Saturday, April 18, 2015

Backward Glances

Maika Monroe in It Follows

Horror movies are going through one of their periodic revivals right now. The last eighteen months or so have been particularly fertile for the genre. Part and parcel of this revival is a backward look at the horror films of the 1980s. Throwbacks like The Guest and Starry Eyes might have been dumped into video stores in 1988 or discovered late at night on HBO in 1983, ornamented as they are by minor-key synth scores and prowling, Dean Cundey-ish widescreen cinematography and a chaos of horrors hiding just behind the curtain of a particularly mundane suburban reality. These films often use their borrowed elements better than the films from which they are taken. Add It Follows (2014, directed by David Robert Mitchell) to this list. It Follows, more than any of these films, internalizes the eighties horror film and transforms it into something modern and nasty and relentless.

It Follows begins with a prelude in which a young woman runs screaming from her house dressed in a state of dishabille. She walks determinedly around the street in front of her house, before going back inside to grab a coat and the car keys. Her dad tries to stop her, but she's determined. She calls her parents from a beach to tell them that she loves them. When next we see her, she's dead. The main story follows Jay, a young woman who has just met a boy, Hugh. She's teased by her sister and their friends about it as she prepares for a date. Hugh takes her to see Charade. While they're in line for the film, she encourages him to play the "trading" game: pick a member of the crowd with whom he'd like to trade places and she gets two guesses to find out who it is. When it's her turn, though, he guesses a woman who Jay apparently can't see. Noticeably shaken, Hugh ushers them from the theater before the film can start. So much for the first date. The second date goes better, at first. They have sex in the back of Hugh's car and while she's basking in the afterglow, he subdues her with chloroform. When she wakes up, she's bound to a wheelchair in an abandoned parking garage, where Hugh explains that...something..."it" now following her instead of him, that he passed on whatever "it" is to her by having sex with it, and that it will continue following her until she has sex with someone else. Worse, he shows her what's following her: an shapeshifting apparition that takes on the appearance of people she knows or loves in order to get close. If it kills her, then it will again fixate on him. He takes her home and dumps her in front of her house, then drives off. Soon, Jay is becoming frazzled. "It" follows her wherever she goes: to school, home, everywhere. She and her friends frantically try to find "Hugh" to figure things out, to try to contrive a means of escaping, but the thing keeps coming...

Maika Monroe in It Follows

It Follows has the kind of premise that invites interpretations. At its most basic, it's a distillation of the moral universe of the slasher movie, in which young people are punished for having sex or smoking pot or what have you. The slasher movie fulfills the role of medieval morality plays for the abstinence-only era. On to this framework, you can attach allegories: "It" is a metaphor for HIV or some other variety of sexually transmitted disease, or it's regret for a bad romantic choice, or what have you. For me, personally, it recalls my own experience with a stalker some years ago. It generates the same mood of paranoia and the same feeling that whatever you do, that person just won't go away.

I think It Follows resists most of these kinds of interpretations at the same time it suggests them. There's nothing about any of the characters in this film that suggests that they deserve what happens to them, and It Follows one-ups the sheer unfairness of the slasher film's moral universe by presenting fundamentally likeable characters who seem like real people rather than movie teenagers. Say what you want about contemporary horror movies, the level of acting at virtually all levels is leagues beyond what the genre used to settle on. Maika Monroe, who plays Jay, is good. She's better here than she was in The Guest, but she's been provided with a more fully realized character here. Jay's sister and friends (Lili Sepe, Kier Gilcrhrist, Olivia Luccardi, and Daniel Zovatto) all read as real people with interior lives rather than as meat for the grinder. There's an actual sense of interconnecting relationships among these character rather than a random assemblage of stock characters who represent plot functions. This film is good at suggesting a prosaic reality that closely matches real life rather than some false cinematic simulacrum. This is part of the the film's ultimate success as a horror film. It doesn't spend time asking the audience to suspend their disbelief in the characters or their situations. It saves that for its scary idea. This method spills over into its setting. This is as convincing an evocation of place--suburban Detroit and its environs--as it is a study of characters. It folds all of this into the mix with its cinematic influences.

