The Disquieting Clarity and Throbbing Dread of It Follows

Every so often, we happen on moments of heightened clarity, when the veils are lifted and all seems to cohere. For me, Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out crystallizes this to haunting effect. The band stretches it out, extrapolating this transparency until it doubles back on itself and inevitably intensifies the baseline uncertainty. The album mines the terrifying realizations that exist adjacent to moments of strident assuredness, and posits an existence of endless, overwhelming unease. Sonically, the squall of previous albums dissipated here. Slow, spare, subtle compositions replace the comfortable haven of sonic haze. It’s an album cast in the pale blue light of late summer, where day cedes to night faster and faster. A series of introspective vignettes usher in a more permeable sense of trepidation. As matters get clearer, all is more dread-soaked. Impulses and doubts buried in the onslaught of previous albums take on an ominous glow when bared. With maturation, it is implied, comes a newfound weight, a sense that all the responsibilities and consequences that could previously be shucked-off and chalked-up are now real. Everything narrows with time, possibilities are not limitless, and anxieties are becoming neuroses.

Gregory Crewdson’s “Twilight” series conveys it all visually on the cover and the liners. His evocative, scrupulously detailed, deeply uncanny photography sets the stage for what’s in the grooves. An alien light shines down on a suburban street corner at dusk; it’s surreal and unsettling, but this otherworldly presence is inextricably linked with the setting—strange, unseen, oblique, ominous forces comprise the underbelly of this exterior world. That which seems to come from outside is really a manifestation of inherent but concealed urges. In the composed ringing of Yo La Tengo’s gently picked electric guitars and soft vocals, there is a similar collision of tranquil and troubled, eerie and serene, horrifying and sedate. The mind is having difficulty grasping the ordinary. There is a feeling of menace entwined in the bucolic bliss. The album and the photography are awash in warped nostalgia, but both are deeply mistrustful of objectivity—this is manifested in a spiraling inability to interpret meaning in the eyes and expressions of others. This ripples outward and touches on all corners of the environment: Behind every offhand glance or remark and each picket fence is a lurking quagmire. They evoke an intensifying paranoia that may or may not be rational.

Seeing as it’s fall, and decay is in the air, let’s talk about horror. All this about Crewdson and Yo La Tengo is really mood-setting for talking about David Robert Mitchell’s recent horror film It Follows. It feels necessary because the film carves a singular aesthetic and referential vein, especially for modern horror. In a nutshell, it’s about a sexually transmitted monster—protagonist, Jay, sleeps with her new boyfriend; he restrains her and informs her that she will be continually followed by an ill-defined entity: She can pass it on, but if it catches her, it goes back down the line of transmission. In its own way, it’s kind of like Shivers, but where the descent into madness is excruciatingly extrapolated. It exists in this “venereal horror” mold that was Cronenberg’s hook early in his career. Some of the body horror transfers with the lineage, but it is also more sublimated and, for lack of a better word, internalized. But the references don’t end there: Starting with Crewdson, the lineage traces back to the likes of Edward Hopper (“Nighthawks”) and Diane Arbus (her work with Eddie “The Jewish Giant” Carmel is conceivably referenced in the “tall man” iteration of “it”), and Mitchell clearly has a keen interest in photography—emphasizing composition and often minimizing movement. And, naturally, digging into suburbia is a classic horror trope, especially in the wake of Carpenter—Halloween is the clearest antecedent for Mitchell’s style with lingering, patient long takes and emphases on the choreography of voyeurism, and the foregrounding of simple, repetitious, unsettling synthesized music. And, Blue Velvet looms as well, of course. Mitchell spins a distaff take on ideas Lynch picked at in ’86. I’m particularly reminded, in the slow-motion foray across 8 Mile Road—the line delineating the city limits—of Jeffrey Beaumont’s forbidden incursion past Lincoln St. And, the profane intrusion of disheveled beings entering quiet suburban homes recalls Dorothy’s ravaged appearance on the Beaumont stoop (and her fateful obloquy).

Mitchell’s film, at points, approaches the asymptotic relationship between film and photography. In many ways the conceit and the structure of the film relates directly to Crewdson’s thoughts on the nature of photography: “I do think that dread is about a certain kind of expectation. And the fact that a picture can never resolve itself the way a movie can—maybe that’s a specific kind of dread that becomes associated with a picture.” Photographs are inherently unfulfilled, the subjects forever in suspended animation; action and movement are only implied. There is, inherent in It Follows’ conceit, a deadening of progress, a continual circularity, a constant uncertainty about the next move, and a lingering ambiguity about resolution. The thing is unceasing and seemingly unmotivated, and no matter where you go it will be approaching, slowly. Any progress, any distance is always closed. This circuital nature feeds into the visual strategy, with sequences, images, and explanations left hanging. Amidst It Follows’ open compositions, the static takes and sustained cinematography effectively emphasize the boundaries, the frame, and the frames and obstructions within the frame. It re-squares the vital and roving eye of the horror viewer. This is a particularly important exercise in horror, but rarely is it so protracted and smooth. Mitchell accents stasis and limited movement and devises a series of unresolved, elliptical scenes that deviate, however slightly, from traditional horror storytelling.

Fittingly then, the title of the film has the added, and related, implication of a leap in logic, the statement, “it follows,” suggesting a causative link requiring legwork on the part of the reader. It’s a bridge from one line of thinking to another. Along this line, one of the interesting aspects of this allegorically rich tale is how it defines the threat and how misinformation seems built into the mythology. The linearity of the creature’s shape-shifting ties it inextricably with Jay’s subconscious, pilfering past trauma’s, unspoken anxieties about the future, and peripheral, barely acknowledged elements of her environment (running through past, present, and future like a deeply repressed, Dr. Jonathan Crane-hosted Christmas Carol). Jay’s refusal to describe the shape in the end (“What does it look like?” “I don’t want to tell you.”) is loaded with layers of unarticulated, internalized personal fears and added meaning when considered in line with this subtext. It Follows recasts the dubious morality from horror films past. It’s beholden to the slasher mold but positions itself as a post-post-Halloween film—reverent but restructured. It Follows is slyly subversive in this way, toying with ironic perpetuation, but delivered with a chilly remove. Such is the modernized approach that It Follows takes to reverse-engineer Halloween. Jay’s transition is not from innocence to sudden, forceful initiation, but rather from a place of experience to a realization of traumatic potentials. More sex is actually the answer for a large chunk of the narrative, then this out morphs into something more considered but no less uncertain by film’s end.

It Follows displays some of the greatest and most dynamic aspects that horror has to offer. The limitations of the frame and the expanses of the mind are teased out in many languid but tense crawls. Compositions course with latent potential more so than the average genre piece. It’s visceral and dispersed, graphic and psychologically rigorous. There’s real tension in this limitation and it breeds a spectrum of cognitive reactions, desires, and anxieties. As shot lengths have decreased, and editing pace has intensified, viewer focus has been streamlined and funneled over the years. As Mitchell put it: “We are not cutting frantically, so the viewer can adjust to a frame and feel like they are within that space and have enough time to look around and wonder if something is in the distance or coming along the edges. I wanted the movie to feel like nothing can get close without you spotting it. In the context of this movie, that can be scary.” At points, an untethered, unnatural spin gives life to the camera itself—the steady, mechanical surveillance rotation adds duration and urgency. Deep focus, shallow focus, depth of field, foreground, middle-ground, and background, are given weight, which makes this an ideal showcase for the capacities of the medium as a mise-en-scène machine. The movie is filled with watchers and it exploits depth of field with a ruthless precision, gracefully opening and closing visual pathways to bend and exploit desire. The threat is not always fully coded in the image; it is more a pulsing entity, “it”’s always around, somewhere, moving slowly. It Follows is not about adrenaline, as most horror films are; it’s about the horror of psychological torment, relentlessness, and fatigue. Just a couple tweaks is all it took to turn the conventional coming-of-age tale of The Myth of the American Sleepover into a nightmarish coming-of-age tale for It Follows.

And, just as I began with music, so too must I circle back around. It Follows’ destabilizing elements are underscored by Rich Vreeland’s (as Disasterpeace) mutating Carpenter-esque synth score. The music is integral to the fabric of It Follows; it’s relentless in a way, but also undulating—piercing at points, and tranquil at others, but it is nearly always present, and the crests and troughs of it are vital for setting tone and for threading the atmosphere. It really does operate out in front more than most scores. It cements the crucial link between forebears in the genre and Mitchell’s particular approach to appropriation. Vreeland crafts a vibrating dirge of controlled synthetic chaos. It’s interesting for the way it takes shape as well, shifting from dark ominous tones that are strikingly outright to synthetic but crystalline melodies. From a haze of drone, these moments of lucidity emerge, and they are uncannily familiar. The influence of lo-fi videogame scores—Vreeland’s FEZ work was plugged in at pointsadds textual layers to the suburban topography, as well as our cognitive involvement in the narrative, helping chart the time between Carpenter’s late ’70s and early-’80s work to now. It guides as a horror score must, but it aspires to be much more of an open-world experience. The score contributes to the alternative, off-kilter flow of the film, one where the sonic overlay is not entirely seamless, and pockets of air create ripples. Vreeland’s work connects in spirit with music-forward works in some modern ambitious and aggressive French horror films such as François-Eudes Chanfrault’s in Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension and Julien Maury’s and Alexandre Bustillo’s À l’intérieur. It acts as the quickening, disjointed, arrhythmic heartbeat of the film. And, just like a beating heart, it can be both calming and terrifying, its persistence evincing both stability and the fragility of that stability.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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  1. Spooky Action at a Distance – *Dusk Magazine

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