“That’s my favorite mountain in Illinois,” snickers Mike during a Mystery Science Theatre 2000 screening of Beginning of the End. The movie ostensibly takes place in fictional Ludlow, Illinois, and then in Chicago, but from the outset it’s clear that, as Mike later says, “Guys, this is so not Illinois.” Because of cost and other factors, plenty of movies (and television shows) shoot on sets or disguise one city as another, rather than actually contend with the headache of filming on location. Honestly, the evidence that pops up on screen to reveal that it’s, say, Toronto subbing for New York rarely distracts me. I don’t usually notice license plates or the fact that there’s a random palm tree sprouting on what’s supposed to be a Midwestern lawn. (The one time I did notice something was amiss was during an early episode of Orphan Black when Tatiana Maslany receives a huge pile of colorful Canadian money, and my U.S.-centric reaction was, “Seriously, they couldn’t get the props department to make something that at least looks like real money?”)
There’s a lot — a lot — I love about David Mitchell’s film It Follows; it may actually be my favorite movie of the year. The quiet tone; the unstoppability of the “monster” (which may be setting a new horror trend, according to Noel Murray); the performance of all the young actors, anchored by the astonishing Maika Monroe (who also had a completely badass Final Girl role in The Guest, a really fun and bloody film).
But the thing that really sticks with me every time I rewatch It Follows is its sense of timelessness. Like the best horror movies, this film could be taking place right now, in modern times, or in 1979 (a great year for horror films), or in a slightly off-kilter future — who knows? I feel like if I see this movie in another ten or twenty years, it’s still going to fell both contemporary and like a throwback. That’s due in great part to the props (clamshell eReader!), sets, and wardrobe, all of which manage to indicate no time period and every (modern) time period at the same time. But I also think Mitchell’s decision to film on location in Detroit plays a big part in the film’s simultaneous familiarity and strangeness.
I’ve never been to Detroit, but I’m from the Midwest. I don’t think you even have to hail from the center of the country, though, for the city and suburbs of It Follows to look simultaneously familiar and strange to you. These suburban homes and distant cityscapes are familiar enough from other movies we’ve seen. Yet the blight and ruin that permeates the setting lend an eerie atmosphere. Being in the world of It Follows is akin to landing on Mars and discovering a small town just like the one you grew up in. It feels right to you, yet you can’t shake a feeling of wrongness.
It’s the same way I feel about the other trappings of It Follows — the details are just right, but also wrong. Every physical detail in the film combines to throw you off-kilter, so that you’re not certain of anything, including the nature of the monster that stalks the protagonists. It’s a terrifying monster, to be sure. But the atmosphere in which that monster lives amplifies the terror until it’s nearly unbearable.
- Birth.Movies.Death. used to be Badass Digest, and when it was, it ran this great interview with director David Mitchell about the inspirations and decisions behind It Follows.
- This piece from Slate more deeply explores how setting the film in Detroit reflects the movie's themes and tone.
- And this article has interesting ideas about how all those off-kilter elements combine to create the movie's tension.