It Follows (2014)

2017 #17
David Robert Mitchell | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

It Follows

It’s always fun when you come across a divisive movie — “which camp are you in?” It Follows is one of those (naturally — I wouldn’t’ve mentioned it otherwise). Some say it’s an instant horror classic, others that it’s slow, boring, unscary, and can’t even follow its own rules. I’m not qualified enough as a horror viewer to claim the former, but nor do I hold with the latter.

If you’ve not already seen it, it’s based around an original horror concept — that, at least, has been near-enough universally praised. After teenager Jay (The Guest’s Maika Monroe) sleeps with her new boyfriend, he reveals that he’s passed a curse to her. She will be followed by something. It always takes human form, but that form changes — it could be a face in the crowd, someone she knows, whatever it needs to get close to her. Only people who have (or have had) the curse can see it. If it catches her, it will kill her, and then return to hunting the previous target (i.e. the boyfriend). The only way to get rid of it is to sleep with someone else and pass it on — though, of course, if they get killed then it’s back to you. The one advantage you have is that it only walks, and slowly — but it never, ever stops. Naturally, Jay doesn’t quite believe it… until things start happening to change her mind, and along with her friends she tries to find a way to shake the curse permanently.

Pretty in pink

A deadly force that moves towards you slowly but unceasingly and unstoppably — sounds like the stuff of nightmares. And it literally is, having been inspired by a series of nightmares writer-director David Robert Mitchell had as a child. He has not made those childhood fears into a childish movie, however. Far from it. Even leaving aside a couple of splashes of gore, the creature’s frequently nude form, and all the sex stuff, It Follows is adult in its filmmaking attitude. Much like the creature, it often moves slowly, letting its story and situations breathe. This is not a multiplex movie; not a teen-friendly horror flick for date night. It feels more like an indie drama, with Mitchell creating a slow, methodical pace, which doesn’t linger on things — he trusts we’ll spot them. It’s subtle filmmaking, respectful of the audience and our ability to work stuff out. There’s the subject matter, too, about disaffected youth killing time… until they start being stalked by a murderous force, anyway.

One thing I’d say it excels at is creating that ambiance of teenage life. That sense of endless time to do nothing, to be bored — who gets bored once they’re a grown-up and there’s not enough time to do everything you want to do, never mind have time to kill doing nothing? There are parents, but they’re barely present — they exist, but they also aren’t part of your life. They never really tell Jay’s mother what’s going on, nor get the police involved, beyond an initial, fruitless investigation into the boyfriend. Well, why would they? Like being a teen, adults have no real power in your world (i.e. your friendship circle); you can’t talk about all your ‘problems’ with them. Some of this is literally applicable to the film (seriously, are the police going to believe a teenage girl who says she’s being stalked by an invisible killer?), but it’s also part of the film’s broader metaphor.

Normal teens

They’re also a decent evocation of normal teens, not the Cool Kids you usually see in movies and TV — they don’t talk in pop culture references or be all hip and aware, like the cast of Sceam or Buffy or something. They’re more normal… apart from the fact they’re always watching black-and-white B-movies, anyway. They’re fumbling their way through life, and the situation they’re in forces them to wake up a little — and they fumble their way through that, too. Again, more metaphors for the real experience of adolescence.

Of course, if you don’t want that kind of stuff from your Horror movie, then I guess It Follows would seem slow and disinterested. So what of the scary stuff? As with pretty much all horror movies, your mileage will vary — perusing various reviews and comment threads shows no consistency in that regard. Personally, I found it more than sufficiently creepy. The whole effect is built on being very atmospheric rather than simplistically Scary. It’s not without its jump scares or freaky moments, but it’s the building sense of dread and tension where it most chills; that has you looking in the back of every frame for what’s coming; longing for a reverse shot, because what if it’s coming from the other direction? There are some very edge-of-your-seat sequences where Mitchell establishes there is something there, that something is coming, but then the camera pans slowly around, or it cuts away, and keeps cutting to other stuff, and you’re begging for it to cut back to the original shot, or for the pan to speed up, so that you can see how things are going, how close it’s getting, to LET US KEEP A BLOODY EYE ON IT.

Ahem.

Rules? What rules?

Also from reading others’ comments, it strikes me that the people who are most let down by the film are the ones who are either: a) looking for it to establish and follow a set of rules, or b) reading it as a great big sex metaphor. While it undoubtedly has rules (as a horror movie with a supernatural foe, it requires them) and obviously there’s a sex-related reading (the curse is passed on through sex — how can there not be?), I’m not sure either of these are the film’s main concern; at least, not in the way you’d expect them to be.

People as high and mighty as Quentin Tarantino have criticised the film for its faulty internal logic, for not following its own rules, but I don’t agree. For starters, some of the faults QT calls out are actually explained in the film itself. For seconds, the rules are never established with perfect clarity. We’re given some rules up front, but they come from a scared teenage boy whose only source for this information is his own experience. This isn’t some sage old wise-man or some ancient textbook, this is just some kid who’s been lucky enough to survive a while — who’s to say his observations are 100% accurate? Personally, I don’t think they are. Some people defend the film by saying there are no rules, that it’s operating under dream logic, and that’s fine because the point is to be scary, but I don’t agree with that either. I think the behaviour of “it” does bend the rules we’ve been told, but that’s because the rules we’ve been told are incomplete. I believe it is operating under a set of specific rules, which Mitchell knows but hasn’t fully shared with us. And further, I think that’s not only OK, but actively a good thing. Rules create a safety net — you know what it can and can’t do, and you can work out what to do to defeat it, and, by extension, a way for the characters to win. But if you can’t be certain what it’s going to do next, that’s scarier — and this is a horror movie, not an instruction manual.

Sex

As to the sex stuff, the obvious reading is the good old horror movie cliche of “having sex = getting killed”; or, more specifically, “losing virginity = getting killed”. Except that’s not the case at all. There’s a throwaway reference to the fact Jay isn’t a virgin, never mind the lack of general “it’s my first time” handwringing you’d realistically expect if she were, so if it’s a punishment for sex then it’s a bit late coming. Even more omnipresently, the way to beat the curse (albeit temporarily) is to sleep with more people. If the message was intended to be “sex is bad, mmkay kids” then it’d’ve royally fucked that up.

There’s an awful lot of theories that can be crafted out of It Follows — about what it’s saying about sex, about teenage life, about growing up, about the inevitability of death. I don’t think it’s the kind of horror movie that’s designed to scare you for 90 minutes in a darkened cinema in a comforting fashion (there are no pauses or fake-out scares to elicit reassuring laughter). It’s designed to chill you on a more fundamental level, and perhaps to say something about something too — though what those somethings are, well, we can debate that.

I also think its shortage of hard-and-fast rules should not invite derision, but rather our own theories. Like, what’s going on with water — does it really have an aversion to it? If so, why? Can it stop it? Spoilers: apparently not. More spoilers (just skip to the next paragraph if you’ve not seen it): does it require a chance to manifest as one of your parents before it can kill you? We don’t see how it appears to the girl at the start, though note she’s on the phone apologising to her father just before it does. Jay’s friend who dies identifies it as his mom just before we see it fuck him to death. When it finally catches up with Jay in the pool, it’s her dad. Conversely, when it attacks her on the beach earlier it starts by just grabbing her hair — why not get her then?

Wet

And I haven’t even mentioned the awesome synth score by Disasterpiece, or the era-unspecific production design. Maybe that doesn’t signify anything beyond an aesthetic throwback (the score is very Halloween; there’s some modern tech but they’re not all on their mobiles).

As I said at the start, my experience with the horror genre is too slight to ever go labelling something a genre classic. But this isn’t ‘just’ a horror movie. Like the same year’s The Babadook, there are dramatic elements that stretch out beyond the genre’s usual stomping ground, not to mention an atmosphere of terror that exceeds simplistic attempts to make you jump in your seat every few minutes and call it a day. It’s the kind of film that lingers after the credits roll, as you ponder the gaps it leaves you to ponder, and keep looking over your shoulder, because you never know when something might be following you…

5 out of 5

The UK network premiere of It Follows is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

The Babadook (2014)

2015 #170
Jennifer Kent | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia & Canada / English | 15

Essie Davis is best known for playing the sassy title role in popular Australian Christie-esque TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (for now — she’s in Game of Thrones next year), but here goes completely against type as single mother Amelia, who has to battle not only the stress of her awkward child, but also a strange storybook that may contain some kind of monster… but that would be silly… wouldn’t it?

Perhaps it’s best to not say too much about what’s going on with all that, because the film does a fantastic job blurring the lines between reality and dreams, facts and imaginings, whether it’s all happening or is all in Amelia’s head. For the majority of the film you’ll wonder: is this real? Is she being pranked? By who? A stalker? Her kid? Is she going insane and imagining it all? Sure, it’s a horror movie, so you’re thinking it’s real, but that’s what twists are for — the scares may be real, doesn’t mean the monster is.

And the scares are very real indeed. Not simplistic jump scares, but a festering tension that occasionally bursts forth in moments of specific terror. That doesn’t work for… a certain kind of viewer (to put it politely), but, for me, it makes the film far more genuinely scary, and memorably so, than being made to jump out of my seat a couple of times. Some have also criticised The Babadook for not being 100% original. Well, what is after a century of moviemaking and millennia of storytelling? What it does do is rearrange the familiar in new and terrifying ways, and tap into seams of fear that are harder to access and consequently too rarely touched by horror films. In that regard, the film it most reminded me of was The Shininga horror film for people who think about what they’re watching, rather than just waiting for something to be thrown at the screen to make them jump. The slow burn tension will bore those content with the latter, who I suspect don’t tend to think a great deal (for one thing, they’d spot most of the jumps coming if they did).

Underpinning this is an incredible performance by Essie Davis. If this were merely a drama about a single mother coping with grief, rather than a genre movie, I’m sure she’d’ve been being rewarded all over the place. Again, I guess this turns off the ‘gorehound’ cadre of horror fans, but it’s the combined strength of the writing (by director Jennifer Kent) and Davis’ performance that mean the entire film is interpretable as a drama about grief and mental illness, rather than about an attacking monster or demonic possession or whatever else it might seem is going on (trying to avoid spoiling it again there!) For more on that, see this interpretation, for instance (bearing in mind it’s obviously spoilersome).

Although it’s Davis’ film, Noah Wiseman gives an accomplished performance as her kid. Well, maybe he’s too young to call it “accomplished”, I don’t know, but it must’ve been a difficult role to play — it calls for him to be a sweet little boy one minute, and a nightmare demon-child (in the real-world rather than horror-movie sense!) the next. He starts off immensely irritating — you can see why no one in the film likes him! — but he does grow on you. The next best performance is, of course, by their very cute little dog. (Do not watch this movie just because of the dog. Seriously.)

There is little in The Babadook that will make you jump, and even less that will make your stomach turn in disgust, but that’s absolutely fine. What it will do is chill your blood, make your hair stand on end, make you worry about every little creak or thump you hear elsewhere in the house after dark, and make you want to sleep with the lights on. Not just the bedroom lights, all the lights. Because once you’ve seen it, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.