Released: 27th February 2015
Directed By: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe
As a genre, horror cinema undoubtedly relies more heavily on its tropes, clichés and stereotypes than any other. The most tiresome horror films regurgitate ideas and themes that have existed for decades without finding a fresh way to present them. The best examples of the genre find ways to subvert these tropes, to examine and unpick them, and will occasionally invent new stylistic devices of their own. It Follows, the new film and first foray into horror by director David Robert Mitchell, is a rare and fascinating example of a movie that relies upon the generic conventions of the past while simultaneously attempting to subvert them.
The film presents the type of high concept premise that marketing execs must drool over. Our protagonist Jay, young and beautiful with an effortlessly cool veneer, sleeps with a guy she has been dating following a particularly peculiar night out during which he appeared to be seeing people who weren’t there. While she dreamily picks flowers following their vehicular fumbling, her date drugs her and ties her to a wheel chair. He then explains that he has passed on a curse, that Jay is going to be followed by something, something that will take various forms, that she must not let it touch her, and that the only way to stop it is to sleep with someone else and pass it on to them. He apologises, proves he wasn’t kidding, dumps her in the street and disappears.
Of course horror cinema has always been obsessed with the corrupting influence of pre-marital sex. It Follows’ wicked premise allows the film to openly acknowledge this history while adding to it, expanding upon it and turning it on its head. While the classic slasher films of the 70s tended to spare only the virginal, the curse in It Follows dictates that the only way to be saved is via carnal relations. The way that Jay is constantly stalked by something that often looks like a stranger, but at times takes on the guise of family members and friends, hints at the pressures associated with sex when we are young. The threat of STDs, the way society judges promiscuity in females and the looming influence to be sexual active as a teen all leer over the film and ensure that it has thematic, intellectual depth, something that is sorely lacking in the vast majority of contemporary horror.
Stylistically, It Follows’ director David Mitchell shows a canny awareness of the importance of oddness in great horror cinema. From the outset the film lays out an atmosphere of eerie disquiet, of the uncomfortably offbeat. The action appears to take place in a confused time period, where organists play in the cinema, people only watch black and white films on blocky, fat TV sets and yet Kindle-like devices exist and fashion is ultra modern. The score also plays a key role in creating an off kilter sense of dread. Dreamy synths glide over lingering photography in the film’s early scenes, before the tension and scares are ramped up and the sleepy score gives way to circus-like, deliberately overbearing electronica. Disasterpeace, the group responsible for the soundtrack who also scored the genius, indie hit video game Fez, deserve credit for creating a soundscape with a singular vision that harks subtlety back to Goblin’s seminal work for Dario Argento.
It Follows isn’t all about ethereal film making and psychosexual underpinnings though. There are traditional jump-scares aplenty, which act to the film’s detriment and its benefit. It’s a little disappointing that a movie that has such a unique and direct vision and seems to pride itself on unravelling conventions eventually needs to rely on them, but the scares are genuinely effective and the audience I sat with reacted vociferously to them.
It Follows has been described as Larry Clark meets John Carpenter. As I took in the illusory photography and hazy soundtrack though, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching Sofia Coppola directing a script by Wes Craven. It has all the atmosphere and thematic depth we associate with the former combined with the knowing wit and genuine frights made famous by the latter. What this means of course is that the film belong to no one other than David Robert Mitchell and his team, and while there are many influences and inspirations bubbling under the surface, the film is a unique concoction and its greatness lies in how fresh and vital it feels. Horror can never truly escape the mire of genre convention, so it must toy with it, tease us with it and occasionally submit to it in order to be successful. In this regard, It Follows is an uneasy, skin crawling success.