Sunday, March 8, 2020

Admirable Use of Extreme Long Shots in It Follows

Extreme long shots of people often disempower them on screen. A tiny astronaut seen against the vastness of space, or against a vast alien spaceship (e.g. Alien, 1979), emphasizes the astronaut's vulnerability. So too when we see tiny urban campers walking or rafting amid a vast, untamed wilderness (e.g., The Final Terror, 1983).

But in It Follows (2014), extreme long shots achieve the opposite emotional effect: they empower the monster that's stalking its victims.

This is because of the context of the story. Jay (Maika Monroe) is being stalked by a monster. This monster is an enigma. Jay knows little about it, other than that it takes on the appearance of people. It can resemble anyone, even a loved one, and change its appearance at any time. Some clues that a person is the monster are that 1. the monster cannot talk, and 2. other people can't see it. Some less reliable clues are that the monster usually has a deadpan expression, though its expression can turn hostile. And it usually walks toward you in a slow, steady gait, though it can pause.

Anyone can be the monster. Anyone can be a threat. To know, one must examine the person up close. If you call out, does he respond? Is her expression friendly or deadpan? (Alas, to get near enough to the monster, to see if it is the monster, can be fatal.)

Any tiny person in the distance, coming in Jay's direction, is a potential threat. Of course, most people will not be the monster. This uncertainty means that the audience will be unnerved at the sight of anyone in the distance approaching us. We have no way of knowing which passerby is actually the monster.

Consider when Jay goes to the lake. She is sitting in a chair, conversing with her friends. A woman emerges from the foliage in the distance.

This scene is well staged, in that Jay and her friends are all sedentary. Only the unknown woman moves. Because she is the only movement on screen, she catches our attention.

At this point, Jay is in a medium long shot, the woman in extreme long shot. Because she is so tiny on screen, she is an enigma. We can't discern her expression. She walks casually, as any normal person might. But the audience is unnerved, especially because Jay is unaware of the woman's approach. If it is the monster, her friends won't be able to see her. And if they did, they might think nothing of it; they don't fully believe in Jay's monster stalker.

The scene is well played out. As the woman approaches Jay from behind, Jay continues talking to her friends, Kelly (Lili Sepe) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist). Kelly lies on a blanket in front of Jay. Paul is seated to Kelly's right.

When Jay's hair is lifted, Jay initially thinks nothing of it. It might be the wind. But her friends, and the audience, sees that the person doing the lifting is invisible, thus the monster.

(Although the monster was visible to us before, it might be that the monster is now invisible because we are seeing it from Kelly's point of view.)

Throughout the film, the monster is often (not always) seen in an extreme long shot. This empowers the monster not only because it makes it difficult to tell if it really is the monster, but also because it helps to shroud the monster in mystery. It is often true in horror that the more enigmatic is a threat, the more threatening it is. The less we know, the harder to defend or fight against it. The less we know, the more unnatural it seems; the more it feels like an Other.

It Follows ends with a similar, and very effective, use of extreme long shot. The monster might be dead, but can Jay really be sure? She walks with Paul, who is now also cursed. We see them together on an ordinary suburban street. Then we see them from behind. When we see them again from the front, there is a man behind them in the distance, walking in the same direction.

This unknown man's presence is unsettling both because he's in an extreme long shot (making him an enigma), and because his appearance is sudden. Of course, he might be a neighbor who exited his house while we were watching Jay and Paul from behind. Who knows?

The end.


For more information on framing and staging, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.