May 2015

Arts & Letters

Chain of danger

By Luke Davies
A fresh take on horror in David Robert Mitchell’s ‘It Follows’

“This thing. It’s gonna follow you. Someone gave it to me, and I passed it to you.” An improbably simple premise launches – and anchors – It Follows (in limited release), David Robert Mitchell’s moody homage to ’70s horror. Despite its retro aesthetic, the film doesn’t just feel like a John Carpenter throwback. In Halloween (1978), Carpenter placed teenage sexual anxiety centre stage, and the film’s enormous box-office and cultural reach changed the stakes forever (and in passing created the idea of the horror franchise). In the majority of Halloween’s descendants, the easy narrative device (they’re fooling around; they’re making love; they’re next to go) creates a recurring subtext: the sexually active meet a moral retribution that is usually supernatural, sometimes human and sociopathic, and occasionally both.

Brian De Palma’s earlier Carrie (1976) differed from this model. A now-dated but still-intelligent splatter-poem that viewed sexuality as an eruption of danger and power released from the adolescent body, it has endured not because of its patina of horror tropes (blood, teenage hierarchies, revenge) but because at its heart it’s such a sad and resonant tale of the high-school misfit.

Nonetheless, “horror”, as a genre that has come down to us from that so-called golden era of De Palma and Carpenter, doesn’t carry much resonance per se: for a long time the cheap thrill became the substance itself, and then after a while ironic distance, meta-humour and knowing winks added to the illusion that the genre had somewhere to go. It was quite some distance from Halloween to the innocuous antics of Scream (1996) and its sequels, when the genre began to mine itself, rather than our fears. (Jump forward to 2004’s Saw, and torture and violence, particularly against women, were becoming the norm.)

Exceptions to the rule are few and far between: Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) are masterful films rather than simply horror classics, and Tomas Alfredson’s exquisite Let the Right One In (2008) reminds us that good horror, memorable horror, is about drama and psychology, frailty and tenderness, and never simply shock. Perhaps the true energy of transformative change lies more in the direction of a film like Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), a beautiful and deeply strange film that haunts and troubles you long after you’ve seen it, and is more art-house science fiction than horror.

It Follows, a $2 million film that jumped from a four-theatre, test-the-water release on its first weekend in the US to 1200 theatres a fortnight later, and has gained momentum, works within the more traditional parameters of the horror genre. But it is fresh, and uncluttered, and presents an interesting shift in the usual sexual dynamics, in that sex has become not a moral but a logistical problem.

First-year uni student Jay (Maika Monroe) lives in suburban Detroit – the white, middle-class Americana parts, not the blighted wasteland south of 8 Mile Road that we’ll visit later in the film – with her little sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and a mother we barely see. She seems to be studying English literature, and hangs out with her friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who has a not-so-secret forlorn crush on her, and Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who’s always reading books like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on a clamshell-shaped Kindle-like device that seems the film’s only concession to technological modernity (there’s not a cell phone or flat-screen TV in sight). Paul and Yara are nerds, but the cool kind, of course. They’re a close-knit little circle of outsiders.

Jay goes on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), who seems nervous, distracted. She hasn’t slept with him yet, but tells her sister that she intends to. When she does, in the back seat of Hugh’s car, it’s not an unpleasant experience. The aftermath – when he chloroforms her, ties her to a wheelchair, professes that it’s necessary but that he doesn’t want to hurt her, shows her a glimpse of the terror that’s about to unfold in her life, gives her instructions on how best to avoid her fate, and dumps her on the street outside her home – falls way more into the category of bad second dates.

The police come, but by Jay’s own admission the sex was consensual. The rest of her story just has them scratching their heads. (Hugh is nowhere to be found, and as it turns out later, that’s not even his real name.) So the adults are out of the picture, and the kids are on their own – as they should be in a horror movie. This much we know: there’s a “thing”, a being, an entity, that Hugh has passed on to Jay, and the only way she can get rid of it is by sleeping with someone else. “Pass it along,” says Hugh. “If you don’t, it’ll come back and kill me too.”

