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I shy away from new horror films unless the recommendations are go good that I can't ignore them. Lately, I really enjoyed Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and thought Jennifer Kent's The Babadook was extremelywell made, if less satisfying. David Robert Mitchell's It Follows has nothing resembling a name actor or a name director, nor much of a budget, but it tops both pictures for creative, effective filmmaking. Seen under the right circumstances... it's scary.
Alfred Hitchcock wouldn't understand the way the millennials in this horror show are living, but I think he'd like the movie. It's deceptively simple, unfussy, and direct -- yet nuanced and reasonably sensitive to its characters. Hitchcock called himself a 'simplifier', and writer-director Mitchell has the same ethos. He makes his scares look effortless. And they're great scares too -- just little jolts, honestly earned. Dread is built up the way a silent comedian builds laughs. No frills, no cheats, just an implacable logic working its way forward.
At one point in the movie I started to get worried, when a group of young people -- mostly junior college age -- look like they're heading for the usual cabin in the woods. But no, Mitchell doesn't take that false step.
The concept is simple, and nightmarish. Teenager Jay Height (Maika Monroe) dates Hugh (Jake Weary), a good-looking guy. She has sex with him, and all seems well. But then Hugh chloroforms her; when she wakes she finds herself bound to a chair. Hugh doesn't want to harm Jay, only to make her sit still so he can explain what a terrible thing he's done to her. He tells her that he's made her the next victim of a horrible curse. Some kind of phantom killer will now stalk her. It takes multiple forms, sometimes people she knows, sometimes not. It's also invisible to everyone but Jay. And the only way Jay can lift the curse is to hand it on to someone else, the way Hugh did to her -- through sex. Jay flies into a panic when the first phantom approaches. When her friends become convinced that Jay's fears are founded in reality, they band together to defend her -- even after no defense seems possible.
Modern horror is either dumb (carloads of gory zombies, 'sensitive' romantic vampires) or so clever/tricky that it resembles a video game in a labyrinth (The Cabin in the Woods, Drag Me to Hell). It Follows confronts a realistic, low-key group of teens and younger 20-somethings with a simple but disturbing supernatural curse. It's related to the kind of horror story exemplified by the M.R. James / Jacques Tourneur 1957 masterpiece Night of the Demon. In that story, an evil necromancer summons forth a giant demon from hell to destroy the enemies of his cult. He passes to the intended victim a strip of paper with runic symbols on it, so the demon knows whom to rip to shreds. The only way the victim can save himself, is to pass the 'runes' to some other poor unknowing soul.
It Follows' Jay finds herself in a similar situation. To live, she must victimize some unknowing person, as Hugh did to her. But the curse is more complicated than that. It's not a satanic murder tool; there's no way of knowing what the source of the evil might be. I'll spell it out more in a
The movie reveals the curse in a perfect way. Jay soon realizes that Hugh isn't lying, when she sees people coming for her, that nobody else sees. In a supremely simple shot, Jay looks out the window of her junior college classroom and sees an old woman in a nightgown coming for her, straight in a beeline. Nobody else notices her. When the kids drive to the lake, the phantom shows up a few hours later, as if it walked (not ran) the entire distance. The phantom continually changes form, so every time a new figure appears on the screen -- anywhere on the screen -- our blood pressure gets a bump. In one weird shot, Jay sees a naked man standing atop her house, as she drives away. Hugh tells advises her to never go into a room with only one exit.
It Follows is easy to lay meanings on, even though director Mitchell keeps things admirably neutral. The door is wide open for a critical sexual judgment, for if one stays celibate, they'll remain safe. Sex is continually on these kids' minds, and nobody seems to admit that it's a big deal. The kids talk sex, and openly discuss whom they've slept with. Yet, even though the mechanics of the phantom curse point to a judgmental conclusion, the movie delivers no direct message that the phantom wants to destroy sexually active teens. Sex is part of everything, and the show just accepts it. Jay's friend Paul (Kier Gilchrist) is probably a virgin. He would surely like to sleep with Jay, but he also wants to prove his love by sharing her problem. Jay has slept with Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the boy down the street. He sleeps with her now in the hope of proving 'the curse' to be nonsense.
