I think when reviewing It Follows the consideration of genre has to be mentioned, if not be the focal point of the conversation. So, what I write here will be as much a discussion of critiquing genre (horror, in this case) as much as it will be an analysis of the film.
Now I rarely, if ever, mention the plot of the film in my reviews. It’s sloppy and boring to the reader and I try to avoid it at all costs. But in the case of It Follows it would be tough for me to make my points without giving you a broad overview of the plot. Also, there will be some SPOILERS. Again, I cannot make my points without divulging some of the happenings of the film.
The plot of the film involves a sexual encounter between our protagonist, Jay (played quite well by Maika Monroe) and a random fellow who has a pretty nasty secret to tell her after they have sex (typical, isn’t it?). This moment kicks off the narrative. This fellow essentially abducts our girl and reveals her fate, that being a slow, wordless, plodding entity that walks towards her with the sole intention of killing her. It sounds kind of silly, I know. “So it just walks at her? Big deal.” Agreed, big deal…..on paper. In the early moments of the film we are shown a young woman who has a mysterious fear of something we, the audience, cannot see. What we are shown, however, is her grizzly fate, beautiful and horrific in its presentation. This gives us a framing mechanism with which to carry our fear for Jay through the film. We know what this thing is capable of. Jay spends the rest of the movie running, driving, walking, and hiding from this thing in various states of relaxation and panic.
Writer/director David Robert Mitchell is to be commended for his efforts in creating an actual genre experience. The vast wide shots he employs give us a sense of openness in a very claustrophobic world where danger is literally walking at you every second. The plot is simple, but the way the entity is framed and the synthesized music cues are spot on for creepiness. The use of music and slow-burn score give the audience a sense of impending dread, which hearkens back to the simple score John Carpenter used in Halloween. In fact, the visual style and overall look of the film are directly modeled after Carpenter’s slasher classic. It’s nearly impossible to watch this film and not get a 70’s vibe, which was truly the era of suburban paranoia and unsettling horror cinema. The feel of this film is just wonderful, and I was forced to grade it a bit higher just based on the visceral experience alone.
But, as they say, kids, all good things must come to an end. From here on I’m going to nitpick this film and explain why it could have been so great and yet fails to be. Spoilers and snark ahead.
Note: I’m aware of budgetary constraints and what they can do to a narrative (when actually these constraints have proven to open up creative windows unseen by big-budget films, but that’s a different argument), so take that into account when reading my thoughts.
First, some ground rules for our villain: 1) It walks, and very slowly at that, 2) It can appear to be any person, friend or stranger, 3) It can only be seen by the person it is following, 4) It is affected by the physical world (e.g. doors, windows and trees are physical barriers), 5) Once it kills the person it is after it goes after the previous person who sexually transmitted the curse to them, 6) There is no explanation of its origin or its abilities/weaknesses, 7) Physically harming the entity only causes a momentary pause and does not inflict any damage whatsoever.
So this film begs the question, what would you do in this scenario? First off, you get out of town, right? Not these kids. They choose to hang around, scared shitless of the situation. I, for one (along with any sensible person concerned with their own well-being), would have my head on a swivel. The film demonstrates several scenarios where the audience can see the thing in the background, out of focus, walking toward Jay and she fails to see it til it’s right next to her. Now, I understand this is cinematic tension, but how am I supposed to give a rip about a character unless they display some level of intelligence? If the character isn’t making a valid attempt at self-preservation, then I don’t care if they die. That’s all there is to it. The film whiffs on what could have been a far more paranoia-driven narrative, but instead opts for lyricism. Again, this is Carpenter’s influence, where we see The Shape standing behind characters and staring blankly without their knowledge several times in Halloween, thus ratcheting up the tension. That film works so much better because the characters are unaware of the presence of a threat, meanwhile the characters in this film are well-aware that something is out to get them and they still choose to relax and not take any precautions. So, they just come off as stupid as opposed to innocently unaware and, therefore, more empathetic.
Eventually, Jay convinces her group of loyal friends that she’s not crazy and they decide to head out of town. Where do they go? To a beach-house less than a day’s drive away. Because, honestly, we don’t want to go tooooo far and give this thing too far to walk, it might be too exhausted to mangle her when it reaches her. Upon arriving at the beach-house the group decides to relax and get some sun.
So do you remember in the rules where I said that the entity can appear to be anyone, even a close friend in an attempt to fool you (a la Carpenter’s The Thing) and get close to you? Well, up until this point the thing has appeared as a naked woman, an old woman in a hospital gown, a half-naked cheerleader peeing herself, and a giant man. Not the best use of its abilities to shape-shift and fool the victim, wouldn’t you think? As the kids are sun-baking the entity emerges from the trees behind them and makes its way towards Jay. In this instance the thing has taken the appearance of one of her friends, who is off playing in the water. We are treated to yet another moment of our characters not displaying any attempt at survival since, once again, they decide not to check behind them for just about the duration of the film. This winds up being the first moment the entity comes in contact with Jay because she isn’t looking. Now, to stop and think about this for a second, the only time this thing gets near her is when it takes the form of her friend and for some reason the filmmakers chose NOT to give us a truly tense moment where the main character is fooled into thinking the thing is actually her friend. Nope, it goes unseen until it strikes and then they run and hide in a little boat-house no more than 50 feet from their beach chairs, which is apparently sensible when your only sensible and apparent escape is to get into the open world and leave this thing in your dust.
These are just a few moments that defy logic and drain the intelligence right from the film. I won’t get into the specifics of the ending, but it’s bothersome. At just about the one hour mark I leaned over to my girlfriend in the theater and whispered “There’s no way for the movie to end.” Unfortunately, the film takes a stab at a climax, but it’s all lip-service. I’m ok with characters doing fairly stupid things in horror films, it happens quite often. But when the audience has been made perfectly aware that there is no way to get away from this thing except to abide by the rules and pass it along, what is the point of attempting to have a physical stand-off with it? Honestly, the scene could have been cut and the movie could have ended with the knowledge that our characters are not safe and this will haunt them forever and it would have been perfectly fine. Instead, we have to sit through a non-scary, boring, pointless climactic scene where no positive outcome can occur. It’s a narrative stalemate.
So, my question is, considering all the positive reviews and the 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes, are we giving this film a pass because it’s a genre film? I mean, it’s different from every other horror movie we see in the theaters these days (non-remake, non-sequel, no hauntings/exorcisms/ghosts/dolls) but does that mean we have to praise this that much just for being something different? If I had to assign it a grade I’d say it’s somewhere in the C+/B- range, which is being fairly generous. I guess this begs the question, do critics and people hold genre films to a different standard? I’ve heard people say “It’s a good action movie” about whatever random flick, but the caveat is that the recommendation is based solely on its genre and not overall quality. If you’re trying to recommend an action movie to a friend, or vice/versa, this is a perfectly acceptable description. But for a working film critic to grade this film that high seems like a cop-out. The film simply poses too many questions and answers them far too illogically for it to be considered that great. In fact, I consider my grade to be a tad high, based solely on my enjoyment of the visceral feeling of the film.
This film has a creepy premise and a talented director at the helm, as well as a truly unsettling score, which is why it’s so frustrating to see it fall into narrative laziness. The concept of the film alone is enough to write a thousand essays on. If they would have expounded more on the subtext of the villain/curse and gave the characters a sense of intelligence and survival I feel like this could have been great. It works in a rudimentary/cinematic sense, but I’m afraid if you delve into anything beneath the surface you’ll find yourself asking too many questions and not hearing an intelligent response.
If anyone has seen the film feel free to comment and start a discussion. This film is worthy of that.