Whenever a new horror film comes out and starts garnering rave reviews from people in the know, my reaction is usually to have my eyebrow thrust skyward with the force of an Apollo rocket. I’m not generally a fan of modern horror movies, which is to say I hold them in the same regard as I do garden slugs or Jake Busey. And yet, people kept telling me I HAD to see It Follows, an indie horror film with a killer hook and great execution, that it would turn me around on modern horror movies and restore my faith.
It isn’t bad, the hook is definitely killer and it has some interesting formal elements as well. But it’s also a bit muddled, tries to be retro and modern at the same time, and, for my money, doesn’t go deep enough with its central idea.
The hook is pretty simple: the monster is an STD. After a round of the old backseat boogaloo with her boyfriend, teenager Jay finds herself pursued by a mysterious entity that appears as normal people, sometimes people she knows, walking steadily towards her with a glassy stare. The entity can appear at any time and if it catches you, as the now ex-boyfriend tells her, it kills you. The only way to get rid of it is to sleep with someone else, passing it on to them.
As horror movie hooks go, it’s direct, simple, and clever. STD’s have always been sort of lurking in the subtext of a lot of horror movie monsters, and It Follows is one of the few I can think of to come out and take the sexual/disease element out of the shadows and make it part of the actual text of the film rather than subtext.
Similarly, the monster itself, if it can even be called that, is extremely simple. No fangs, no claws, no jumping out and going “arglebargle” (except for one scene), just someone that no one else can see walking towards you with a blank expression, carrying with them the subtle implication that if they catch you, that’s your ass. I tend to find stuff like that scarier than the usual jump scares, and indeed It Follows can be damn chilling at times.
The problems really are in the execution. The film seems to be sorta going for a retro vibe, very much in the vein of classic Wes Craven or John Carpenter. The film could – almost – be set in the 70s, everyone drives old cars and watches 40s sci-fi movies, at one point the characters go to a movie in this gorgeous old movie palace with a live organist, and modern conveniences like cell phones are almost totally absent. The soundtrack is even this actually really good synth affair.
The problem is that the 70s affectation feels sorta half-assed. In the face of all the retro-isms, this one character (a completely pointless one who could have been cut from the movie entirely at almost zero consequence) is always reading on this weird clamshell e-reader. The photography is also extremely crisp and modern looking, which often puts the look and sound of the film at odds. Whenever that retro soundtrack kicks in I thought to myself “Wow that sounds awesome. But it doesn’t fit what I’m looking at at all”. Perhaps had they gone full House of the Devil and made it look convincingly like a 70s horror movie, as well as sound like one, this discrepancy could have been avoided.
On the subject of photography, the camera work is very deliberate, with a recurring motif of 360-degree pans, but I still can’t quite tell if they worked for me or not. On the one hand, it’s nice to see a film pay enough attention to its camera work to even have a motif; on the other hand, the recurring pans felt a bit over-used and heavy handed.
On the scripting side of things, It Follows often feels muddied and in need of some refining. There’s that aforementioned pointless character, and I got this nagging sense that the film never quite knew what it wanted to say on the heady issue it was engaging with.
It Follows had a really great opportunity to say something really important and profound about the way we deal with STD and STI sufferers as a society, and while it is true that the film can be seen as a statement about how we demonize them, I kept waiting for the film to go that extra allegorical step.
The movie also sorta betrays itself in certain ways, especially during one scene where the monster’s existence is made plain to Jay’s friends after it sneaks up behind her and grabs her hair (in a kind of lame looking effect) and throws the resident beta male out of the way. Admittedly the old ‘is she really just crazy’ shtick is a bit played out, but I think the film might have functioned better over all if it focused on Jay’s private battle instead of surrounding her with a Scooby Gang of friends, highlighting the stigma of isolation and shame that STD sufferers still face all too often.
So is It Follows everything it’s cracked up to be? Probably not. It wades half-heartedly into the retro aesthetic pool, but its unwillingness to go all the way makes things like the Casio soundtrack and 70s paraphernalia more distracting than enjoyable. Similarly it feels as though the film just doesn’t go deep enough with the STD allegory it seems to be trying to be, and as such feels more exploitative than profound. Not that there isn’t room for exploitation, but with the hype this film was garnering I was frankly expecting more.
Hype is probably this film’s worst enemy, really, and I think once the chorus of praise that currently surrounds It Follows dies down and people can just stumble upon it with no expectations of brilliance, it will be more able to make an impression on people.