I see the film's curse as more of a food chain horror, the idea that one cannot be neutral and passive in life, but instead must prey on others to survive. In this circumstance having sex with someone is an awful betrayal of human values, not a mere moral infraction. The movie is uplifting in that Jay's friends don't abandon her; perhaps she's lucky that she's so popular. Leaving the origin of the curse unexplained is the film's best decision. Not knowing is always scarier. When the curse can be traced to a specific source, as in Ringu/The Ring, we can get an emotional handle on the problem, compartmentalize it. Well, that's what seems to make It Follows work better for me.
Do any of these kids really enjoy these relationships? What really saves the show is that, even if we feel sorry for the kids' state of sexual disaffection, we care intensely what happens to them. This is because they stick together. Writer-director Mitchell somehow keeps the adults out of the story without losing functional credibility. Although we do see what happens to another victim or two, despite the threat of gruesome disaster the movie has a positive bent. These kids are a bit slack but they aren't unmotivated or cynical. They're willing to fight the phantom. It Follows is not a Friday the 13th succession of dull murder scenes. In horror invention, it's right up there with Halloween. It might actually be an improvement on the Carpenter film -- I have a feeling that it'll be almost as engaging the second time through.
The acting is impressive; nobody is forced to behave in any way but naturally. Maika Monroe conveys gnawing fear very well. I know neither actress would want to hear this, but at times Ms. Monroe's looks (is she going for that M.M. monogram?) remind me of the interesting Chloe Sevigny.
David Robert Mitchell knows exactly how to keep his show on the rails. Shots are slightly formal, observing, creeping about, but not making the camera too active. Chase scenes might be subjectivized for a few seconds, but there are few Sam Raimi-ized shots, no blackjack cinematics knocking us about. Mitchell uses his wide frame to keep us checking the background at all times. Is everyone we see acting normally? It's scary when we think we've spotted an approaching phantom. The 'boo!' moments feel like a loss of control -- one can't be perpetually vigilant. The music, credited to Disasterpeace, is really a 'tonal mood monitor' that sets the film's fear heartbeat. The score soon becomes subliminal in a way opposite to normal musical underscoring. When we're alert, looking for threats, we're highly suggestible. This 'music' seems to amplify the tension, like Bernard Herrmann's electronic effects in the otherwise music-free The Birds.
It Follows isn't conventionally supernatural. Mitchell does drop in bits of literary quotes referring to death, that are too brief to be annoying. The reflexive aspect comes when we realize that Paul, the butt of his sister's jokes, seems to be dictating the movies they watch on TV -- first W. Lee Wilder's Killers from Space and then the Soviet/Peter Bogdanovich rehash, Planet of Prehistoric Women, whichever Planeta Bur variant has Mamie Van Doren in it.
Anchor Bay's Blu-ray + Digital HD of It Follows looks great in a home theater, from the first dark, rich pan around a suburban Detroit neighborhood (the kind most young people no longer feel they'll ever afford to live in). The show has an excellent, unaffected visual surface, which I'll credit to cameraman Mike Giulakis. Pros roll their eyes when I praise films made with the Red digital camera systems, but I have to say that I 'like the look' very much on this picture and the Soderbergh epic Che. Much of the critical praise I've read for It Follows is attached to the music score, which comes across very nicely on this encoding. The film's talking scenes never seem false, but the spirit of the show is in its nonverbal sequences, when we watch Jay and wait for visual clues that, you know, something's gonna happen.
More evidence that David Robert Mitchell is a class act is in the extras -- he doesn't offer a commentary. We're instead given a commentary track in which Scott Weinberg hosts a roundtable of online critics, horror experts. They're a bright bunch of gorehounds. There's also a featurette with the composer, Disasterpeace, a trailer, and a modest poster art gallery.
It Follows is recommended. I liked it the first time through, and am looking forward to seeing it again.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. As Hugh explains, now that he's had sex with Jay, she will be targeted by the creepy phantoms, not him. But he has to tell her what's going on, because if she doesn't pass on the curse and is killed, the phantom will go back to the last person in line, in this case Hugh himself. The only way Jay can evade being slaughtered, is to find some new person to victimize.
Offhand, it seems like the obvious solution is for Hugh and Jay to work as a team. It's certainly in his interest that she pass on the curse. But, should sequels elaborate on the mechanics of the curse, I'd think the whole concept would diminish in interest. It would become a quantifiable 'problem,' not an irrational nightmare.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.