Three days ago I saluted Starry Eyes as one of the very best horror films of the last few years. It now has some pretty – very pretty – company. Though massively different in content and tone, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows has arrived in the UK on a wave of praise, a whispering that began in the middle of last year and has slowly risen in volume, making it’s relatively small distribution fairly frustrating. Take the time to find it. Take a trip if you have to. I did. Because while It Follows will be perfectly serviceable on the small screen with the lights dimmed, it looks particularly beautiful on a large canvas.
Mitchell’s confidence behind the camera on this, his second feature, is disarming. Together with his director of photography Mike Gioulakis, he presents us a rich, dreamy vision of suburban America pitched in cool blues, warm golds and deep blacks. A world of vast lawns, quiet roads and subtly persuasive menace. Imagine the affluent streets of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides recast with the twilight threat of Haddonfield from the Halloween movies, and you’re somewhere close to capturing the mood here. And the timelessness. One character’s compact-shaped e-reader is perhaps the only concession to the modern world. The stage is set for a nightmarish coming-of-age fairy tale ripe with metaphorical potential.
Meet Jay (Maika Monroe, fresh from The Guest), a young woman who has grown up with her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) in comfort and safety, drifting aloof in her backyard paddling pool. She’s from the kind of upbringing where her parents warned her cautiously about the ‘bad part’ of town and she’s stayed out of it accordingly. Some fantastic events are about to compel her to confront not only the darker edges of her geographical world, but also the moral complexities and consequences of the adult decisions immediately ahead of her.
Enamored with her boyfriend from another school (Jake Weary), she has sex with him in his car only to discover he has deliberately passed on to her a kind of curse. A malevolent entity will now doggedly follow her at walking pace. It can take the form of anybody, and it won’t stop, ever, unless she sleeps with someone else to pass this ‘virus’ on. And if it catches up with them? It’ll come back to her next. Once she’s in, she’s in. There’s no undoing her decisions. What happens if it catches up to Jay? Mitchell gives us an eerie clue in the film’s engaging cold open as a girl who puts her back to the ocean one night is left a brutally mutilated corpse come morning.
It’s a potent set-up, one that calls to mind elements of other spooky stories (the chain-horror of Ring, the stalker element of everything from Halloween to The Terminator), but assembled in such a way as to feel genuinely new (a rarity in horror). So while the Carpenter-esque scenery and music (as astonishing pulse-pounding score from Disasterpeace) mingles with the venereal concerns of early Cronenberg, Mitchell’s film rises above its influences to exist on its own terms, while also eschewing a lot of the cliché we have come to expect from modern scare fests.
It Follows is not particularly gruesome, nor does it depend on the jump-scare trick bag that threads together so many lesser efforts paraded through multiplexes these days. Granted, there are still a couple of these moments present, but their scarcity works to Mitchell’s advantage. It’s like a game he’s playing, testing his audience to see if he’s got them. It’s playful as opposed to just cheap. And with a hook this juicy, he’s got us all right.
The other chief ace up his sleeve is his set of characters. Unusually (and refreshingly), we have a cluster of kids who are not particularly bratty, believe in each other and look out for one another. They are an open, insecure bunch. Mitchell gives us occasional glimpses into the mundane world of growing up in the suburbs; curled up watching movies, riding bikes, wasting away an afternoon sat by the shore, a Linklater-like understanding that featured strongly in his debut The Myth Of The American Sleepover. His sensitivity to his characters’ world bolsters their identities, making them more than mere monster-fodder. The chief relationship that the film builds around is that between Jay and lifelong friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist). He clearly holds a candle for her. But once her present peril asserts itself it pushes the bubbling undercurrent of sexuality to the fore between them, provoking a long-delayed conversation about not just attraction but genuine emotional connection.
In many ways, in fact, It Follows is about sexual anxiety. How, in these crucial, defining years, the weight of responsibility and consequence involved in getting to know sex can terrify an inquisitive adolescent. There are potent lessons to learn; the fear involved is externalised and inescapable.
A lot of the time It Follows is impressive for what it doesn’t do, as opposed to what it does (though what it does do is, basically, great). The creepiest horrors keep their mysteries under wraps. As such, Mitchell’s film doesn’t get bogged down in some 30-minute Scooby Doo hunt for answers once its central premise has been established. The rules have been made clear and when or how this all started isn’t necessary to reveal. Anyone looking for this kind of narrative hand-holding might feel short-changed by the end, but ask yourself how much it matters? If It Follows took the mask off it would dilute the dogged restlessness that propels the film along. And while the ending recalls (unintentionally or not) the climactic confrontation from Let The Right One In, the wrap up – which may leave some viewers asking “is that it?” – is perfectly fitting; focusing on emotional closure over narrative tidiness. Mitchell is wise enough to know that, as impressive as his nasty conceit is, it’s the characters we’ve been following all along.