Hi everybody! I recently remembered that this sick-and-also-tight podcast has a blog, so I popped on over to check out what was happening. Then I saw the “M. Butler” byline and realized, oh shit I totally write those don’t I? Here’s where I insert a litany of excuses about why, but frankly, I’m sure none of you give a tin shit, so let’s just say that I was entertaining wealthy Saudi Arabian gentlemen on a boat and leave it at that.
I’d like to use this re-entry to the world of writing on the internets to start what I hope might become a regular thing I do from time to time. See, I’ve noticed that there is often something of a disparity between the scariness of the underlying concept of a horror movie, and the scariness of its execution. Our show-runners did a whole thing on Nightmare on Elm Street recently, and I cannot think of a more salient example than the first installment of that series. That movie is so laughably dated that you can’t help but crack up when you watch it these days, but I’ve found that any time I do, I turn out the light that night, and stay awake for hours because conceptually, that movie terrifies me. I’m one of those types who almost never remember their dreams, and when I do, it’s always the bad ones. So the notion that your dreams can turn on you in the real world freaks me right the hell out because nightmares are literally all I know of dreaming. Incidentally, “nightmares are literally all I know of dreaming” would make a great album title for an early 2000’s hardcore band. Does From Autumn to Ashes still exist? I bet that would work great for them.
Anyway, re-railing my thought train, I started to think about other movies that worked conceptually but stumbled in execution (or vice versa, though that is admittedly rarer). This brings me to the first film that I’ve been itching to discuss for a while now. Join me as we take a closer look at 2015’s It Follows.
It Follows, from director David Robert Mitchell, was originally planned to only be a VOD/limited release film, but after it started absolutely destroying the festival circuit, was expanded to a wide theatrical release. It tells the story of a group of teens set upon by a thing (typically referred to as the “It” in pop culture writing) that relentlessly stalks its victims, and the only way to escape is to pass the ghost on by having sex with someone, like passing on supernatural chlamydia. The “It” can take the form of any person, be it a rando or a loved one. If “It” catches its victim, they are gruesomely killed and it goes back down the line to the last person it was following unless they pass it off to someone else and on and on. Our protagonist (Jay, in a nod to Jamie Lee Curtis) gets the “It” passed to her, and the rest of the film chronicles her attempt to escape.
Some people have argued that this movie is David Robert Mitchell trying to sell abstinence to the kids (what with their rock and roll music and such), but he has called that theory, to paraphrase, idiotic garbage-thinking. He has actually stated in interviews that it is simply based on a recurring nightmare he had as a kid about being relentlessly stalked by a shapeshifting predator that only he could see. Throw in some John Carpenter and Hitchcock style framing techniques, and baby, you got yourself a stew. There is a literary term called “the unsettling effect” that really encapsulates the majority of this movie’s underlying concept. To really over-reduce the definition, it’s when something strikes the reader (or viewer) as “off” but they can’t quite put their finger on why. Basically, it’s a blanket term for subtle horror elements, which Mitchell seems to understand very well.
The “It” only has a few rules attached: it can shape shift, it always walks straight towards its victim, and only the victim can actually see it. Combine this with his voyeuristic shots and the constant fear that anything that is simply walking might be our “It” leaves you incredibly tense in a number of scenes. The setting is also incredibly anachronistic, with cars and houses that look plopped down straight out of the 50’s, but smatterings of modern technology dispersed throughout make a real-life time period all but impossible to discern. This was a deliberate choice to make the movie take on the qualities of a dream, where everything is familiar, but different in those odd “dream-logic” ways. That is actually a really handy fact to have going in (which I did not have) because you can kind of drive yourself crazy trying to figure out when the fuck this movie is supposed to be happening, to the point of distraction. This lets us segue nicely into…
I was very tense for a lot of this movie, but it didn’t really extend beyond that for a couple of reasons. The first is the aforementioned anachronistic setting. It was cool to think about as an afterthought, but I feel like those that don’t go in forewarned are going to be distracted wondering about the fucking sea shell-makeup compact that is actually an e-reader that one of the side characters keeps using while they watch movies from the 30’s on a CRT TV. Knowing what Mitchell was going for helps, but I feel like the fact that it wasn’t particularly clear (to me and anyone I talked to about the movie) means that it didn’t really work as a device.
As for the “It”, it was most terrifying in the shots in public places where your mind frantically raced with Jay’s about what might or might not be following her and what innocuous form it could have taken. Except every single goddamn time the “It” makes a move against her it shows up as some kind of fucking monstrosity. The first time it’s a hollow-eyed, seven foot tall dude in a hospital gown, and it comes for her in that form in her damn bedroom. Never mind that a later character is killed off when it takes the form of his mother to slyly gain entrance to his room and fuck him to death (spoiler alert for a movie that’s over a year old), every time it comes after Jay, it is some shrieking demon child or an ogre man. Eventually, you come to realize that while the tension the movie builds is magnificent, when it bursts, it is such a goddamn by-the-numbers affair that all of your tension dissipates into annoyance.
Also, the climax is really dumb. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s really dumb.
This movie gets an A+ for concept. It’s original, it’s just vague enough that applying it to yourself is all too easy as you leave the theater and keep looking back at the person walking behind you in the parking lot, yet it’s specific enough that your vague fears get an all-too-concrete skeleton to build on. The scares definitely come after the fact, and lasting scares are the best scares.
Execution? We’re talking C- at best. During the movie, you will be tense, but it will be interrupted time and again as you are either distracted by the setting, or the moments when the “It” actually tries to kill the heroine by jumping out of a closet and yelling “a bloogy woogy woo”.