With a 96% fresh rating on rotten tomatoes, an endless supply of positive reviews, and a pretty bitchin’ throwback poster, I was pretty stoked to see It Follows, and I admit it may have amped up my expectations – but I was pretty disappointed.
It Follows tells the story of Jay, a girl who has sex with her boyfriend, only to then discover he’s manipulated a situation so that he can pass on a curse to her – now that he’s had sex with her, a strange malevolent being will always follow her, and always be somewhere walking straight to her, until she has sex with someone else and passes the curse along.
This is a good premise; the inducement of paranoia is always a good start for horror (indeed Marble Hornets would have been nothing without paranoia) but the film rarely takes advantage of what it’s set up. We know very little about the titular “it” except what it does; the film’s opening shows in grim detail the aftermath of what happens when “it” finally reaches its target, and it’s not pretty. Through her deceptive lover, Jay learns that “it” can also take the form of anyone she knows or be someone completely random. It also always walks, but as he gravely informs her, “It’s slow –not dumb.”
The problem is that it’s not a very menacing presence. It can be avoided simply by moving faster than it, and while the films succeeds in showing that simply putting some space between “it” and our protagonist is at best a temporary fix, without “it” having a more direct impact on the film, there’s not much to be scared about.
Much of the film comes down to an ethical dilemma; knowing that she is now cursed with this presence always following her, does Jay have sex with someone else to pass it along? It’s also complicated by the fact that her not having sex with someone else means the chain of sexual conquests that led to her will be killed if “it” manages to kill her.
What is commendable about the film is its lack of moralising about sex. It’s never posed to the audience that there’s anything shameful or morally amiss about Jay and her friends being sexually active, even despite its obvious STI allusions in the premise. It’s about the ethical implications of endangering someone’s life, never about being a sexual being or embracing sex as an act in and of itself.
The film has also been praised for its acting, and on that, I will say it’s well acted. That the cast convincingly portray a bunch of fairly uninteresting deadbeats is not necessarily as commendable; characterisation is bland, and we never learn much about the cast to really care about what happens to them, regardless of how imminent the threat of “it” is.
There’s also the matter of “it” being quite inconsistent. The conceit is that it wants to be able to get to Jay no matter what, but given that it can appear as anyone she knows, and that it’s purported to be intelligent enough to know when to do this, it begs the question of why it doesn’t always appear like someone she knows outside of a crowded setting where anonymity would be more advantageous.
Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell claims the film is mainly based in nightmare-logic, and that the story stems from his own anxiety dreams; this is not to say “nightmarish” as in “hellish” but in that same sense of when you have a nightmare and react to it from a primal place, even if the dream is relatively benign. This I can see, and the film (oddly enough) makes more sense if you consider it from a point of view that it’s not meant to make too much logical sense, only instinctive. The use of a deteriorating Detroit creates a depressive milieu for the proceedings, which further enhances the sense of ill-ease the film creates and adds to its nightmarish sensibility.
The camerawork is also very effective, although a bit too reliant on some bravado 360º shots (impressive the first few times, a bit gimmicky by the last) and it helps create an unpredictable visual scope – the shots range from claustrophobic to agoraphobic and the film chooses these moments wisely. Disasterpiece’s score also deserves a mention for creating an effective 80s-era pastiche of horror soundtracks, although there are times where it grates against the ears, and both soundtrack and camera are erratic enough to effectively create the visual and aural discordance to help out the nightmarishness.
The film also captures the dream-logic-nightmare-scape perfectly in two scenes early on, where Jay hears a window shatter – she asks her friend Paul to check it out, and he sees nothing (as he’s not been afflicted with the curse, he can’t see “it”) but when Jay checks herself, there is indeed “it” in the kitchen, slowly stalking towards her – the film shifts into super slow motion and heightens the sound effects to create a legitimately nightmarish and incomprehensible feeling to the situation.
Not too long after, hiding in her room with her friends, they open the door to reveal another of their friends standing in the hallway, when “it” all of a sudden looms from behind her in the form of a very tall man – the suddenness and dissonant size of “it” in this moment operates on that same nightmare logic where things make some sort of Euclidian sense but still jar with what should and shouldn’t be real.
The film doesn’t capture the success of these moments again, instead resorting to some poorly chosen jump scares (which are only few) and primarily a sense of atmosphere and paranoia that it never fully realises. Because “it” is always in the distance, always coming towards Jay and co. and only occasionally having an opportunity to have a direct impact and bare its teeth, the pacing of the film moves about as briskly as “it” walks – there’s just rarely any sense of immediate danger, or the threat of immediate danger when you can see exactly how safe the playing field is between the protagonists and the monster.
There’s also the issue that the film seems to leave out some pretty significant information. While I’m always in favour of a film leaving something for the audience to work out, that shouldn’t also include filling in the large gaps. For instance, in the film’s climax, “it” takes on the form of someone that freaks Jay out, and in her state of panic, claims that she doesn’t want to tell her friends who it is – we later find out who that person was and how they figure in her life, but the significance of that connection is left hanging – one can make assumptions, but they don’t lead to much of a greater impact in how one perceives the film, and as such it comes off less as deliberate ambiguity and more as “oh, did we miss something?”
I did enjoy the throwback style of the film, fitting in along low budget horror films of yore (as tributed by the poster) and it certainly wasn’t a waste of my time, it’s just that in light of the universal acclaim the film has received, I just don’t get what sets this apart from any other slightly-above-average horror film out there.
It does, however, get points for being unconventional, for its atypical promotion of sex (practically unheard of in the genre), and for at least trying something new. And if nothing else, it’ll be really easy to prank any of your friends who find this scary, simply by walking in a straight line at them.
All pictures from the film’s Facebook page