Sunday, October 25, 2015

Astonishing and Creepy: A Review of It Follows

A ways back, I watched It Follows and, ironically, the horror film stuck with me. Its shots of the dilapidated suburbs. Its sense of timelessness established by trappings including split-level bungalows that could be from the 1970’s or 1980’s, high rise apartment complexes, and a 1975 Plymouth Gran Fury that figures in the plot. Filmmaker Magazine called It Follows a “creepy ode to old-school ‘70s horror”, but it is more an exorcism (no pun intended). Director David Robert Mitchell takes unwitting viewers on a discomfiting journey over cracked suburban streets, through decaying urban Detroit, past graffiti-tagged and shuttered businesses, to bleak tower apartments, imbuing every moment with the threat of a sexually transmitted monster.

The premise is uncomfortably simple. Jay (Maika Monroe) sleeps with her new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), and discovers that a monster has been following him, transmitted to him from the last person he slept with. The only way to rid yourself of the creature, which can follow you in any form it chooses to take, often someone you love, is to sleep with someone else and pass on the sexually transmitted horror.

Still with me? Good, then. It Follows is visceral and unsettling. Watching the film, I was uncertain whether I liked it or was uncomfortable and couldn’t articulate exactly why. However, any film that prompts you to think about it for days or weeks afterward is a film, in my estimation, worth thinking about.

It Follows flaunts an inherent and distracting beauty, opening with a 180-degree pan of a young woman fleeing home in dusk light while her perplexed father looks on. This is the inverse of the shot of Jamie Lee Curtis fleeing the front door of a house in John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween. In fact, many of the tracking shots early in Halloween depict characters roaming the 'burbs, chatting about boys and the homecoming dance. It Follows draws from Carpenter’s vision, establishing haunting ambience with wide shots of leafy, sprawling suburbs, red-brick bungalows, and sidewalks and roads that have seen better days.

But I really only grasped what It Follows was about when I re-watched Halloween recently with friends. And, Bam!, there was it was, staring me in the face. It Follows occurs in the same setting as Carpenter’s Halloween, with more fissured suburban streets, and rundown homes. Tumbling leaves signify decay as well as atmosphere. It’s the same neighborhood, but 35 years later. If this wasn’t trippy enough, Mitchell gives us a new monster. Instead of a maniac returning to butcher oversexed teens on Halloween night, it’s a thing from the immediate past that, well, follows you.
The poster, featuring that notable
 1975 Plymouth Gran Fury.

The creature can be anyone, even a loved one, often unclothed. This nakedness is never explained, as though the creature wants to yank the curtain back on social taboos. In one scene, the monster, using the guise of a character’s mother, attacks the son, her housecoat opening to reveal shapely breasts. It’s like the creature wants to expose the boy’s Oedipus complex. In another instance, a trim, muscular aged father stands atop the suburban homestead, pointing at a protagonist.

Director Mitchell is relentless with his retro references. The story occurs somewhere in a murky time that could be the 1970's, 1980's or now. The sole indicator of era is a character who recites portentous poetry from her Compaq that doubles as an e-reader. Otherwise, the Internet and cell phones do not seem to exist. These kids use landlines, in fact. The teens also watch mediocre 1950’s sci-fi films (reminiscent of Halloween that featured characters watching the original The Thing from Another World and Forbidden Planet). Like a 1980’s horror film, It features an immersing synthesizer soundtrack by a single artist, Richard Vreeland, better known as Disasterpeace.

In one astonishing scene, the heroes try to stop the creature using totemic gadgets that any child of the 1970’s and 1980's will recognize—a hair dryer, an electric typewriter, and solid base lamps among them. The protagonists seem to be trying to exorcise their past.

Mitchell steadily carries viewers through staple settings of youth—making out in the car on your hot date, having sleepovers in someone’s room, sitting in the backyard cross-legged having a pow wow with your friends (in a five-pointed star pattern, no less). In one pivotal scene, a main character asks, after a life-changing intimacy, if their beau feels any different. Ostensibly, they are discussing making love. The couple passes someone industriously employing a leaf blower. The viewer gets a three-quarter shot. The couple is wearing matching black-and-white colours. They are doomed to be subsumed as a suburban couple as their parents were.

It is also a tale of lost innocence, of attractive studs sleeping with nubile babes and tossing them aside. The film often feels like a Jungian journey through the mausoleum of one’s suburban youth, from the lonely, expansive streets to the preternaturally respectable homes. A dedicated introvert, inspecting someone else’s house, pulls out a porn magazine depicting voluptuous women. He begins leafing through its pages. Why is unclear. He is, after all, sitting in the house of a missing person that they are attempting to find. Still, this moment moves the story forward.

As for innocence, the heroine, Jay, seems to have a spiritual connection with nature, established in her first scene, floating in a pool, staring at clouds. This day-dreamy young woman spares the lives of ants. Water seems to be a spiritual haven for her and a last refuge other characters.

When Mitchell moves away from dead suburbia, he channels his voice through his characters with abandon. One angst-laden teen reflects on how their parents wouldn’t let her go past Eight Mile when she was younger because Eight Mile marked the boundary where the 'burbs end and the city of Detroit begins. This dialogue segues into shots of urban decay, dilapidated buildings, graffiti-covered walls, and shuttered businesses.

Who, in horror films, expands on such a thesis, while featuring a hive-inducing monster that you get from having sex, all the while exploding social taboos and kicking up the rocks to unearth the ugliness of the ‘burbs in a borrowed setting?

Astonishingly enough, director Robert Mitchell does.

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