Ginger Nuts of Horror
Everyone has an opinion, and who is anyone to decide which opinion is correct. So in all fairness Ginger Nuts of Horror presents not one but two reviews of what seems to be this years most decisive film to date.
If you're a horror fan, and you haven't heard of this film just yet, where on earth have you been? The trailer had audiences buzzing (myself included) and early reviews were universally raves, comparing it to The Babadook in terms of being this year's breakout mainstream horror hit. With all that in mind, this was a film that I was really looking forward to, and had been anticipating for months. I really wanted this to be great, and to be merrily dishing out 9 or 10 out of 10 for this one.
Unfortunately, I simply can't do it. I'll endeavour to keep the review spoiler-free, and a mention of the key premise is anything but a spoiler – that's set up in the very early running, and the title absolutely hints at it too.
So, our lead is Jay, a teenage girl just getting to the age of exploring love and lust. She lives with her mother (who we practically never see, but more of that later) and two sisters. Her boyfriend, Hugh, is handsome, rebellious and, as we find out on the first date we see, a little uneasy. On the second date we see between them, they proceed to have sex in his car, after which he chloroforms her and ties her to a wheelchair in an abandoned building. There's a bit of classic teenage angst and speculation in these early runnings, but it's at this stage the movie truly begins.
It's as she's tied to this wheelchair that Hugh tells her he's passed something on to her, a curse of some kind, which means that something will be following her from now on. It could look like anyone, if it helps to get close to her, but wherever she is it will keep walking towards her in a straight line. There's only one of it, and all he needs to do is pass it on to someone else by having sex with them. However if it catches the next person in the chain, it will come back to her, and then back to Hugh, and so on and so on.
So there's the heart of the story, and what follows (ha!) is part road movie and part horror film. Her friends gradually come to believe what is going on is real, and try to help her as best as they are able (including two of her male friends, who seek to 'help' in the most direct way). There are moments that are really tense and uneasy, but there are a few key things that – to me – really undermine the menace that could have been going on here.
First and foremost, there's the fact that the creature, entity or whatever it is can only walk. It's as if one really persistent zombie were after you. If you run, you'll probably get away. If you're on a bike, you'll probably get away. If you're driving, and keep driving, you can go days and days without even seeing the thing. So if you were to keep moving, you'd probably never even see it at all. Take a flight somewhere and you could probably ditch it for months – it's never established if the entity can swim or not. So there are large parts of the film where the tension is lost, and to be honest the cast of characters isn't really compelling enough to drive things forward from a plot perspective. They're a bit cardboard cut out, even poor old Jay –
as an ensemble they're no more inspired that the cast of
I Know What You Did Last Summer.
She's got the sister living a bit in the shadow of her beauty, the geeky sister who's always reading on what looks like an e-reader (despite a feeling that the film is set in the 80s or 90s – the TVs are very old-fashioned and none of our main cast seem to have a mobile phone – the timeframe is never truly established), the lovable loser guy who's been pining after Jay since childhood and the footloose rebel with a heart who steps in to help her. And, to come back to my earlier point about the mother, the kids just seem to drive off on their own for days at a time and nobody parental seems bothered in the slightest.
The second major problem with this film for me was that, with the premise you're working with, surely one of the key aspect of it has to be paranoia. We establish from her boyfriend, who explains the nature of the curse, that the thing is smart and will take whatever form it needs to in order to get close to you, even those you love. All very well to tell us that, but it would have been nice if you'd followed up on that in some way. Half the time the creature looks entirely out of place in whatever setting it is, and the other half of the time the creature looks just like that – a monster, something supposedly terrifying, which I can only assume is a concession to the stereotypical Hollywood horror audience that supposedly can't go without a visual scare. It feels as though someone came up with the premise and then kind of didn't have the guts to really go through with it. If an apparently intelligent creature is trying to get close to you, then why would it appear as something that stands out like a sore thumb in most scenarios? It's also pretty inconsistent in terms of what the thing actually wants, as the establishing scene at the start suggests one thing before being contradicted twice – in different ways – in other scenes. If you're creating a monster, at least apply some internal logic to it if you want me to belive it.
Horror film is a genre that, unfortunately, can come with a certain amount of disappointment in-built. There are films that employ lazy tropes, there are films that try to replace real tension with shock and gore, there are movies that depend on jumps rather than ever employing the brainpower to try and deliver genuine, lasting psychological fear. This was a film that came with a reputation of doing something different, or at least doing something established in a fresh and exciting way. But for me that reputation was never really justified – I was looking for something different, and it just wasn't here. In fairness, it was much more nicely-shot than most horror films, but a few attractive visuals don't make up for failings in other areas.
