By Alan Mattli
Like the best horror films, It Follows is literally the stuff of nightmares. Based on the recurring anxiety dreams he experienced as a teenager, writer-director David Robert Mitchell expertly tells a haunting story of paranoia and primal fear that stands tall among this decade’s best entries into the horror genre.
After having sex with her boyfriend (Jake Weary), college student Jay (Maika Monroe) learns that he has passed on a supernatural curse onto her: a mysterious shapeshifting entity, which only she and other “infected” people can see, now follows her at a walking pace, bent on killing her. The only way to deter it is to have sex with someone else; if it kills that person, it will once again target her.
In purely narrative terms, this premise does not yield any groundbreaking surprises. As the silent creature makes its attacks, Jay enlists the help of her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and her friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), with whom she concocts escape plans and even countermoves.
But the truly horrifying quality of It Follows lies in the oppressive atmosphere of dread that Mitchell creates, consciously drawing on what genre specialists like John Carpenter and George Romero as well as more mainstream directors like Alfred Hitchcock or Sydney Pollack have done with the topic of paranoid fear. DP Mike Gioulakis’ camera often is intrusively close to the characters, while at the same time betraying a preference to depict teasingly wide open spaces in the background. The at times frighteningly dissonant soundtrack, composed by 8-bit musician Richard “Disasterpeace” Vreeland, is a masterpiece of expressive minimalism, perfectly imagining what Bernard Herrmann’s scores would have sounded like if he had at the height of his artistic abilities discovered the synthesizer as his instrument of choice. There is a playful blending of the old and the new at work here, which makes for a film that signally knows its creative roots but refuses to be shackled and defined by them.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the set design – that element of filmmaking which has always been a prime harbinger of a landmark, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Alien. Something is fundamentally wrong about the way this movie looks, and it is not just the result of Gioulakis’ unsettlingly sharp imagery, nor the crumbling streets and buildings of suburban Detroit, where the film takes place. Ten or twenty minutes into the story, it slowly becomes evident that It Follows deals in an eerie kind of narrative distortion, where it’s actually impossible to tell when it is supposed to be set. While Yara is repeatedly seen reading e-books on a futuristic-looking touchscreen phone, she and her friends also seem to watch nothing but old black-and-white monster movies on 1950s television sets. A local cinema shows 1963’s Charade. Everybody’s vehicle of choice is a 1970s station wagon. Jay’s room is garnished with decorative lamps that evoke nothing if not the fashion of the Reagan era. In short, It Follows seems to be potentially set in roughly every decade since the end of World War II and nowhere in particular at all.
This crooked sense of chronology – another feature so many nightmares share – opens up a fascinatingly suggestive range of ways in which Mitchell’s film can be read. At a very basic level, there is the most obvious approach; that the sexually transmitted curse of the following entity stands for exactly what this phrasing implies: “it” may well be a supernatural rendering of sexually transmitted diseases – the classic pop-cultural bane of every high school and college campus. “It follows”, then, takes on a cannily evocative double meaning: not only does the STD incarnate follow its victim; but, if the title is read as a callous statement of inevitable fact, such a visitation is a logical conclusion of the sexual act.
Thus, It Follows suggests a subtext beyond the strictly literal “this means that”. Indeed, it seems that it is sexuality itself, and humanity’s troubled, coded, euphemised, displaced relationship with it, that is at stake here. Sex, in true psychoanalytic fashion, is presented as the comrade as well as the antithesis of death: survival (passing “it” on) and demise (receiving “it”) are but two sides of the same coin; just as in life, procreation, by creating a new generation, both defeats and heralds death. Moreover, with his prominent aesthetic invocation of the time between the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Internet age, combined with the motif of relentless, deadly, sexually connotated pursuit, Mitchell appears to pick up on the AIDS threat and, by extension, the connate shunning of sexualities that are perceived as “deviant” by the public at large.
Freudian themes, too, find their way into a movie that employs familiar horror tropes with an often uncanny effectiveness, most notably in the forms the entity takes on: there is a half-naked, disheveled, urinating girl, who possibly signifies a rape victim; a phallically tall young man with what look like gouged-out eyes; and, in its climactic disguises, “it” even haunts its victims as parental figures. Even more intriguingly, the fact that numerous shots highlight the omniscience of the camera gaze, sometimes going as far as equating it with the entity’s line of sight, ostentatiously places the viewer – in an echo of Peeping Tom – in the position of the murderous “it”.
Ultimately, however, It Follows can be taken to address something even broader than sexuality, namely the basis of all horror – fear. It is more than mere atmospheric showboating when Mitchell, by way of camera movement and music, delays a dramatic setup, or leaves it unfulfilled altogether. What he depicts is an America that has patently ignored and forgotten Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous dictum, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. As Jay’s panic intensifies, she, and in turn the audience, increasingly comes to distrust everyone but her closest friends; several extras are slyly used as decoys, walking towards the protagonists only to be identified as regular pedestrians as they pass. The confused temporal setting feeds into this as well, because it points to the temporary fears that have underpinned American society at least since World War II – from the Red Scare to the Manson Family, from government espionage to AIDS, from terrorism to cyber snooping, it is implicitly unmasked as a culture of pure paranoia.
Yet, beyond its virtually unmissable sexual dimension, the movie never clearly commits itself to opening up these interpretative rabbit holes. On the visible surface, it always remains a brilliant, hair-raising horror mood piece, whose more conventional scares work, and stay, in the moment. But the questions that follow stick around for a good long while.
★★★★★½ (out of six)
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