Maika Monroe in It Follows

Its primary cinematic influence is Halloween, a film that is as much about perception as it is about the boogey man. It Follows takes that theme and runs with it. It's patient with its shots, allowing the viewer to scope out the film frame for something amiss even when there is nothing there. When there IS something, it's not always clear that that something is menacing. It re-stages a couple of scenarios from Halloween, including a variant on Laurie Strode's poetry class, and the broad-daylight stalking scenes. Significantly, both films re-stage elements of The Thing at their respective conclusions. It Follows combines all of this with some of the tropes of the J-horror films, particularly that inexhaustable wellspring of horror, The Ring, from which it takes the idea of passing on a haunting in order to escape it. Or maybe it takes it from The Curse of the Demon. Who's to say?

The sexual politics underlying this film's plot are muddled enough to act as a Rorschach test. Is this an abstinence-only kind of film? Is it a film about regret? Is it a film about sexual agency? Likely, it's all three. There's certainly a perverse horror of female sexuality in the scene where Greg, having taken Jay's curse off her hands, finds himself confronted by "It" disguised as his mother. The end of the film finds its cast of mostly female friends attempting to eradicate "it" and seize control of their own agency again. This is a female-centric film, regardless of whether or not it plays as feminist, and not just because it has a final girl. It Follows is about women. It's not just a film in which a woman survives until the end.

Lili Sepe and Maika Monroe in It Follows

All of this is communicated by a film that's stripped down to its barest essentials. This is a film where every cog is finely machined to fit. There is no waste. All of its thematic elements are gravy. Where the film really grabs the audience by the short and curlies is in its sheer relentlessness. In this, it follows the example of its monster. From its opening frame--a startling 360 degree long take--it has a goal and it makes a bee-line straight for that goal. Even when the shots function as styling rather than as the engine of the plot, this film makes them count. Whatever else it is, it's a merciless scare machine. The end result is thrilling to watch.

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ClassicBecky said...

I just took my teenaged grandkids to see "Unfriended" this weekend. It was pretty typical teen horror in many ways, but I thought it was very cleverly done. The real scare for me was how many things (Skype, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) that can be done on computers and just how fast the kids are in doing it! I was in awe, and felt that the world was spinning away from me on a very different axis than that I had grown up with! LOL

W.B. Kelso said...

I had to drive a ways to catch this on the big screen. I liked it enough initially, but after stewing on the film and that final coda for 80 miles on the way home found me really, really, really liking this film. I'd be really curious on what you thought of that last shot.

I think you hit the nail on the head with "patient." The film was very deliberate and laid out its cards with nothing up its sleeve. It didn't need any.

SPOILERS! I especially dug the lack of finding a convenient 'expert' to explain it all away and how to stop the wraith extremely refreshing. The nominal hero has seen one too many 1950s era creature features and just wings it from there. Also, that set-up for the attack on the beach was ah-mazing. And the suburban decay. The city was already dead but the suburbs aren't far behind. Also that feeling of timelessness, with the mix of old and new in the props, sets, cars, and surroundings, a true sense of devolving -- or slouching back into the 1980s.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Becky,

Yeah. We live in a science fiction world. Things move fast.

Hi, W. B.

The sense of place in It Follows is absolutely palpable. This is a film that's quietly about the collapse of the American dream in post-capitalism as it is anything else. I think the setting functions as an existential dreamscape, too, in the same way as Haddonfield in Halloween does--though It Follows benefits from being shot in its location. No assistants carrying around bags of leaves to mimic autumn in this film, to say nothing of unfortunate car license plates.

The last shot is wonderfully ambiguous. I don't think they'll ever be over things.