“It Follows” (2014) follows no formula
I don’t know what’s scarier — modern horror films themselves or the current state of the horror genre, which has become a factory for lazy and unoriginal pabulum. In most contemporary films, frightening has become a formula — a veritable cinematic slot machine, where audiences pay their money to watch a string of classic icons, like the possessed child, clown or abandoned house. Even worse, many nascent directors have taken to using horror as a springboard for their careers — the films are cheap, don’t require professional actors and just need bad lighting and a broken music box to get the ball rolling. Like visitors to Atlantic City, modern horror audiences are destined not to be satisfied. But luckily, there are exceptions to the rule. “It Follows” (2014) is just that — the rare breed that waits, lurks and lets your mind do the scaring.
The film begins in an apple-pie suburban neighborhood, which quickly loses a slice as a teenager speeds away from her home and is found on the beach the next morning with her right leg snapped gruesomely backward. Yes, we’re in familiar scared teenagers territory, but director David Mitchell is too smart to fall for the same tropes as the prepubescent minds behind most high school flicks. Shocking and unjustified, the grisly corpse sat in my mind, festering, breeding maggots of uncertainty and fear.
Mitchell quickly moves the film along to introduce Jay Height (Maika Monroe) and her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary), whom the film finds waiting in line at a theatre — a familiar scene to audience members only 20 minutes removed from buying their own tickets. Jay and Hugh grab dinner and have steamy sex in his beat up car, and all seems to be going well, until Hugh starts suffocating her. When Jay wakes up tied to a wheelchair, Hugh is waiting... for “It.” But this “It” is far scarier than the rather hokey, fanged clown conjured by Stephen King in his 1986 novel of the same name. Instead, Mitchell’s “It” is a murderous, shape-shifting succubus, perpetually shuffling zombie-like toward Jay. Imagine the woman from “The Shining” (1980), if she just kept walking out of the bathroom and into your life. This is the curse passed on through sex and now visible only to Jay (metaphors for sexually trasnmitted diseases and rape abound) that will now relentlessly pursue her, at school and in her home, until she can pass it on to someone else or is killed.
“It” flies in the face of most boogie men, refusing to hide behind corners and then jump out in an adult version of peek-a-boo. Instead, Mitchell gives us agonizing long shots in which we see “It” long before Jay does, watching powerlessly as “It” lurks slowly behind her, wracking our nerves with every step. Here, Mitchell lets us generate the scare — nothing in the scene threatens us directly, no 3D-axe comes flying out into the front row — but our anxiety stretches over the film’s 100-minute run time as “It” refuses to give up, displaying a tank-like determination. “It Follows” is admirable in choosing this slow-burn strategy — instead of opting for the cheaper gratification of jump scares and sudden cuts, now rampant throughout contemporary horror, Mitchell trusts that our worries of the near future will be the true monster.
In doing so, Mitchell reveals himself as a true craftsman. Technically, the young director gives a virtuoso performance behind the camera, employing dizzying 360-degree pans (a technique used brilliantly in “Paranormal Activity 3” (2011)) which begin with an empty room and return with “It” now marching squarely toward us. The score — like Hans Zimmer meets “The Shining” — further adds to the film with rumbling, visceral dissonances that steadily assault our ears in an ideal analog to “It.”
Perhaps most importantly, the film’s greatest strength is capturing the abject — a term used in horror to describe a state of debased sublimity, the perfectly traumatic that occludes proper language for expression and leaves us stammering, cowering and covering our mouths. After all, no one can see “It” besides Jay. It can be your mother or a decaying, urinating prostitute — the virgin or the whore. It personifies the ideas behind Freud’s essay “The Uncanny”: it is the infinite double, a faux-human, endlessly repeating walking and raping, while foregrounding repressed Oedipal and Electral desires. It is both overdetermined and indeterminable. We know nothing more about “It” at the end than at the beginning. “It” is the perfect boogie man, or, if I may coin a phrase, “boogie it.”
Although “It Follows” unravels slightly as it draws toward its close, following the teenagers as they plot an elaborate Scooby Doo gang scheme to catch the monster, Mitchell’s third film will stick with you long after the credits. Like its monster, “It Follows” will stay right behind you, getting under your skin and surely slip into bed with you as you fall asleep, its abject thoughts lurking out of your unconscious and into the fore of your nightmares.
“It Follows” is in theaters in Lebanon and will arrive on DVD soon.