Sexually Transmitted Horror ‘It Follows’ Will Scare The Pants Onto You
With his second film, David Robert Mitchell has unearthed that rare thing: a brand new horror premise with the primal kick of a campfire tale.
Since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, It Follows—the second film from director David Robert Mitchell—has come to be anointed by critics as a new horror classic. Scott Tobias, on The Dissolve, calls it the “best American horror film since The Blair Witch Project”. In New York Magazine, David Edelstein wrote that it gave him a “so-upset-I-feel-sick kind of amorphous dread”. Even the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, champion of all that is refined and urbane, fell for its charms.
Released in a small amount of US theatres in March, it garnered such a good per-screen average income that its distributor Radius delayed the expected video-on-demand release, in favour of expanding the film around the country – a striking mark of confidence in what is essentially a low-budget genre flick.
Although the film had a buzz-building showing at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year, it looked set to go straight to video in Australia, as such films usually do. But now local distributor Rialto is giving the film a small release around Australia, offering local audiences the chance to test its fright quotient under the best possible conditions: a crowded theatre, filled with dozens of screaming strangers.
It Follows is the real deal. Mitchell, who wrote the screenplay as well, has unearthed that rare thing: a brand new horror premise with the primal kick of a campfire tale. After teen protagonist Jay has sex with her new older boyfriend, he chloroforms her, ties her up, and forces her to listen to the rules of the curse that he has just passed on.
An evil spirit is now stalking Jay: advancing at a steady, walking pace, it hunts its victim until it has them in its grasp, whereupon it dispatches them brutally. It can take the form of any person—even friends and family—and can only be seen by its intended victim, and prior recipients of the curse. The surest way to be rid of it is to pass the curse on through sexual contact, but once it has claimed its victim it resumes its predation back along the chain of transmission.
With it’s young cast, suburban streets, and menacing, synth-heavy soundtrack, It Follows has something of the feel of an ’80s slasher flick – especially the early work of John Carpenter, like Halloween. In fact, stylistically it’s a far cry from the post-Blair Witch model of found-footage horror, or the recent torture-porn faze. Between scares it even lapses into a dreamy, teen-movie hangout mode reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, or the work of Richard Linklater.
But it’s also genuinely terrifying. The film sustains a low-level ambiance of dread throughout; the threat always seems to be just out of sight, or in the next room, or—given the ingenious premise—it might be any one of the random extras milling around in the background.
When the ghoul does creep too close for comfort, Mitchell ramps things up in a couple of suspense set pieces that show off an immaculate technique. Like Australian export James Wan (known for the Saw and Insidious films, and, now, the latest Fast and Furious), Mitchell has a keen grasp of the classical essentials of horror filmmaking.
Shooting in a spacious, widescreen format, he has a knack for maximising tension using only careful camera placement and framing. He also makes good use of the negative space and general aura of desolation offered by the film’s Detroit setting. In this sparsely populated world, the sudden appearance of a distant figure is that much more uncanny.
Attentive viewers will note that when the thing comes closest to conquering its victims it takes the appearance of their mother or father – a highly unsettling psychosexual detail that Mitchell neatly underplays, but which lingers in the mind. Flourishes like this are evidence of the wealth of thematic potential backed into the film’s premise.
In a post-Scream (and post-Cabin in the Woods) world, even casual horror viewers are familiar with the genre’s central tropes, especially that of the ‘final girl’ – the virginal heroine who is usually the sole survivor of the killer’s rampage.
It Follows riffs off this idea—here, having sex is the precondition for being in danger—but it also dismisses the punitively conservative approach that so many horror films take to sexuality.
The sexual metaphor at the heart of Mitchell’s film a multi-faceted one, and he transitions it through multiple incarnations as the dramatic stakes of the narrative evolve. Observers who try to pigeonhole the film as a commentary on the AIDS epidemic, or STDs in general, are missing some of its thematic richness.
As she scrambles for a way to avoid her fate, Jay has to grapple with the consequences of trying to pass the curse on. And, given her blonde good looks, some of her male pals are a little too eager to take up that burden. Here the dirty deed—as it might in real life—takes on multiple meanings: it can be a guilty act; a self-sacrifice; an escape; a comfort; a literal life-and-death pact – in short, it possesses all the messy, complicated feelings that come with being a sexually active adult.
By tethering his film’s threat to sexual activity, Mitchell lends a new weightiness to teen movie narratives of virginity and hook-ups, as Jay and her friends are forced to face up to the way that sex makes emotional, social and ethical bonds that last a lifetime – however short and gruesomely truncated that lifetime might turn out to be. In It Follows, the real unknown isn’t the evil spirit that ushers its protagonists into the crucible of maturity: it’s what comes next.
It Follows is in select cinemas from Thursday April 16: Cinema Nova in Melbourne; Luna Leederville in Perth; Dendy Newtown in Sydney; Palace Barracks in Brisbane; Palace Electric in Canberra; Palace Cinemas in Byron Bay; and Palace Nova Eastend in Adelaide.
It will be making its way to The State Cinema in Hobart on April 23.
James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. His work has been found in The Big Issue, Meanland, Screen Machine, and the Meanjin blog. He tweets from @jamesrobdouglas