play cards, and work at ice-cream shops. After Jan’s brush with fate, conversations about sex fall within the same context the Van Helsing character would talk of banishing a curse (also refreshing: there is no real Van Helsing character here). There are intriguing and queasy passages wherein Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Greg (Daniel Zovatto) seek intimacy with Jan, for reasons both ambiguous (a sense of self-sacrifice and respect) and obvious (a chance to get laid). With promiscuity (not abstinence) being the key to survival, the film could’ve easily spiraled into poor taste; instead, it is presented with a morality that is rare in the genre (indeed, keeping ahead of what “follows” is its own tricky game). Is what transpires in the end a testament of true love, or a way of staving off the inevitable?
As with the shots of unassuming suburban exteriors and ramshackle urban houses, the aesthetic technique rarely goes into flashy territory. With DP Mike Gioulakis, Mitchell utilizes dim lighting schemes to underscore seemingly bland scenes (Jan sitting in an English lecture, for instance) that also draws attention to an unavoidable, encroaching darkness. In establishing the lurking presence, there is a compelling mix of long shots that provide the isolating impression of someone (or something) lying in wait. The use of slow pans (sometimes 360s) to fully establish a landscape is sometimes used to inform the viewer of a danger our characters don’t see, or, just as impressively, as a rabbit-hole fake-out. The same can be said for the chilling dolly shots (sometimes a character’s POV, sometimes not), which barrel forward with the same kind of unrelenting force Sam Raimi wielded so well in the EVIL DEAD films.
For all IT FOLLOWS does right, there are times when it drops the ball: during a beach scene, the blocking feels too stiff and obvious, even if its intent is the lead-up to an unconventional surprise. Problematically, that surprise is almost rendered silly by some green-screened choreography. And, further still, the falling action of this scene uses a cheesy J-Horror cliché as a throwaway jump scare. (Actually, I suppose that scene is my biggest complaint about the whole movie.) There are also times when Disasterpeace’s otherwise excellent 8-bit score does its job too well, piling on the ominous cues in the lead-up to certain scares.
But for horror fans, the good outweighs the bad. The characters are believably portrayed (Monroe could very well be the next Chloe Sevigny), and their situation is easily relatable. There is also an admirable dismissal of all the “you can’t be serious” clichés that too often hamstring this type of conceptually tricky story. Adherents of the genre will enjoy spotting the surface-level nods to films like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and HALLOWEEN, among others. Mitchell also utilizes a swimming pool with as much brooding menace as Jacques Tourneur and Paul Schrader ever did. And Disasterpeace’s music continues the exciting trend of composers moving further away from majestic orchestral scores, offering something primitive, flawed, and altogether appropriate.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Jonny Numb is a proud prole in service to that Orwellian nightmare known as State Government. He writes movie reviews at: numbviews.livejournal.com. Also find him on Twitter at @JonnyNumb and Letterboxd – username Jonny Numb. And, of course, he is the co-host of THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes.
(Photo from Movie Guy Ty.)