Sometimes you have to strip back the horror to make a horror movie work. It Follows does that to thrilling effect, keep gore to a minimum and the threat of it at a maximum. It plays on the fear of an unknown presence following its victims. There’s no dwelling on rationalizing beyond the idea that the presence is deadly, it takes on the form of a lumbering, catatonic person and it begins haunting victims after intercourse with anyone who already has it following them.
This marks the second feature film by writer/director David Robert Mitchell, who made an impression in the world of indie teen drama with The Myth of the American Sleepover in 2010. Now taking on the genre of teen horror, Mitchell understands how to write likable young characters and balance confrontational scares with the terror of a presence always on the move. It’s the latter notion that works so well and keeps the suspense buoyed throughout the film. Even when the entity is off-screen, it has a presence. As amiable as his characters are, the background has as much payoff as any action or banter in the foreground.
Mitchell establishes the mystery in a twisted, tense opening sequence featuring a young woman frantically running for her life in short silk pajamas and high heels in a suburban neighborhood, with no pursuer in sight, and a pounding, screeching industrial score enhancing the unease. Whatever is chasing her must be near but remains unseen. Her neighbors outside, doing banal things like washing a car, give her puzzled looks before she gets into a vintage sedan and peels off. Sitting on the shore of a beach, she phones her parents for a final, desperate goodbye and a plea for forgiveness of all her trivial, dumb actions. Her car’s tail lights illuminate the brush and trees behind it in a bright, blood-red glow. Its headlamps shine on her in harsh light, falling far short of lighting the void of the ocean behind her. Darkness and what lies beyond is the film’s star, after all. A smash cut, and we are hit with daylight and the victim’s lifeless wide-eyed face, a cut to a more distant picture, and we see her lifeless body has been unnaturally bent, a heel pointing at her face.
It’s a great moment of establishing the danger that lies for the film’s protagonist, doe-eyed Jay (Maika Monroe, who looks like a younger version of Greta Gerwig). As with all horror films, the rules that the entity lives and stalks by eventually come to light, but no rationalizing of its presence undoes the terror of its almost random appearances. That it materializes with Jay’s sexual blossoming reeks of all sorts of implications of end of innocence. However, Mitchell never veers into the realm of exploitation, showing respect and genuine endearment for his characters, who all come across as sympathetic.
Mitchell also shows respect to a purist notion of horror that the film mines for its scares. It Follows is ultimately about the dread of the unseen. It’s in the nameless pronoun of the title, after all. And there are no safe places from the unknowable threat, as it remains unrelenting in its task to grab Jay and do who knows what to make her into a human pretzel. It’s the unease of that looming fate and the lack of security anywhere from anyone that feels consistent in the film and taps into our primordial concern about the unknown. It’s a smart play on elements that made the 1980s versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing so good.
Speaking of older horror films, the production design of It Follows has a strange, vaguely familiar quality of era for those familiar with its predecessors. Though a few characters have cell phones and one of them has an e-reader in a compact, Jay and her friends watch campy black and white horror movies on old tube TVs and almost everybody drives sedans from the 1980s or 1990s. This gives the film a surreal quality out of the films of David Cronenberg. The dreamlike atmosphere of this incongruously dated era also recalls Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Mitchell plays with viewer’s associations with these greats to infuse the film with a subconscious yet familiar sense of fear.
Its roots in 1970s and 1980s horror cinema is further enhanced by its synth-based soundtrack by Disasterpeace (Berkeley-educated video game music composer Rich Vreeland working on his first film score), which owes a lot to Goblin and John Carpenter. Its hybrid industrial/new age melodies are cheeseball chic. But, like the film’s narrative premise, it works best when it’s stripped to screeching or rumbling drones instead of overdosing on the schlock, which, the music sometimes does.
Even stronger than the film’s score is its cinematography, both in what the camera shows and what it doesn’t. Beautifully shot by Mike Gioulakis, who did stellar work last year on creating atmosphere with light in a film few have seen but should called Lake Los Angeles (it made my top 20 of last year), the look recalls the films of Dario Argento. Light and shadow vary constantly, complimenting each other throughout the film. The actors all seem lit from the center and shadows often loom in the distance. Even better is the frequent use of a slow, drifting zoom in many of the movie’s shots that adds a sense of an omniscient gaze between the moviegoers and the characters on-screen. The sense of its presence is always there.
It Follows is one of those conspicuously directed films that never looses momentum and will be hard to forget. But the best thing to note about the film is that it harnesses the potency of mystery to grand effect. There are no subversive twists that upend the film’s logic. The entire concept is a well-maintained variation of the genre that finally will not insult the viewer’s intelligence but tap into their primal sense of fear.
It Follows runs 100 minutes and is Rated R (for horror with sexuality that all works for the film and veers from exploitation). It opens everywhere today, Friday March 26. The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review, which is the only indie cinema in our area showing it. For other locations across the U.S. go here and put in your zip code.