It Follows (2015)
The Follower of the Pack
“Do you think the band is good?”
“Their hair is amazing” - a conversation about a punk group in the 1970s
On rare occasions commercial movie distributors pick a project from the film festival circuit and give it a wide release. Last night in Montpelier Vermont, “It Follows”, a low budget auteur inspired horror film, went head to head with mainstream fair such as “Cinderella” and “Furious 7”. A tip of the hat to David Robert Mitchell, the writer/director, for bursting out of obscure art house screenings or late night cable cult debuts. The film is a strange combination of “Scooby doo”-like child detectives facing off against a carefully designed super natural menace. No doubt Mr. Mitchell is a student of cinema as this work is an interesting combination of well heeled plot twists. A super demon (or demons) afflicts a solidly unspiritual bourgeois American household with a focus on the young ones (“The Exorcist”, “Poltergeist”, “The Amityville Horror”) . The ritual barrier is crossed and the unsolicited initiation spells trouble. (“The Ring”, “Blair Witch Project”, “Dracula”) The auteur gives enough new polish to the set-pieces to make it an enjoyably spooky ride. Unfortunately it was neither clever enough to be innovative nor slick enough to be professionally polished. In the end it was so bad, it was…. mildly interesting.
The premise turns the classic “Don’t Look Now” on its head. That wonderful 1970s tale focuses on a man chasing the ghost of his little girl. The protagonist is constantly on the hunt for the specter clad in the shiny red rain coat who maddeningly disappears in the maze of Venice Italy. In Mitchell’s work the setting is contemporary Detroit where trouble comes to you as a personalized shape shifting demon appearing on the horizon. The premise is clever albeit unoriginal. The “biting of the apple” in “It Follows” relates heterosexual intercourse. A duped sex partner is afflicted with a zombie-like figure that SLOWLY stalks the new casualty. This is spelled out in pointed exposition after a new victim is consummated. The premise is carefully delineated. This walking dead spirit is only visible to people who have been violated. The monster, in addition to being invisible to the world at large, can take the shape of loved ones or strangers. The key thing is that it walks very very very slowly. Think of Frankenstein’s first steps or the ghouls from “Night of the Living Dead”. There are more rules: if the new victim is killed the monster will pursue the original prey and go back through the chain. Once again the malevolent ghost only appears as an individual, although it can take on numerous personas.
Mitchell should be praised for having the creepiness supersede blood and guts. There are a few moments where limbs fly but the real scares come when these figures SLOWLY appear and stumble forward. This is “the hook” of this film. Those odd, sometimes naked, pale figures determined to get their prize. Adding to the “ tension” is the propensity of those afflicted teens to seek refuge in abandoned buildings or dark forests. Credulity is the eternal enemy of horror films and in this the victory must go to the skeptical audience member. It’s really not worth going into plot points but are we to believe that this group of besieged teenagers would choose a huge industrial building with a public pool to have the penultimate showdown? Did I mention it was a dark and stormy night. (complete with fog and lightning)
This is a low budget horror film firmly rooted in the conventions that were lampooned in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. The problem lies in tone. The over the top mood music begs the question. We can all hope that this was meant as hipster snark channeling Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Then there is the truly terrifying notion: Mitchell was serious. It is difficult to separate the flare from the scare. The strange ambiguity permeates the script. There are narrative moments that provoke genuine confusion. Did the protagonist spread the demon to the fisherman out on the party boat? Was the devil vanquished in the pool of blood? Nebulousness born of careful crafting is entertaining. Mystery rooted in unfulfilled exposition in previous drafts of the script is distracting . Why all the appliances by the pool? Given the fact that the spirit is impervious to bullets why not try to electrocute the beast? Was that the original plan? Does the ‘good’ boyfriend pass the spirit on to a streetwalking prostitute? What is the significance of returning to the place where the couple first kissed? This is a low budget horror movie by a callow director but, even with this low bar, “It Follows” doesn’t follow. The actions of the characters are drawn to heighten tension rather than escape horror. The unfortunate script flaws combined with nonsensical plot points forced the feeling of stupidity rather than terror. Not a single parent stepping in to ask a few questions about petrified teenagers fleeing full throttle in vehicles or on foot. They end up as gruesome mutilated corpses. Even the most disengaged real life father might muster up a “so…. I couldn’t help noticing a couple of your friends have been murdered after being tortured and raped. You’re also barricaded in your room biting your nails under the bed when you’re not running down the street in your underwear looking over your shoulder and crying. Just checking in”. The adults in this film are akin to the muffled sounds in the old “Peanuts” cartoons. All this absurdity is fine but Mr. Mitchell wasn’t talented enough to patch the flaws. One doesn’t worry about the story holes in “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, but then again Wes Craven is a more nuanced writer/director. The adjective ‘nuanced’ is not one usually associated with Craven which might reveal the depth of Mr. Mitchell’s shortcomings as an auteur. It was also lazy of Mitchell not to include at least a snippet of exposition regarding the initial birth of the evil spirit. There was certainly enough tedious dialogue regarding the framework of the haunting. Why not a line or two… this began with a girl who was lonely or a boy who was troubled…. That might have given some clue to the incarnations of the demon. As it is the netherworld appears to be channeling passengers from a Greyhound bus in various stages of undress.
Mitchell is obviously shrewd enough to safeguard the golden egg. The goose does not die. The somewhat appealing group of teenagers remain, mostly, intact. There is the appropriate comedic ending of the ‘true’ love being reunited with his damsel in distress. As they walk down David Lynch’s suburban gothic dream there is someone behind them. Does anyone else see him? Stay tuned for “Following it Follows”. A warning for Mr. Mitchell. Reflect of those young campers in the woods from the Blair Witch Project. This paradigm indie horror film was made for a little over half a million dollars and grossed $248 million. The sequel, “Shadows:Blair Witch 2”, costs $15 million and made $47 million. The franchise died. Nothing automatically follows. Fire the music director. Be more focused on the script. Don’t let the climax blind you into thinking all is safe. That is the mistake your teenage troupe made in your film. Following these bits of advice is a maximum that should be placed on a large sign in the production office: ADULT SUPERVISION REQUIRED.