The tone of a movie is paramount. Predictable narratives and trite plots, if infused with the right blend of cinematography and music, can be more riveting and seem more original, than more serious material lacking a distinctive atmosphere. The horror genre relies heavily on enveloping the audience in a mood – namely, a frightful one. Unfortunately, experienced audiences that can spot overused tropes are now numb to take their effects.
Luckily, David Robert Mitchell, who poetically captured nonage in his debut feature, THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER, has turned his keen eye to creating a unique world in his new film, IT FOLLOWS, which is also set in Detroit, drawing on the city’s dilapidation. IT FOLLOWS is not, sensu stricto, a coming-of-age story like his previous effort, but a horror film, whose premise is that if you sleep with the wrong person, you might end up being haunted by murderous semi-nude, semi-dead people, only whom you can see. Talk about a bad STD.
While the principal characters are teenagers, which is not unusual for a horror movie, Mitchell, who also wrote the film, does not treat them simply as fodder for the bogeyman. The heroine is Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty suburban girl in junior college, whose father is out-of-the-picture. Jay lives with her hardly present mother and her sister (Lili Sepe), who regularly hangs with her friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who longs for Jay, and Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who reads Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on a seashell-shaped compact e-reader. The period in which the movie is set is indeterminate. The characters don’t text or, with the exception of one instance, use cell phones. While the automobiles are of recent vintage, the teens watch black-and-white televisions and go to 1950’s style theaters to watch Hitchcock films.
The eclectic mashup of new and old technology comprises the disorienting yet alluring mise en-scene evoked by Mike Gioulakis’s cinematography. Especially remarkable are the slow circular pans and extended tracking shots, or the still shots of an uneaten breakfast. The camerawork is patient, allowing one to absorb the situation, to be immersed in the milieu, rather than to be dragged through a series of erratic shots. Still, Mitchell mixes it up, at one point using a camera attached to a chair to generate a shaky but uninterrupted shot of Jay’s reaction to a scene of horror. The nimble camerawork complements a story that is partly grounded in perspective; we and the victim see things that others cannot. Mitchell does not shy away from showing terror unleashed, but he does not indulge in it, either. Certain actions are elided, allowing the performances to underscore the consequences.
Like many horror movies, IT FOLLOWS relies on a muscular score to establish its tone. Mitchell laces most scenes with Disasterpeace’s (Rich Vreeland) chiefly electronic score to generate an eerie yet cool tone, saving the stentorian screeching, characteristic of horror movies, for a few occasions. Jay’s leitmotif, titled “Jay” on the soundtrack, is distinctive and eurythmic, encompassing the carefree yet tense nature of the heroine.
Too often horror movies don’t have much to say, and, while IT FOLLOWS aims to thrill, thematically, it is laden with subtext about the loss of innocence, and makes itself available to an Oedipal reading.
Carrie White is the best-selling author of Upper Cut: Highlights of My Hollywood Life. She tweets @carriewhitehair.
Alec Julian is a Los Angeles based writer. Follow him @PaparazziPorn.