Movie Review: “It Follows” (David Robert Mitchell, USA 2014)

The modern slasher film is one of the more rigid and popular genres in film, and it has spawned no end of parodies and self-aware revisions because of that rigidity and popularity. At its heart, the slasher film is about the dangers of underage and/or premarital sex, with a plot that breaks down simply as: young people have sex and then some monster seeks to kill them for it. There are countless variations on this simple formula that began with Halloween (John Carpenter, USA 1978) and its tale of babysitters hunted down by a supernatural evil in the shape of a man and has continued through the Scream series with its complex tale of movie-inspired revenge and mayhem, and it has gone every direction in between.

It Follows follows in that tradition, but this is no more complex new version of the slasher genre. It’s not a loving tribute to the simplicity of the form like the most recent Halloween entries. It’s not a self-aware tribute to the genre like Scream (Wes Craven, USA 1996). It’s not a parody like Scary Movie (Keenen Ivory Wayans, USA 2000). It’s not a message to the film industry about its solipsism and fear of new ideas like The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2012). Instead, this film comes across as an experiment: what if we boiled down the slasher genre to nothing more than: young people have sex and a monster goes after them. The only plot element that Mitchell adds to that simplified version of the slasher plot is that this monster actually only hunts one person at a time, and the way to pass it on is to have sex–an element that helps to simplify the plot to its boiled-down core.

The problem is that the very plot element that makes the film unique–passing the monster on via sex–is also the one that undoes any semblance of a point. We can argue about whether it’s a good point or not, but Halloween makes the very clear point that sex is bad. The only thing that can save you from monsters is virginity. This film says, “Sex is bad, but once you have it, you have to have it with everyone you meet.” The clarity of the point that has often been the only saving grace of a simplistic genre of film is completely lost in this experiment, yielding a film that has no real point.

Indeed, what this film relies on instead is a tense atmosphere filled with a ton of false scare moments and a few scenes of incestuous terror. The tense atmosphere is good, but it’s also driven mostly by how little happens in the film, making the false jump scares necessary simply to keep the audience awake. Meanwhile, the plot meanders through cliche with no sign of an original mind at work, even managing to continue one of the biggest consistent problems of horror films: artistic monsters. The monster has the opportunity to kill its supposed object, Kay, but instead decides to play with her hair so that we can have the supposedly terrifying (but in reality more laugh-inducing) scene of her hair lifting up from nothing. The monster can disguise itself as anyone but apparently always treats its killings as sexual conquests and yet it doesn’t disguise itself as a sexy member of the opposite sex: indeed its favorite disguises are opposite-sex parents and dirty, grimy people wearing little to no clothing. The monster isn’t actually out to kill people so much as it’s out to do something much more artistic, which doesn’t make any sense within the film’s world.

Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis make a fairly standard-looking film, but they also make some pretty glaring concessions to the CGI gods. A few scenes are just so fake-looking that I laughed (which I was able to do without worry, because I was literally alone in the theater).

Meanwhile, the film’s acting was surprisingly competent. For a film with no recognizable faces, it was refreshing to see not a single terrible performance. Indeed, the only person who really stood out was Keir Gilchrist, and he stood out in a good way, playing a conflicted character with some real subtlety and depth. He came across as a real person in a decidedly fake world, and that’s definitely to his credit. Maika Monroe just had to be able to look pretty and scream and she did that well enough. The other kids really just had to be, well, normal kids–they had to be concerned about their friend but still generally sarcastic and uncaring about the world around them, and that’s really all they had to show. They did it well enough.

Rich Vreeland’s score is difficult to understand. On one hand, it seems clear that it is inspired by John Carpenter’s work on his early films. On the other, this film as a whole does not come across as a satire or tribute to that style of film. The score is often obtrusive, but that’s also true of many of those ’80s synthesizer scores (Carpenter’s in particular), so if you take it as a tribute to or satire of those scores, that obtrusiveness is not the kind of sin it normally would be in a score. However, if you instead take it as its own work without reference to those past scores, it’s really annoying.

All in all, It Follows isn’t anything like the “new genre of horror” that advertising has called it. It’s a confused experiment within the slasher genre that has no idea what it wants to say and as a result ends up as nothing more than a pretty good tense atmosphere being pretty well-acted for two hours while a lot of nonsensical things happen. It’s not the worst film I’ve ever seen, but I’ve rarely been so bored in a movie theater.

Notes

  • Isn’t this obvious? If the thing is passed by sex, have sex with a prostitute. The prostitute is going to pass it on before it has a chance to get him/her. Even if the “john” (Are they called “johns” regardless of sex?) dies, the prostitute is still going to pass it on before it’s likely to have enough time to get to him/her, and probably long before he/she ever has any opportunity to know about it. It seems rather unlikely that the monster would ever get back to you as soon as you so passed it. And yet this idea never even seems to occur to the people on screen. I realize this is a cold-hearted idea, but it’s less cold-hearted than assuming a fake identity to have sex with some girl and then tie her up and show her the monster, isn’t it?
  • One thing that was nice about the film: the teenagers weren’t the jackasses we normally see in slasher films. They cared about their friend or neighbor who was in trouble and did their best to help.
  • I don’t understand why Paul thought the swimming pool was such a great idea. I assume he wasn’t a Mythbusters fan and so that’s why he thought the electrical devices would do something, but why did he think electricity would kill it? And why did apparently no one think about that Jay would have to be able to get out?
  • This film has some great character names in the credits: Hot Girl, Hot Guy, Old Naked Man, Giant Man, Greg’s Date (Pretty Girl in Car) . . .
  • Why do we have one of these movies every year that is supposedly “the new evolution in horror” or “the newest genre of horror” when they are really just a continuation of what horror has done? Even The Cabin in the Woods, for all that I love it, isn’t a new genre–it’s a revisionist take on an old genre. Instead of using these bizarre buzzwords, how about they just say, “A great scare-fest!,” since that’s what they really mean anyway.
  • One thing the film did really well that didn’t fit in the rest of the review well: the opening sequence was excellent. You can’t get more emblematic of the entire slasher genre than having a conspicuously busty teenaged girl run out of her house, drive off to a beach somewhere, park and then leave her father a bizarre death message before her mangled body is found the next day. It was even great how she ran away during broad daylight, something most slasher films wouldn’t show. (But it was also silly how the brake lights stayed on in the car while she was standing in front of it on the beach. And how she was unwilling to say anything to anybody when they asked her what was wrong. And how she was clearly running away from something whose location she didn’t know. Yeah, even in their good moments, most horror films really expect you to ignore a lot.)
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