Over the past few years, we have seen two separate horror films burst onto the scene set against the backdrop of the city of Detroit. These films, IT FOLLOWS and Don’t Breathe are both unique horror tales that use this city and its broken setting as places to cultivate desperation and try to add to either film’s sense of tension by using the broken city as their setting.
But here is where the similarities hit a point, and be warned THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD FOR BOTH FILMS.
Before I get into anything too heavy, here is a brief summary of both films:
IT FOLLOWS: A monster that is sexually transmitted haunts a young woman who has contracted it. It can be anyone or anything, and it is always following her.
Cool concept right?
DON’T BREATHE: Several small time criminals find the ultimate score to get them out of their poverty, in a large sum of money held by a blind military veteran.
Whoa there, little heavy.
What follows is going to be a dissection of both films, a look into the genre of horror, and an argument against IT FOLLOWS as both a poor horror film, and a poor representation of the setting it’s in.
PART 1: Setting and Stories
With any good horror movie, setting and atmosphere is everything. Detroit is, unfortunately, a really good place to put an immediate mood of desperation. Don’t Breathe hits this mark right on the head with its three main characters. All of them are doing this because it’s a quick way to make a lot of money to get the f*** out of Detroit. Remember that sentiment.
Within that broad motivation we get to see why all three main characters fit into it. Rocky, the female lead, lives in a trailer park with her emotionally abusive mother trying to provide for her little sister. Money, Rocky’s boyfriend, just wants to see her happy, and has found a quick way for them to escape by robbing houses. Alex is their friend, and lives a somewhat more comfortable middle class life, but see’s this as an oppurtunity to leave as well. Alex’s father works for a security company, so Alex steals the keys to properties so that they can break in and rob the place.
This is all due to how and where they live. There is nothing left for them in Detroit. It’s a dilapidated city and if they don’t leave they may be stuck within it. This is brought to a painful reminder when they hear about a score of $300,000 dollars sitting in the house of a blind veteran. The veteran is the last person living in a ghost block of houses, making it a seemingly easy score. Why an abandoned block of houses? Because after the start of the domestic economic collapse in the mid 2000’s and the 2008 housing market crash, Detroit never really recovered, leaving blocks of houses foreclosed, abandoned, and literal ghost towns within the city.
Why is that important? It’s important because good horror contains elements that are a reflection of the real world. You know whats scary? Robbing a dangerous guy to leave Detroit. You know whats scarier? Having a bank foreclose on your family’s house.
All of this adds to create a wonderful depth to the characters. these aren’t movie criminals, they are people living in the aftermath of one of the worst economic collapses in a city that is only very slowly getting better. Motivation that drives the story leading to a very simple narrative driving force.
Environment (E) + Motivation (M)= Narrative Event (E prime, or Eø for our purposes)
E+M=Eø, or even more simply, cause and effect. It helps make a film’s story good and relatable.
Don’t Breathe presents a contained story in an environment that already makes you feel strained and suffocated. Throughout the movies run time, there was never a moment where I felt like I wasn’t itching to leave the area, itching to get out of where the characters were. All of the character decisions had a clear cause and effect, which me as a viewer could both understand and immediately relate to. All of this led to a great and immersive experience where I felt just as tense as the main characters.
Now lets look at IT FOLLOWS:
Set in a suburb of Detroit, IT FOLLOWS follows a group of teens battling a sexually transmitted monster that has attached itself to the female protagonist.
So its back in Detroit, but now we’re in middle class suburbs. There are no parents to speak of, at least none that are very active in the kids lives during the duration of the film, and one that exists purely as a plot device.
What drives the teens? F***ing. Havin’ a good f***. There is no trying to escape from where they live, there is no questions brought up about how sexually transmitted diseases are a huge problem in Detroit’s Black communities, or even how domestic violence of women and STD’s often go hand in hand. Nope, just a bunch of white teens who get into some f*** trouble in the suburbs.
It breaks down like this. Jay, the female lead, has sex with a dude who then tells her he gave her a monster disease. The monster terrorizes Jay and her friends, until she decides to pass it on to Greg, another dude, who fully realizes that there is a monster. In about half the time it took for the monster to even find Jay, Greg gets full on murdered by the monster who disguised itself as his mom (who we hadn’t really even seen at all until that point). Then the teens band together and kill the monster.
In the story there are three main events: 1. The teens have some monster-get sex 2. The monster comes and kills some teens for having sex 3. They beat the monster and continue to have sex (because sure, why not?).
There is no real world basis to lay the groundwork for fear in IT FOLLOWS, and because of that it never really gets me as a viewer into any space to truly appreciate and connect to what the characters are going through on-screen.
It follows the same base equation of cause and effect, but instead of environment giving light to a character motivation, we have a previous action giving way to an existing motivation:
Action (A) + Pre-existing motivation (PM)= Narrative Event. Still cause and effect, but not a very informed or tense version.
This is a HUGE area where I feel IT FOLLOWS dropped the ball in a big way. Instead of any real character growth, or tension from an informed situation, the story kind of just happens because yup there’s the thing and you gotta beat it. Theres no use of atmosphere to tighten the mood, there is no use of a previous action to create a secondary cause an effect scenario in following scenes, there is just this feeling of “well we f***ed, i guess we better deal with this monster thing”
I have a lot more to say next in PART 2: What Makes Good Horror and Better Monsters, so if you aren’t bored out of your skull from this break in the normal content, then like, don’t read it I guess.