In the Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers-populated suburbs of horror history, teenagers who have sex leave themselves open to danger in the form of a murderous lunatic.
It Follows, the sophomore effort by writer/director David Robert Mitchell, pays almost slavish tribute to John Carpenter’s Halloween and slasher films of the 80s while leaving this moralistic baggage behind. In Mitchell’s Detroit suburb, the danger of promiscuity is that you might catch something. That something being the single-minded force of destruction that follows 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) and her circle of childhood friends.
After near-unanimous critical acclaim and word-of-mouth buzz since its debut at Cannes last year, It Follows was set for a very limited release on March 13. It did great business in that release, though, and Weinstein Company subsidiary RADiUS opened it up to a much wider audience (1,200 cities, including Murfreesboro) last week.
Jay is dating an older guy, Hugh (Jake Weary). They have sex for the first time in the back of his vintage muscle car, which plays into the film being a teen-romance parody to the film’s early parts. Then it gets dark: Hugh approaches Jay from behind, puts a cloth over her mouth, and she wakes up tied to a wheelchair in an abandoned building.
Hugh’s intentions are benevolent, though. Well, as benevolent as a guy who dates high school students and keeps chloroform in his trunk could be. He tells her that she’s contracted a ghost. Venereally. It’s a movie about a sexually-transmitted ghost, folks.
The “rules” of the creature/curse/thing are that it can appear as any person—any disguise—that lets it sneak up on its prey, is visible only to those who are “positive” for it and does nothing but follow.
“Wherever you are, it’s walking towards you,” Hugh tells Jay.
It Follows is a high-watermark for new horror. Rather than have each character be isolated and killed off one-by-one, Jay’s friends stick by her. In fact, as a product of the ghost’s extreme single-mindedness, anybody who hasn’t caught the curse is in no real danger at all. The curse passes through sexual contact, and the monster only follows one person at a time. Once it kills them, it resumes its hunt of the previous person who had it, going down the line. Much of the film’s emotional impact comes from watching Jay’s friends struggle to help her deal with a problem that only she can fully understand. There’s a great message in the film about love as willingness to take on anothers’ burden as well.
Despite it’s Halloween-esc stylistic touchstones, the film plays a lot like a great zombie movie, working off the suffocating dread that the enemy could be anyone. It’s a devastatingly smart setup in that it turns any wide-angle shot with a crowd of people in the background into an opportunity to build tension. When Jay sees somebody approach and asks “does anybody else see that person?” Whether she is met with a “Yes, duh,” or “No, what person,” the audience gets sucked into the paranoia and anxiety of facing a threat that is anonymous and unrelenting.
The monster is invisible to everybody but those who have “caught” it, but it is bound by real-world physicality. It has to break into places the same way as anyone else, and it can be stopped, albeit only momentarily, by being shot. For a while, this works: Mitchell creates a monster that has the scary qualities of both an unkillable supernatural force and an all-too-real stalker. It has to rattle the doorknobs of locked doors menacingly like the rest of us.
It also makes the nitty-gritty of actually fighting the thing look pretty silly. When it finally gets to Jay for the first time, it’s one of the most genuinely dread-inducing scenes in recent memory, right up until the point it actually grabs her.
It Follows looks different from most horror, too. Scenes are evenly lit and elaborately composed. Mitchell keeps us aware of his camera’s gazing nature, making expert use of slow, deliberate tracking; wide shots; and most effectively, creeping zooms, mirroring the movement of the monster. The frame tightens on Jay and her friends even when they think they’ve given the monster the slip, and we are reminded of the claustrophobic effect of running from something you can never escape.
The score, by California electronic musician Disasterpiece is absolutely stunning. It’s heavily indebted to the propulsive gothic arpeggios of John Carpenter’s scores as well as the cheesy synth chords redolent of Angelo Badalamenti’s off-kilter pop in David Lynch’s films, and the terse mechanical loops and hornets-nest noise blasts of David Fincher’s house band, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Smartly constructed, incisively written and elegantly executed, It Follows is great because it challenges many notions about horror. Chief among them: the notion that a scary movie can’t be just plain good.