Review: It Follows

The latest darling of the horror-hype machine arguably falls short of true ‘horror’.

Aside from that, it’s ace.

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It’s hard to get excited about any and all hype for the next ‘great’ horror film these days. Every now and again a festival review pops up announcing that it’s finally here, the movie that’ll kick-start/change/reinvent the genre, but in reality such a proclamation never turns out to the case. James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) was the probably the most well known recent example of this, with everyone losing their shit over a film that, whilst very well made and thoroughly enjoyable, was drowning in classic horror clichés and hardly what one would call ‘original’ in any sense of the word. The genre is stuck in a rut wherein a pretty good flick featuring a tinge of the vaguely old-fashioned is enough to suddenly warrant use of the term ‘great’, along with online numbers and star ratings that set off one’s over-the-top detector with almost no effort at all.

Indie newcomer David Robert Mitchell’s low budget picture It Follows is the latest to receive the dreaded internet horror-hype. Upon finally getting to see it on the big screen it appears the hype is actually justified, just not in the way most would have predicted prior to viewing. By that I mean It Follows is a great film, but one I’m struggling to label as outright horror. The reasoning behind this is that, put simply, it is not at all frightening. It doesn’t get into your head or lure you into a false sense of security before providing either a nightmarish twist, or, like one of the true greats, deep, underlying psychological trauma. Indeed, “it” is arguably the least interesting part of the whole production, particularly when on camera, as it reduces things over and over –more so as the film progresses – to the standard practice of screaming, running, jumping in cars etc., without ever really inducing shock or what could be called ‘horror’.

Even the threat of, and agonising waiting for “it” to finally strike, usually the primary strength of a stalker movie due to its unpredictable nature – supernatural or not – is absent here because of the mathematical, and therefore actually wholly predictable manner in which the threat can be dealt with. During the opening slice of exposition, both we and our main protagonist, Jay (Maika Monroe), are told in pretty clear terms that “it” can be passed on by sleeping with someone, but even then, failing that, it only follows you at walking pace. So instantly not one, but two get out clauses are provided. Either sleep with someone and let them know, or, if you’re a brave/patient soul, just go really far away, work out how long it takes “it” to reach you, then go really far away again, secure in the knowledge that you know how much time you have. This is plot hole picking at its most pedantic I’ll grant you, but when both the characters’ awareness of the threat, as well as sound theories of how to avoid it are clearly established, it’s no longer a horror.

The beauty of horror is that either awareness of, or theories behind the ‘horror’ itself are never intertwined right from the off. One, the other, or both take time to develop (sure the protagonists eventually try to figure out how to terminate “it”, but such stalker movie endgame practice is a separate entity altogether). You can call it a ‘new twist’ on the horror genre all you want; in reality however it’s more of an interesting take on the supernatural drama-come-thriller, which, when it comes down to it, is the category the film essentially falls into.

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Setting aside genre talk and the ILT Nerd-O-Meter, it’s clear that the hype surrounding It Follows is certainly justified in that the picture excels from virtually every other standpoint. Indeed, when you get away from the primary (non) horror aspect in the form of “it”, things really come together to form a neat, highly aesthetically pleasing film. That might not make much sense at first, but bear with me. From a technical point of view, Mitchell and his team have put together a quite superb piece of cinema, with wide-angled, free-flowing shots liberally interchanging with sharp cuts and a texture-rich contrast between the creation of claustrophobia and stark, incredibly striking imagery. The soundtrack too is a masterful throwback to the creepy, overbearing, almost intrusive scores of the 1980s, with electronic/videogame composer Rich Vreeland giving the whole thing a wonderful, unnerving boost, helping to keep the audience on-edge somewhat. I mean the damn thing is framed, shot, scored, and edited as a horror, creating a fantastic, creepy atmosphere clearly influenced heavily by the likes of Carpenter and Kubrick. And it does actually break new ground (or at least provides fresh initiative) in the technical department, but it stops there. The problem, as previous detailed, is that the horror content doesn’t match the implied status of what’s going on around it from a cinematic point of view.

As with the technical side, this harkens back to the idea that the most interesting parts of the overall production are either unrelated, or don’t quite correlate, in terms of entertainment or general interest, to the supposed central ‘horror’ (i.e. “it”). The themes of youth, friendship, love, sexual anxiety, life and death et al. trend well throughout, sustained wonderfully simply and simply wonderfully by the strongly relatable thoughts and interactions of the characters (and, by extension, the highly competent, composed, soulful performances of Monroe and co.). Well measured and executed examples include the original, socially challenging sex-based core concept, along with nice touch of almost zero ‘adult’ input or interaction, with a total zero when it comes to conversing about “it” itself. This happily saves us from that scene, you know the standard classic during which the parent doesn’t believe the young person and seriously considers having them committed.

An added bonus is the absorbing nature of the environment against which the engaging, altogether relatable characters are projected. Mitchell creates a weird, undefined paradox of a universe, dwelling simultaneously in the suburbs of Detroit whilst spanning multiple decades of time, a factor evident from the technology and fashion depicted, but at the same time a welcome facet of intrigue. It doesn’t make practical sense, but it works as a suggestion of the themes conveyed existing outside the confines of any one period of time, which, again, feeds into the drama-type vibe given off whenever the tone of the picture roams strictly within reality, or at most the perception or fear of the supernatural, rather than the ultimately distracting and rather uninspiring outright supernatural element itself.

At its peak, It Follows is a dreamy, detached dose of horror-baed memories firmly imbedded in entertaining reality, demonstrating what, in the long-term, could be described as pleasantly exciting levels of potential in director David Robert Mitchell. It’s not strictly a horror film, despite what over-excited, born in the nineties readers of Vice might tell you, but don’t let that dissuade you from watching it as it’s still an incredibly interesting attempt at unconventional horror that, despite spilling over into, and re-emerging as numerous other genres, does not detract at all from the picture’s uniquely positive attributes and overall quality. Believe the hype, but not the hype.

And pass it on.

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