Boiling terror down to essentials can be a winning formula for horror films: the phone call in Scream (1996), or the video tape in The Ring (1998). Perhaps, the best example is John Carpenter’s 1982 remake The Thing, with its shape-shifting alien lurking amidst the blank spaces of Antarctica. With a similarly unspecific title, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) has the kind of barebones high concept that is beguiling in its simplicity and is realised in a rich and artful manner. Jay Height (Maika Monroe) is a young college student, living in Michigan, hanging out with her friends, drifting, a kind of sad thoughtful beauty.
It’s as if one of the protagonists from Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999) survived, and, like them, Jay is also an obscure object of desire for the local boys. “I know you’re watching,” she says as she lazes in the pool. One night she goes on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a nice if jumpy young man who nevertheless gets on well with Jay and, following an abortive date at the cinema, they end up having sex in his car. Afterwards, he knocks her out with chloroform. She wakes up tied to a chair in her underwear, and the scene is set for some kind of torture porn nightmare, but Hugh, it turns out, isn’t the enemy. Hugh explains that he has been under a curse and the only way of getting rid of the curse is to sleep with someone and pass the curse on to them – in this case Jay. Now Jay will be pursued by an entity (the ‘It’ of the title); it will be slow but remorseless and deadly.
The film’s prologue has already shown us the graphic results of being caught. Like Carpenter’s monster it can change shape, mimicking people Jay knows, but it can’t be seen by anyone but her, and us. At first unwilling to believe the story, Jay reports the assault to the police but when she notices a old woman walking towards her at school she freaks out and confides in her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friends, Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist) – the latter has an unrequited crush on Jay. With the help of cool neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the friends gang together to help Jay track down Hugh and try to get to the bottom of the curse and find a way to defeat it. It Follows promotes the subtext of most horror films into the text. The fear of intimacy, sex and sexually transmitted diseases can all be read into the curse without the curse ever losing its primal power. It’s a kind of blank signifier as well as a nightmare come true.
Although obviously influenced by Stephen King’s novels, John Carpenter and late seventies/early eighties slasher pics, Mitchell’s film is never beholden to those antecedents, eschewing the ironic genre-busting of The Cabin in the Woods (2012) for something much more straightforward and sincere. The film is set in a familiar anachronistic movie hinterland of old fashioned cars, tree lined suburbs and the kind of parentless childhood that a young Spielberg might have been interested in recreating. The long takes and perfect framing – Michael Gioulakis’ cinematography makes full use of the wide screen – give the film a certain beauty, but one in which danger lurks in the distances or at the margins. Informed by the plight of the characters, we as viewers become acutely aware of our own watching, our own following even as we try to spot the next apparition of ‘It’. Inevitably a sequel is now in the works, but for the moment It Follows stands as a clever and original modern horror movie, which will lurk in your mind for some time.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty