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[The CHIRP Radio Movie Collection documents great movies that feature musicians or the use of music in storytelling.]
The Plot: After being drugged and assaulted, a young woman is stalked by a shape shifting killer.
The story is simple by design. A mild-mannered community college student (Jay, brought to life by Maika Monroe in an exquisitely understated performance) goes out on a date. She’s drugged, and wakes up bound to a chair in an old parking garage. Her date, now her captor, informs her that she’s been infected-from now on, she’ll be hunted by an unknown, malicious force.
The only cure is to extend the chain of betrayal a step further and pass the infection on to someone else. Her pursuer (who we’ll call “The Follower”) is amorphous-it can look like anyone, so despite the fact that it takes several actors to portray its many faces, the one who brings it to life the most memorably and consistently is the composer, Rich Vreeland, AKA Disasterpiece.
Vreeland is a hired gun who’s best known for writing the soundtrack to Fez, an indie platformer available via Xbox Live. It Follows was his first film score, so it’s interesting to look at it as a misplaced video game soundtrack. For example, remember in Legend of Zelda when you’d get a little too close to a monster and the triumphant strains of the main theme would twist into something anxious and choppy?
It Follows has a similar motif in which whenever the Follower catches up with Jay the score curdles from idyllic melancholy into bottomless dread. Later, as her prospects turn ever more grim and the gap between these emotions closes, it’s reflected in the music. “It can look like someone you know.” Jay’s date tells her. “Or it can be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.” Once Jay is infected, the gingerbread comforts of suburbia are poisoned. The illusions of safety are breached, and the score, like The Follower, becomes something that can’t be trusted. Is it a friend? A stranger? A memory?
Whatever helps it get close to you.
Like Pulp Fiction, It Follows is deliberately kept unmoored in time. Cars and televisions from the '60s, '70s and '80s can be seen in the background, but people also use cell phones and computers. Pulp Fiction made this choice mostly to have fun with the iconography, but It Follows does so for emotional impact. The movie is set in a universal past, a surrealist vision of days-gone-by that almost anyone can slip into, and the score, with its busted-arcade-cabinet synth and John Carpenterish earnestness, helps to sustain this dreamy world.
Vreeland breathes life into a moodscape that will remind anyone currently between the ages of 20 and 40 of the life they had when they were nineteen, drawing out personal demons like poison and interweaving them with the murkiest threads of the story. Jay’s friends are your friends. The mundanities and anxieties that she takes for granted are the rose colored memories that you desperately try to keep from fading with visits and phone calls that almost always leave you feeling disappointed.
Whether you drove a 1975 Plymouth Grand Fury, a 1980 Chevy Impala, or a 2011 Honda Civic isn’t the point. The point is that you can’t go back to the past - to any past. And even if you could, who’s to say there aren’t still monsters lying in wait?
The score manipulates us in subtler ways as well, filling in gaps where lesser movies might rely on stiff dialogue and plot dumps. “Doppel” tells us more about The Follower than some contrived explanation delivered in the last twenty minutes of the film possibly could. “Father” forces us to create our own explanation for Jay’s family troubles, one more personal and emotionally true than anything the movie might have served up in a monologue. The rat-tat-tat panic of “Heels” is a heartbeat for heartbeat transcript of The Follower’s first assault, and “Detroit” perfectly encapsulates the ruin where Jay and her Scooby Gang make their last stand.
That all having been said, it seems likely that Vreeland didn’t really intend for this score (written on a tight deadline for a low budget horror movie) to be a meditation on the forgotten toxicity of the halcyon past or the universality of the dark shadows that twist through our histories. In interviews he mostly talks about his influences and the technical side of recording. (“There is a stabbing sound that carries through the film that is a direct reference to Psycho.” he said in an interview with the International Business Times. “It kind of sounds like ‘REE! REE! REE!’”) No references to Faulkner or Lovecraft. No reflections on the past and paranoia. In the end, all we have to work with is the music. The work of extrapolating what it all means is ours, and it turns out that’s sort of what makes this soundtrack-and the movie it’s bound to-work.
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