Reviews include Dune, The French Dispatch, and The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.
On The Right Track: David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows”
March 26, 2015
By Adam Nayman
The title of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows refers to the nameless, shape-shifting ghoul that pursues its prey at a slow pace through the film’s suburban Detroit landscape. Its heroine, Jay (Maika Monroe) is being a haunted by a monster passed on to her by the boy who has taken her virginity: it’s as if she has contracted the phantom like a venereal disease. And no matter where she tries to hide – whether it’s under the covers or at the bottom of a swimming pool – the monster comes shuffling after her.
But “it follows” could also serve as a mantra for Mitchell and his cinematographer Mike Gioulakas, who have presented It Follows in a series of snaky long takes that mirror the slow but inexorable momentum of its supernatural antagonist. In the film’s centerpiece sequence, the camera spins languorously in a fixed position to take in the bustle of a high school hallway, catching sight of a shambling figure framed through a window. With each rotation, the apparition gets closer to the lens. It’s a perfect visual metaphor for both the heroine’s wandering adolescent attention span and obliviousness to the menace lurking in plain sight.
The spin-cycle setting of the cinematography is reminiscent of another high-school horror movie about a death-tinged sexual awakening: Brian De Palma’s classic Stephen King adaptation Carrie (1976). While De Palma would frequently draw on Alfred Hitchcock’s film language throughout his career, in Carrie he managed to come up with his own show-stopping camera moves, like the 360-degree pan that accompanies the title character’s prom-night slow dance with white knight Tommy Ross (William Katt). What starts off as a swooning, beautiful representation of the weightlessness of falling in love – with the camera and Tommy both sweeping Carrie off of her feet – begins spiraling out of control. By the end of the shot, the feeling is one of nausea, as if anticipating the bloody, stomach-turning disappointment to come.
The greatest example of sustained camera movement in horror cinema is probably The Shining (1980), in which Stanley Kubrick and his cinematographer John Alcott exploited the then-new technology of the Steadicam to prowl the corridors of the Overlook Hotel. The impression of driving deep into the frame, towards a distant, invisible horizon line – a Kubrick staple since the nightmare sequence in Killer’s Kiss (1954) – gives The Shining a sense of momentum that belies its static, snowbound setting. Kubrick’s other major innovation – which even a perennial skeptic like Pauline Kael had to acknowledge – was that he cast his modern Gothic in bright, almost blinding light; even the nighttime chase through the hedge maze is illuminated by the reflections of spotlights on white snow. This idea of horror taking place in plain view, rather than steeped in shadows, is also taken up in It Follows, which is set mostly during the daytime (with one or two very effective middle-of-the-night interludes).
Another obvious reference point in It Follows – and another keynote film in the evolution of modern horror moviemaking style – is John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which is evoked primarily through Mitchell’s selection of tree-lined residential backdrops. Carpenter’s contributions to the slasher-movie genre were manifold – from the heavy-breathing, slow-moving figure of Michael Myers to the woozy synth-pop score – but one innovation stands above the rest: the deployment of a first-person camera style that involuntarily placed the viewer in the killer’s shoes for scenes at a time stands above the rest. It’s true that Michael Powell had gotten there first in his classic Peeping Tom (1961) and that Bob Clark used the POV shot smartly in Black Christmas (1975), but Carpenter’s manipulation of point-of-view was so diabolically assured that the film became a kind of style book for an entire generation of filmmakers.
But the most elaborate homage Mitchell pays in It Follows is to a much older movie: Jacques Tourneur’s seminal, elegant creep-out Cat People (1942). In the excellent documentary Man in the Shadows, Kent Jones explains that Tourneur and his producer, Val Lewton, continuously used suggestion rather than special effects to generate scares – a decision partially dictated by their low-budget, B-movie milieu but also wonderfully appropriate for a tale about a woman prone to hallucinations. Like Jay, Irena (Simone Simon) is cursed – she’s a descendant of Eastern European witches who were able to transform themselves into panthers. And like Jay, the curse is connected to sexuality: her animal side only comes out when she gets aroused.
In Cat People’s signature scene, Irena’s rival Alice (Jane Randolph) is taking a swim in an indoor pool and thinks she hears the growling of an approaching predator; for a second, the reflections of the lights on the water seem to create the silhouette of a big cat. The implication is that Irena is on the prowl, but we see nothing; the combination of sound design and an image of heightened vulnerability – Alice is alone, half-clothed, and helpless – generate an eerie chill. Late in It Follows, when Jay and her friends lure the creature to an abandoned community center to try to fight it off, the poolside setting directly evokes Cat People, with an added shiver of recognition in the fact that to her friends, their target is invisible. Using nothing more than splashes in a few feet of water, Mitchell creates the impression of an evil presence – and honors Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton alongside De Palma, Kubrick and Carpenter. It seems there’s another meaning to It Follows – in just his second feature, Mitchell is chasing the greats. It may take him a while to get there, but he’s off to a fast start.