By Michael Koresky
Dir. David Robert Mitchell, U.S., Radius-TWC
It Follows seems to have walked right out of a nightmare and onto movie screens. It functions in a liminal rather than literal state, not driving forward as much as wafting along on its own peculiar logic. In this way, itâ€™s a refreshing contemporary horror film, as even the most thoughtful (The Babadook) or innovative (Kill List) or scary (Sinister) recent films of the genre tend to fall back on jolting sensation. There are thrills in David Robert Mitchellâ€™s new film, to be sure, but theyâ€™re of the creeping varietyâ€”the impact of its succession of disturbing images registers slowly and creates a cumulative effect rather than, as per usual, a flutter of the heart followed by a quick â€śyou got meâ€ť chuckle. The suburban world Mitchell has created is one marked by a pervasive and unstoppable threat, rather than, as in a film like Scream, an essentially cheerful, sitcom-like movie reality that needs to be simply rid of its monsters in order to go back to normal. In the eerie It Follows, one senses there is no normal to return to.
The menace stalking the teenagers in Mitchellâ€™s film is at once easy to explain and difficult to effectively describe. It takes the form of a pass-it-on curse, Ă la Jacques Tourneurâ€™s 1957 Night of the Demon (which was loosely adapted from M.R. Jamesâ€™s nigh perfect 1911 short story â€śCasting the Runesâ€ť) and Hideo Nakataâ€™s 1998 Ringu, yet the manifestation of the haunting initially seems benign. Once â€śinfected,â€ť the victim is pursued by slow, shambling human figures. They are of varying sizes, shapes, and ages; sometimes they wear clothes. Their embarkation point is unclear, but they seem to have been walking for quite some time and they can appear at any point. Only the victim can see them, but this doesnâ€™t make them harmless, as is clear from the filmâ€™s jolting opening sequence, the most violent passage in the film.
This is a chilling scenario with a primal pull and enormous visual potential. And Mitchell and his cinematographer Michael Gioulakis do the concept justice with an unnerving aesthetic approach that makes the filmâ€™s timeless suburbiaâ€”a community safely nestled outside of Detroit, a general area also explored in Mitchellâ€™s The Myth of the American Sleepoverâ€”as much a character as any of the terrified kids who populate it. Imagine Sofia Coppolaâ€™s daydreamy The Virgin Suicides transformed into a twilit nightmare. Vividly captured by a smooth, roaming and panning camera and scored to the ethereal synth of Disasterpeace, the film is all atmospheric terror. Yet the details of how the curse is passed alongâ€”and curtailedâ€”form the real meat of the film. It Follows is nothing if not a highly symbolic and self-aware horror exercise: the curse is a sexually transmitted disease.
Our heroine is nineteen-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe), who is dating wrong-side-of-the-tracks older guy Hugh (Jake Weary) when the film opens. Their initial courtship strikes as uneasy and tentative, partly because the jittery Hugh always seems to be looking over his shoulder, whether in a movie theater or a diner, and unable to give his full attention to Jay. In their early scenes together, Mitchell expertly conveys a sense of free-floating menace, emphasized by a hushed soundtrack and laconic yet pointed camera work: while in the diner, the camera slowly zooms past the two and racks focus to catch a figure outside staring back at them through the window. There will be many instances of this throughout the film, of the camera capturing something hair-raising but which ultimately might be mundane . . . thatâ€™s just a person looking at the camera, after all.
The vague sense of impending doom is concretized after Jay has sex with Hugh for the first time, in the back of his car. Postcoitally, while softly fondling a thistle sprouting from the ground next to the car (a delicate image intermingling beauty and danger), she is taken by surprise and chloroformed by Hugh, awakening tied to a wheelchair in an abandoned garage. Mitchell and Gioulakis anchor the camera to the chair, which gives the image a sense of nauseating intimacy when in motion. In this bizarre space, Hugh explains to the bewildered and terrified Jay what exactly he has just done to her, and provides all the exposition the film is willing to give: she will now be followed by the monsters, and the only way to stop them from coming is for her to have sex with someone else.
On paper, the filmâ€™s concept doesnâ€™t sound all that frightening, and registers at best a low-cost solution to making a horror film: the major special effect is people walking toward the camera. Yet Mitchell shows his finesse by underlining the fact that cinematic fear is all about the movie frame: camera distance, motion or stillness, whatâ€™s shown and not shown. Itâ€™s remarkable the sorts of images that so effectively deliver the shivers depending on how we see them: the sudden and swift appearance of a freakishly tall man; the inevitable approach of a shuffling, haggard woman; a naked middle-aged man perched, stock still atop a two-story suburban home. Visually, the fear the film elicits is one of proximity, the discomfort of something invading our space.
In a sense all these nameless, anonymous â€śfollowersâ€ť are something of a red herring, throwing us off the scent of the real threat: the lure of sex. It Follows is not a zombie film, slasher movie, or ghost story, though it contains traces and echoes of all three; rather itâ€™s an acute take on the desperate, single-minded sexual drive of teenagehood. In her increasing terror and freneticism, Jay is comforted by a group of peers: her slightly younger sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe); Kellyâ€™s meek friend, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), long harboring a serious crush on Jay; the bookish, bespectacled Yara (Olivia Luccardi); and the swaggering Greg (Daniel Zovatto), who lives across the street. The film is about as interested in parents as the Peanuts cartoons, so these kids become Jayâ€™s only lifelines. The only real sense we get of Jayâ€™s mother is the recurring image of a plate piled with sandwich, pickles, and Doritos sheâ€™s left in the girlâ€™s room, untouched and growing increasingly moldy as the days wear on (a shout-out to the rotting uncooked rabbit in Polanskiâ€™s Repulsion?). Frightened of what sex can do to them and what they can do to others by enacting on their urges, these kids are unmoored, even from their own libidos, the one thing that truly fuels them.
It Follows could have employed sex as a purely cautionary device, but the film is cannier than that. Because intercourseâ€”strictly heterosexual, we can assume, based on the filmâ€™s limited scope and vague expositionâ€”can both infect and eradicate the disease, Mitchellâ€™s film can be seen as either sex positive or negative, as either an expression of venal self-interest or an act of giving (or, in this case, taking) sacrifice. Whereas this ambiguity makes It Follows effective as a work of metaphor, it all feels rather inchoate as a horror movie. Ultimately, the film would rather stay true to its concept than capitulate to horror conventions, going out on one of the most open endings I can recall for the genre. By the end, fear itself becomes mundane. Thereâ€™s no stopping it; we just keep walking.