‘It Follows’ Will Make You Look Over Your Shoulder In Dread And Love It
New horror film is dead serious about scaring you
Friday, March 27, 2015
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the new horror film, "It Follows."
"It Follows" (opening March 27 in select San Diego theaters) is one of the best horror films in years. So why has the studio been delaying the release and making access to press materials so difficult?
The same thing happened with "A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night," an Iranian vampire tale directed by a woman. Good horror is so rare that I just hate when it seems like studios don't know what to do with a good horror film.
Before talking about "It Follows," let me provide a little context so you can understand why I feel so grateful for this movie. In 1996 "Scream" served up a meta-horror comedy that ridiculed the tropes of the genre.
When the masked serial killer calls one girl on the phone and asks if she likes scary movies, she curtly replies, "What’s the point? They are all the same. Some stupid killer stalking a big-breasted woman who can’t act and is always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting."
Horror took a hit after "Scream." The film scored at the box office and with many horror fans, but it ushered in a generation of filmmakers who couldn’t take horror seriously. They seemed to think that every scare required a punch line. It’s been a long road back to serious horror but some recent films make my heart race with excitement about a new generation of directors dead serious about scaring us. People like Jim Mickle with "We Are What We Are," Jennifer Kent with "The Babadook," and now David Robert Mitchell with "It Follows."
Mitchell sends up genre tropes almost as much as "Scream" did but in a wildly different manner. Instead of the smug superiority of the "Scream" franchise,"It Follows" critiques genre clichés by embedding them in the story and making us see them in fresh ways.
Let’s dissect the opening scene from "It Follows." First cue the music, in this case an amazing score by Disasterpeace. It announces the tone by creating an initial sense of unease, and then ramps up to build tension.
Next, set the scene. The camera slowly and objectively begins a 360-degree pan of the suburban neighborhood. The sun is going down and everything seems quiet and calm. As the camera continues to pan it picks up a panicked young woman running out of her house. She looks like the big-breasted, stiletto-heeled slasher victim "Scream" made fun of but she’s not screaming. In fact, she tells her dad and a neighbor not to worry, everything’s fine. But she’s obviously terrified. The camera completes its 360-degree move allowing us to scan the entire area and conclude that there’s nothing unusual to report. The woman gets in her car and speeds away.
And Mitchell has us hooked because he has created a sense of anxiety. We feel tense. We’re worried about the girl but we can’t figure out what could possibly be out there. And that’s the scariest thing, the unknown, something that our imaginations are free to create in details that reflect our own individual fears.
"It Follows" works so well because Mitchell draws on his own fears, fears that date back to his childhood.
"The basic idea came from a recurring nightmare that I had when I was a kid," Mitchell told me by phone. "When I was nine or ten I had these nightmares where I was being followed by this monster that looked like different people and it moved very slow and I could get away from it very easily but it was always coming for me. I just remember the anxiety and the dread from the nightmare, and outside of some of the basic plot elements, it was that feeling that I was most after when I was trying to put the film together."
Now he passes this terror on to the character of Jay (Maika Monroe), who has a seemingly innocent sexual encounter with a cute boy and then suddenly finds herself stalked by something. But no one else can see it. Her friends assure that everything's OK and there's nothing out there. But of course there is. And in another clever tweak to horror tropes, the only way to get rid of it is to pass it on through sexual intercourse. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but I do want to say that what Mitchell goes for in "It Follows" is something old school and that’s a sense of dread.
Dread is different than horror. Dread plays on anticipation coupled with great apprehension while horror is more in the moment and about experiencing fear. We feel anxious throughout "It Follows" and that anxiety extends past the end of the film as you’ll catch yourself looking over your shoulder or in your rearview mirror after you leave the theater. Mitchell understands that dread is something that builds up.
"It’s an accumulated dread," he said. "It’s not any particular shot, it’s not any one particular moment. It’s each one after the other that builds that feeling."
One way he achieves this is through how the film is shot. First, let me say that this is a gorgeously shot film. The colors and composition are just seductive. But there's more to Mitchell's style.
"Most of the film is shot with like an 18mm lens, which is a pretty wide angle lens," Mitchell explained. "A lot of the time it is a little bit distant from the characters, there’s a little breathing room in the frame, along the edges and often time you can see into the distance, it’s not all thrown out of focus. The idea behind that is that the audience can feel as though they are within that physical space with the characters. They can see the edges of the frame. They can see into the distance. And once you introduce the idea of something dangerous, that something dangerous is going to be approaching this character and you are nearby them and right over their shoulder, you will start to scan the frame and you are an active participant within the movie."
"It Follows" is so refreshing because Mitchell not only seems to understand what horror is, he respects the genre.
"Scream" broke a key rule of horror, which is that it didn’t care for its characters. If a film doesn’t care for its characters then why should we and if we don’t care, then how can we feel tension or suspense about their fate? Mitchell cares about his characters and so do we, and that keeps us on the edge of our seats as we worry about what happens.
But Mitchell is smart. He knows which rules to follow and which to break, and how to riff on a genre without ever disrespecting it. "It Follows" is not just one of the best horror films in years but also simply one of the best crafted films of any kind. I hate to weigh it down with too many superlatives because one of the pleasures of seeing it was that I knew nothing about it and had no expectations. But I will say this, "It Follows" (rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language) makes this horror fan scream with absolute delight.
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