The opening of It Follows could have come straight out of a John Carpenter flick: suburban Americana; sun-drenched lawn; synthesised, convulsive soundtrack; and, of course, a teenager running in heels (running from someone—something). Where the similarities end, though, is that Carpenter would have had a masked man with an infinite supply of jagged objects stalk the hysterical teen. It Follows, on the other hand, tosses the mask and the knife, but still retains the dread: an oppressively taut atmosphere that serves as a constant reminder of the inescapability of death—literally.
If It Follows is following anything, it’s Carpenter and his cronies. At times the action slows down to such an agonising pace it’s as if a young Brian De Palma has stepped behind the camera, drawing out the suspense with a youthful spring in his step and a boyish twinkle in his eye. Many, however, may see this as reductive—taking an old formula and simply injecting it with new blood. Pauline Kael was one such person. In her review of Halloween for The New Yorker in 1978, she wrote of Carpenter as seeming never to have had “any life outside the movies: one can trace almost every idea on the screen to directors such as Hitchcock and Brian De Palma”. Wonder what she would have made of present-day Tarantino?
Still, needless to say, Pauline was not impressed. She, like many critics of the 70s, thought of contemporary horror as a mere throwback to the old masters—a nostalgic homage, by the current crop of filmmakers, to their cherished, classic chillers they so loving viewed through rose-tinted glasses (rose-tinted due to blood stains, no doubt). Pauline, however, wanted less honour, more horror.
She concluded that, “Maybe when a horror film is stripped of everything but dumb scariness—when it isn’t ashamed to revive the stalest device of the genre (the escaped lunatic)—it satisfies part of the audience in a more basic, childish way than sophisticated horror pictures do.”
I adore Pauline Kael. Her prose is as lush as it is irresistible; and the more vitriolic her tone, the more entertaining the read. But Ms. Kael failed to acknowledge that “homage” is exactly what the horror genre (for better or worse) has been doing ever since the birth of cinema. The stalest device of the genre is stale for a reason. Injecting new blood into an old formula is what horror cinema has been doing for almost a century. The blood that every vampire sucks out of a victim is repackaged and jabbed straight back into the veins of the industry. Ever since Fritz Lang thought he could dupe Bram Stoker’s estate by changing Count “Dracula” to Count “Orlok”, horror has been rebranding, reimagining, regurgitating (and remaking) essentially the same stuff. And it usually involves two things: sex and death.
However, that isn’t to say Pauline Kael didn’t have a point (let’s be honest, she always does). When it comes to pastiche, originality tends to be an afterthought. It Follows is very effective, it just isn’t that original. Alluding to 70s slashers and deliberately obfuscating the period in which it’s set to get a wistful 80s feel (old fashioned cars, retro movie houses, chucky landlines etc.) are much higher on its agenda than trying out something new.
You can’t necessarily fault David Robert Mitchell (the film’s writer and director) for mimicking his heroes, especially when the execution is as slick and as stylish as this. The cinematography is gorgeous and the conceit is clever. It’s just a bit too conceited. Aside from the interesting set-up, It Follows brings nothing new or particularly inventive to the table.
But at that table, Mitchell wants to have his cake and eat it. And he wants to cut it with Michael Myers’ blade. For all its cine-literate intelligence, It Follows sadly indulges in many tired genre clichés that horror fans have grown frustratingly accustomed to—the jump scares, the BOO-gotcha moments. But it just so happens to do all this with tremendous flare. The film is a bit like stirring a rock ‘n’ roll tribute act: it may not be the most original group in the world, but boy can they get the crowd going. It Follows does, however, have a slight art-house sensibility—an artful air that at least, in part, attempts to renounce its seedier roots through a detached, alienated lens.
Therefore, even if It Follows is dancing to the same tune as countless other horror flicks, it certainly knows the moves. And it’s making the other contemporary US horrors look bad—many of which are just making the moves up as they go along; appearing more like full body retches set to music than dancing. It Follows, however, is dancing with supreme confidence and skill: swaying with the verve and salacious athleticism of Michael Jackson in Thiller. Well… a Jackson tribute act, anyway.
A modern horror that isn’t a dumb found-footage faux-documentary or a sleazy torture porn blood-fest is always welcome in my eyes (so long as it doesn’t try and poke them out. I’m looking at you, Julia’s Eyes!). It Follows knows its horror history and also has a sense of humour about it—although think less Carry On and more “Carrie On” (here all week). Most horror pictures of this kind rely on claustrophobia. It Follows is at its best when the action is outdoors; when the landscapes cause our eyes to dart back and forth across the frame trying to detect the slightest hint of movement. Turning the everyday and the mundane into something sinister is one of the best things a horror can do. And it’s here where It Follows truly flourishes.
So although the film may not quite be as revolutionary as some have claimed, it is certainly one of the best American horror movies of recent years—if not the best. Nevertheless, I’m sure many will no doubt attempt to cash in on its success. Executives are probably throwing titles around as I type—It Follows 2: The Follow Up, It Follows 3: A Tough Act to Follow, It Follows Again: This Time it’s Personal, and, of course, the straight-to-video porno parody, It Swallows.
But there is always the possibility (and hope) that It Follows inspires something completely innovative; something genuinely rebellious and truly ground-breaking: the kind of film that treats the horror How-To guide with the sort of respect that Freddy Krueger reserves only for teenagers. Who knows? No matter what, It Follows feels like it’s going to have plenty of followers following in its footsteps… as it slowly continues to follow ours.