‘IT’S BEHIND YOU!’ - The fear of the unknown in ‘It Follows’
How the camera work in 'It Follows' subjects its audience to the feeling of being chased.
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) is one of the most original and unnerving horror films of recent years. The concept of an invisible demon taking on the form of random pedestrians in order to relentlessly hunt you down like an incognito Terminator is a terrifying notion. A key reason that I find It Follows to be such a chilling film is that it subscribes to one of my favourite horror philosophies - the monster that you can’t see is scarier than you monster you can. This piece will examine how, from the very opening scene, Mitchell weaponises his camera movement to leave his audience susceptible to a threat that they can’t even see coming.
The opening scene of It Follows is an unconventional way to introduce a horror film. We see a girl (Annie) fleeing from her house, constantly looking back over her shoulder as she runs around the street in a circle and back into her house. This is captured by a continuous, 360° panning shot that follows the girl for the whole of it’s shot length. We as an audience are never shown what she keeps looking back towards. We don’t even know if there is anything following her. It’s easy to dismiss this scene as a way of withholding the scares and building the audience’s anticipation. But I would argue it’s doing something more important. It’s teaching the audience, through the cinematic language of camera movement, where exactly those scares are going to come from.
When we watch a film, we construct a mental image of the world the film is showing to us in our heads. This mental image is made up of the pieces of the physical spaces shown to us in each shot. This is especially important in a horror film, because having a clear idea of the space that the film is working in allows for a viewer to try and anticipate, and then dread, where potential danger might be coming from. A typical establishing shot shows the audience the entire relevant space that the following scene will take place in. Take, for example, the opening scene of Alien (1979), with it’s establishing shot of the Nostromo. Beyond this one ship is the entirety of space, but we never think about it because we haven’t seen it. The film has established it’s relevant space and is letting us observe it from a distance. But It Follows doesn’t do this.
There is no safe distance for us to observe from while watching It Follows. Mitchell shows us all 360° because the danger might be coming from any of those directions, which rather ingeniously places us as an audience directly in the middle of that relevant space. But this not only establishes that the threat might come from any direction - it’s coming specifically from where you aren’t looking. Danger is coming towards the characters, and subsequently you, from the off screen space. The moving frame lines of the panning camera are concealing our vision from the very thing we are trying to looking out for. We are given a limited field of vision, which creates a sense that we, just like Annie, are being followed. It’s a simplistic, yet incredibly effective camera move that sets us on edge from the very first frame.
The idea of signifying to a viewer exactly where the scares are going to come from may sound cheap. If we are expecting something scary, it can lessen the surprise of the fright. But the nature of It Follows and it’s titular monster goes beyond this typical approach to horror. For context, there is a monster, it’s sexually transmitted, it can take the form of anybody but is invisible to everyone except it’s target and it will slowly yet endlessly come for you until you either pass it on to someone else or you are killed by it. We aren’t relying on the sudden appearance of It to make us jump, because the notion of it’s relentless existence, even when it’s off screen, is much scarier. We can examine this in a more conventional, yet equally as haunting scene.
The ‘Tall Man’ sequence is arguably the best know scene in the film, and is certainly one of the most memorable horror scenes of recent times. Our protagonist, Jay (Maika Monroe), is the current subject of the demon and has fled to her sister Kelly’s (Lili Sepe) bedroom. We are told that Jay has seen the monster, and initially the camera acts accordingly. As we follow her into the bedroom, the handheld camera pans and rotates around her, exploring the room and providing us with a number of windows and doors that we suspect the monster may be coming from. But then, as Jay slumps down against a wall, the role of the camera changes. When her sister starts to entertain the idea of opening the door to respond to the voice calling from outside, the camera becomes static, focusing on a mid-shot of Jay in the centre of the frame. The camera cuts back and forth between this shot and a series of shots of the door, zooming in slightly closer each time.
When we construct the mental image of this scene, we place Jay on on side of the room and the door on the opposite. We are ordered to do so by the starkness of the cuts, every time 180° across the space. When we analysis this cutting pattern, we realise that as the camera cuts back and forth across the room, the relevant space of horror that was once everywhere is now here. Mitchell has placed his camera, and subsequently us, in the exact centre of that space. We see this shot composition everywhere in the film. There are very few wide shots, or over the shoulders to provide us with an outer perspective, which opens us up to another from of terror. If the monster is always coming towards Jay, and the camera has placed us between Jay and the monster, the monster is now coming towards us. And every time the camera cuts, we are placed in the two most terrifying viewpoints. We are either staring at the door, anticipating the monster’s arrival, or we are looking at Jay whilst knowing that the monster is literally right behind us. So when Kelly opens the door and sees nothing and we cut back to the shot of Jay, we know we’ve turned away from the monster at the exact worst moment. Therefore that final cut back, to the shot of the ‘Tall Man’ appearing in the dimly lit hallway is both shocking and terrifying but also inevitable.
The concept of an invisible monster is not a new one. Directors have played with the idea of the unseen throughout film history, from schlocky, allegorical horrors of the 50’s like Invisible Invaders (1959), to the titular Predator (1987), or the countless iterations of The Invisible Man. However, the way that David Robert Mitchell uses his camera to create an almost tangible quality to his monster does feel like an extremely fresh idea. With rumblings of a potential sequel to come, it’s exciting to think of the techniques Mitchell may use to have us looking over our shoulders all over again.