IT FOLLOWS * * *
Starring Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe and Daniel Zovatto. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell.
Hailed as the best horror film in a decade by folks who seem to have forgotten that The Babadook came out six months ago, It Follows is a moody, elegantly crafted little throwback that’s probably not being particularly well-served by the breathless hype that’s been following it (har-har) around festivals ever since last year’s Cannes premiere. I complain all the time that too much of our current discourse, especially regarding genre pictures, demands that everything is either “awesome” or “sucks,” leaving no room for “pretty good.” It Follows is pretty good.
Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, the movie hits upon the squirmy idea of a sexually transmitted haunting. After sweet, blonde teenage Jay (Malika Monroe) takes a roll in the backseat with her older, mysterious new boyfriend from another town (Jake Weary) his post-coital pillow-talk includes breaking the news that she’s now stuck with the “it” of the title. Seems there’s something out there –shape-shifting into various zombie-ish forms—and it’s going to follow her from now on.
To the eternal gratitude of the audience, Mitchell doesn’t bother with any labored mythology about ancient curses or what have you, never trying to explain where this thing came from. He just lays out the rules in simple bullet points. If it catches you, it will kill you. You can hide, but it will find you eventually. The only way to stave it off is to sleep with someone else and pass it along to them. But then if it then kills that person, it’s back on you – working its way down the list. Any safety is strictly temporary, calling to mind the old Eddie Murphy joke about herpes: “You keep that shit forever, man. Like luggage.”
It’s an inspired hook, and Mitchell makes great hay from the starkly terrifying image of a figure determinedly walking straight towards the camera. The movie is photographed in widescreen, for the most part eschewing close-ups in favor of vast long shots where your eyes can’t help but scan the landscape for approaching apparitions. It Follows isn’t all pumped up with adrenaline the way so many contemporary horror pictures are. The camera typically remains static, or sometimes pans in slow circles around an environment, giving a sense of unseen dangers lurking just beyond the corners of the frame. Rich Vreeland’s droning synthesizer score adds to the pervasive, somnambulant dread.
Like Mitchell’s debut feature, The Myth of the American Sleepover, It Follows takes place in a dreamy, nostalgia-swaddled Michigan suburb that owes an awful lot to the Grosse Pointe of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. (John Carpenter’s Haddonfield and Wes Craven’s Springwood provide visual touchstones here too, for obvious reasons.) A pink clamshell e-reader carried by one of the characters is the only modern accoutrement I can recall, as for the most part we’re in pre-digital, pretty much parentless idyll that feels more half-remembered than rigidly realistic.
It’s an enticing atmosphere, but as much as Mitchell excels at conjuring the aura of Reagan-era, AIDS-panicked, “you-fuck-you-die” manifestos, he’s far too timid to root around in the queasy sexual politics that were part and parcel of the period and cannot help but be strummed up by his central concept.
There’s a level, I suppose, where we can almost see the film as a nightmare projection of Jay’s lovestruck, nerdy neighbor Paul (Keir Gilchrist), forever friend-zoned and simmering with resentment at his dreamgirl’s penchant for sleeping with bad boys. But Mitchell never quite follows through on it. I’ve also heard the intriguing interpretation that the haunting stands in for PTSD after a sexual assault, but there’s not much here actually supporting that one. The subtext, like the antagonist, remains un-defined, shifting form from scene to scene.
It Follows is ultimately just an excellent technical exercise, more interested in sustaining a mood and feeling than exploring the truly scary ideas about sexuality rattling around beneath the surface of this story.