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It Follows (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
A.J. MacReady
Release Date: 
Anchor Bay
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
David Robert Mitchell
Maika Monroe
Keir Gilchrist
Lili Sepe
Olivia Luccardi
Bottom Line: 

In the last few years, a subgenre of horror has gotten quite a bit of attention, one commonly referred to as "arthouse horror." This style of filmmaking is not a new thing by any means but has definitely been discussed in a much more widespread fashion than I can ever recall happening before. The main touchstones in this conversation have been Jennifer Kent's phenomenal The Babadook, the recent release The Witch (which I will always refuse to call The VVitch even though that may be correct), and the film I'm going to talk about here, It Follows.

All three films have gotten a great deal of critical acclaim and exposure. All three have been called "one of the scariest movies you'll ever see!" by one person or another in various places. Another thing they all have in common is this:  they have been wildly divisive among moviegoers, and specifically hardcore fans of horror films. It's been an odd conversation, one that brings into focus the fact that what people think of as "a scary movie" (like anything) differs from person to person. This subjectivity has led to some...differences of opinion, you could say, in the online discourse I've seen. Which is fine; debate is healthy and can be a good thing -- understanding the viewpoint of others is (almost) always helpful. To tell the truth, some of it has been particularly contentious, the tone of which I've found rather surprising.

Yet this is not a discussion about whether or not a horror film has to check every box in a specific list in order to qualify as one (another recent entry in arthouse horror is the remarkable film Spring, which is absolutely stellar without ever being particularly scary in any way, shape, or form); this is merely an examination of It Follows for what it is and what it accomplishes.

Spoiler: It Follows is VERY much a horror film, and what it accomplishes is as quietly impressive as any horror film ever made.

First, the specifics. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell (this reviewer suggests you remember that name, as this talented gentleman is going to be one to watch from all indications present in this film) provides a fairly straightforward setup here. Jay (Maika Monroe) is a typical American teenager living in the suburbs outside Detroit, a student well-liked by her friends with a younger sister she's very close to. There's a boy she's been seeing, and early in the film they make love for the first time in a very typically American way (the backseat of his car) before Jay is subjected to something quite atypical: immediately afterward, the guy drugs her and engages her in what must be the strangest conversation she's ever had (it doesn't help that she's tied to a wheelchair as it takes place, no doubt). What he tells her is something you already know if you know anything about the movie at all -- he passed something to her when they had sex, something she's going to wish was just the clap because this virus (?) Jay now suffers from is more of a curse. There is now an "it" that will take the form of various people and through them it will follow her, wherever she is, wherever she goes, until one of two things happens: 1) it gets to her, in which case it will kill her, or 2) she has sex with someone else, which will pass it on to that person (so that it will follow them). There is no wiggle room here -- if Jay doesn't give it to someone else it will never, ever stop coming for her until it gets to her and kills her. In reality, she will always be at risk because it will relentlessly stalk whoever she gives it to until it kills them or whoever they give it to, at which point it goes back to going after Jay. The rest of the film is her dealing with this, and that's it.

As I said, it's a pretty straightforward setup, but what makes it stand apart from most other fright flicks (and places it squarely into "arthouse horror" territory) is the approach Mitchell takes to his material and his execution of it. Most of the initial reactions I heard regarding the movie was how much it reminded people of classic John Carpenter (which will always get my attention), and this is virtually all due to the camerawork; it is specifically what most of us think of when the term "classical style" is brought up. This is a film of slow pans, long takes, perfectly framed compositions, and very deliberate camera movements -- which is like visual crack to a particular breed of horror fan (I am that fan). Director of photography Michael Gioulakis brings his A-game here and I'm hoping to see him do some other work in the genre because the film looks fantastic without ever showing off. One might say that the very fact that Mitchell deploys the style he does is an attempt at attention-getting itself, given that it flies in the face of much of modern genre cinema, but I think it's merely the style serving the material. The script he wrote is as deliberate as the camerawork; the quick-cut/handheld aesthetic would have been counterproductive. You know -- a director shot a film based on what would be the most effective way to tell the story, not based on what is popular at the moment...what a concept, right?

An aspect of the film I find remarkably strong is the portrayal of the kids. I'm sure this is not a new insight, but Mitchell and his cast pull it off so effectively I have to make a note of it -- these don't feel like "movie" kids, they're real kids. They're funny without being sitcom one-liner factories. They're awkward in a relatable way. They try to be brave when they don't exactly know what that means or will call for but know they're willing to be. They are disappointingly dismissive and lazily thoughtless and surprisingly reliable, sometimes in the same scene. They're a lot of things, some impressive and some not, because that's how people are. Monroe is proving herself to be some kind of indie Jamie Lee Curtis between this and the phenomenal Adam Wingard joint The Guest (this will probably change after the new Independence Day movie, though, so check these out soon so you can say you were a fan of her when); she is relatable, sympathetic, and always believable. Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Daniel Zovatto and Olivia Luccardi (the scene-stealing Yara) round out the rest of the main cast and are effortlessly authentic.

I'm not gonna break down the mythology of the "supernatural STD" (which is how most people have referred to it, and it's effective as shorthand but somehow beside the point) because, in my opinion, the mythology of it means everything and absolutely nothing all at the same time. Much the same way the sex in the film isn't really that important -- it's a device. It's a way to hang the hook and get to what Mitchell is trying to get at (I don't think the mythology interests him at all, which is why it seems so formless to some people). Opinions on this subject vary, but while some people think it's about sex specifically, I don't at all. The easiest way to read it -- and more than a few people I've talked to do -- is that It Follows is about death more than anything. If it's trafficking in metaphor, and most people seem to agree that it is, it's that basic of one. My reading of it is more specific: it is not so much about death as a concept or a force of nature as it is about the acceptance of that fact. It's about understanding and, more importantly, KNOWING, in your bones, that one day you and everyone you know is going to die. That strikes me as why sex is the catalyst here: that's something that happens for most of us when we reach a certain stage of adolescence and/or maturity level. Whether it's a conscious thing or not (and it almost always is), we think of ourselves as more "grown up" when we lose our virginity; we've all heard something like "they made a man/woman out of me" in reference to that. Another signpost of maturity -- one that some would say is the true benchmark of it -- is the day you accept your own death as an inevitability and not just something that happens to other people. Growing up is scary for numerous reasons, not the least of which is learning that beyond the bubble you've lived in up until that moment of your life is a great big world out there and it can kill you. Scariest of all? Accepting that it WILL kill you. The difficulty of this is due to one irrefutable truth: there isn't much human beings try harder at than not thinking about the fact that we will die.

I will state here that I think that many of the people who dislike the flick do so because of that exact reason. It isn't exactly news, but the human animal isn't a fan of being reminded of its own mortality. Sure, some find the flick slow/boring/stupid, but I know people who usually dig arthouse horror and DESPISE (I'm talking white-hot hatred here) It Follows. I believe that's why this one bothers them in a way those others with a similar approach don't, even if they don't realize it. I also want to state that such a reaction is perfectly understandable and there is no judgment from me in that respect.

This is a film of smaller rewards alongside the bigger and more expected horror payoffs, and the details linger. A refreshing lack of fear in being literate (Yara's clamshell e-reader being another excellent touch) -- these teenagers quote POETRY for Christ's sake, and it isn't treated as an affectation or pretension. It's just something they do. The way the time period is simply American adolescence and has no interest in being more specific than that; the aforementioned e-reader sits happily alongside an ancient-looking TV set (complete with rabbit ears) that the kids watch old-black and white movies on. I'm so impressed with the palpable sense of dread the film achieves...that slow burn, building anticipation that it so perfectly pulls off. The score, by Rich "Disasterpiece" Vreeland, is an 80s style throwback synthesizer type that's made a resurgence in recent times -- one that some people are sick of already, which I don't understand but okay, sure -- and it might be the best of those that weren't composed by Jeff Grace. What I know is that I find the music amazingly awesome and have been listening to my CD of it the entire time I've been writing this. I love that Mitchell, impressively confident, has such control over the pace of the film; it reaches a rhythm that inherently grasps when it's time to embrace simplicity rather than chaotic complexity. I've seen the film more than once (but nowhere near enough) and it never fails to deliver a quality experience. This is phenomenal cinema right here, is what I'm saying.

The Blu-ray from Anchor Bay/Radius TWC, presented in gorgeous 2.4:1 widescreen and DTS-HD 5.1 sound, more than reaches the standards of their previous top-notch releases. Basically, what I see is fantastic to look at and what I hear pleases me, which is all I ask for. Bonus features aren't what you would call robust, exactly, but there is a nice treat here; aside from the trailer and poster gallery, a short but pleasant interview with composer Vreeland, the jewel of the extras is one winner of a commentary track. Just as Radius did for their Snowpiercer BD, they've gotten film critic (and a gentleman who knows his horror films) Scott Weinberg to moderate a critic's commentary, where he is joined one at a time by five other film critics/journalists. If you've been lucky enough to hear that Snowpiercer track, you know exactly what you're in for here, as Weinberg leads his peers though an absolutely terrific discussion of the movie (it kinda puts everything I've written thus far to shame, if I'm being honest) that you simply MUST check out if you're a fan of the film. I have no problem calling it indispensable as I know that doing so is merely telling the truth.

Some agree, some don't, but my feelings about It Follows are quite simple: it's one of the finest horror films released this century. It is masterfully done and stands out from your typical genre fare by virtue of its thoughtful approach to tired tropes and conventions (even if all of those wonderful things that make it stand out seem to be exactly why a lot of individuals hate it). It Follows could have gone wrong SO many ways -- the characters could have been types, the directing could have been the "look at me look at me look at me" bullshit that too many people mistake for skill, and the story could have become a bad exploitation/Skinemax flick that wanted to parade naked bodies around above all else. I'm grateful it took the approach it did, because it's one of my favorite horror films in years.

Oh, and did I mention that it has moments that will TOTALLY SCARE THE FUCKING SHIT OUT OF YOU? Because it does. Say hi to that one guy for me (you'll know him when you see him).

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