In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Implacability ranks high on the list of a psycho killer’s scariest attributes. It’s not just that they want to pierce your body with some sharp implement, preferably multiple times. It’s that running away from them doesn’t solve the problem, because they just… keep… coming. Some horror films—notably the original Halloween—employ this concept as expert foreshadowing, showing the boogeyman as a constant threatening presence long before any blood gets spilled. Others take it an extra step, having the killer or creature continue its relentless pursuit even after it’s been apparently killed or even actually killed.
What makes It Follows an instant classic of the genre—as you may recall, it placed second on our recent list of the best horror movies of the past 15 years, behind Audition—is the way that it literalizes the idea of an unstoppable malevolent force. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s premise is sublimely simple: Have sex with the wrong person, and you’re stalked by a shape-shifting ghoul that is always walking (at a slow, zombie-style pace) directly toward you, no matter where in the world you are. Naysayers like to point out all the holes in Mitchell’s logic, and they’re not wrong, exactly—in addition to the unanswered question of what happens if the target, say, crosses an ocean (Does It walk across the ocean floor, or sign up for a cruise going in the right direction?), there’s no question that driving a couple of hours at freeway speed buys you a few days before anything on foot could possibly catch up. You could just keep moving around a bit, theoretically, and be quite safe. But seeking strict rationality from It Follows is a fool’s errand. Just the knowledge that something is heading right for you, however slowly, is deeply unnerving.
What’s more, this premise has a slightly different anxiety-inducing effect on the viewer—one that’s arguably even more acute. By way of demonstration, I’d like to examine a scene from the film that isn’t overtly scary at all. In fact, it’s patently expository: Jay (Maika Monroe) and a friend are trying to locate the guy who passed It onto her by sleeping with her, and they visit his former high school in order to find out his real name, which Jay doesn’t know. It’s a quick information grab, necessary for the plot to move forward but otherwise dispensable. Mitchell, however, has a secret weapon for potentially dull scenes like this one, because every single background extra in his movie who can be seen walking is potentially It. Take a look and see how deftly he creates tension without having anything specific happen whatsoever.
This very brief scene occurs roughly 50 minutes into the film, a little past its midpoint. By now, the viewer has been primed to be extremely alert about who’s moving in the distance and in what direction, to the point where it can actually be a challenge to pay attention to a given shot’s ostensible focus. So Mitchell opens with a view of four students who are completely stationary (and also either talking or making out with someone else, making them doubly unthreatening). As the camera simultaneously pulls back and pans to the right, however, it picks up a girl dressed in a white top and blue jeans who’s strolling directly toward the lens. The camera doesn’t stop in concern, however. It just continues with what becomes a 360-degree pan, picking up Jay and Greg (Daniel Zovatto) as they head for the registrar’s office, or whatever it is. But then the camera keeps on going, passing various other kids who are standing still or walking in the wrong direction, until it’s circled back to its original position, revealing that the girl in the white top is still headed, in no big hurry, toward what we now know is Jay’s location. Still there’s not even the slightest pause in the circular camera movement. We get two fleeting glimpses, nothing more.
One of the things I love about this shot is that the girl’s starting position is nonsensical. She’s first seen maybe a foot away from the building behind her. There’s no door in that spot, just solid wall. (It even looks like the windows are boarded up, but I assume that’s actually just drab curtains or something. As an aside, I’m amused by the real-location detail of bike racks with barely a single bar not bent way the hell out of shape. A vivid memory.) It’s established that It isn’t a ghost and can’t penetrate solid matter, so there’s no logical reason for the girl, if we’re meant to imagine she’s It (and we clearly are), to be in that particular spot walking in that particular direction, unless she made a sharp turn right before the shot began. Again, though, logic is not the point here. Even if it’s not consciously perceived, this element of “wrongness” underscores the idea of that It is always coming straight for you, providing a sense of unstoppability without actually cheating. Did Mitchell intend that? I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter. It works.
One effect he certainly did intend concerns the conclusion of this initial shot’s panoramic journey. Though Disasterpeace’s score can faintly be heard right from the beginning, the first few seconds are dominated aurally by the Ben Stein-esque drone of the school’s announcements, blathering about sports and theater. Significantly, more prominent music kicks in not when the It Girl is spotted, but when Jay appears—no Jay, no threat. There are four arpeggios of alarm, then a series of ominous thuds as the camera picks up the girl again, now closer. Naturally, we anticipate another circuit, with the third glimpse of It approaching the proximity of a medium close-up. Instead, Mitchell swings around until Jay and Greg are in sight poring through old yearbooks, then has the camera essentially become It’s point of view. The slow, steady push toward them that ends the shot feels like a stalking motion, predatory and insistent. As a bonus, this shift avoids having to show It get inside the school, which would require a detour to where a door actually is. Addressing that sort of logistical necessity would break the spell immediately. The straight line is crucial.
Given that the scene’s function is expository—explaining how they find Jeff, the guy who passed It to Jay—it’s remarkable how little exposition it contains. There’s no audible dialogue in the registrar’s office, even when the camera pushes in closer; visually, the entire emphasis is on a potential danger that our heroes never see. And they continue not to see it when it reappears. When Jay and Greg get into the car, seen from the back seat (where three other friends are sitting), the It Girl can just barely be seen in the distance, through the windshield, walking slowly toward them. She’s such a blur that only the white top is even discernible initially, but she’s definitely there. (It took a second viewing, knowing in advance where to look, for me to spot her.) Mitchell then cuts to the kids in the back for a few seconds, ensuring that we hear some important dialogue, before returning to the original angle. The girl’s forward motion is a bit more visible, but she’s still a tiny blur. Only in the third shot through the windshield can she clearly be seen, at which point Mitchell performs a rack focus just to make sure nobody misses her. Jay and her friends do, though. At no point in this scene is anyone but the viewer remotely aware that danger is trudging just yards away. The kids’ obliviousness sends a chilling message: You can never let your guard down. Eternal vigilance. It’s always coming, even when you’re not thinking about It at all. That’s the true horror.