One of the great critical surprises of 2014 in the cinemas was Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, an independent Australian horror picture that received rear rapturous acclaim from critics and audiences alike. It was not widely seen (though a release on Netflix Instant streaming next month should fix that), but those who did catch it were reminded of what the horror genre can do when it has not be devolved into an endless parade of cheap get-rich-quick found footage movies that dominated the multiplexes after the surprise success of Paranormal Activity. The horror genre is capable of so much more than that, and sometimes it can be easy to forget its true potential. Following quickly on the heels of The Babadook is writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, another independent horror feature that has received incredible buzz leading up to its impressively wide release from Radius TWC this weekend. Is this the time for which horror fans have been waiting?
The film concerns the plight of Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary). After a planned visit to the movies is cut short by Hugh fretting over a woman whom Jay cannot see, the couple consummate their relationship in the back of his car. Things take a turn for the sinister, though, as Hugh chloroforms her and ties her to a wheelchair in order to let her in on his secret. There is, it seems, an otherworldly force that has been stalking him, inevitable and undeniable. It takes on human shape, though changes that shape constantly, and murders its charge if it catches him or her. The only way the force can move on to new prey is for the marked victim to have sex, at which point it moves on to its next target. Hugh is protective of Jay despite making the active choice to doom her, as the force will revert to its previous charge once it dispatches its current one. Desperate, frightened, alone and fighting against an enemy no one can see but her, Jay must rely on a group of friends, Paul, Greg, Yara and Kelly (Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Olivia Luccardi and Lili Sepe), while she contemplates whether to pass the curse onto another poor soul
The horror genre has always had a unique relationship with the morality of sex (think of Cabin in the Woods and its notion that the whore is always the first to die), and It Follows certainly takes that concept and places it in the front and center. The villain is a sexually transmitted disease made flesh (well, sort of flesh), though its mortality and inevitability makes it feel like David Robert Mitchell is specifically angling at HIV. The film does not approach this idea from a hectoring perspective; Jay as a character is being punished, but her punishment feels more like the random hand of fate than some puritanical rejoinder against premarital sex. The morality that does rear its head is something altogether more subtle and interesting. Jay’s dilemma is a terrible one, mortified by the prospect of passing it along to friend (though both Greg and Paul seem up for the job) or stranger alike, especially considering that she’ll be right back in the thick of things if the new victim is claimed. It is a refreshing twist on classic horror tropes, and one that consistently pays dividends.
Mitchell’s technical bona fides are proven again and again over the course of It Follows’ 100 minutes. He has a keen sense for camera placement presenting an arsenal of enjoyable shots and angles. He feels like a natural despite having no history in the horror genre. His staging of the action (working with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis), with a heavy reliance on medium shots and long takes that feature plenty of negative space behind its characters and slow, agonizing 360 degree pans, creates a natural tension that grows magnificently throughout its second act. With an aggressor who can look like anyone at any time, an aggressor who does nothing but walk, slowly but purposefully toward its prey, everyone in the back of every shot could potentially be this foul spirit. Alongside the help of an excellent John Carpenter-esque throwback synth-soaked score from Rich Vreeland, Mitchell cultivates a tone of suffocating dread that mounts inescapably as Jay’s psyche frays under the constant pressure of never knowing true safety. Culminating in a fantastic, harrowing sequence set at a local pool (perhaps a reference to Let the Right One In?), Mitchell knows exactly what his goals are, and accomplishes them with self-confidence and passion.
Horror films rarely reach the heights of It Follows. The beauty of its execution lies in how it subverts the expectations of the genre as it goes, pointedly leading the audience into presumed terror only to pull back at the last second, teasing and tantalizing with the prospect of the unknown. A lesser filmmaker would turn its malevolent force into something of more contemporary horror, the jerky, unnatural movements established by Japanese films of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, brought to American shores with The Ring. David Robert Mitchell takes no shortcuts, offering a fresh and thoroughly original entrant to the genre. John Carpenter is in his DNA, and he does seem to have a place in the recent indie horror movement alongside Ti West (The House of the Devil) and Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) and Jennifer Kent, but It Follows is a case of the cream floating to the top, a flawlessly stages and wonderfully acted incisive and intelligent masterclass of suspense. This is not simply a good horror film, the sort of backhanded compliment given by those who have no real interest in those sorts of films. This is a good film, nay, a great film, full stop, the sort of polished, engaging emerging work that makes its audience stand up and take notice. It Follows heralds the true arrival of the year 2015 at the cinemas, and it presents a tough act to, well, follow.