Friday, October 09, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #3: It Follows

There was one of those storm-in-a-teacup kerfuffles on social media recently when Quentin Tarantino said of David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore feature ‘It Follows’ that “it’s one of those movies that’s so good that you start getting mad at it for not being great”. QT went on to enumerate some of the issues, his main gripe being that Mitchell was inconsistent as regards the film’s mythology. There are those who took umbrage at Tarantino’s opinionism. Personally, I think he was being charitable.

The basic concept of ‘It Follows’ is that there’s a curse, or a haunting, or something (Mitchell’s savvy enough not to get bogged down in exposition) that is passed on through sexual encounters. Once you’ve received it, you become aware of people – they might be male or female, strangers or family members, they might appear to be alive or bear the disfigurements of death – following you relentlessly; unstoppably. If they catch up with you, it’s goodnight Vienna. The only way to break the curse, or dispel the haunting, or whatever is to have sex with someone else. Only that doesn’t entirely guarantee you a “get out of being killed” waiver. If the individual you’ve passed it onto doesn’t get rid of it by the same means before the follower catches up with them – if, in other words, they’re killed – the curse, or haunting, or summat starts working its way back down the chain.

Which, admittedly, is a pretty good concept. Particularly the idea of the follower doing a u-turn and working its way back. Thread this through an acutely observed picture of teenagers on the cusp of discovering their sexual identities and dealing with the accompanying emotional rollercoaster, and – pace Tarantino – there was no reason for this not to be something special. The problems start with the very first shot …

… which looks for all the world like a screengrab from John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’. And for the next hour and a half Mitchell only pauses in his wholesale plundering of Carpenter’s seasonal classic in order to nick a few other bits from David Lynch. Even the music (by Disasterpiece) is a film-long riff on the ‘Halloween’ soundtrack except in one place where it throws in an homage to Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ (‘The Exorcist’) and a few others where the order of the day is some discordant atonality a la ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’.

The problems continue with the very first line of dialogue and continue through to the last. Not the dialogue itself, I hasten to add – Mitchell often gives his teenagers interesting and thoughtful things to say, and allows that some teens will have read T.S. Eliot and Dostoyevsky and not everyone under the age of twenty-five has to act like a douchebag – but the sound recording. The music is intrusive, the foley only slightly less so, and the dialogue is often helplessly lost in the mix. I had to replay a few scenes, and some others I gave up on.

The performances are variable: as protagonist Jay, Maika Monroe has a winsome and haunted look about her that suits the narrative, but she sleepwalks much of the film. Lili Sepe as her sister Kelly and Olivia Luccardi as their friend Yara seem more at home with their characters, but are given very little to work with. Keir Gilchrist and Daniel Zovatto, as romantic rivals over Jay, create just enough by way of characterization to keep themselves afloat. Only Jake Weary as Hugh, the love rat who gives Jay the curse/haunting/whatever actually invests himself in a performance and goes for broke: the scene where the gang confront him and he sweatily tries to justify himself, warn Jay to pass it on, and absent himself before anything nasty happens (all within the space of a couple of minutes) is the best-acted moment in the movie, Weary single handedly creating a dynamic and a sense of urgency.

Elsewhere, the characters veer between acting like normal (if utterly unnerved and bemused) teenagers, then doing stupid character-in-a-horror-movie things purely because the script needs them to. There are other moments that are just plain awkward, such as Jay driving as far as she can in an attempt to escape her follower, then having to stop and get some sleep. Now, you’re being pursued by something weird and unstoppable; you’re driving a car; you just can’t keep going. Do you: (a) find somewhere off the road and out of sight, trigger the internal locking system, slide the front seats forward and huddle into the backseat footwell, hoping no-one will see you should they happen across the vehicle; or (b) stop the car right on the edge of the road, get out, curl up on the bonnet and go to sleep? It’s (a), isn’t it? Every time. Mais non! Jay, who has hitherto made very well-considered decisions, opts for (b), a course of action guaranteed to see you robbed, possibly assaulted and your car absconded with, and that’s quite without any supernatural threat! 

Ultimately it’s this unholy trinity – too many borrowings from other directors’ work (which is fine if, like Tarantino, you fashion them into your own authorial style); inconsistency in the film’s internal logic; and ostensibly smart characters suddenly and pointlessly doing stupid things – that work against the film. ‘It Follows’ has a lot of promise and some intensely memorable moments – an opening scene spatially dislocated by a dizzying and entirely unexpected 360° pan; an exploring-an-abandoned-house sequence that builds its menace from social realism and avoids the obvious scaremongering; a beachside idyll that explodes into supernatural horror – and there’s enough to suggest that once Mitchell develops his own filmmaking style he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. But its weaknesses stack up mightily, particularly its puppyish obsession with mimicking ‘Halloween’. ‘It Follows’ isn’t bad – it isn’t bad at all – but it’s still the work of a beginner. To continually call to mind and allow itself to be judged against ‘Halloween’ – the work of a master – is a huge aesthetic miscalculation.

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