Film of the Week: It Follows
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is—as far as its story goes—an old-fashioned horror film with an immensely simple premise. There is this malevolent being, and if you’re unfortunate enough to become Its target, It will come and get you.* Just what It wants with you, and why, is never quite clear. One of Its victims in the film is killed, with a leg bent horribly out of shape, while someone else suffers a fate that’s differently distressing, not only because of what It does, but because of the guise It takes while doing it (you’ll have to see; suffice to say, things get a little oedipal). The peculiarity of It is that It takes different forms, appearing to victims sometimes as a stranger, sometimes as a person they know: as one person puts it, “Sometimes I think It looks like people you love just to hurt you.”
Sometimes It takes a form that’s inherently scary—not rotting-corpse scary, just creepy, like a hissing rat-faced boy or an alarmingly tall man looming in a doorway. And sometimes It looks like some kid from high school. And crucially, no one can see It except Its prey. Early in the film, late-teens heroine Jay (Maika Malone) and her date Hugh (Jake Weary) leave a cinema in her Detroit suburban neighborhood because of a girl in a yellow dress; he sees her, but Jay doesn’t, and that’s the first, seemingly innocuous chill in this ingeniously subtle film. We never see her either, but somehow the thought of that girl in a yellow dress sends a chill up my spine for reasons I can’t quite fathom.
So the premise is simple: “Wherever you are, It’s walking straight towards you,” Hugh says. But it’s a little more complicated. Essentially, It is a curse that’s sexually transmissible. As Hugh explains to Jay after they have sex, the only way to get rid of It is to sleep with someone else, who becomes Its next target; but if It kills that person, then the curse comes back to you, and if It kills you, It comes for the person who passed It on to you, and so on. Now this setup clearly raises the possibility that we might be dealing here with that old horror favorite, the extended AIDS metaphor—although Its capacity for recurrence makes It Follows more like a herpes horror movie.
But perhaps more teasing is this question of where Hugh’s knowledge, which he expounds with such expert certainty, comes from in the first place. Where does the chain of knowledge begin? Who fucked Hugh and told him what he needed to know to survive? Who did that person get the story from? Who worked out the rules of escaping It in the first place? Whether or not It Follows is also about sex, its underlying theme is communication. Knowledge of It, like the curse itself, passes from person to person, one at a time. It travels in a straight line, albeit a reversible one that runs both ways, all theoretically heading back to a single point of origin—but an origin that can never be located or pinned down because It is a figure of absolute indeterminacy. I sincerely hope that no one ever tries makes an It Follows sequel that explains everything—that would make the whole premise not just less fascinating, but a lot less Derridean.
The whole straight-line business also makes It Follows a rather retro horror story in the sense that only one person, apparently, can be Its target at any time. That would not only militate against this being an AIDS metaphor, but also make it something other than classic “contagion horror”—this film’s curse doesn’t spread virally (as in epidemics, or on the Internet), but only passes on serially. It’s a pre-Web old-school passing-the-curse movie (cf. Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon) and as such, a drama about a moral dilemma: at its core is the question of whether, in order to survive, the prospective victim is willing to make another person’s life hell. This is the quandary facing the altogether sympathetic Jay—one given a piquant ironic twist by the fact that, guess what, there’s more than one guy willing to help out by sleeping with her.
As well as simple-yet-complex, It Follows is also agreeably familiar-yet-original. The premise of the Unnameable Pursuer is a premise explored in its many variations by the great English short-story master M.R. James (1862-1936) whose ghouls tend to be summoned unwittingly by their victims—as in “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’”, one of many stories whose BBC TV adaptations have terrified late-night viewers for several decades (James’s “Casting the Runes” was the original for Night of the Demon).
The distinctive, personal touch to It Follows lies in Mitchell’s fresh, lucid take on youth, suburbia, and the everyday—all familiar American horror themes, but also ones he explored in his widely liked non-horror debut The Myth of the American Sleepover (10). Mitchell’s opening establishes his mundane canvas. We’re on a wide, leafy suburban avenue in broad daylight—the archetypal Elm Street, if you like. A teenage girl in a negligee bolts out of her house in terror, dashes across the street, as the camera pans round to follow her—then rushes back to the house, and suddenly out again. It’s a crazier, more confused path than horror cinema’s usual flight-in-fear—all watched at a coolly detached distance, in a long unbroken take.
There’s another great long take later, when Jay and her admirer/protector Greg (Daniel Zovatto) are looking for Hugh at his high school. Here the camera slowly pans round 360 degrees, sweeping across the ordinary comings and goings at the school—then finally, as if out of the corner of its eye, catching a girl walking towards us in the far distance. The creepy thing about such sightings is that we can’t always tell whether we’ve really seen It or not, even if the figure in question appears to be lumbering inexorably on, automaton-like; some regular people, it seems, just happen to lumber, and this uncertainty principle is cleverly exploited throughout.
At moments It Follows becomes, less suggestively, just a story about a bunch of kids banding together to outwit a demon. There’s a fairly nail-biting confrontation sequence at a deserted swimming pool, and while I enjoyed the tension—and the echoes of Tourneur’s Cat People—I slightly regretted the shift away from a pensive, nervous register into an all-out showdown. It Follows is most effective when teasing you with the unsaid—for example, leaving you to wonder whether there’s any logic to the specific guises that It takes (discussing the film, Mitchell has hinted that there is, but that he’s not about to reveal it).
There’s another ghost story element to the film—the presence of Detroit. The action is set largely in the city’s suburbs, and around a nearby lake; but some of the film heads into the abandoned city areas that we’ve seen in countless documentary photos (and in Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive). Mitchell handles Detroit’s dilapidation poetically and atmospherically, notably at the start, when Jay is tied up in an old car park to have It explained to her (the stills misleadingly suggest torture porn, possibly a devious publicity ploy on someone’s part). But overall the crumbling streets and houses present the city itself as a phantom—as if Detroit and its abandonment are the real Repressed of this horror tale set in cozily sheltered suburbs.
It Follows isn’t short on grace and idiosyncratic style. Michael Gioulakis’s cinematography, more art-house than genre with its eerie pools of light at night, brings an arrestingly static, tableau-like quality that echoes the highly staged scenarios of Gregory Crewdson’s photos, each of them conceived as a horror movie in miniature. Alongside knowing visual echoes of Halloween, there’s a deep vein of John Carpenter in the simple but unnervingly effective electronic score by Disasterpeace, which runs from almost subliminal background booms to crunching, sometime strident dissonance (I’ve just listened to some on my laptop, and even heard this way they’re still deeply troubling).
Then there’s some sweet, emotionally engaging acting. Maika Monroe is a very watchable heroine—tough-vulnerable, intensely likable, if not quite brimming with charisma. It’s actually her gentle, sad-sack admirer Paul (Keir Gilchrist) who’s the most emotionally involving figure. Jay, in her late teens, is the only one of her circle who’s graduated from childhood to being a sexually active adult: her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) apparently hasn’t, neither has their bookish friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who’s constantly reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (and reciting ominous lines) on a seashell-shaped miniature e-reader. Neither has the devoted, poignantly melancholy Paul; Jay gave him his first kiss at school, he ruefully reminds her, but she’s gone on to sleep with guys like Greg, the tough, sexy rebel across the road. Paul, meanwhile, is one of those sad, shy boys who watched the girls they loved at school grow up faster than them, leaving them sexually stranded and emotionally bereft. When Paul shyly offers to sleep with Jay, you cringe a little, and laugh, but you feel for him too: the suggestion is self-serving, of course, but also touchingly heroic. Paul’s relationship to Jay is the tender emotional core of the movie, perhaps even more than her fight to survive—which is partly what makes the film so singular, and perhaps so personal. See it as the story of a heartbroken boy who also can’t help following the girl who’s out of reach, and Mitchell’s film could easily be called The Curse of the American Sleepover.
* I’m using the upper-case “I” because it feels right; echoes of Stephen King are incidental, but I suppose, not entirely inappropriate.