On showing and telling: A critical review of “It Follows” (2015)

It seems like every couple of years there’s some new movie that’s touted as the one that’s completely changed the rules of horror. In 2012, it was “Cabin in the Woods”; last year it was “It Follows,” which I caught on Showtime the other day.

I dislike that kind of thinking. It seems to suggest that there’s something wrong with horror as it is–that it needs saving. I think it’s telling that whenever there’s a film that’s given the distinction of “savior of horror,” it’s something that attempts intelligence or artistry. This is more than misguided; it’s demeaning. It leads back to the old notion of the mystery science ghetto–any horror film that attempts intelligence or artistry must be the one that’s going to save the genre because the genre is naturally stupid and artless. That’s nonsense; horror has as much potential for intelligence and artistry as any other genre.

“It Follows” is unquestionably an artsy movie. The film follows Jay (newly minted scream queeen Maika Monroe), a sexy teen who thinks she’s going to have sexy sex with her boyfriend (Jake Weary, looking like the world’s oldest high schooler); instead, he knocks her out, ties her to a chair and infects her with “it.” Basically, the titular “it” is a ghostly shape shifting entity that follows Jay around–always silent, slow moving and wearing white–that will kill her if it gets too close. Jay’s friends–including a standard dork with a crush (Keir Gilchrist)–go from doubting her sanity to increasingly desperate attempts to protect her from the invincible entity.

The film is certainly visually rewarding. The cinematography is pleasant and clean–and I mean that. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis have a penchant for setting up and focusing on interesting shots (the opening scene is essentially one shot and largely silent). The film also knows how to display color. While many indie horror films opt for a monochrome or limited palate, “It Follows” is refreshingly vibrant. So the film looks good. But is it smart? Well…

The atmosphere is the film’s strongest element. The environment is dream-like. No parents trouble the teens, and the architecture of the town rolls on like an eternal suburbia, bordered by a local beach and a village green. Bodies of water–a pool, a lake, another pool–act as grounding elements rather than street signs. There is also an untimely, decidedly retro feel to the film, from the props to the shots (and the score sounds like outtakes from 1979’s “Phantasm”). The entity is the most dream-like part of the film. It lopes in the distance, looking like someone different every time it turns a corner or disappears behind a door, or it simply stands and stares almost out of sight. The fact that other people can’t see it only adds to its dream-like mystique.

The subtext is quite well handled. Although the most common interpretation of the film is that the entity represents sexually transmitted diseases, it’s sexually suggestive in more than one way. The fear of intimacy, the cheapening of sex in modern society and even the inevitability of death are all wrapped inside the film’s symbolism. It works, for the most part, but there are flubs. For example, one wonders what’s up with the bottles of pills in the boyfriend’s hideout–if they’re meds, the film might be suggesting a psychological, rather than supernatural, explanation for its events, but this idea is never developed. Perhaps it is all simply about venereal disease, and the pills are a shot at the mercury cure?

Part of the problem is that the film is much more concerned with atmosphere than narrative. While I myself am more impressed by atmosphere than narrative, “It Follows” loses its way more than once, particularly with the monstrous entity that lurks at the periphery of the film.

“It Follows'” climactic pool scene might be a nod to the climax of the excellent “Let the Right One In,” but I prefer to think it’s a nod to Val Lewton and Jacques Tournier’s excellent “Cat People.” Despite working for RKO, Lewton behaved like an independent producer, so he’s an ideal idol for indie horror filmmakers everywhere–his tricks were designed to maximize psychological impact while minimizing budget. Much like “Cat People,” “It Follows” wants to hide its monster in the shadows. But while the poolside scene in “Cat People” kept the monster just out of shot and out of sight, in “It Follows,” as soon as we’re in the pool, the film starts showcasing its lack of visible monster is a very different way. Where before the monster was glimpses of out of place people, now we have teenagers shouting at what appears to be nothing…nothing that is throwing toasters.

A film has to be fairly comfortable with its monster to show it; it must be very comfortable not to show it. “It Follows” wants to have the best of both worlds. It can’t. I’m sorry if I’m nitpicking, but “It Follows” is such an earnest and well conceived attempt that it feels like it can handle some nitpicking. “It Follows” is a good looking and atmospheric and–dare I say it–a  fresh take on an old story. But its unsteady plot collapses in its final third. Two impressive thirds of a film do not a great film make, but those two thirds are impressive enough to demand attention.

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