In horror movies, it sucks to be young. Our minds and our bodies are beginning to get adjusted to so many scary things and then you have to deal with some fool with a butcher knife or a ghost with a 200 year-old axe to grind. It’s hard to grow up, but it’s even harder when it comes in the form of outward forces that we can’t explain – we get enough of that from the natural world. Kids in horror movies have gotten a raw deal ever since that chainsaw business back in the early 70s, and we find that the best of the genre seems to lean on this idea.
David Robert Mitchell’s oddly titled new horror exercise It Follows is no different. The kids are dumped on from beginning to end, but the difference is that there’s a method to all the madness. They aren’t just pawns, they are actual human beings forced to deal with the unexplainable. Mitchell’s genius is that he creates a dark mood and tone, and the feeling that something is around every corner and emerges from a place no one can quite explain. He’s a born filmmaker whose efforts here got him noticed – the film was widely praised at the Cannes film festival last year, and I’m happy to say, it was earned. Unlike most films in this genre that feel like fish food hammered together based on whatever seems popular at the moment, this is a movie that was put together with care – somebody wanted to make this movie.
It Follows is built on a premise that is almost fatally ridiculous but you don’t mind so much because the movie is put together with breathtakingly ambitious filmmaking that evokes a sense of fear and terror even when nothing is happening. It takes it’s horror from the simple but unsettling notion that even when all is peaceful and calm, someone is watching.
It Follows is a movie that might have found good company back in the 70s and 80s when filmmakers – newly free from the strangulation of the production code – were not only able to experiment with new kinds of explicit content but with mood and tone and a sense of dread. That was the age of Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Carrie, Halloween, The Shining and Poltergeist. We are reminded of the spirit of those films because it builds it’s supernatural terror from a foundation of reality.
The movie opens in a quiet suburban neighborhood with the camera planted in the middle of the street. The camera swivels around to a middle-class cracker box house from which emerges a young girl who is obviously scared out of her mind – something is chasing her. In a few short moments, she gets in her car and drives away. At a shallow spot in road, she calls her father to tell him goodbye and the next morning – well, you can guess.
Our focus shifts to a different girl – broody young Jay Height (Maika Monroe), a pretty blonde with gangly limbs whose 20 year-old youth ebbs somewhere between the end of budding teen years and the beginnings of the mysteries of her own sexuality. There’s nothing typical about her. She’s got a lot on her mind, and we can see in her eyes that something is going on – perhaps the terror that the kid years are ending and the real world expectations are about to begin. That’s the least of her worries, especially when she accepts a date with sort-of hunky Hugh (Jake Weary), a good-looking but dorky kid who tries and fails to hide jangled nerves – he takes her to a movie but bolts when he thinks he sees someone staring at him.
Hugh’s eccentricity is not enough to keep Jay from accepting a second date so they go out for a drink before she (consensually) surrenders her virtue in the back of his car. What she doesn’t know is that Jay is cursed, and has passed the curse on to our heroine. That’s right — the curse is sexually transmitted. But! But! But! Just wait! Before you shut down this review in a fit of jaded cynicism hear me out. What happens to Jay is not based on plot but on blistering paranoia. She sees entities, dead people who approach her at a walking pace and never seem to stop. They come in through windows, across fields, down the beach, from everywhere, at any time, at any place. Worse is that sometimes they don’t come at all. At times she sees several dead people, at times she sees nothing. She never knows where they will come from or in which form they will take.
What makes It Follows so special is that director David Robert Mitchell has deep-fried his movie in an almost crushing atmosphere of dread. Every frame of this movie is steeped in dark tones, bare-bulb lighting and an electronic score that seems to be piped in from Mars. He has so much confidence in his tone that he hovers on long scenes of fields and parking lots and windows. We expect to see something emerge. Sometimes it does, many times it does not.
This is a beautifully shot, but unsettling movie to experience. Mitchell lingers on long shots, of grassy fields, parking lots, dirty houses, and long corridors. We remember little details like tin cans, a beach chair, a telephone, a blade of grass. The movie’s production design is not slick but made up of filthy rooms, dingy corridors and open spaces. Much of the movie is seen through Jays eyes, and we feel her terror. Young Maika Monroe – an actress that I am unfamiliar with – gives a wonderful performance as a young woman whose problems of youth are doubled by the terror she experience from the curse. She has an expressive face with eyes that reveal feelings that she doesn’t express in words.
In many ways, It Follows reminds me of the early films of Wes Craven (particularly the first Elm Street), only this film isn’t quite as plotted as Craven’s work. Much of what happens once the curse is set in motion is left to the filmmaking, not the writing. Much of Jay’s journey is helped along by her high school friends who take her at her word that something wicked this way comes. Mitchell keeps the viewer at arm’s length and seems unwilling to hold our hand. We don’t get inside Jay’s head but we feel more like we’re standing next to her. We’re in the room with her and her friends as they hear noises outside. The friends are not standard movie types, but specific individuals who seem to exist in Jay’s hemisphere as classmates who are on the verge of moving on with their post-high school lives – this is a movie very much about time and place.
The third act does get a little gimmicky as the kids try and confront the curse on a physical level. That part of the movie seems a little hokey. The movie works best when the dread is suggested rather than confronted. Still it ends on a terrifyingly reasonable note suggesting an endless vicious cycle. Life goes on and so, apparently, do the dead.