Sunday, 5 July 2015

It Follows

Horror is a genre that is becoming increasingly tired as the years go by. When one thinks "horror", films such as Halloween, Psycho and The Exorcist should spring to mind, but now audiences are subjected to endless strings of sequels, some even destroying a horror film that could potentially have fallen into classic status had it remained a solo affair. Films such as Saw and Paranormal Activity began as excellent horror stories, as frightening as they were refreshing, but both were ultimately diminished by a slew of sequels that consistently deteriorated in quality, resulting in the originals' treat of uniqueness coming crashing down with it. Horror may be a genre that sends out a handful of duds each year, but every now and then one comes along that pushes the boundaries all others comply with. Last year we were treated to the excellent Oculus, and the even more excellent The Babadook, and this year it seems that It Follows will be the overachiever.

The premise is simple; after a seemingly innocent sexual encounter with her current boyfriend, Jay is told she is now the victim of something that will follow her, and something that she must not let catch up to her. It could take on the form of a stranger, it could take on the form of a loved one, but no matter where she is, it will always be walking towards her. Sex is a theme that occurs frequently in horror films, or at least many horror films seem to think it is. It Follows is one of very few that works that theme seamlessly into both the narrative and its characters, whilst never allowing it to dominate the story. Instead it creates a form of understanding between audience and character; Jay is a consistently likeable and vulnerable protagonist, surrounded by others with similarly strong traits. Whilst many horror films are content lately to offer nothing more than an abundance of jump scares and scary faces, It Follows laces its horror within its characters.

And it benefits from this greatly. Whilst this is unquestionably one of very few horrors that begs for repeated viewings in order for its excellent cinematography and sturdy themes to fully register, the first viewing should be dedicated almost entirely at how well It Follows evokes fear in its audience. The basic premise is easily solved; jump on a plane to another country, it's unlikely this thing will follow you to the airport and wind up in the seat behind you. But that doesn't matter, this story is about Jay herself rather than a simple idea of how to escape whatever it is that's following her. Maika Monroe is excellent here, keeping her central character both strong and sympathetic in equal measure, further bolstered by Mitchell's intelligently crafted script. It simply goes to show how much more effective horror is when we care about the people it's affecting, the threat here feels horrifically real despite its implausibility.

It Follows seems to fall into two genres; whilst predominantly a horror film, there are clear elements of a coming of age story here, especially when examined in relation to the film's treatment of sex. Whilst there was once a trend of killing the first female character in a slasher film to engage in a sexual encounter within the film's time frame, It Follows manages to incorporate this idea in a sophisticated and approachable manner. The comparisons to STDs aren't exactly subtle, but Mitchell never allows them to push the film into a safe sex lesson; rather they act as rough points for the narrative and the characters to bounce off. Jay isn't punished for having sex, the actual encounter itself is appropriately underplayed across the film. But Jay grows as a character, perhaps contextualised by her beginning the film in her own paddling pool and ending it in a public pool. She completes this journey alongside Paul; early in the narrative the two discuss how they were each other's first kiss, and they close the film with a sexual encounter. I can't entirely put my finger on how Mitchell has achieved this, another reason why this film demands repeat viewings, but each character feels more grown up and defined by the time the credits roll.

While the coming of age themes are appreciated, It Follows unquestionably works best when looked at from a horror perspective. The film is, I feel justified in saying, legitimately terrifying. Like, seriously seriously scary stuff. It might give in to a fake-out jump scare early on, but besides that nothing is predictable or lazy or superficial. The thing is almost always framed centrally, walking directly towards the lens, and in that, the viewer. Mitchell toys with this idea in numerous ways, such as using 360 degree pans so that each time the thing returns to the frame it's considerably closer, yet still moving at the same pace as when we last saw it. He also smartly uses deep focus in order for the thing to be seen as an ominous speck in the distance that returns even closer each time we cut back to it; this technique is employed especially well in that excellently shot beach sequence. Once Mitchell has used this deep focus idea it sticks in the viewer's mind; every distant background becomes a potential scare tactic, each passing stranger becomes a threat.

All of this is brought together perfectly by a soundtrack that could boost any horror film to the next level. It's difficult to describe accurately, other than saying that it is modern, electronic and loud. Visually this film is terrific, but the soundtrack just amps the terror level to eleven. One of the film's most memorable scares involves the thing suddenly walking into Jay's bedroom while she is hiding from it; the soundtrack begins quiet and distant before lurching into a loud, screeching frenzy to accompany the terrifying on-screen events. It Follows takes almost every element of the horror genre and shows how to do it perfectly, whilst also incorporating themes and ideas of other genres and demonstrating some stunning cinematography. Good scares can make a good film, solid themes can make a good film, and nice visuals can make a good film. But when all three combine, you get something truly special indeed. Come for the horror, stay for everything else.

To Summarise: Well acted, truly frightening and excellently crafted in every possible way, It Follows is a stunning achievement of both horror and coming of age film, and proof that there is still life in one of cinema's most rapidly decaying genres.

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