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It Follows

 Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 2.42.22 PM

“When there is torture, there is pain and wounds, physical agony, and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering, so that one is tormented only by the wounds until the moment of death. but the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for curtain that within an hour, then ten minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant–your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that this is certain; the worst thing is certain.”  –Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Idiot”

The first 65 minutes of “It Follows” are perfect.  I have watched this film multiple times, closely and carefully, and there is not a scene, not a camera angle, not a sound cue or nuance of a performance that I don’t think is exactly as it should be during that first hour and change.  That’s pretty remarkable.  This is masterful filmmaking.  It more than makes up for the last 35 minutes, which are kind of a mess.

The opening sequence is a nice example.  (You can watch it on the video clips at the end of this review, thanks to Vimeo.)  Watch how it immediately challenges horror movie conventions — almost always, the heroine is isolated and if she can just find help or get someone’s attention, she’ll be saved.  Here, two people offer to help her, including her father, and she turns them down.   We are unmoored.

And that’s the feeling maintained throughout “It Follows,” to an almost unbearable degree. Like almost all of the best horror flicks, “It Follows” is more about dread than shocks. It’s the anticipation, the knowing that something’s approaching, always approaching, and there’s no stopping it. It’s fear of death, as it always is in all zombie movies.  Every stranger, every footstep, every doorway you’re not watching could bring your death.  And even when it’s not – like when the soccer player or the nurse passes by, even then the relief is laced with dread, because if that wasn’t it, that means it’s still coming, it’s still unknown, out there somewhere, following you.

It sounds kind of dumb on paper.  This is a horror flick about a girl haunted by a spectre that can take any shape or form, targets only her, moves slowly but never stops until it has killed her.  The only way to get rid of it is to have sex with someone, and then it will follow them – until it kills them, and comes after her. And then the person who gave it to her. It’s possible to stay ahead of “it,” but never to completely be free from it – and passing it along means doing something horrible to either someone you care about, or to yourself.

There’s plenty of room for metaphor and interpretation when you’ve got a monster associated with both sex and death, but nothing completely ties up all the loose ends in “It Follows.” Maybe it’s loss of innocence or youth, virginity/sexual innocence.  Maybe it’s death – it’s telling that one of the characters is reading “The Idiot” throughout the movie, and the part I quoted above comes straight from the movie.  Maybe it’s all of these things, in some form or other, constantly shifting, like the spectre itself.  I’m fine with that.

And while it’s a very effective arthouse horror flick, “It Follows” also functions on a completely different frequency, as a melancholy-ridden coming of age movie, borrowing moods and textures “Dazed and Confused” and John Hughes’ sadder films (is it possible to mention melancholy coming-of-age flicks without mentioning John Hughes? I doubt it.)  To overload this review with references, it might be that the characters here are running from the same things the characters are running from in “American Graffiti.”

More than anything, though, this is a movie that shows off the technical skill and craftsmanship of director David Robert Mitchell — in a way that doesn’t feel nearly as showy as some bigger name directors (cough, Tarantino,  cough, Inarritu.)  After watching this, I immediately added Mitchell’s first movie “Myth of the American Sleepover” to my Netflix queue, and I’ll be watching for what he does next. Establishing a mood is a lot harder than filming a scene or sequence, and every single frame of that first sixty five minutes serves the mood of the film, until it’s nearly overwhelming.

Films like this don’t get enough recognition at awards ceremonies for their craft.  (Horror flicks, like sci-fi and fantasy, because they exist beyond the realm of human experience, are either victories of craft, or failures.)  Disasterpeace wrote a fantastic score for this film, and as far as I can tell, it wasn’t nominated for a single award.  It is far and away better than most of the scores nominated for Academy Awards.

And I just can’t get over the production design on this film.  It is absolutely amazing.  Usually production design isn’t something most of us notice about a film, unless it’s bad.  A period drama needs to pay attention to period detail, Mars needs to look like Mars in “The Martian,” etc.  But there’s something else going on in “It Follows” — something much more difficult and impressive.  The director and production designer Michael Perry have made an interesting series of choices to unmoor us in time.  Instead of keeping everything vague, as a lot of movies do, so you can’t place them in time, it includes very specific details from a variety of times.  We see old tube TVs – a smaller one on top of a broken bigger one – remember that?  But modern cars and gadgets.  The effect, if you’re paying attention, and maybe even if you’re not, is dreamlike.   And that’s the tightwire the filmmakers are walking – if anything ever looked too out of place, it would be distracting and take away from the film. They have to be there, at the edge of your vision, not quite right, not quite fitting together, but never drawing your attention, either.   It creates a vague feeling of uneasiness, much more an actual dream than like movies that try to be dreamlike;  in actual dreams, things will appear out of place, and you don’t notice until you wake up and try to tell someone about it.  I’m amazed that it works.

Here are some of my favorite clips from the film.

OK, let’s talk about what doesn’t work in “It Follows.”  Spoiler alert.  

  A quick rundown of everything that’s wrong with the last 35 minutes:

  • Up until the hospital, sex has been treated with respect.  People don’t treat people like objects, though that’s the easiest way out of this nightmare – not even the guy who passes the spectre to Jay.  The film seems to be taking extra pains to paint him as not so bad a guy.  And then suddenly… she has sex with the neighbor, who gets killed?  What?
  • And then the boys in the boat… what’s up with that?  Does she have sex with them, and then they get killed, and the spectre comes after her?  That feels like a giant chapter just alluded to, and not consistent with what’s gone before.
  • The pool idea is dumb.  Mitchell has owned that it’s dumb; he wanted something a bunch of high school kids would come up with only realizing in the middle of it what a bad plan it was.  OK, that’s fine. But then… what happens? They shoot it in the head?  And now it’s dead?  Really, that was all it took, a bullet to the head?  Lame.
  • Some people think not – theories abound on the internet that the person in the final scene following Jay and Paul is the spectre, and they’ve just learned to live with it, and keep out of reach.  OK, except up until this point, the spectre has been very easy to spot – it’s always dressed in white or naked, and usually in some kind of disturbing state of undress (like the girl with pee running down her leg.) It doesn’t exactly blend in.
  • The characters don’t seem aware of this — Hugh/Jeff sees a girl in a yellow dress in the theater that he thinks is the spectre because Jay can’t see her, but why is she just standing there and not moving towards him? Also the girl in the park when they go to see Jeff – obviously not the spectre, dressed too normal.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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