Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Review: "It Follows"

Director: David Robert Mitchell
Runtime: 100 minutes

The opening shot of David Robert Mitchell's It Follows is simple in execution, but immensely demonstrative of what makes this moody horror piece work so well. A pretty teenage girl, the sort we expect to see run and scream and die in these sorts of stories, runs up and down her street, alarming her neighbors and her parents. After retreating to the sanctuary of her home, she sprints back out and takes off in her car. The camera is still, merely panning left and right to follow her movements. No one is chasing her. The suburban street couldn't be more tranquil, aside from one teenager's inexplicable freakout. And yet the shot, which is not the last we see of this girl, is increasingly unnerving. Without a flash of gore or an obvious antagonist on screen, the first two minutes of It Follows are more tense than some horror movies are in their entire duration. And there's still 98 minutes left.

Too often, horror films mistake visual and stylistic chaos as a means of creating either scares or sustained sequences of dread. Mr. Mitchell, however, has crafted a film that at once feels like a throwback (a la The Guest) and a step forward. In a sense, you've seen It Follows, with its screaming teens not always making the smartest decisions for their survival. Yet, simultaneously, you likely haven't seen anything quite like how It Follows twists and refashions hoary horror tricks into something flooded with atmosphere, with as few bells and whistles as possible. On the heels of a recent string of successful horror entries (The Babadook, The Guest, You're Next, The Conjuring), It Follows has raised the bar for the genre yet again. 

Mitchell's premise (he also wrote the script) alone is dynamite. After the obligatory opening death, the story proper begins with Detroit teenager Jay (The Guest's Maika Monroe) sleeping with her college boyfriend Hugh. Yet after the wholly consensual encounter is over, Jay is knocked unconscious. When she wakes up, Hugh has tired her to a chair and is rambling on about something that he has "passed on" to her. Shortly, Jay will find herself pursued by an entity, albeit one that takes a different form every time it appears. The creature, first seen as a naked woman, merely walks in a straight line toward its victim, until said victim has sex with someone else. 

Whatever the malevolent force in It Follows is, it's not an idea that instantly registers on a visual level. Sometimes the creature manifests itself as someone scary, but other times it takes the form of an ordinary civilian. And yet despite the often mundane appearance of the monster, It Follows is an extraordinarily accomplished piece on a visual level. Mitchell's shots are often quite long, and forgo any hectic transitions or edits. Some of the most intense stretches in the film are built upon the camera's gentle movements left and right, or forward and backward. Meanwhile, Rich Vreeland, also known by the stage name Disasterpeace, supplies a thudding electronic score that would make John Carpenter proud. The combination creates a sense of paranoia that is at once over-the-top and deeply nerve-wracking. 

Even when Mitchell sets up a scene as innocent, the possibility of the titular "it" is always there, and that's where It Follows' staying power stems from. Rather than try and drag the viewer through endless jump scares, Mitchell invests considerable effort in creating an atmosphere that takes hold early, and keeps the intensity and an unwavering, at times unbearable, white-knuckle simmer. This is a horror film designed to hold your attention, and it does so with mostly spectacular results.

And even though It Follows is not designed as a character-driven freak-out like The Babadook, the cast deserves mention for solid work across the board. The standout, of course, is Monroe, who's quickly making a name for herself as a true 21st century scream queen. Though often bewildered by what's going on, Monroe never turns Jay into a total dope. Suspension of disbelief is a given with It Follows' sexually-charged premise, but Monroe helps ground Jay's terror and make her actions believable, even if they aren't always the smartest (Hugh tells her to never hide in a place with only one exit, and the advice is blatantly ignored multiple times).

Mitchell maintains It Follows' intensity effortlessly, even sticking the landing in the finale, an area where many horror movies start to lose their footing. Since we see the monster so often, and understand its capabilities, there's no twist incorporated for the sake of upping the ante for sheer spectacle. The monster (ghost...demon...whatever) is a constant, and therefore it's constantly menacing. At once a self-aware B-movie and a straight-faced screamer, It Follows is an exhilarating work that uses simplicity to consistently create some of the most intense horror moments in years, and all because it opts to walk where so many similar films would rather run.

Grade: B+

No comments: