Just how good is ‘It Follows’?

It Follows (2014), directed by David Robert Mitchell is one of the most critically highly-regarded horror films of recent years.  It currently stands at a 96% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a Metascore of 83 on Metacritic.  

Audience reviews, on the other hand, have been decidedly mixed.  It currently holds a 66% Audience Rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 6.9 out of 10 on IMDB, and 3 stars out of 5 based on 507 customer reviews on Amazon.co.uk.

Who is right?  Is It Follows the horror classic most critics claim it to be, or does it deserve the negative opinions these audience members have expressed?  I discuss below.

Here are a few examples of the things major critics had to say about it:

“David Robert Mitchell’s imaginative young-adult twist on horror’s implacable-pursuit mode puts rare emphasis on virtue and solidarity. One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2015.”

Kim Newman, Sight & Sound

“Having laid its ground rules, It Follows exploits them in inventive and extremely effective ways. As plenty of J-horror movies have already demonstrated, something walking right at the lens is scary; here, Mitchell works out several nerve-wracking variations on that scenario”

A.A. Dowd, AV Club

“It Follows is already my favorite movie of 2015 so far, and I expect it to stay there for quite some time. It is an absolutely horrifying film that plays on fear of the unknown, that also has some creative twists on the horror genre.”

Robert Kojder, Flickering Myth

“It Follows manages to bend the rules of fateful juvenile sexuality, and does so in a manner that genuinely tingles the spine and disturbs the mind.”

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

Audience reviews, on the other hand, have been decidedly mixed.  It currently holds a 66% Audience Rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 6.9 out of 10 on IMDB, and 3 stars out of 5 based on 507 customer reviews on Amazon.co.uk.

Here are some snippets from negative audience reviews to give an idea of why a sizeable minority holds its overwhelmingly positive critical status in contention:

“This movie without plot, interesting characters and at best a penicillin commercial.”

“pointless 360 camera shots that showed nothing”

“the characters were extremely one dimensional”

“the movie just ends with no resolution.”

“it was a very long add (sic) to promoting abstinence from sex.”

“the ending is very ambiguous.”

“low grade John Carpenter rip-off synth soundtrack”

Who is right?  Is It Follows the horror classic most critics claim it to be, or does it deserve the negative opinions these audience members have expressed?  I discuss below.

What is It Follows about?

Set in Michigan, It Follows err… follows a beautiful young female student named Jay (Maika Monroe) who is dating Hugh (Jake Weary).  One night when they are in the cinema together about to watch a film, Hugh says that he has to leave suddenly, claiming that he doesn’t feel well.  Jay doesn’t think much of it and the next night they take a car trip out to the local lake for an intimate late-night tryst.  However, shortly after they make love on the back seat, Hugh chloroforms her and takes her to an abandoned building where she regains consciousness tied to wheelchair.

He explains to her that the act of sex has ensured that he has passed on a curse to her, whereby she is relentlessly pursued by a creature only she can see – a creature which can appear in the form of any human being.  If it catches up with her, it will kill her and Hugh, once more, will become its next target.  He wheels her out of the building before the creature can catch up with her and then releases her onto the streets.

When Jay experiences a terrifying pursuit by an old lady at high school, she decides to explain the situation to her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and her circle of friends.  The group then tries to get her further and further away, hiding out in increasingly remote locations – but still the relentless pursuit continues.  Is there a way to vanquish this mysterious creature, or is Jay doomed to die?

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Does it work as a horror film?

In a nutshell, yes.  It Follows isn’t perfect, with faults attributable in part to its low $2 million budget and in part to director David Robert Mitchell’s lack of experience; this was only his second feature-length film.  Nonetheless, it does genuinely succeed in establishing and maintaining a nightmarish and tension-filled situation out of a premise that may sound trivial in horror movie terms, but (let’s be honest) would be truly terrifying it it happened in real life.

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It works so well because of the way in which it relies on camerawork, lighting, music and editing above everything else to establish a sense of relentless pursuit.  On the visual front there’s little in the way of gore, while the brief glimpses of the various forms of the attacking creature establish it in one of a number of banally human-like guises – albeit with occasional unnerving irregularities such as it urinating on the floor while walking towards its potential victim.

We get extensive POV shots from the viewpoint of pursuer, pursued and from friends of the pursued, all of which help to build up a unique atmosphere of looming terror.  In particular, the way in which shots from Jay’s point of view and those of her companions is effective, since they establish that this pursuing creature is visible to her but not to others.  This makes her friends’ efforts to put a stop to it all the more difficult and dangerous.

The atmospheric use of nighttime lighting and the synth soundtrack lends the film a 1970s/1980s horror vibe, reminiscent at times of John Carpenter or Dario Argento’s films.  While it could be argued that it’s deliberately nostalgic, there are some more original touches here.  One example is the use of urban decay as a horror backdrop – something particularly prevalent in the Michigan area where it was filmed.  The filmmakers have clearly shot on actual blighted areas, and the result is an unsettling feeling of the supernatural grounded in the real.

The devaluing currency of young sexual relationships

The “sexually active teens marked as victims” notion was a notion largely created by the slasher flick – one that has been negatively criticised as a sop to conservative Christian values, implying that they deserve their gruesome fates since they dared to have sex out of wedlock.  It Follows twists this in a novel way by explicitly making being a potential victim into something that can actively be passed on by the act of sex.  Some critics have read this as a metaphor for sexually-transmitted diseases, but I think it goes deeper and wider than that.  It is also a metaphor for the modern state of play of young relationships, where sex’s perceived currency of trust is being continually eroded by betrayal.

Jay consents to sex with Hugh on the good faith that it might form the basis of a solid relationship.  In the event, it turns out that he just did it to get rid of his curse.  Not only has trust been betrayed, but Jay, in turn, may have no choice but to betray the trust of another so as to pass the curse on.




Addressing the criticisms

Firstly, those who claim that the film is a puritanical anti-sex metaphor seem to be missing the point.  It’s not anti-sex: it’s against using sex in a destructive fashion.  The criticisms around the lack of a clear-cut ending are also symptomatic of how modern audiences want everything served up in a clear-cut manner.  Horror films aren’t meant to be reassuring; they are meant to leave the audience walking out with a lingering, nagging feeling of unease.

The ending actually improves the more I think about it; there is a sense that the devalued currency of sexual relationships may potentially be restored, and yet the audio-visual tone of the piece is still sombre, and the actors’ expressions distinctly lacking any real joy as there is that deeply-established doubt that trust won’t be betrayed again.

The criticism about “pointless 360 camera shots that showed nothing“ also seems to be missing the point as much of the atmosphere of unease (as with many of the best horror films) comes from the unknown.  The imagination can conjure up monsters far more terrifying than those a filmmaker (or other artist) can construct in front of your eyes; not only have the best horror directors understood this, but so has author H.P. Lovecraft right back in the early 20th century.

On the other hand, there are valid criticisms to be made around the characters and performances.  They are rather thinly-sketched to the point where it’s hard to truly care for any of them.  The acting (by a little-known adolescent cast) is ok, but nobody really stands out and it never feels like there’s much chemistry between them.  The sequences of tension, when they do arrive, are so in-the-moment effective that they offset the underdefined stock teens.  Even so, it is a flaw.

There are a few visual rough edges, in particular the rare but rather weak CGI moments.  In addition, while the nighttime and dark location shots are superbly atmospheric, the daytime sequences are visually flat.  Again, however, the latter only take up a small amount of screen time.

Critical backlashes and accounting for taste

While I don’t quite agree with the “film of the year” superlative that some critics were throwing about in relation to It Follows, it is still an effective low-budget horror effort.  Some of the reviews may have been skewed by the fact that great horror films aren’t as abundant nowadays as they were during decades past; the only one I’ve seen in recent years which I would honestly rank amongst the best of the genre is Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016).  Even so, It Follows is one I would comfortably recommend to the average horror fan.

It seems to have been a victim of an internet backlash culture which has only grown in stature since.  Over the past year or so, negative reviews for Suicide Squad resulted in a petition for Rotten Tomatoes to be shut down.  On the other hand, come Oscar night, there was a furore that it won an award for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling.  While it isn’t the worst movie ever made, it is – let’s be honest – a big mess.  Be careful what you wish for, guys.  La La Land (2016) won almost universally great reviews on release, but suffered an internet backlash after winning a record seven Golden Globes.  While it doesn’t necessarily deserve to win more awards than any other film, it’s still a magical throwback to old musicals.

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However, at the end of the day it all boils down to three things.  Firstly, that there’s no accounting for taste.  For instance, when some people go into a horror film they want to see elaborate creature effects and splashes of bright red blood every few minutes.  When they don’t get that, they will inevitably walk away disappointed – even if the film is a masterpiece of understated chills.  Secondly, a Rotten Tomatoes review consensus tends to set a natural bar of expectation.  When they feel a film is either better than a bad score or lesser than a good score suggests (even by not that great a margin) some may feel betrayed by the reviewing community as a whole.

The third point is that there’s often a different dynamic to approaching the film as a professional reviewer than there is when approaching it as an audience member.  As a reviewer, you are under pressure to take into account a variety of factors – from the quality of filmmaking and acting, to the political point it is trying to make, to how much they perceive the film’s intended average audience will enjoy it.  They also need a basic understanding and appreciation of the whole spectrum of movie genres.  In essence, they need to be both true movie buffs and possess finely-honed critical faculties in order to succeed at their profession.

The average moviegoer comes from a different viewpoint – one free of such a burden of responsibility and thus much more subjective and focussed on what they want and don’t want.  That’s not to say that their opinions are invalid – just that they are shaped differently.  In many ways, but sides of the Rotten Tomatoes debate are needed: professional critic reviews to open audience members’ eyes to potentially interesting films that are available out there, and audience reviews to remind us that no opinion should ever be taken as gospel.

Evan Popplestone is the founder and main reviewer at Cinema’s Fringes, a film and arts site based in Scotland’s Central Belt.

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