“It Follows” and the Strength of Uncompromising Visual Style

Everything the audience needs to know about It Follows is established in the opening sequence of this masterful horror film from writer/director David Robert Mitchell. A haunting score establishes an uneasy tone to the film while the camera rotates 270 degrees to reveal a perfectly normal suburban street. A young women emerges from a house and starts running, looking behind her. No one seems to understand why she is running, but she informs her father that everything is okay. After a quick cut to later that evening, though, we find this same girl seated in a field, sobbing through a phone call to her father in which she expresses her resignation. Another quick cut, and she lay dead with misshapen, broken limbs.

While we have now seen the remarkable style of It Follows, we lack a basic understanding of what it all means. Early on in the movie, this creates an uneasy feeling in the audience, as nothing is scarier than not knowing what is out there coming for you. The film takes a little time for exposition, but weaves it into the narrative fairly organically. The main character, Jay (Maika Monroe), is a young woman lingering through the dog-days of summer with her friends and sister. She is excited to go on a date with Hugh, which results in a backseat sexual encounter. Hugh takes advantage of Jay’s post-coital daze to kidnap her and take her to a large abandoned warehouse. This is horrifying, but has nothing on what Hugh reveals when Jay wakes up.

Eventually, Hugh sees It. Outside of the warehouse, some creature is slowly walking towards them. It can look like anyone – a stranger or someone you know, whatever it takes to get closer to you. He explains to Jay that the creature will always follow her now that he has “passed on” the curse by having sex with her. The only way to get it to follow someone else is by having sex with another person. If it reaches you, it will kill you and then start following the previous holder of the curse. Hugh keeps Jay tied down for a while, rolling her about in a wheelchair while the creature slowly pursues them, to prove to Jay that this is real. Finally, he releases her, and tells her to pass it on and it will leave her alone. He puts Jay in the car and the two drive off.

Now we know the rules of this world, but Jay refuses to believe it until she sees an old woman in a hospital gown stalking her at school – a woman no one else can see. Convinced that Hugh has told her the truth, she focuses on hiding from It – but finds no reprieve as it breaks into her house late at night and chases her out the window. Her friends think she is simply overly stressed out, but they agree to take a trip with her to look for Hugh (who used a fake name to rent an apartment for the last two weeks).

Throughout the remainder of the film, It Follows stays true to the style that it has employed since the opening sequence, and we reap the benefits during the second and third acts. Most effectively, the movement of the camera establishes the viewer among the other characters. By panning around a central pivot, sometimes more than 360 degrees, we feel in the scene – and due to the nature of the creature, we can’t really be sure that it isn’t on the screen at any given time. Sometimes, when we know where Jay is in relation to the camera, we can figure out the direction the creature should be walking, but that is the best we can do. This technique keeps the tension very high, as we are never quite sure when the creature might be right next to us or Jay.

Even when the camera abandons this little game and directly shows us the creature walking towards Jay, the fact that no one else can see it creates opportunities for some great dramatic irony. Even better, the camera will switch perspectives quickly during attacks from the creature – sometimes we can see it, and sometimes we see one of Jay’s friends viewpoint which cannot see it. This particular technique is surprisingly scary, as we get full view of the creature stalking Jay, but lose sight of it as it starts actually attacking her so we can’t quite tell exactly what it is doing to her. The camera is used to amazing effect throughout this film, always keeping us tense and on edge.

Finally, the score of the film is worth noting for developing an eerie tone and cashing it in on scares by ramping up percussive elements during attacks from the creatures. Composed by a veteran of video game soundtracks named Rich Vreeland (AKA Disasterpeace), the score is incredibly haunting. It has a metallic or synthetic feel, and Mitchell knows exactly when to brood quietly and when to ramp up the excitement for the greatest effects.

It is easy to categorize It Follows as an allegory of the danger of casual sexual encounters, sexually transmitted infections, or the societal reaction to the sexual awakening of the younger generation, but at its kernel it is the perfect dramatization of a nightmare. When struggling against a bad dream, there are rarely easy answers or proven means of escape – and so it is with the creature from this story. Unflinching, it follows you, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Such an idea is frightening on a primal level, and the success of It Follows is its ability to instill these feelings in the viewer.

(Originally posted on Cinema Axis here.  Please drop by and see what else they are up to!)

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