Pop Culture / writing

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows: A Grand Exercise in Restraint

NOTE: I reviewed the film It Follows (2014) on the now-defunct Pop Culture Junction. I figured since the movie is debuting tonight on Showtime at 9pm EST, and I intend to watch it again (I loved it that much), I’d just leave my previous review right here…

maika monroe

As a horror film junkie, I never particularly cared for the term “slow burn,” even if it’s appropriate in describing the pace of a film. Perhaps it is just BECAUSE I am a horror fanatic that I don’t like the term much as my mind goes straight to literal rather than figurative: it just evokes images of a screaming character, probably tied to a stake, burning alive over the course of an hour and a half. Yeah, I’m into horror, just not that much so. Anyway, what aficionados call the “slow burn,” I call an exercise in practiced restraint. The best thriller writers and directors understand the exercise well. Their characters are slowly, wrenchingly manipulated through the deceit and lies of others in their world. At the very end, we’re treated to further trickery, a secret or two revealed we never saw coming. Horror films, however, seem only commercially successful if we’re exposed to a barrage of cheap jump scares and/or buckets of gratuitous gore. A film professor I had once said something that has stuck with me for decades since: Treat the average American moviegoer as if he were a fourteen year old boy because that’s the typical audience. Of course I don’t fully believe that, but there’s often a lingering bad taste in my mouth whenever I see a horror movie at a local multiplex. So whenever a restrained horror film sneaks its way into the mainstream cinemas, I’m secretly pleased as it’s much-needed, and it tends to drive the fourteen year-olds away.

The irony of the matter is that director/writer David Robert Mitchell’s residually creepy exercise in restraint, It Follows, is all about the teenagers, so it’s a crying shame that absolutely none were at the theater with us to catch it.

The premise of It Follows seems relatively simple: Jay, a nice, all-American teenaged girl living in quiet suburbia hooks up with a handsome older boy with underlying motives. He passes on to her what may be the strangest, most terrifying STD ever conceived: a curse in which an unstoppable supernatural entity slowly—oh so very slowly—follows her, its sole purpose to catch her and kill her. The conniving one night stand who’d done this to our poor heroine is “gentlemanly” enough to give her some last minute information before the entity emerges, on its lumbering way towards her: The entity can appear as anyone, including loved ones, and no matter where she goes, sooner or later, it will catch up to her, so she must always make sure she has an easy exit. Finally, if she has sex with someone else, the curse reverts to that person until he or she is killed, and then the curse will return to her.

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Mitchell is no stranger to the world of teenage realism, having written and directed the 2010 dreamy-hued comedic drama The Myth of the American Sleepover. It Follows takes his familiar setting, a suburb of Detroit, and uses it for effect. The neighborhood consists of long, bare, tree-lined streets and 1970s split level or detached, lonely homes, reminiscent of Carpenter’s Halloween and undoubtedly intentional. We’re meant to feel uneasy, as comfortable and easy-paced suburbia may seem. This is a place where all the neighborhood kids play outdoors, and Very Bad Things may happen behind closed doors, but we may never know to what extent. It seems to be a carefree, breezy Indian summer while the events take place, the kind of days that are best spent lazily backfloating in an above-ground pool or swigging something sneaky from a flask while sitting crossed-legged and playing cards on an empty front porch. Storms are on the horizon, their grey, still curtains looming, threatening darkness. Outside of suburbia, decaying Detroit seems utterly empty, bereft of the living. Only the occasional stray figure, any of which could be possible threats to our heroine, appears wandering aimlessly, hopelessly.

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One of the more striking aspects of It Follows, much like Halloween, is the lack of any sort of responsible parental figure on hand. Every so often, we catch the briefest glimpse of an adult, but this particular ordeal isn’t one that any rational grown-up would so easily accept, and Mitchell has us aware of this from the start. Once in danger, our heroine, Jay (a soft, likeable performance by Maika Monroe, previously in The Guest), relies on the evident trustworthiness of her caring younger sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe) and best friends Paul and Yara (Keir Gilcrist & Olivia Luccardi). In this world, a world of daydreaming about cute boys and flirting over spiked Hi-C, only the kids could possibly rationalize, even believe in, the nature of the monster in question. Mitchell’s exercise in restraint, however, is never more evident here as it takes some time for the presence to appear, more or less, while they’re all taking a much-needed breather at a lakeside beach. It’s a frightening scene, for while Jay can actually see the presence in any of its human forms, her friends are faced with a force akin to a poltergeist.

Mitchell’s entity, itself a vision of extreme restraint, is scarily effective in its threat alone, merely the very idea that it could be anywhere, at a distance, coming towards Jay—and us—only just barely in view of the camera’s eye. One of the better scenes is one long take, continuously circling around a high school campus, as Jay and her lothario neighbor from across the street, Greg (Daniel Zovatto), investigate the whereabouts of the boy who’d set the curse upon her. We’re never fully aware of the entity as any student wandering the campus could be It. Mitchell shows that it isn’t too long though when It becomes apparent, backpack slung over a shoulder, walking ever so slowly towards the entrance from across the grassy quad. It never reaches Jay, but there’s no doubt that It’s relentless and concentrated in its pursuit of her. Eventually, It will reach her in another guise.

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It Follows’ sole flaw actually turns out to be the film’s most terrifying moment in the climactic showdown set at a public indoor pool. The kids’ solution to destroy the entity is silly, like something out of a cartoon. However, Mitchell revealed in an interview that it was an intentional move, simply because this was a solution concocted by children, so, of course, it’s bound to be absurd. That said though, the violent ordeal Jay and her friends suffer during the scene is one viewers won’t easily forget.

While horror enthusiasts, fourteen year olds or otherwise, may find It Follows much too slow-paced for their tastes, and lacking in any shock value, those of us with patience can look forward to a truly creepy story that will leave us chilled and looking over our shoulders for any lone figure in the distance taking its dear sweet time as it heads right for us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imagery courtesy of http://itfollowsfilm.com/ & giphy.com

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