By: Perry Janes (friend of The Course of Horror)
Here’s the honest truth: when Gina first asked me to view and comment on the horror film IT FOLLOWS (directed by fellow Michigan native David Robert Mitchell) – I hesitated. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say here that I’m not a traditional follower (nor fan) of the genre. I typically eschew horror film releases in favor of almost any other genre. Put another way: I’m chicken. Nevertheless. I overcame my initial hesitation and decided to give the film a viewing. And then another, and another. Because what I found, and what makes IT FOLLOWS so deeply compelling, is a film that opens direct lines of dialogue with its formal predecessors only to deliberately veer away from their examples.
Before I get to specifics, I want to say: what distinguishes the horror genre from, say, its purely dramatic or comedic brethren is a constant interplay of references, archetypes, tropes, and influences being traded back-and-forth. Virtually every entry in the genre intentionally relies on (and nods to) films that came before it. And so I was not surprised to find that IT FOLLOWS quite literally (for lack of a better term) follows in this tradition. What I did not expect was a defiant upending or rebutting of the institution it claimed to be joining. In place of familiar genre conventions – most notably the use of the close-up, which fosters a sense of claustrophobia in the viewer and limits the audience’s field-of-vision (thereby concealing potential threats and thrills) – IT FOLLOWS creates a visual language almost entirely out of medium and long shots characterized by a deep depth of field. Put another way: nothing is hidden. Foreground and background are rendered in clear, crisp resolution; landscapes contextualize (even swallow) their characters; a subtly roving camera consumes increasing amounts of space; a tendency towards high key lighting that minimizes shadow underscores this acuity of vision. In short, the audience sees everything. There are no well-concealed dangers, here. Here, the menace lurks in plain sight.
The resulting visual language creates a sort of paranoia in the viewer, encouraging its audience to scan the horizon, to probe the background, to flit with the same anxious energy seen in Jay herself (the hunted) for what follows her (the hunter). This dynamic creates the tension around which IT FOLLOWS pivots. The camera, with its well-lit deep focus, promises transparency (and therefore safety) for both viewer and protagonist alike. The narrative bounds of the story, however, defy this sense of transparency, concealing its relentless antagonist right in plain sight.
Part of what makes this approach so interesting, however, is the film’s apparent homage to its genre. Reviewers from every corner have commented on the film’s idiosyncratic pastiche. Nostalgic referents make up the film’s entire mise-en-scene (with costume and set design that defy virtually any single time period), evoking both horror flicks (like FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH and HALLOWEEN) as well as supernatural thrillers (a la DAWN OF THE DEAD and CARRIE). The movie’s monster – itself inspired by THE THING – shares its shape-shifting attributes with a whole panoply of movie menaces (ranging from TERMINATOR 2 to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS). A synthy, 1980’s-inspired score hearkens back to an era of low-budget “slasher” films in which murderers of every ilk bloodily dispatch groups of suburban teens.
All this sounds like a lot of jargon. Mise-en-scene. Depth of field. Pastiche. But what does it mean, really? And why does anybody care?
What’s fascinating about IT FOLLOWS, its formal conventions and its relative popularity as a horror film, is the suggestion that what scares us has begun to change. Classic conventions of the horror-film – taken at a glance – might include: a dark (or high-contrast) color palette with opaque shadows that obscures the landscape; close framing that articulates a character’s emotional subjectivity while restricting the viewer’s field of vision; sudden thrills that surprise or shock the audience; aural spikes (see: screaming) that similarly create panic and/or surprise in the viewer. Now consider IT FOLLOWS. With its slow-moving (but constantly advancing) monster, its wide-shots and deep focus, its well-lit landscapes, the film runs counter to almost everything we, as viewers, have come to expect from the genre. This, in turn, suggests a shift in what we find culturally or personally frightening. In an era rife with new social concerns – of privacy and identity in a digital age – IT FOLLOWS preys upon insecurities and paradigms that are fundamentally contemporary. It is the plainness of the film – the apparent familiarity and safeness of its presentation – that (much like its shape-shifting monster) makes it so horrifying.