Film Review – It Follows
Writer/director David Robert Mitchell taps into something special with It Follows (2014). With minimal use of gore and bloodshed, Mitchell has created a truly terrifying film. This is not your standard horror fare. It’s smarter, more deliberate, more thoughtful, and better executed than others. It does everything backwards from what we’ve seen in modern slashers or ghost stories. The narrative takes its time, examining themes from a psychological standpoint. The attraction is not from a visceral level where characters have their heads chopped off, spraying blood everywhere. No – the effectiveness lies in how Mitchell puts us into the mindset of the characters, asking us what we would do if put in the same situation. This is one of the rare horror movies where the effect grew on me after I saw it.
It starts with an inspired opening. In one unbroken shot, an unnamed girl runs out of her house and walks on the street looking behind her at something we do not see. She nervously moves around the street, back into the house, grabs her keys, jumps into her car and drives off to the bewilderment of her family and neighbors. In essence, the girl made a complete circle around the street and back to her home. This appears to be completely arbitrary, and for a moment I was confused as to why Mitchell would begin in such a way. But examined within the context of the whole story, we realize just how jarring the scene is.
We then move on to meet our protagonist Jay, played with full commitment by Maika Monroe. Jay is your everyday high school teenager growing up in the 80s, concerned only with hanging out with her friends and meeting cute boys. She finds a potential love interest in hunky Hugh (Jake Weary), but things take a turn for the worst. After having sex in the back of Hugh’s car, Hugh incapacitates Jay with chloroform. She wakes up tied to a wheelchair, but not for reasons you may think. Hugh does this to show her that…something…has been following him. Now that they’ve had sex, he has passed the curse to Jay, with “it” now following her.
The conception of “it” is nothing short of brilliant. Instead of a monster charging at a victim with reckless abandon, this one simply walks. It never moves faster, it never moves slower, but it never stops moving towards you. It can take the form of complete strangers, or those closest to you. If it manages to kill its target, it will simply go back to the previous person in line, forever moving in its deadly pursuit. The possibilities with this set up are enormous. Instead of increasing the pacing, Mitchell brings it down. The slowness of how the demon chases after Jay is unnerving. Some of the biggest moments of suspense are when the camera is placed in a wide shot with people walking in the background. We find ourselves shooting our eyes around the screen to see if we can spot the demon before it’s revealed to the characters. No matter how fast or far Jay runs, she knows that sooner or later it will catch up to her. The mental anguish this causes is substantial.
What does this all mean? Is the film a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases, like AIDS? Where did the ghost/demon/monster come from? What does this say about sexuality in cinema? The beauty is that Mitchell leaves all the explanations out. He provides enough information for us to make our own interpretations, but doesn’t provide easy answers.
Maika Monroe fills the role of Jay with the requirements of a “scream queen,” but injects enough humanity to make her feel like a regular person. Her actions and decisions are never out of place, and when she goes to the extreme it comes from desperation instead of for shock value. She’s more grounded than most movie teenagers, and can exhibit real fear when called upon. The way she displays her confusion, fright, and exhaustion shows a true range in acting talent. Hopefully her work here will be a springboard for more opportunities down the line.
This feels like a throwback. The mood and atmosphere calls to mind movies such as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Rich Vreeland’s heavily synth-tinged score also has a retro 80s vibe. This is not to say that Mitchell shortchanges us on the blood and guts. There’s a good handful of that to appease those looking for more gruesome elements. And of course, there are jump scares and fake outs, as is the norm of the genre. But what separates this is Mitchell’s thoughtfulness when putting all the ingredients together. Everything appears to be added in with a purpose, not to meet a “scare quota” but to slowly build toward a final breaking point.
It Follows trips at the high point scene with a payoff that isn’t as good as everything that came before it. But by then, it generated enough trust with me that I could forgive that shortcoming. This is not just a well-made horror film; this is a well-made film in general, just like You’re Next (2011), Sinister (2012), The Conjuring (2013), and The Babadook (2014) to name a few. The sophistication and patience Mitchell exhibits shows a maturity we desperately need more of. He understands the enjoyment of horror is not just in the climax, but also in the foreplay.