by Brian Surber
The past few years have had at least one outstanding horror film: from 2009 on we’ve had The House of the Devil, Let Me In, You’re Next, The Cabin in the Woods, Evil Dead, and The Babadook. I am pleased to say that this year we may have found our new addition. It Follows, while possibly steeped in social context, is elevated by its technical skill. This is a film that doesn’t cause nightmares; this is film that is birthed from them. It is the old school kind of horror film that is bent on making you frightfully uneasy the whole way through. The tension in It Follows does not build, it lurks.
Harking back to the days where horror movies seemed to be warning signs for teenage sex, It Follows flips the sentiment on its head. The characters in this film have sex, sure, but not only is the sex between two adults in a relationship but as the film goes on the sex become less and less erotic. In fact, sex eventually becomes necessary, which only enhances the unromantic nature of the act. The story involves a supernatural entity and a curse that’s passed along after having sex. Once you’re cursed, the entity will follow you until it kills you. It will never stop until you are dead, and once you are dead it will go after the next person in line, the one who passed it to you.
The movie brilliantly plays on the multiple levels of fear that foster from this situation. Not only is there the initial fear of something constantly coming for you, but the entity is invisible to everyone but you; it could be walking behind you and you’d never know it unless you turned around. The entity can also take any shape to get close to you: friends, family, even dead relatives. The idea that sooner or later it will get to where you are is played with to great effect. You can only slightly prolong the inevitable; it is coming and will catch up to you. One of the most terrifying aspects of the curse is that once it kills the current carrier it will come after the next person in line. You may pass it on to someone else but you can never be sure you are safe. The person you gave it to can die at any moment, and then you’re up. The villain in It Follows will never stop coming.
Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, It Follows delivers an incredibly strong lead performance from Maika Monroe. Monroe, having starred in The Guest last year, is making quite a name for herself in the indie world. Here, as lead character Jay, she is terrifically compelling as she must deal with this new life. Jay is real in every scene she is in. In impossible circumstances she is played with a great truth. Mitchell, in his second feature film, has crafted a story that seems as timeless as any urban legend that might be told over a campfire. It Follows evokes the films of John Carpenter and a young George A. Romero with slow moving cameras, long takes, and neutral lighting to deliver its chills with great function. The camera stays with a shot so that long after we are scared, we remain on the edge. The opening shot alone, of an attractive woman running out of her home in fear, is a single take that slowly moves around her block as she panics. It’s not her fear or the worry of what she is running from that makes this shot so effective, it’s how the camera steadily rotates around showing us that we are powerless and must watch what is happening that truly gets under the skin. The film acts as a potent display of panic-induced paranoia.
The ghoulish story aside, as of this writing there are plenty of articles written about what the film is trying to say about engaging in promiscuous sexual acts; perhaps the film is a meditation on STDs or AIDS. The issue with their story is that the only pure and normal sexual act committed in this film involves two adults, who have been on several dates, acting out a desire they have; granted it is revealed one’s motive was of malicious intent. These are not teenagers who are being stupid; these are not crimes being committed (although one may argue otherwise). I can’t help but feel Mr. Mitchell isn’t trying to make a statement on our current societal state, if anything he might be playing on the horror convention of slutty teens being killed. But more likely he set out to make a film that was about real people, not parodies, involved in an unreal situation.
If there is fault to find in It Follows it belongs to the third act. The “big plan” to stop the villain of the story never really makes any sense or is ever explained. That certainly may have been the purpose, something akin to the fact that these kids don’t at all know how to defeat this entity so they may as well try this, but the “climax” just isn’t that climactic. And the scene ends almost abruptly. It can feel at times that the film doesn’t really know how to end. For the sake of argument, and as a testament to the story, it is possible that these artistic choices were made because there is no end. The characters decisions at the end are not a be-all-end-all and the feeling is expected and earned. As an audience member, however, I couldn’t help but feel something was off.
Whatever the script lacks in terms of a traditional ending (and I’m not saying every movie needs one) It Follows makes up for it in terms of tone. The constant level of foreboding unease is played so close to the surface the whole way through that even during the final few frames we are holding our breath waiting for something else to happen. The film doesn’t rely on gore; only one person dies onscreen, but instead revels in our anticipation of what might happen if someone gets caught. It’s actually rather brilliant that the story ensures that there will be few deaths; the entity only comes after one person at a time. So there are few jump scares with multiple people are killed at random, and instead we put all our focus on the entity chasing Jay. Like all great horror films, the scare is in the anticipation not the random loud clang of music or something jumping from around the corner: it’s Regan MacNeil laying asleep, it’s Michael Myers’ face slowly appearing in a closet, it’s the Sawyer family sitting down for dinner, it’s Rosemary Woodhouse having stomach pains, it’s Reverend Harry Powell singing quietly. What truly scares us is knowing what’s going to happen next and not being able to do anything about it.
It Follows may not be the scariest film ever made but it’s one of the most ominous I’ve ever seen. Its story is simple, timeless, and haunting. Maika Monroe gives a startlingly real performance and David Robert Mitchell’s vibrant visual direction is spot on as a way to infuse rich storytelling with a dynamic atmosphere. An urban legend come to life, It Follows is a film that stays with you not only because it’s a first-rate superb horror film but because it reminds you, ever so confidently, that you can never know what’s right behind you.
Rating – 1/2