Monday, April 20, 2015

[Movie Review] It Follows

It Follows made it hard for me to fall asleep the night I saw it. Hell, it made me look behind myself more than a few times as I walked back to my car, even in a well-lit parking garage in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor. I think this is mainly because the film feels so familiar and essentially Midwestern, making it much more plausible that this could happen to me, personally. A horror movie set in New York or L.A. could never match It Follows for creepiness, because they could never pass for where I live. This isn't a ghost story that happened in a land far, far away; it happened right here, in these very woods, on a night very much like this one. And the quality of plausibility, the idea that this could happen to you, is what separates a merely spooky story from a terrifying one.

Californians are used to seeing themselves and their neighborhoods in movies, but those of us who grew up in Southeast Michigan have a harder time finding media that accurately represent our home region. In fact, there are only a few big-name films (Gran Torino, Robocop, 8 Mile) and TV shows (Freaks and Geeks, Hung) that spring readily to mind, and even the most recent of these is already four years old.

Because Southeast Michigan movies are such a rare breed, it was somewhat surreal to see teenagers on the big screen that actually looked like my own school-friends, living in houses that actually look like the houses I grew up around. The exterior shots are full of cozy working-class two-stories with white aluminum siding and blue vinyl above-ground pools in the backyard, often installed behind fully separate one-car garages, separated from one another by a grid of chain-link fences . t's all hauntingly familiar to me, which probably explains why I found this movie was so singularly creepy: everywhere in this movie reminds me strongly of places that I've actually lived in or visited with some regularity, from the neat little rows of suburban houses to the pacific splendor of an "up north" cabin to the hauntingly empty shells of burned-out homes and abandoned parks within Detroit itself.

Just try driving past one of these at night,
and tell me it doesn't freak you out. I dare you.

Although the geography of the film is explicit, the time is left ambiguous. The main characters (all in their late teens or early twenties) spend much of the first act lounging in living rooms and basements that look like they haven't been redecorated since the seventies, complete with dark wood-paneling and beige shag carpeting (I think I even saw a macramé owl in the background at one point), but homes that look like this are extremely common in the Detroit area, even today. The kids drive cars that look like they're from the 1980s, but they wear their hair and clothes more-or-less like modern teens and twentysomethings do (though not quite; something's missing, I'm just not sure what). Cell phones never appear, but one of the main characters is repeatedly shown reading Dostoyevsky's The Idiot on a Kindle-esque clamshell e-reader.

The plot of this dark and twisted tale follows Jay (short for Jamie), a freshman or sophomore a local community college, who's been dating an older guy, Hugh, who she's been thinking about sleeping with for the first time. After doing the deed in the backseat of Hugh's hot rod, the young man goes to the trunk to get something while Jay idly soliloquizes, then returns - major shocker! - with a chloroform-soaked cloth which he presses to Jay's face until she passes out. She wakes up some time later, handcuffed into a wheelchair, on a wall-less upper floor of one of Detroit's many abandoned factories. Slowly walking around her, pointing his flashlight out into the night, Hugh explains that something, some unknown entity or person, has been following him for a long time; someone passed it to him through sex, and now he's passed it to her. She can get rid of it by passing it to someone else in turn, but until she does, it will be moving towards her. It only walks, never runs, but it never sleeps, never stops, and only she (or someone whom "it" has pursued before) will be able to see it. No matter what she does or how far she flees, no matter how sturdy the doors she bolts herself behind, it will always be out there, day and night, never stopping or resting, always walking straight towards her.

That's one helluva setup, right? I won't spoil the rest of the movie for you (if you want to know how it ends, look it up on Wikipedia or something), but I can tell you this: I've never felt so uncomfortable while gazing on the figure of an attractive female, mainly because this film is very much aware of the male gaze and how it works, but makes you feel uncomfortable for looking. Jay is definitely sexualized, but it's a kind of coquettish, awkward sexuality that makes me, as a male in my late twenties, feel unsure whether it's OK for me to look or not; this creates tension and cognitive dissonance which reverberates throughout the film.

An example: when Hugh brings Jay home after showing her "it" for the first time, he unceremoniously dumps her on the street outside her home, and zooms off into the night. As her friends rush towards her, the camera affords us a full view of Jay's pink-panty-clad buttocks as she drops to her knees in tears on the front lawn of her parents' home. In another context, this shot would be nothing but empty-headed fanservice, but here it just feels deeply wrong. The audience is made to feel uncomfortable for watching her from this angle while she's having a complete (and totally understandable) emotional breakdown, because there's dissonance between the content of the shot (shapely female buttocks) and the mood (sorrow, vulnerability).

The soundtrack, by Disasterpeace, will definitely be a hit with the hipster crowd. It's all 80s-style 8-bit chiptune synthesizers playing slow, eerie moodscapes, interpsersed with a few high-tension, nerve-janglers. Each piece develops slowly out of layered and riffs, usually with a noticeable echo-filter overlaid. Everything is dark, cold, and minor key, and just as circular/repetitive (in a good way) as the titular it-that-follows. Cold, artificial, unearthly, and highly atmospheric; definitely worth a listen, but only in a well-lit room. Listening to it, I can't help but be reminded of the Lavender Town Syndrome creepypasta that's been passed around the virtual campfires for who-knows-how-long.

I was also impressed with the way the director extracted maximum creep-factor from a minimal special effects budget: since "it" can look like anyone, and changes its appearance to avoid easy detection by its prey, they didn't even need to stick with just one person to play "it". The fact that its appearance changes is key to the story, as well as the overwhelming sense of forebodeing that permeates this film. You find yourself scanning the background every time Jay is in a public space, looking for any extra that seems to be walking towards the camera; we feel distracted and mentally taxed by the need to observe Jay's surroundings, helping put us even more thoroughly in her shoes.

Some critics have been talking about how "it" stands for the relentlessness of urban decay (in Detroit and elsewhere, as the economy limps along and America's preeminence begins to tarnish), but I'm not sure I buy it. The director has said in interviews that he doesn't really care what people think "it" is, as long as they're frightened. Personally, I think that it stands better as a metaphor for STDs (and AIDS in particular), but better still as a parable of teenagers coming to grips with their own looming mortality. As one character says late in the film, quoting Dostoyevsky:

When there is torture, there is pain and wounds, physical agony, and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering, so that one is tormented by the wounds until the moment of death. And the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within 10 minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant—your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that this is certain. The worst thing is that it is certain.

...and that's enough to freak anybody out.

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