I had the chance to catch a showing of It Follows on the silver screen yesterday, and I wanted to share my thoughts on it. The best way I could describe It Follows is a three-way mash-up of Halloween, The Thing and Night of the Living Dead. Take the stoic menace of Michael Myers, add the clever evil of The Thing and top it off with the creeping death of George Romero’s ghouls and you have the terrifying threat from It Follows.
What makes the film really stand out to me is its simplicity. It has a simple albeit effective premise. The protagonist, Jay, has been cursed by a relentless entity that will constantly pursue her. The catch: it moves at a walking pace. You can already see the similarities between the creature of It Follows and the shambling undead hordes of various zombie fiction. The difference here is that this creature, whilst also moving at a plodding pace, is bound to her completely, and can be seen by her alone.
For an indie film, there could be no more perfect basis. There’s no real need for excessive amounts of special effects. The threat is established within minutes and we know the mechanics of it perfectly be the end of the first act. The entity – not unlike Samara from The Ring – will follow you at a walking pace until you pass it on to someone else. But even then, you aren’t entirely free, either. Should that person die, it continues back down the line, meaning that even if you pass it along, you’ve only delayed the inevitable for a little while. It can and will come back.
With this basic premise, David Robert Mitchell has plenty of room to craft a dreadfully brilliant horror experience.
Spoilers after the jump.
For an indie film, there’s a surprising amount of depth and “show, don’t tell” here. I came in expecting what Ebert referred to as the “dead teenager movie”, but I was surprised by how it established itself as a unique film both independent from, and deeply inspired by, horror movies of the past. The entire film gave off a strong eighties vibe with its synth-based soundtrack composed by Disasterpeace. Rather than try to explain what I mean, I’ll just direct you to the title track on Bandcamp here. This music combined with the suburban setting made me feel like I was watching a definite homage to John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic at times.
But it never really seemed to fall into the satire category. Unlike Cabin in the Woods or Motel Hell, I wasn’t getting the impression that the director was trying to satirise or even poke fun of previous works. Instead, It Follows feels content to be one of them, with its own unique takes on the horror genre.
Interestingly, sex plays a huge role, but in a way I didn’t expect. In a lot of horror movies, I never understood why there has to be so much sex. There’s always an over-abundance of undressing, constant romancing and teasing throughout horror films, both the ones of today and yesteryear. And I suppose that only makes sense; the victims in these types of movies are typically teenagers.
So whilst the set up is similar to that of a teenage murder slasher flick, it doesn’t exactly play out that way. It incorporates elements of supernatural horror almost reminiscent of The Grudge and the resulting mixed dish of horror with which we are left feels as fresh as it does familiar.
The pacing and flow of the film breaks out from the usual horror routine. I expected the movie to really ramp up about half way or, at the very latest, three-fourths in, and start killing off characters at a regular pace. Instead, what I found was that, of the two casualties in the movie, only one was an actual main character, and he wasn’t one of the more likeable ones. Usually with films like this, I expect to see the entire cast killed off one by one until leaving the heroine to survive either alone or with her new romantic interest with the implacable threat being, at best, staved off for the time being.
Of course, sometimes it’s acceptable to kill of the other cast, as we often see throughout the Final Destination series. This can come as quite a shock to moviegoers, who shriek and bite their nails at danger, but expect deep down that most characters or at least the main character will survive. However, the main objective of a horror film is to shock and terrify, so those rules are suspended. For this reason, we often find a compromise with a cast of unlikeable characters who get exactly what they deserve at the hands of the antagonist. With some slashers, I find watching the cast get killed almost cathartic.
In Halloween for example, Laurie Strode – who would eventually lay down the groundwork for the “final girl” stock character – was the meek, likable innocent one. She didn’t seem interested in drugs, sex and other acts of debauchery in which the other girls were partaking. Jamie Lee Curtis’ character, the protagonist, was completely innocent and survives.
It Follows seems to reverse this, by having our main character start out as a fairly average teen. She’s done some stupid things, but she never seems to be the one inclined to doing these things. It’s her sister who smokes and her boyfriend who buys her beer and after having sex with the latter, and it doesn’t seem like sex is something she’s done very often if ever before.
That being said, there’s plenty of sex to go around in horror movies, but all the characters here feel a little more… reserved. They aren’t all unlikable archetypes. Instead, they seem like average, relatable human beings, despite being teenagers. In fact, the first thing I noticed was how average the acting felt. They weren’t overdoing it and they weren’t underselling it. For the most part, they just felt really “real.”
What this film really does to turn the genre on its head is how the curse works. First, the idea of a monster that is constantly pursuing you is absolutely terrifying. The only way to escape it is to find a mode of transport faster than walking and outpace it, which at best only buys you some time. That is all they can do in this movie, drive to and from different locations, and hope they don’t get caught in one place for too long. Imagine having to sleep with that level of dread. You could never live a normal live knowing that, at some point, it will return. But when? The thought is horrifying.
Second, the curse is transferable via sex. I found this incredibly interesting, as it means the relatively conservative teenaged characters of the film are forced to engage in more sex to stay alive, meaning that is the more promiscuous ones that survive longer. Of course, comparisons to the AIDS epidemic abound, but as a horror fan I found this facet very fascinating.
And for all of its likable characters, only one of them die, and that’s all I really needed. Again, I expected at least a majority of the cast to be killed, but this proved to be more than a slasher flick, and I’m happy for it. I think, had they killed off perhaps Paul or even the dorky comic relief girl, there could have been more impact, but what they did still left a lingering feeling of dread in me. It is after all, the buildup that really matters. And this movie is about 80% excellent build-up with some pretty good payoff.
The film’s ending is open-ended. By the end, all we see is Paul driving past some prostitutes (after having sex with Jay and having the curse transferred to him) and later walking down the sidewalk, holding Jay’s hands as a person walks behind them. What transpired and whether or not that walking person is the malevolent entity is left to audience interpretation. Personally, I like to think that Paul did have sex with the prostitutes. It just feels like a Paul thing to do. It’s a sort of twisted heroic sacrifice, and I really love it.
Although it’s clear that he is very much interested in Jay – they did have a relationship when they younger – he also seems to be a good person in spite of those feelings. So though I felt there were some conflicting motivations in him, I think that overall he was the most sympathetic character in the whole movie, even moreso than Jay. He’s kind of awkward and clearly a little “thirsty” but man, who isn’t? Despite his obvious desires, Paul manages to go above and beyond to do what’s right, and that’s why I choose to interpret the ending the way that I do.
I don’t have any major qualms with the film, just a few minor ones which I could summarise as a lack of cohesion. There’s a lot of very cool ideas at work here, but not all of the pieces fit. There’s a lot of subtlety to the movie and whilst I appreciate that, I kind of wish It Follows had a more unified theme. As it is, it’s a menagerie of motifs and themes not fully realised or fleshed out. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s scary as hell. And isn’t that what matters most?
On the surface, it’s a simple indie horror film made on a cheap budget and some good actors. But it’s a lot more than that. All at once, It Follows takes its cues from the great horror classics of the past few decades whilst striking out on its own to create something that feels fresh and exciting and not at all formulaic in the slightest. I reached a point in the middle of this movie where I realised my prior knowledge of scary movies wasn’t going to help me here. I didn’t know what to expect for a great portion of it, and whilst it isn’t the most original horror movie ever created, it was certainly a breath of fresh air that kept me on my toes the whole time.
This is the movie that made “slowly walking person” scary again. More indies like this, please.