It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2015) There’s something about the combination of sex and death that seems to be endlessly endearing in the spooky little world of horror movies. It seemed to define the entire genre for the stretch of the 80s when slashers ruled the world and David Cronenberg milked enough horrific/metaphoric power out of the combo that he was eventually allowed to make art movies. Yet, sexualized horror somehow been absent from the genre for a little while and so It Follows feels like a bit of a revelation. The flick has one of those horror movie hooks so strong that word of mouth builds just by describing the set up and writer/director David Robert Mitchell executes his first genre outing with such exquisite mastery of craft that you can’t help but be impressed. The movie was showered with praise since touring the festival circuit, to the point that it already felt like a cult film before release. It is indeed a damn fine horror outing, just don’t believe the “greatest horror movie in a decade” statements. That sort of histrionic hype will ruin the type of smart n’ small little genre gem that It Follows actually is.
New genre starlet Maika Monroe (who has already cemented horror convention side-career between this and The Guest) stars as a dazed and confused teenager dating the 21-year-old Jake Weary. Eventually they do the deed that all horny teenagers want to do and unfortunately Monroe wakes up immediately afterwards tied to a wheelchair with Weary explaining the premise of the horror film that she’s now starring in. There’s this unknown evil force. Call it a demon, call it a ghost, call it a projected STD metaphor, call it what you will (thankfully, the David Robert Mitchell doesn’t get hung up on useless explanation). But it exists and it will now follow Monroe wherever she goes in a slow and measured pace. If it touches her, she dies. If she has sex with someone, she’ll pass it along just like it’s been passed on to her. Worst of all, if it kills whoever she passes it to, it will return to following her and back on down the line to the unknown source. Only those who have been infected can see the following specter, but the danger is very real for anyone who tries to stop it. From there, Monroe returns to her gang of equally despondent friends and their conveniently absent parents and it follows her through a series of expertly staged set pieces along with some pained characterizations until the credits role.
It has to be said up front that the mysterious ‘it’ isn’t the only thing haunting the movie, nope the ghost of John Carpenter hangs over almost every frame as well. Though clearly a talented filmmaker in his own right, Mitchell shoots the film with the same ever-creeping cinemascope camera and makes the same atmospheric use of the added visual space in which horrors might pop up at anytime as Carpenter did way-back-when in Halloween. Composer Rich Vreeland also delivers an absolutely brilliant score done in the same simple synth style that Carpenter created and an entire decade worth of genre composers knocked off. The influence of the real JC is impossible to deny (even the slow-moving threat is eerily reminiscent of that master’s monsters) and yet, it all thankfully remains just an influence. Mitchell isn’t hiding his love of Carpenter, but he also isn’t merely playing pretend. He knows how and why those tricks work and applies them to his own delightfully devilish creation.
The STD horror metaphor at the center of It Follows is far from subtle and it’s also far from overplayed. There’s poignancy to the concept and also added scares that come from leaving things unexplained. Sure, with most of the teens presumed virgins, the concept of sex being the entry into the adult world and with it the inevitability of death is there, but Mitchell never makes his themes too explicit. They’re there. If you like subtext, dig in and write that first year academic paper. If not, don’t worry. The concept also pulls all the right influences from the Final Destination series and slow moving zombie movies to give you the willies. Mitchell rarely lets up on his ever-ratcheting suspense, getting a lot of mileage out of the fact that even in quiet scenes of rest, the potential of ‘it’ popping out of the corner of the frame at any time remains.
Within those quiet scenes of queasy anticipation, Mitchell also builds a truly engrossing world with an excellent young cast. His previous movie The Myth Of The American Sleepover was a well-observed slice of life about listless lost teens and It Follows is often just as poignantly relatable even though there’s an evil force in relentless pursuit. The kids are all sad, lost, and lonely in a way all kids are. Their dialogue is loosely conversational with dramatic speeches only in spots that feel natural. The performances are all quietly underplayed and real. It’s rare for a horror film to have a universally strong cast and It Follows shows just how important that can be. You may not be fed backstories beyond what’s required to keep the forward-momentum of the narrative pumping, but you’ll always empathize with everyone just enough to care when the genre threat arrives. Mitchell also creates a curiously out-of-time world of an uncertain era that’s evocative without being showy and has fun with using unspoken exposition as both deadpan comedy and eerie mystery. For example, the total lack of parental presence in the movie might feel like a plot hole were it not part of the filmmaker’s otherworldly sense of place. That’s both efficient genre storytelling and an eccentric stylistic choice, a two-for-one package of clever filmmaking.
The film slides onto Blu-ray in a package that should please the converted as well as those who have yet to see the flick (which given the unfortunately low numbers that greeted the film’s theatrical release is the bulk of the audience). It certainly looks and sounds fantastic with the wide-screen deep focus visuals bursting off the screen and the beautifully creepy score filling all audio channels with atmospheric ease. Extras are sadly slight, there’s a nice (if brief) interview with the composer about his intriguing score, along with a download code that will allow everyone to creep themselves out with those sounds in public whenever they please. On top of that is a commentary featuring a handful of film critics getting deep into their appreciation for the film. It works rather well and it’s a shame so few movies get this critic commentary treatment. Unfortunately anyone hoping for any insights from the filmmakers themselves about the production will get nothing to scratch that itch. They are entirely absent from the disc, which I suppose adds to the enigmatic mystery of it all, if I’m feeling generous.
Words like “masterpiece” have been tossed around when describing It Follows and that seems a bit inappropriate. Without a doubt, this is an excellent piece of work that should be discussed and admired. But it’s not that much better than say the recent Oculus, it’s just a movie that reminds viewers of a type of horror that had been gone so long they forgot how good it could be. Just like how The Babadook was over-praised for being a human drama with horror flourishes or how The Conjuring was a massive hit because audiences hadn’t been moved by conventionally manipulative horror filmmaking techniques in years after the found footage and gore-horror trends. That’s not that these movies are bad. Quite the opposite, they are very well made. They just caught the cultural climate at the right time to made old tricks feel new again. Still, when the old tricks are from strong sources and the execution is expert like David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, a little over-praise is fair game. Little movies like this deserve the attention and hopefully the inevitable It Follows knock-offs won’t flow out too quickly. It would be nice for this little genre gem to feel special for a while.