The Horror of the Ordinary

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.

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3 thoughts on “The Horror of the Ordinary

  1. I was interested by your last point. Do you mean that people are becoming more afraid of knowing too much and being overwhelmed by the world around them, or of having too much known about them?

  2. You bring up easily my favorite aspect of the film, the fact that we are in the know always. So many horror films today rely upon jump scares, the hidden antagonist among the shadows we aren’t sure if there or not. Right in the first twenty minutes, the way the monster works is explained to us and every time it’s around we are the first to see it, or we are on the exact same page as Jay. The filmmakers did not need to keep us in the dark or rely on shock factor to make the movie scary because the writing, music, acting, and concept did that all on its own. It was so refreshing to watch after movies lately about evil grandparents or Saw CCXVIII. I typically enjoy horror novels more for this reason, they don’t rely on the benefits of film making to be scary, but It Follows did not either, it capitalized on them on top of the writing to add extra effect. And it did it so, so well.

  3. It Follows was the first horror film in a long time to genuinely terrify me, and this review brings to light several of the aspects that made it so scary. I agree that one of the most suspenseful things about the film was that the viewer always knew more than Jay. In fact, I often found myself watching the backgrounds in scenes to see if I could spot the monster. I appreciated the film’s lack of gore or jump scares, I feel like horror films rely heavily on them and end up making it cheesy. This film was so relatable and so close to him, and to quote the author of this post, so plain, that it was scary.

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