I do have an awareness of how behind I am on both the Nein reviews and Lynch. I apologize, I was in the middle of some turbulent workload – including my latest short film’s post-production process coming to an end and another application for Cannes’ Short Film Corner. I have three more reviews for Nein and the next two should be posted both tonight while Lynch is only on its hold because I decided to read Dune (which I completed now for the fourth time) once more before I re-watched the movie) and because I’m growing my hair out for another part of the appreciation. Expect it soon.
Anyway, now that I have your attention with that title, there’s a big reason I used such a sensationalist title. I’ll let you in on what that reason is after I lay out what that the plot of the latest wide release picture It Follows is and set you up. For you see, It Follows has a reputation that precedes it. A very positive one, after its premiere at Cannes last year to huge acclaim before going on a good-willed festival circuit and residing on a two-city release with the intention of a VOD release immediately after. Of course, that release ended up scrapped at the last minute because the amount of money It Follows was making for a two-city release was TOO DAMN HIGH and so the good folks at The Weinstein Company decided to give the movie a wide release across the country.
Such prestige and hype coming before the film (and by the way, that hype is earned, I’m happy to say) leads to a lot of people talking about the movie before even seeing it with people who have seen it and so know more. And so word of mouth has already passed around like an STD that It Follows is about a young girl named Jay (kiteboarder Maika Monroe) who is getting into her date Hugh (Jake Weary) enough for them to take the next step of sexual intercourse. Almost immediately after, Hugh forces Jay to listen to the curse that he has unfortunately passed on to her when they had sex…
An entity will now follow her at a walking pace until one of two things happen. The entity will either reach her and kill her then move on to the previous person with the curse, or Jay can pass it down to someone else by having sex with him or her, who could then pass it down as well. The entity will only be seen by those who have held the curse – whether they currently hold it or not – and will appear to the victims in the form of any man or woman in the their lives (full frontal nudity galore from both sexes, which got really uncomfortable after a while, especially when two of those representations were supposedly one character’s mother and another’s father).
And so we get back to the title of this post which, in addition to being some dumb tongue-in-cheek riff of “don’t think of elephants”, is actually pretty much my take on the film. Everybody, myself included (hell, the first thing that popped in my mind was Charles Burns’ Black Hole series), apparently made the pre-emptive decision that this movie is going to be a metaphor for STDs. I think it’s definitely a reading, though I don’t think it’s THE reading of the film. After watching the film, spending a few minutes talking it over with some friends, I’m not so quick on that association. Besides the fact that writer-director David Robert Mitchell has claimed “It” is not an STD, the main thing that doesn’t mesh that idea for me is that the concept of a disease would either be more apparent in the physical well-being of a person (and for a woman who avoids sleep and runs around, Jay doesn’t break much of a sweat) or the continual spread of the curse to everyone around Jay.
The movie doesn’t even give away that there are a lot of people around Jay. Certainly a world, that world being Detroit (which is wonderfully shot by Mike Gioulakis in that wide-angle lo-fi blue and green that gives that nostalgic tone), but the only real characters around Jay seem to be grounded to an inner circle – her friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi), the painfully-obviously-crushing-on-her Paul (Keir Gilchrist), her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and her neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto) are the only real inhabitants of this story and, save for possibly Greg, Jay and her friends are all in that youthful coming-of-age area of 17-21 (Jay is in early college, the rest we are to believe are on the verge of leaving high school). I think their youth is a lot more important to think about than the presence of sex in the film, though that too matters. It’s also kind of a great +1 point for me that the movie is able to present both the concept of teenage sexuality without actually feeling prudish about it, while the script is not generous to the characters that aren’t Jay, Hugh, or Greg, leading to some pretty intelligent acting by Luccardi, Sepe, & Gilchrist to get away long enough with not really being given writing that grants them much personality.
Anyway, from there on, it is basically a continuance of tension and terror all throughout that impressively refrains from setting itself up as a horror scenario too much. This setting being Detroit again, haunted houses don’t register to us as much as just foreclosed and condemned backdrop and the writing uses that backdrop for some very subtle chilliness in a manner that fellow Detroit-shot 2014 Cannes premiere Lost River failed to do (instead having gone for overt chilliness). Subtlety is a lot more key to It Follows as a scare tactic than most people would give credit for – after its still-engaging rig scene where Hugh forces Jay to sit still while he explains the terms of the curse to her followed by making her witness “It” for the first time, there is pretty much barely any underlit scenes, I count two jump scares (one which seems more like a source of comedy than actually bringing any tension to the film), and a sparseness of other obnoxious (though sometimes effective horror cliches). The movie gets the audience’s blood pumping just by having background figures going the same direction as our characters than it does by a chase sequence and expects us to feel as involved enough with Jay’s circle of friends that it’s less a fear of seeing some icky gorefest (which the movie most certainly is not) than it is a fear of any of these characters getting hurt.
