Fear eats the soul: Hugh (Jake Weary) and Jay (Maika Monroe)
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It Follows: a film about a sexually transmitted curse forces us to face mortality itself

Ryan Gilbey reviews It Follows, directed by David Robert Mitchell.

It Follows (15)
dir David Robert Mitchell
 

A horror movie need only be frightening to be effective and It Follows is certainly that. The nature of its scares incorporates the superficial (things going bump in the night) and the visceral (figures looming out of the darkness). That alone would have been enough to render it a success. The writer-director David Robert Mitchell, though, is interested in terror on a molecular level – the sort that refuses to end when the film does.

Plainly put, It Follows is about a sexually  transmitted curse. Sleep with someone who is afflicted and it passes to you. From that point, you will be pursued for the rest of your life, at speeds of slow to plodding, by a figure that is intent on killing you but only you can see. It will appear in different forms and it will change each time you encounter it. (A cheerleader in the kitchen may have metamorphosed into a gangly, cadaverous giant by the time it reaches the top of the stairs.) Wherever you choose to hide, you will know that “it” is out there, somewhere, moving inexorably towards you. Sleep with  someone else, however, and you become free of the curse, at least until that person perishes, in which case it’s back with you again.

Horror is typically confined and claustrophobic but It Follows has space – lots of space. Mitchell and his cinematographer, Mike Gioulakis, leave sizeable areas of the widescreen frame empty, inviting us to treat every corner and each void or vacuum as a potential entry point for the next shock. The camera is fond of slow, circular movements, sweeping each scene with the meticulousness of a radar, or the second hand of a clock.

The deserted streets in which much of the film is set (it was shot in Detroit, including many of the city’s abandoned areas) are wide and airy and in a state of perpetual late-summer dusk. There is ample room here for dreamy teens such as the sleepy-eyed Jay (Maika Monroe) and the plump-lipped, doleful Paul (Keir Gilchrist) to mosey around or hang out on the porch or roam beneath the leafy canopies without bumping into their elders. A parent is glimpsed briefly in the first scene and a schoolteacher is seen reading a pertinent passage from T S Eliot’s “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” (“And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,/And in short, I was afraid”). But as in ET: the Extra Terrestrial, adults are in short supply. It is a choice that seems eerily right for a movie steeped in youthful, unchecked desire.

There is something pleasantly odd, too, about the film’s timelessness, an aspect that will resist future efforts to carbon-date it. This is manifestly the present and yet clunky televisions with set-top aerials show nothing but cheesy 1950s horror and science fiction. The local cinema is a picture palace with a Wurlitzer organ. Pornography is consumed through magazines rather than the internet, and the only e-reader is disguised as a pink seashell (it’s loaded with Dostoevsky, not the sound of the ocean). Mitchell’s one previous film, the gentle comedy-drama The Myth of the American Sleepover, also nailed its colours to the past. The drowsy mood of the earlier work has survived intact the journey from wistfulness to dread.

If the premise of It Follows suggests an Aids parable, the film never presses the point. It is more plausible as an allegory about mortality itself. Though there is a grotesquely carnal aspect to the zombie-like creatures, the sexual imperative simply ensures the continued survival of the curse (there is no suggestion that contraception would halt its progress). However far or fast we run, death will always be stalking us. It may hurry, or it may not. No matter. It will catch us eventually.

Mitchell’s skill is to take this prosaic truism and turn it into poetry that is as terrifying and seductive as the score (by Disasterpeace), which ranges from the plaintively melancholy to crunchy, distorted walls of electronic noise. Mitchell has also found within his subject a latent romanticism that complicates the horrific without overruling it entirely. When the characters are in trouble, they offer to help one another out like any true friend would. Only in this case “help” takes a unique and not unpleasant form. Decades of sex comedies – Porky’s, American Pie, and so on – have primed audiences to view adolescents in a disreputable light. It Follows is not only great cinema. It provides for teenagers the sort of positive PR that money can’t buy. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser