Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard earned dollar.
It Doesn’t Think. It Doesn’t Feel. It Doesn’t Give Up
In spite of its patient, dreamy narrative, It Follows opens as so many horror classics before it, with a bang. Wearing little more than pajamas, a beautiful young woman springs from a quiet house in the early hours of a gray fall morning. Panicked, she ignores offers of aid from a neighbor and her father. She stares intently, watching an unseen entity before jumping in a car and speeding away. Later, she sits alone by a lake … waiting. In the midst of a tearful phone call, her fearful gaze returns, then shifts to a look of fatal acceptance. The next image we see is her broken, lifeless body on the shore.
The agonizing energy derived in the opening moments of It Follows permeates every frame of Writer/Director Mitchell’s tale of anti-lust. We don’t know what happened to the nameless girl, but when we meet contemplative, kind-hearted Jay (Maika Monroe in a breakout performance), we understand that it’s about to happen to her. When Jay’s relationship with Hugh (Jake Weaver) finally becomes physical, Jay lays in the throes of afterglow, reminiscing about her adolescent notions of love. Her quiet life takes a turn for the worse when she is chloroformed by her would-be beau. Waking in a haze and bound to a wheelchair, Jay listens as Hugh explains her frightful predicament. Something is going to follow her. It can look like anyone. It’s slow, so you can run and buy yourself some time … but it will never stop and it will always find you. The only way to save yourself is to pass it on through intercourse, but even that comes with a catch. Hugh lingers just long enough to prove to Jay that his wild tale is true. Dumping the half-naked waif on her front lawn, Hugh skips town and It Follows unfolds in a haze of sex, fear, and confusion as Jay desperately searches for a way to save herself.
All You Can Do Is Pass It On
Let’s face it, murderous spirits are scary. So are STDs. While I’ve seen dozens of unsettling films featuring each of those elements over the years, it never occurred to me to blend them into the same story. With ghosts being too fantastic and STDs too realistic, it sounds like a terrible idea. Somehow It Follows makes it work. Equal parts suburban cautionary tale and supernatural chase thriller, Mitchell’s screenplay finds a stealthy balance in its equally terrifying subjects. Sex is rarely rewarded in horror films. It’s certainly never been both curse and savior. As Jay’s world spirals out of control, Mitchell carefully builds a sense of dread into Jay’s ever-waning choices – and it is her choice to pass the curse on or not. Through each escalating encounter – spirit or human – we feel the gathering weight of that choice as it threatens to crush Jay’s mind, body, and soul.
Mitchell’s screenplay and film succeed by positioning those stakes in an exceedingly patient movie. Artfully pacing the spectral camerawork of Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, Mitchell builds a desolate pathos in It Follows’ dark corners. Credit Mitchell and Gioulakis further for framing every scene of their film in a manner that manipulates the viewer’s gaze toward the spaces just beyond the actors in frame. Scanning the distance or the shadows, we unwittingly search for an ever-present menace just on the horizon. Sometimes that danger is there. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s alarmingly close. The fact that we feel it either way is It Follows’ greatest success.
Yet much of the film’s success is owed to classic horror films that came before. Disasterpeace‘s gloriously synthey score pays homage to John Carpenter’s musical oeuvre. It also adds an additional layer of dread to It Follows‘ pitch-black atmosphere. Carpenter’s own Halloween (1978) is the most obvious influence over Mitchell’s style here. Particularly in his execution of slow-footed villainy. Michael Myers wasn’t scary because he was after you. He was scary because he wouldn’t stop coming … and he never, ever ran. Sometimes a continuous threat is more frightening than an imminent one.
Eschewing cheap thrills for well crafted scares, Mitchell finds fertile ground for fright in restraint. Tension calmly builds as a slew of lumbering bogeymen sluggishly pursue Mitchell’s heroine. They walk, and walk and wait for a mistake. And mistakes will be made. The moments between attacks are as potent as the attacks themselves. In his attackers, Mitchell again takes a restrained approach. Rather than populate It Follows with gory monsters, pursuant ghouls are painted as plausibly defiled humans. Their spiritless stares are the only thing betraying their otherworldly origins. But what of those origins? Mitchell’s script wisely never explains the curse’s ground zero. In the film’s chilling final moments, Jay and her friends know about as much as they have all along. The lack of knowledge is a defeat gracefully betrayed in Jay’s steely gaze.
Behind that gaze, newcomer Maika Monroe announces herself as a star in the making. Taking center stage after years of supporting service, Monroe finds a compelling balance between confidence and innocence in the contemplative Jay. Mitchell seems happy to let his actress’s deeply emotive eyes do the heavy-lifting for Jay’s emotional journey. Joy, lust, confusion, and terror flash through Monroe’s pale blues with an alarming ease. You almost wonder why Mitchell wrote dialogue for Jay at all, but he has too much fun with Jay’s social circle to leave her without a voice. Surrounding his star with a cast of unknowns, Mitchell creates a charmingly authentic band of outsiders. Mitchell has dabbled in the moors of teen life before with his lovely first film, The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010). That movie told a naturalistic tale of teens fumbling through a world of absentee parents. It Follows unfolds in a similar vein, though Jay and Co. feel more abandoned than ignored. Alone in a world that has betrayed them, the beleaguered companions have nowhere to turn but to each other. If horror movies have taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing more dangerous than teenagers making difficult decisions.
You bet. If you’re looking for some spooky Halloween viewing this weekend, look no further than It Follows. Behind a star-making performance from Maika Monroe and a dreamy shroud of anxiety, It Follows tacitly achieves what too many horror films fail to – authentic fear. That alone makes it worth your dollar this week and sets it lovingly amongst the classic films that inspired it. Unnerving in its bleak execution and dramatic fatalism, It Follows is that rare horror film that gets inside of you and refuses to leave you alone … no matter how far you run.