It’s a beautiful double-bind, narratively speaking. Not only can you not just sleep with someone else and leave it at that; to save your own life, you have to make sure they sleep with someone else, too. So you have to explain the appalling situation, all your dark, secret motivations – after you’ve abused their trust, and put their life in danger. We’re far past teenage fumblings at summer camp and dark dread on the horizon; this is the realm of the purely mercenary, a twisted metaphor of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases as a form of self-preservation.

There’s a highly questionable and somewhat disconnected prologue, in which we come across a young woman’s body, horribly, graphically mangled. While the rest of Mitchell’s film works mostly within the classic horror-anxiety parameters, he seems to be striving in the prologue to enter with a bang, utilising elements of the more modern violent-horror genre. It’s a tonal clash with the rest of the film, but, more importantly, it’s yet another of the current cinema’s endless, corrosive portrayals of terrible violence inflicted on women. When the male gaze is no longer a gaze but the furious actions of a culture, of a dark, ultra-violent misogyny, we must complain. The slam cut to the body and the details of the brutality are entirely gratuitous.

This is a shame, since for the most part, and elsewhere, It Follows is quite smart fun. Everything is over the top, and most of it works beautifully. The film looks good: cinematographer Mike Gioulakis paints a landscape like a muted Archie comic, and the film is filled with elegant pans that create a sense of danger lurking always just out of frame. It sounds good too – the soundtrack by Rich Vreeland (as Disasterpiece) makes bold, discordant choices that add to the unease.

And the “it” itself? It appears, following, resolutely, mindlessly – a touch too much of the zombie here, perhaps, though it’s not your brains it’s after. “The thing can be a stranger in a crowd, or someone you love,” Hugh tells Jay, on the night he “fucks-and-runs” (so to speak). “Whatever helps it get closer to you.” This device turns out to be a wonderful cheat for the filmmakers, since the thing can then scare the wits out of us in many different guises. One of the film’s most refreshing aspects is the way in which it plays with the age-old horror question: Who will be next? Here, we don’t feel the usual anxiety about which friends and support characters will be picked off, and in what order. The target is always specifically the person who has had sex, or rather – it does get a little complicated – the people in that sexual … lineage. (I hesitate to use the expression “daisy chain”.) The next victim must be chosen not by some Freddy Krueger, some incessant off-screen threat, but by the freaked-out teenager him- or herself.

For a while, it feels that It Follows might surprise and impress right through to the end. It’s not entirely the case. The film doesn’t quite last the distance, and there’s a sense that it’s grasping for ideas and endings as it wraps itself up. There’s a death that seems to be barely noticed by the police, when it should be; there’s even the old stormy night cliché. Things go off the rails when the kids try to bring matters to a head in a municipal swimming pool, at night. The abandoned building exterior contrasts illogically with the well-lit, chlorinated pool on the inside – where’s the alarm system, by the way? – and in the end the klutzy, muddied sequence serves only to remind us of the mundane procedural mechanics that lie beneath such a wide range of horror narratives. Is that all there is? you wind up asking. These kids, who Mitchell has to this point imbued with real personalities, suddenly seem like Fred and Scooby Doo and Shaggy and Velma and Daphne, concocting a cockamamie plan to unmask the “ghost”. There’s even, I kid you not, a moment when one of the kids throws a sheet over thin air, and it takes the shape of the flailing being beneath. At this point I started thinking that it will be good to see what Mitchell does with his third film.

Let the Right One In staged its climax in an indoor swimming pool too – and the scene was superb, understated and chilling, making something deeply haunting of that pristine expanse of pale blue and its tiled surrounds. The implied violence was exhilarating, triumphant and justified, and the staging was not chaotic, as it is in Mitchell’s sequence.

Still, It Follows is not a bad film, and even non-horror aficionados might like to dip their toes in the water. There’s a guiding intelligence, and a reluctance to numb us with shock and schlock at the expense of an intriguing story. With a cheeky wink and a clever premise, the film attempts to make the metaphorical relationship between sex and death in horror overt and concrete.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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