Add to that a good few other inconsistencies and annoyances, and a final scene that you could see coming from halfway, and what you are left with is a feeling of wasted potential. What could have been a masterpiece of urban paranoia was left little more than another teen creature feature, all too often leaning on the lazy cliches it had been reported to eschew.
The other film this has earned comparison to is the absolutely superb Ringu/The Ring, which to me does a monumental injustice to one of the best horror films of recent times. The analogy makes sense in a way – passing on a curse, the sense of inevitability that the curse will get you – but what lifted Ringu far above this was the fact that the curse in that instance made sense, and even more than that, was explained in a way that made it even more terrifying. It Follows tells us what the curse is, but no more than that, and then delivers it in a way that is contradictory, confusing and never explored in any way. There's not even an attempt or effort made to get to the heart of it, so what we have is a faceless monster with no raison d'etre – it has an objective, but no clear motivation for that objective, which makes it no more frightening than any zombie flick you've seen before..
This is a film I went into with no cynicism about, and that I genuinely wanted to love, which made it all the more frustrating a letdown. I was pulling for this film to be a horror masterpiece, but what I instead got was a movie that stuck to teen horror conventions all too often rather then breaking them. Those who has compared it to Cabin in the Woods as a genuinely interesting genre twist were, for me personally, a long way off the mark. What I was ultimately left in mind of more than any movie this has drawn comparison with was Final Destination, and that's not a kind comparison to have to make. Unfortunately It Follows really does follow too much of what has come before, and for that reason it trails in at 4/10. If this is supposedly the best horror film Hollywood can offer this year, I think I'll be headed straight back to my usual independent and foreign films...
It Follows gives me hope that, finally, horror films centred around American teenagers are growing up, after the false starts of Scream and The Cabin in the Woods.
Maika Monroe plays Jay, a teenage girl whose budding relationship is going well until the night she has sex with her boyfriend, Hugh, played by Jake Weary. Afterwards, she finds herself haunted by figures, some she knows, some she does not, who relentlessly pursue her. Is her mind playing tricks on her, or has Hugh passed something onto her? Something that follows?
The premise of It Follows is beautiful in its simplicity by inverting the key trope that governs this particular sub-genre; rather than abstaining from sex in order to become the Last Girl, sex is crucial in order for Jay to pass the unnamed entity’s attention onto someone else. The only way to survive is to repeat what was done to her – parallels with recent American events, such as the reports of young women being raped by high school jocks in small towns come to mind. The scene where Jay is crudely dumped, half-naked, outside her home after having sex with Hugh is one of the most affecting in the film.
This approach creates an intimate sense of horror that is far more unnerving than Jason Voorhees’ machete could ever be. This entity forces its victims to become the monster. Subsequent scenes where Jay is alone with her friend, Paul, who has been nursing a crush on her for years become far more uncomfortable than they would otherwise be. Paul is played by Keir Gilchrist who I’d like to give a special mention to as I can see him going places in the horror genre with his knack for playing empathetic, vulnerable characters with an obsessive edge to their nature.
The film-makers’ efforts to contrast the affluent suburbs with the deteriorating inner city of Detroit works well in creating a sense of the urban gothic – of a world where something rotten, malevolent and unnamed lurks just below the surface. Blurred figures pass back and forth in the background of most scenes, and we are never sure if one of them will be revealed as the entity until the last minute. These scenes echo John Carpenter’s Halloween, which is further heightened by the synthesiser-heavy soundtrack. However, there are also literary echoes worth mentioning of the often
half-seen ghosts conjured by M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu and Ramsey Campbell.
If you’re going to steal,
you might as well steal from the best.
The tension is well orchestrated throughout most of the film with my favourite scene being Jay’s first sighting of the entity which is played out to a classroom rendition of T.S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. Later, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is quoted as a reference to the entity’s nature. Scream and The Cabin in the Wood’s may have had their knowing pop culture references, but the fact that It Follows uses these literary references instead, without tiresome, eye-winking irony, really impressed me.
My one criticism of the film would be there is a scene towards the end which seemed to exist only to serve a possible demand for a Hollywood climax. Dramatic as it is, the scene could have been excised to let us end with the perfect, downbeat ending which was already there. As it stands, it makes the ending feel somewhat disjointed when it could have flowed together with the rest of the film, uninterrupted.
That said, this is only a minor criticism, and I have no hesitation in recommending It Follows to all the discerning horror fans out there