In the wake of the success of Hideo Nakata‘s 1998 masterpiece, Ringu, the horror landscape was dominated by the ‘curse’; victims inadvertently passed a virus of sorts, usually a vengeful ghost, and are given a limited timeframe to resolve the mystery before it can claim their life or more potential victims. A huge amount of Asian horror cinema followed this formula, and it didn’t take long for the American market to get involved; either through remakes or original works, such as Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell.
Like all good things, the formula eventually ran dry, and both audiences and filmmakers moved on to find the next big scare. On paper, It Follows sounds like it picks up where those films left off; but what if the rule book got chucked out the window along the way? What if there was no easy explanation or understanding to the events that unfold?
Coming from a somewhat broken home in a bad neighbourhood in Detroit, Jay (Maika Monroe) lives with her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), and their alcoholic mother. Their childhood friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) spend most of their time hanging out, watching TV, or sleeping over. Jay has met a new guy, Hugh (Jake Weary), and gone on a few dates, but is hesitant to take things to the next level with him. One night, while parked in a quiet part of time, she decides to go for it; after having sex in the back of his car, Hugh suddenly drugs her, and when she awakens, she’s tied to a wheelchair in an abandoned building. Hugh says he isn’t trying to hurt her, but he needs to do this so she’ll believe him: moments later, a nude, silent, walking figure emerges from the shadows, moving towards her. Hugh quickly pushes Jay from the building and bundles her into his car; terrified, he explains that he has passed ‘It’ onto her, that no matter what happens or where she goes, ‘It’ will always follow her, and she can’t allow it to catch her. The only way to break the curse? By passing it on to someone else through sexual intercourse, but if that person fails to pass it on, the curse will come back to her.
Jay’s friends and family believe that Hugh was a psychotic trying to scare her, but the police can find no trace of him. Soon after, she begins to see strange figures slowly walking towards her; is Jay losing her mind? After her home is invaded by one of these figures, Jay tries to run away, but her friends want to help, along with the bad boy neighbour, Greg (Daniel Zovatto). The five head off hoping to buy some time, but like all curses, it follows…
What makes It Follows so damned effective is just how confident director and writer David Robert Mitchell is that his material is scary. He effortlessly casts aside many tropes and conventions that have been dogging the genre for years, and allows the characters to be ‘real’, and not just stock fodder to hang scares on. There’s no jocks, no cheerleaders, no ‘sluts’; just raw humans wanting to save their friend from the terror that is plaguing her. Jay herself is delicate and sensitive, but no slasher trope who is being punished for losing her virginity; the girls discuss sex and past partners in a way that is honest and refreshing for a horror film, and it’s never used to simply tick boxes for the ‘tits and gore’ crowd.
This plays into the horror itself; there are no cheap jump scares or CGI ghosts, just a palpable sense of impending dread. Any scares that do happen are worked hard for; Mitchell has done a superb job of making a distant, walking figure as terrifying as anything we’ve seen in the last twenty years in the genre – more so, in fact, due to just how ‘ordinary’ it is. The paranoia and claustrophobia recalls classics such as Night of the Demon and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers; there is no place to run or hide from your fears. There are plenty of visual and psychological cues from other horror films, too, such as Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but instead of an instantly recognisable villain in the shape of Michael Myers or Freddy, we have something that could be disguised as a stranger or loved one. The fear is a primal one; sex and death are portrayed in ways seldom seen in horror films; with the subtext being wide open for interpretation of STD’s, sexual shaming among teens and social media.
Not simply content with throwing out the tropes in his script, Mitchell has also done it in terms of visuals. One of the major sore points I have with modern horror films is just how obviously horror it all is; everything from the lighting, camera angles and sound design just screams ‘HORROR!’ at the top of its lungs; it means we are already on guard, we know scares are coming, and it paints the genre into a corner that isn’t doing it any favours. It allows the audience to become complacent with horror, and that’s a terrible thing to happen. It Follows is shot like a modern indie film; gone is the horror lighting and obvious visual clangers that let you know exactly what to expect in the coming 90 minutes. The soundtrack by Disasterpeace is pounding swirl of electronic synths and rhythm, it’s quite unlike anything I’ve heard on a film recently. The on-location shooting in Michigan, Detroit, is effective; it becomes the flip side of Haddonfield, with ruined houses and rabbit-eared TV sets instead of white picket fences and perfect lawns. The performances all fall in line with this sense of reality; both Monroe and Gilchrist shine in particular.
It’s a shame then that there’s a misstep or two in the final act to drag the mood down slightly. A lengthy sequence towards the end seems unnecessary, and while it offers some new information on unravelling the mystery for yourself, it feels like this information could have been incorporated into the rest of the film and the sequence dropped altogether. Some of the editing feels at odds, too; the scene in which the gang confront Hugh, for example, feels as if it was missing some dramatic beats, which possibly ended up on the editing room floor. I can understand why they might have been left out, but still, it results in a few ‘off’ moments. And while the climax doesn’t offer the resolution many might hope for, it comes back down to the basics of what makes good horror; can you ever really escape from your fears?
If unconventional horror is your cup of tea, go see It Follows on its theatrical run; it’s stylish, smart and downright scary. We need more films like this in our beloved genre, and it has been a long time since I squirmed in my seat from so little on-screen. It’s a future horror classic that deserves to be listed alongside the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween in the decades to come.
It Follows opens on the 13th of March is the US, and is on release currently in the UK.