Of course, not all things about this movie are subtle. A lot of praise has been handed to the score of the film by Disasterpeace and I have to hand it to him, it sounds fantastic on its own ground. It’s very cool stuff that I intend to purchase and immediately shove into my IPhone, like my recent binge on retro-techno artists Dance with the Dead and Perturbator, obviously stealing whatever the hell it feels like from the legendary score work of horror icon John Carpenter, but becoming effective enough as an atmospheric tool that we allow it.
When it fits.
The problem I have with Disasterpeace’s work as a score rather than as a musical work is that there are many points when the movie trusts the audience enough not to have used it in frightening scenes that I’m a bit spoiled, but there are also scenes where its outright unwelcome. The score is so sudden and alarming that it obviously doesn’t give itself air space to build up, so when a scene is building tension and then suddenly we hear Disasterpeace’s urgent blasts, it’s not at all as hypnotic like Mica Levi’s work for Under the Skin. It feels like a cold bucket of water after… well, sex. It’s already a strike-out for me for music to announce itself like that, but to come in at the wrong point making it less a cinematic tool of terror and instead just some really cool music that’s on while “It” attacks Jay just makes it one of a few things that makes me say I love this movie, but it ain’t perfect.
Which is probably not helped by the sound mixing (and I’m willing to also call the editing out on how its recorded its ambient tone or effects) as while the music is able to stay level, there’s a few points in the film where I catch audio peaks and thought “ok, it’s an indie flick and it totally wears that like a badge (a couple of my friends afterwards referred to it as a “tumblr. movie”), but when its cinematography is so impressively polished and creative and its audio isn’t as much… that’s like half of the movie cheated for me.”
But the major off-put for me with It Follows is its final act, starting with its climax. Which was a scene that is very fantastically shot and edited in a coherent manner that makes us recognize the stakes, keep track of the relative location of characters (there’s some line-crossing, but quick enough before it snaps back into place that it doesn’t dizzy us too much), and consistently maintain a sense of dread towards the well-being of characters even when we know all the cards on the table as well as they do. Like, action films can’t even reach that peak sometimes (and that’s kind of a bold statement to make when we just came out of a year that had The Raid 2, John Wick, Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, etc., but roll behind that year and… yeah, you see now.)
If only that climax were as well written, because it makes no sense within either the faulty logic of its characters or terms that the movie earlier established (having fallen into the Dragon Ball Z/Iron Man 3 problem of “we have not established a way to defeat the antagonist; we have established a way that doesn’t work; let’s use that same way… only hard”). Many of that scenes defenders (and it already has a lot of defenders) tried to claim that it was meant to be stupid and that these characters ARE young, but I don’t buy that when they’ve otherwise acted pretty smartly towards their situation for the majority of the movie prior. And plus, the movie takes so many gambits that I’m willing to abide by (its opening scene is not the best; the ambiguity of two major plot points in the film that – while the answer doesn’t CHANGE anything, making these moments ambiguous doesn’t help either; the lack of parents) that this “possible” gambit marks that threshold I’m not willing to simply cross for love of the movie.
And moving back to the rest of the final act, the moments after the climax don’t exactly communicate themselves that well and while it makes for something great to talk about, there is a point that the movie is trying to make with its ending that I could easily see it going over the heads of everybody in the audience and it took me the 2 hour post-movie-Ihop-eating-and-then-ride-home that I spent thinking about the movie to get its point. And I don’t think its the audiences fault when the editing (probably knowingly) skips over imperative points of its denouement which leaves the film hoping to catch the audience holding its breath by the time the credits roll, but it’s just as likely to catch them still saying “what the fuck” in regards to its climax (and saying “climax” when talking about a movie like this feels weird to me).
And then… for a movie that is very healthy about its depiction of teenagers knowing, discussing, and having taken part in sex… it’s still a movie about teenagers dying because they had sex. Which I know leans the picture even more towards that STD reading that I want to avoid, but oh well, it needs acknowledgement.
Still, it’s damned fun, damned creative, and even the failures of itself (save for the sound) are worth praise for its fearlessness in trying to make a more metaphorical presence for the horror genre, while obviously struggling to wean from the Mitchell’s clear admiration for John Carpenter and George Romero. I ended up smiling a lot more and didn’t look at the time once. And in the end, I’m glad it followed me from France all the way to my local theater and now that it’s in yours, I will hope you follow it.