It Follows (2014)
Editor’s Notes: It Follows is currently out in limited release.
With its primal preoccupations and more importantly, modest, often low, budgets, the horror genre can be the entry point for first-time or even second-time directors. For indie filmmaker David Robert Mitchell, the writer-director behind 2011’s underappreciated, under-seen coming-of-teenage-drama, The Myth of the American Sleepover, the horror genre offered him the perfect opportunity to venture into more commercial territory while still addressing and/or exploring some of the same or related thematic and dramatic concerns behind his feature-film debut. Fusing influences from John Carpenter (Halloween), Wes Craven (The Nightmare on Elm Street), and David Cronenberg (Rabid, Shivers) to David Lynch (Blue Velvet) with his own finely developed indie sensibilities, Mitchell crafts a subtext- and dread-heavy horror film that feels bracingly fresh, novel, and original (because, simply put, it is).
… the perfect opportunity to venture into more commercial territory while still addressing and/or exploring some of the same or related thematic and dramatic concerns behind his feature-film debut.
Mitchell displays his keen awareness of the horror genre’s demands in a brief mood- and atmosphere-setting prologue. Opening on an empty, suburban street outside Detroit, Mitchell methodically pans in a circle – the first of many 360-degree pans – until he discovers a young, hastily dressed woman. Despite assuring a neighbor and her father that she’s perfectly fine – her body language and voice inflections clearly say otherwise – she’s left alone long enough to run back into her house, grab her car keys and drive away. Something seems to be pursuing her, but thankfully we see nothing, at least not yet. Even when we do see the “it” of the title, it doesn’t appear menacing. From the account of one “infected” character, “it,” a shape-shifting, murderous demon will pursue and exhaust its victim, ultimately killing him or her. There’s an out for the potential victim, of course, but it involves sex, passing on the demon’s curse to the victim’s partner.
As the central character in It Follows, Jay Height (Maika Monroe), eventually discovers, it’s not as simple as simply sleeping with a new partner. That new partner has to sleep with someone new, passing the curse up the line so to speak. Break the chain through intentional or unintentional abstinence and the demon will return to haunt and hunt the victim. On the surface, the demonic curse resembles a sexually/socially communicable disease or a virus, but Mitchell wants the curse to represent something larger about the teen experience, especially the traumatizing and post-traumatizing effects of acquaintance rape, the subsequent isolation and loneliness, disorientation and dislocation of the victim and the ripple-like effects on her sister, Kelly ( Lili Sepe), and their mutual friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and later, Greg Hannigan (Daniel Zovatto). A social, class element (i.e., a decaying Detroit vs. the affluent, untouched suburbs) also makes an appearance, albeit in tangential, marginal form.
Mitchell repeatedly mines simple visual compositions and minimal camera movements for their raw, visceral power – and walking toward their usually unaware victims.
Even with those thematic concerns in mind, Mitchell fully recognizes that for It Follows to succeed with audiences, he has to deliver on the horror implied by the presence of a supernatural demon. That he does is an obvious testament to his knowledge of and desire to subvert genre conventions and tropes. The shape-shifting demon can appear at any time of day or night. It can appear in the form of an old woman in a hospital gown – a corporeal representation of death and mortality – walking down a high-school corridor or a giant seemingly appearing out of nowhere as one of Jay’s friends enters her room. Like Jay and her friends, we learn little about the demon, its motivation, or goals. And while it’s relentless in its pursuit of its victims, it never runs, it never rushes (it also never takes public/private transportation). The Terminator-inspired demon simply walks at a relaxed, unhurried pace, often appearing in the distance – Mitchell repeatedly mines simple visual compositions and minimal camera movements for their raw, visceral power – and walking toward their usually unaware victims.
Mitchell’s just as aware of what sound design – often a throbbing, thrumming electronic drone – and a simple, straightforward synth-heavy score – one of the many areas where John Carpenter’s influence can be felt (Mitchell’s use of widescreen cinematography and gently swooping Steadicam shots are the other areas) – can do to an audience’s nervous system, helping to create and sustain a constantly on-edge sense of the normal, mundane world slowly, inexorably falling apart. It’s that sense of existential dread, aided immeasurably by a talented cast giving grounded, naturalistic performances (a rarity where teen-oriented horror films are involved), that truly makes It Follows stand out among other, typically dispensable entries in the horror genre.
It’s that sense of existential dread, aided immeasurably by a talented cast giving grounded, naturalistic performances (a rarity where teen-oriented horror films are involved), that truly makes It Follows stand out among other, typically dispensable entries in the horror genre.