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March 1, 2015
Within the different realms of genre cinema, horror is certainly the one Hollywood keeps squeezing the most for quick bucks, hence the often disappointing, if not disastrous results of the average fright-fests released on a commercial loop in the last few years. And it’s usually worse if they’re made on a studio level: does anyone remember Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (2010) written and produced by Guillermo Del Toro and starring Katie-cringe-Holmes? Probably not, but if you do it’s because of how dreadful it was.
Thankfully, there are still emerging auteurs out there and when they appear on the cinematic scene they give us hope that the genre is not thoroughly defunct yet. David Robert Mitchell is undoubtedly one of them and after grabbing critics and industry’s attention in 2010 with his feature debut The Myth Of The American Sleepover, the young filmmaker returns with It Follows, an atmospheric and stylish teen horror, starring breakthrough talent Maika Monroe (The Guest), Keir Gilchrist (It’s Kind Of A Funny Story) and Daniel Zovatto (Say When).
In a genre that seems to have already exploited everything in its arsenal and that by default tends to be self-referential and self-humourous, the word derivative might sound like a compliment rather than a critique and that’s where Mitchell’s smart take shines. He chooses to unapologetically focus the premise upon the pivotal element at the heart of every horror film aka something sinister haunting and chasing the protagonist and he even makes a blunt manifesto out of such ordeal with the statement-sounding title of his opus: “It Follows”. And you bet it does!
The talented filmmaker has revealed that the basic idea for the story came from a recurring childhood nightmare about a monster that looked like different people, constantly following him but always being slow in its movements. He cleverly builds the film around such presence stalking sexually active teenagers and sets the action in his native Detroit that’s vividly photographed and becomes an integral element of the story with the stark contrast between the suburbs and the decadent outskirts.
The terror is promptly introduced, or better to say teased, in the movie’s opening where a frightened teenage girl flees her suburban home evidently spooked by something/someone we can’t see but that she’s in desperate hurry to get away from. As a hopeless drive into the dark night leads her to a beach (most likely Lake Michigan, given the setting) she crouches on the sand, her car’s headlights lighting up the deserted place until we cut to the following morning to find her dead and horribly dismembered.
After giving the audience a taste of what’s to come, Mitchell gets to the heart of the story and its players: nineteen-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) is the object of a few boys’ attention and lust, namely skinny and nerdy childhood friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and hunkier albeit seemingly not that bright Greg (Daniel Zovatto) – yet Jay is predictably fascinated by older guys and she’s currently seeing the more navigated Hugh (Jake Weary) though apparently they haven’t done the dirty yet. Add to the teenage mix Jay’s not-so-younger sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and her weird friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) who always tag along and live vicariously and you have a full picture of this typical gang of youth at risk of horror slaying.
Mitchell crafts a deeply affecting sequence for our protagonist’s first acquaintance with the threat that will haunt her for the entire film. At the end of a date with Hugh, they wind up doing the dirty indeed and in typical teen fashion, the hormones fest takes place in his car, obviously parked somewhere isolated and creepy. Whilst you’d expect something happening right in the midst of their steamy action, things go awry post-coitus as Hugh drugs Jay and ties her to a wheel chair. She wakes up later in a parking garage, confused and distressed about what’s going on. Hugh apologizes to her but says it was the only way to hopefully get a shot surviving.
The terrifying figure of a disheveled middle age woman emerges from the darkness and approaches them slowly in some sort of zombie fashion. Hugh, however, doesn’t do Jay any harm as he simply wheels her away from the approaching figure. He just needed to make sure that Jay was seen so that now hopefully he’s passed this sort of evil curse along. And yes, that means the only way to pass it on is having sex with someone else. Now you’re most likely thinking this is an overly on-the-nose metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases. Well, despite every single interviewer has tried to pull that out of Mitchell, the filmmaker has never admitted to it.
One thing is sure: this isn’t a cautionary tale or the oddest yet most original PSA on STDs you’ll ever see. If anything, the youth-chasing evil entity feels more like death itself, as if it was a manifestation of the teens’ newly found awareness that we’re all bound to die eventually and we can’t escape that. Mitchell has noted how he wanted to portray teen confusion typical of that age when you’re close to make the leap into becoming a young adult. And he accomplishes that stylistically by creating mood and tone and setting the story in an undefined time, though some period detail suggests it’s the 80s yet nothing is ever spelled out about it. These teens live in a quasi-alternate dimension reminiscing of a dream-like reality where adults seem to have disappeared since literally they’re almost nowhere to be seen.
It Follows doesn’t reinvent the genre and probably would’ve benefitted from more substantial character development, plus the rules about how the evil threat operates feel a bit whipped up rather than carefully planned hence the climactic resolution is not as convincing as you’d have expected from a film that tries hard to stand out from the crowd. Yet despite these flaws, Mitchell delivers a hypnotic piece that feels stylistically straight out of the 80s with its 360 degrees camera pans and haunting synth score.
The filmmaker hasn’t hidden his evident influences going from John Carpenter to Kubrick and there’s no denying that cinematically, It Follows couldn’t be more inspired. The film though is more than just an homage to the classics of horror cinema. It’s a hallucinogenic daydream that utilizes the genre tropes at their best, creating a claustrophobically obsessive atmosphere (despite the many open spaces) that creeps up on you in Lynchian fashion. Mitchell solidifies his promise as a new intriguing filmmaking voice whilst Maika Monroe just like in The Guest confirms she already has “star” written all over her CV.
It Follows is now out in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and Digital Download
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor