There’s a theory in horror film circles that there’s two types of fear: horror-fear and terror-fear. Horror-fear is confining it traps us within our own psyches thus making us yearn for reassuring safety of companions. The process of thinking goes, “if I just have another person with me I’ll be safe”. Think of slasher films like Halloween (1978) or the machinations of the Saw series; these are the types of movies you watch with your buddies, the social aspect of feeling fear together comforts you all. The other type of fear is terror-fear. Terror-fear is expansive and paranoid, causing distrust, anxiousness, or even paranoia; examples of this include The Shining (1980) or The Thing (1982). Terror-fear makes you realise you don’t really know everyone else in the theatre with you, and what’s worse you have no idea what they’re thinking.
I first saw It Follows in the smallest auditorium of a chain theatre at about 10pm with one other group of people in the audience, and it was terrifying. I saw it again about a year later. By myself in my room on my iPad, and it was worse. And it’s for this reason, this combination of both horror-fear and terror-fear that is this week’s culturised’s Pick of Online Film.
It Follows works on a simplistic premise from sophomore feature director David Robert Mitchell. Late teen Jay (Maika Monroe) is dating Hugh (Jake Weary) and one night, after a date, they do what teens do in horror films. As Jay lays in the back of the car, examining a flower and basking in a post-coital daydream, Hugh chloroforms her. But it’s not until after she wakes that the true terror starts. Hugh informs Jay that he’s being stalked by a terrifying entity. It doesn’t stop: it never sleeps, it never eats, and it relentlessly comes after you. The only way to escape is to have sex with someone else, then it will go after them instead. What’s more, this entity can take the form of whomever it pleases in order to stalk its prey. Oh, and before I forget; only Jay and people she’s had sex with will be able to see this ominous being. Having strapped Jay to a wheelchair so she can’t dash away, Hugh rolls her to the edge of the parking complex, the perfect vantage point for spying “it”: the thing which is now following her. Hugh then promptly drops her off at her house, literally leaving Jay in a heap on her front lawn before driving away.
Jay’s sister, Kelly (Lili Seppe), and friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi), rush to Jay’s aid and are obviously less than thrilled with Hugh. The next day it’s discovered Hugh was both living under an assumed name and squatting, presumably to rid himself of the mysterious “it”. While at school Jay gets her first real look at “it”, making its debut in the form of an old woman adorned in a hospital gown. She flees and convinces her friends to stay the night with her. When the entity reappears in her home, Jay flees again determined to find Hugh. With the help of their neighbour, Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the group is able to find Hugh – whose real name is Jeff – at his house where he once again informs Jay that if she doesn’t foist the entity on to someone else by having sex with them, it will kill her and move on to him, and on and on down the line.
To reveal any more would be to spoil the rest of the plot, but by now you understand the rules. Now I want to dig a little deeper into what makes It Follows such an effective and nasty little horror film. As I started this piece by stating, the film contains both elements of horror-fear as well as terror-fear. Let’s start with breaking down those distinctions within the paradigm of It Follows.
The horror-fear in this film revolves around the understanding of what the entity will do to you once it catches you. This is illustrated in the opening moments of the film, in which we see a fearful young woman sprint from her house and down the street. Eventually, she ends up at beach and leaves a tearful goodbye voicemail to her family. The next shot is of her broken and bent body lying dead on the beach. It’s a moment that’s full of impact to the viewer and a text book example of eliciting horror-fear. When you’re watching a film in a theatre, generally you see it with an audience. The advantage of horror-fear is it affects the individual. Each person in the audience identifies with the solo girl on screen separately and is then witness to what happens to her while she is secluded and isolated. This is horror-fear in action: it traps us in our own bodies and makes us aware of just how vulnerable we are. In doing so it separates us from our fellow audience members. It’s an effect that’s easily repeatable during a solo viewing. In essence, what Mitchell accomplishes by opening with this scene is forcing the audience to understand on an individual level (whether in a group or alone) that they are not match for the entity contained in the film’s story.
Mitchell has employed the confining nature of horror-fear in the film to reduce the audience to a group of individuals by explicating how vulnerable we all are to “it” – it is inescapable. But get ready, because now is where the Mitchell really illustrates the manipulative nature of film as a medium. So say like me, you see It Follows with a group of friends or even in a film theatre. After the opening scene, when the confining nature of horror-fear has taken effect, your natural inclination may be to combat this sense of individual vulnerability by taking comfort in the group of people around you. Well Mitchell has an answer for that. You see, on Jeff/Hugh and Jay’s date they go to the movies. And just after they’ve sat down, he asks Jay if she sees the girl in the yellow dress at the back of the theatre. Jay doesn’t see her; in fact she thinks he’s messing with her. And then Hugh/Jeff asks her to leave with him, clearly scared. So if you’re sitting in that comfy theatre with your friends, now you’re thinking about how that girl in the yellow dress might be sitting right behind you. Maybe she’s one of those people whose very presence you were just taking comfort in.
Mitchell compounds this further by revealing that the entity can take the form of anyone, anywhere. And this is where we get the presence of terror-fear, where horror-fear confines, terror-fear pervades. Now everyone in that cinema is thinking about how everyone else could be a nightmare monster. Oh and if you’re watching it alone? Well now anyone you come across for the rest of the night could be the entity, in fact the odds are even better because of it. And it’s this action, the intertwining of horror-fear and terror-fear which makes It Follows such an effective premise.
But a great premise does not automatically produce a great film. There are other elements of It Follows that coalesce to make a movie of significance. One of these is its visual tone. The film is set on the suburbs of Detroit, but in an unspecified time period. The city is presented as a desiccated husk of what it used to be. Garbage litters the street and graffiti coats the walls. It should seem weird that Hugh/Jeff could so easily come across an abandoned parking structure, but within the film’s skeletal ghost town it just increases the permeating sense of uneasiness. This is built upon through a series of anachronisms that disturb the time setting: cars are from the late 70’s and phones are corded, but at the same time, advanced e-readers are dotted about, disturbing any sense of a stable environment around the characters.
Additionally, as the audience is never witness to a clear shot of Jay and Kelly’s mother and their father is essentially not present for the entirety of the film, this sense of isolation is amplified, causing the audience to feel that the teens are well and truly alone. Through this the audience is lulled into a sense of sympathy and concern over the teens’ bumbling attempts to thwart “it”, as well as their actual general well being.
Mitchell’s limited camera, generated from his generally setting it in one place and only moving in zooms or 360-degree rotations, formulates an increases sense of voyeurism. While he occasionally dollys the camera on a straight line, like down the course of sidewalk, the whole film has quite a visually exploitative aesthetic. Through this heightened visual experience, the audience can watch what happens to the characters, they can care about them, but they cannot interfere with them. This is a film that can touch us, but we can’t touch it back.
It’s for this reason ultimately, that I’ve chosen to examine It Follows for the Pick of Online Film. It is a film that virtually no one saw coming, with a premise so simple that it’s astonishing that no one had done it before. But the same could be said of Jaws (1975) when it was first released. It was often said that one of the oldest horror tropes was “if you have sex, you die”, but it took a little film from an unheralded director to give that premise new life.
It Follows is available on Netflix in both the US and UK.