Among its other considerable achievements, David Robert Mitchell’s ‘It Follows’ ticks the two most important boxes required of any great horror film: it is fiercely original and genuinely terrifying.
The film’s premise is an affliction that has been best described by film critic Timothy Wainwright as a ‘supernaturally transmitted disease’. After consummating her love to her boyfriend, teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) is forcefully told of the curse she will carry forever unless she passes it on to someone else through coitus. She is shadowed by a demon that takes the form of random strangers and sometimes very specific people in her life. Her friends spend the majority of the movie trying to discover the truth about the spirit, but she desperately tries to remove the phantom the carnal way.
Obviously, the source of the film’s terror is a metaphor for the fear of sex and intimacy many teens face in high school. But the movie also serves as a fantastical cautionary tale about the dangers of entering the adult world – a world which, even after she’s had sex, Jay is not privy to. Adults are almost always kept out of full view of the audience. When Jay is interviewed by a policeman after the film’s inciting incident, she is sitting on her front porch looking up at him and we do not see his face. We barely see her mother’s face in a few out-of-focus shots. This is done deliberately to keep our main characters, all teens, isolated and insulated from the outside world so that they have to rely on each other and their own limited knowledge of real maturity to combat Jay’s shapeshifting specter.
The visual storytelling doesn’t stop there, though. As director, Mitchell makes great use of his wide shots, putting almost every character in total isolation at some point. Nobody is more isolated than Jay. As she discovers how disturbing her mythic followers can be, she is totally alone, both visually and from a story perspective.
The audience is also isolated in a sense. The unraveling of the mystery of Jay’s attackers is handled in a beautifully minimalistic way, eschewing conventional genre trappings in order to focus on atmosphere. For instance: Jay goes to another high school to investigate the real identity of ‘Hugh’, her former boyfriend and the one that passed the curse on to her. As she flips through a yearbook with a faceless adult, the camera leaves them and stops in a hallway. We proceed to spin around the hallway, seeing a seemingly random girl walking directly towards us from outside a window, getting closer and closer with each look back. Is she one of Jay’s supernatural stalkers? We may never know.
‘It Follows’ also wrestles with its own thematic impulses by reinforcing its setting. Our protagonists live in suburban Detroit, but they must venture out into decrepit downtown. In the suburban scenes, they often become jaded from the paralyzing boredom of their hum-drum existence. But the city represents their worst nightmares: the unknown, the world beyond their parents’ rulebook, growing old.
A climactic scene towards the end of the film isn’t the most visually frightening, but it does show the teens’ devotion to one another. Their plan to kill the apparition is foolhardy at best, but it endears us to their loyalty. If only we all had friends like these in high school.
It’s rare these days to see a slow-burn horror film so fully invested in atmospheric creepiness that waves of anxiety literally pulsate from the screen as you’re watching it. But that’s what happens when you see ‘It Follows’. It’s not just a bunch of cheap jump scares. The movie is seriously haunting on many levels because its mood, pacing, storytelling, and visual sensibility all work in concert. If you’re looking for this year’s must-see horror film, look no further.
– George Napper