Between the Lines is a monthly column discussing everything around the craft of screenwriting: from in-depth breakdowns of screenplays to interviews with screenwriters.
Horror may have many classic tropes and conventions that appear on screen, but there are also some hidden in their screenplays too: ellipses to create dread, brief action lines to build the tension and capitalised onomatopoeias for jump scares. Of course, there are genre screenplays that buck the trend of relying on stereotypical writing, such as A Quiet Place taking up multiple pages with only a few words to heighten the tension, and there a screenplays like It Follows. The surprise horror hit of 2014 is a truly terrifying film thanks to its central premise: nineteen-year old Jay (Maika Monroe) is followed by some unknown force after having sex with a recent date. This threat takes the form of different people – including Jay’s loved ones – and walks slowly towards its victim before murdering them in gruesome fashion. An extra catch is that only the people who have this curse can see the oncoming killer. Thanks to superb direction, a nerve-shredding score and terrific performances, It Follows is a modern horror classic. The concept of a slow-walking killer doesn’t exactly sound too riveting and attempting to explain the fear behind it is difficult. So how did writer and director David Robert Mitchell sell the idea in the screenplay?
The opening scene in any film or genre is imperative – it needs to introduce the style, atmosphere and story. On screen, Mitchell does it beautifully with a wide, 360 degree shot following a young woman who seems to be running away from something. On paper, however, it looks a little something like this:
There’s nothing exactly fancy about the writing style and structure but the beats of the scene are what makes the opening so engrossing. It starts right in the thick of the action: Annie (Bailey Spry) stumbling out of her home with urgency. The pace is already quite high and clearly something is wrong, which throws the reader off from the very start and into a state of panic. A few lines then describe Annie occasionally looking back and then stopping to spot her pursuer. We know Annie is running away from something but, to add to the already high tension, we don’t know what that thing is. Adding other characters in the scene helps introduce the concept that others can’t see the threat, as the neighbours and even Annie’s father seems confused but not threatened by what is out there. Mitchell throws the audience right in the middle of an intense moment for Annie and, even with the audience not knowing what is going on, there are enough elements that play on the fear of the unknown and explain that some unexplained thing is out there to get Annie.
After the opening sequence, we spend time getting to know Jay and her friends. She goes on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), they have sex and the curse is passed on to Jay. Shortly after, Hugh has a drugged Jay tied up in a wheelchair to prove to her, and the audience, that this monster exists:
A person walking towards someone is not enough to create frightening tension, but Mitchell adds in little details to make it work. Firstly, with the woman itself: the fact she is naked adds a surreal element and the contortion of her mouth and tongue is strange enough to get alarm bells ringing. The most horrific detail though comes from the monster’s objective. Even with Hugh close by, she is purely focused on Jay. This is an entity that only has one, single thought on its mind and won’t let anything else become a distraction. The scene is a great introduction to the horror of the film’s monster by making the humanoid pursuer a touch out of reality and making clear what its horrific motivations are.
Mitchell does end up using a jump scare or two, but they work terribly well because of how it is set up and presented. Tension runs high when Jay nervously searches her house after something breaks one of the windows:
What makes the reveal of the young woman so awfully effective is the build-up – or lack of one. There is slight tension raised as Jay slowly enters the kitchen but when she peeks into the kitchen doorway the script doesn’t have any ellipses, hyphens or other punctuation to signal that a twist is coming. The writing is almost nonchalant in describing he sight of the half-naked woman and so catches the reader off guard. Mitchell also revels in the disgusting details of the woman’s appearance, knowing the audience and Jay are powerless to move. We also know that Jay needs to stay away from the creature as far as possible, so seeing the monster right in front of her dramatically increases the stakes- we shouldn’t be seeing the monster this close to Jay.
It seems Mitchell took a particular approach when it came to writing the script: simplicity. It can be easy to throw in a slew of different writing techniques to sell an idea, but Mitchell has trusted in the concept and kept things simple to sell the monster and the horror to the reader. This pureness reflects the entity itself: simple-minded and intent on achieving its singular goal. It Follows’s screenplay thankfully worked for the producers who eventually made the film as we got one of the most terrifying and refreshing horrors in years.
The It Follows screenplay can be found at: http://screenplaysandscripts.com/script_files/I/IT%20FOLLOWS%20(2015)%20by%20David%20Robert%20Mitchell%20%5B2013.09.29%5D%20%5Bv.%2015%5D%20%5BDigital%5D.pdf