Two excellent horror films coming out barely six months apart? Dare I indeed dream?
After loving last year’s spooky and thoughtful The Babadook, and subsequently raving about it to anybody who would listen, I was hungry for more atmospheric horror that actually understood the meaning of the word subtlety. Thankfully, my prayers were heard and we now have It Follows from director David Robert Mitchell.
Jay (Maika Monroe) is a typical nice teen girl seeing a typical nice teen guy. But then things take a darker turn. After having sex with this boy, Jay is drugged and wakes up tied to a chair. She is told that a curse has been passed to her. She will now be followed everywhere she goes by some kind of entity that only she (and others who have also been cursed previously) can see. It can look like anybody, even people she knows, but it can only keep a walking pace. Her only options are to always be running, or to have sex and pass it on to someone else. Dumped out of the car in front of her house, Jay is left terrified and calls on her sister and friends to help her avoid her supernatural stalker and possibly put a stop to it for good.
This is a film that I can only describe as excellently balanced. From the writing to the gorgeous cinematography, everything just comes together to create an experience that will have you on the edge of your seat. David Robert Mitchell is clearly a child of the John Carpenter era, and it shows from the building tension and an irresistible score from Disasterpeace that sounds like the musical love child of Carpenter and Angelo Badalamenti. It even actually has a recognizable theme to it. How great is that? How long has it been since we’ve had a proper horror movie theme? (Saw’s “Hello Zepp” is the only one that immediately comes to mind.)
Actually, apart from a couple of little technology touches (including a shell-shaped e-reader that is the greatest piece of movie technology since Juno’s hamburger phone), the film could have even been set in the 1980s. This retro feel gives the film a timeless quality, which feeds into the semi-urban legend nature of the curse. Halloween meets Ringu is not a bad combination, and one that is a big winner with me personally.
Thankfully, Mitchell’s retro feel doesn’t extend to the way he writes the characters, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the character of Jay herself. In a film of the ’70s or ’80s Jay would, to put it bluntly, be the slut. Her promiscuity would lead to her quick death, leaving other, more sexually “pure” characters to defeat the evil. Instead, it is referenced that while Jay goes on a lot of dates, she is also really nice, something we see for ourselves in Maika Monroe’s performance.
Monroe brilliantly shows the effects of someone being worn down from the constant atmosphere of pressure and fear. She’s vulnerable and sweet, but doesn’t feel like a weak victim. She has agency in trying to fight back against something that is constantly after her. A few times we see Jay contemplate passing on the curse on and it is very much her decision. The success of passing on the curse though, is something that never guarantees safety, for if the person you pass it to dies, then the curse comes straight back to you. This is a nice touch as it means that even if she succeeds, Jay will never be entirely safe, something that helps keep the film’s tension high.
Jay’s sister and friends, while not the most developed, do feel like genuine teenagers, rather than stock characters. I feel as though this element can be attributed to Mitchell’s previous work with coming-of-age teen drama The Myth of the American Sleepover. They are thoughtful, aimless teens, content with their lack of parental presence and ability to just drink on the front porch and play cards, and while they don’t fully understand Jay’s predicament (as they cannot see what’s following her), they care and want to help her.
The nature of the creature, or entity, or demon, or spectre, is left very ambiguous, and that is something I applaud. I don’t need to know the origin of what is hunting Jay. The fact that it only walks is something that might not seem scary to some, but I would say gives the entity a sense of ongoing inevitability, as it will always be coming and doesn’t need to rush because it will get you eventually. The forms that we see it take also seem bizarre (naked bodies, an old lady stumbling across a college campus, someone more familiar to Jay), but all are unsettling. Some also give a sense that this thing, whatever it is, wants to torment Jay before it kills her. There is also the clear parallel of the old horror movie message of sex leading to death, and of the curse representing an STD. But I would say that the sex is more of a mechanic for the curse and treated as simply part of reality.
The climax of the film takes place in a swimming pool deep in the dilapidated heart of Detroit. Water seems to be a running motif throughout the film–Jay’s pool, the ocean in the opening scene, the beach house where the group take sanctuary. The reason for this is unclear, at least initially, but it is interesting to think on, especially for future viewings. The pool scene also brings up one of my few issues with It Follows, as it contains a bit more in the way of special effects than the rest of the film, which I personally didn’t find as effective as the simplistic creeping dread that had come before. This is very minor, however, and does not in take away from how much I enjoyed the rest of the film.
It Follows may not be the next big landmark in horror cinema (only time will ever tell there), but it is a welcome change of pace for those frustrated with big studio horror efforts. Wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully shot, tense throughout, and simultaneously retro and refreshing, it will certainly linger with you for some time.