Many of the the very best horror films resonate with us because they systematically destroy our idea of a sanctuary, a place that we can return to for safety when threatened. Often this is achieved by turning the house where the protagonists live into a place where terrors thrive: it could be a newly-purchased property (as per The Amityville Horror or Insidious) but more often than not the abode has been owned for a considerable period of time and has been lived in comfortably for the duration (The Exorcist, Poltergeist, Halloween); and whatever form the threat takes it’s a safe bet that it’ll home in on the most private of rooms: the bedroom. Some directors have taken this kind of invasion idea even further: Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street has its antagonist appearing within an otherwise-secure household by repeatedly interrupting the intensely personal space of the dream, for example.
Within American horror films of the last thirty or forty years these haunted houses, or houses where terrible things happen, have tended to be in suburban settings. They’re usually found in leafy and affluent neighbourhoods, i.e. the kinds of places where crime rates are low and gruesome events are rare, if not completely unheard of. It Follows, the second film by writer-director David Robert Mitchell, offers a modern take on this oft-seen horror trope; its very first scene shows an unnamed girl darting frantically out of the front door of her house in her nightwear, petrified of someone or something that has obviously been stalking her within the building. People all around – the kind of dads who wash their cars / mow their lawns of a Saturday morning and the kind of kids who seem to do nothing other than ride up and down the street on bikes all day long – are shocked by what this interruption of mundane normality, and ask her if she’s OK. But she seems wary of these familiar neighbours – perhaps for good reason based on what we subsequently discover – and even of her own father, who does not understand why she is spooked. But whatever it is she is running from is so bad she can’t stay put in this safe-looking street, and we see the character drive to the beach (the terrorised female characters of It Follows routinely head towards water, whether it’s back garden paddling pools, the sea or a municipal swimming pool, and it’s a very ‘feminine’ element, representing most obviously the notion of purity and being cleansed). The idea of evil taking over the ‘safe place’ manifests itself repeatedly throughout Mitchell’s film: his ambiguous final scene takes place in a similar street to the one in the opening sequence, on a similar kind of day, and featuring similar kinds of teenagers. We are left wondering whether it is actually safe for them to walk on the pavement or to stop and chat with neighbours, and we are also left considering the specifics of the film’s looming danger.
Mitchell doesn’t allow his principal character Jay, played effectively by Maika Monroe, to enjoy any kind of sanctuary in this story. The same threat apparently stalking the girl seen at the beginning is in turn passed on to Jay, transmitted through sex by her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary), who isn’t quite the guy he initially seems. Jay is told that the titular ‘It’ will be coming to kill her in an unspeakably violent fashion; ‘It’ takes the form of a person but could be absolutely anyone, even friends or family members, and will be walking towards her slowly, and relentlessly. This means that for the duration of the rest of the story Jay simply cannot rest and relax, and her character becomes understandably more frantic before mental and physical exhaustion begins to takes hold. As well as her own house other establishments that we would typically expect to be safe – a public swimming pool, a hospital, a school – offer no protection. And another problem is that only Jay can see ‘It’ coming … though her friends are quickly convinced that she is telling the truth.
The most obvious reading of It Follows suggests that ‘It’ is a metaphor for a sexually-transmitted disease. Perhaps the story is an analogy of the initial AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and there’s an argument that the film’s retro-leaning style, which repeatedly brings that decade to mind, complements such an interpretation. However ‘It’ could just as easily be interprteted as being representative of sexual hang-ups, which might explain the slightly odd fate of one character here, or it could represent other illnesses or even a more general sense of mortality. Death looms large throughout the film, and is not just manifest by the presence of ‘It’; characters read telling passages from Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, while the sense of temporality is clearly defined: It Follows is set during autumn, a time where the natural world seems to be slowly dying, or at least gathering itself to survive for another year. Then there’s the early, bizarre conversation that takes place between Jay and Hugh while they’re on a date at the cinema, where the latter hints at his own fear of dying (though later we discover there are more specific reasons contributing to this 21-year-old’s morbid state of mind).
Mitchell has made several commendable stylistic decisions. Perhaps best of all is the inclusion of a number of long shots, each of which has you scanning the edges of the screen and every point within the borders of the frame, desperately trying to figure out if you can see ‘It’ before Jay recognises the danger. Some of these shots are peopled, though never intensively, and the eyes occasionally lock on to a figure slowly walking toward the camera in the background; at other times Jay enters a quiet, unpeopled environment – a deserted park at night, for example – and we watch the distant trees and bushes, expecting a figure to come through at any moment. It’s a very effective technique, and there are red herrings that add to the fun, but it is extremely unsettling when you do manage to spot the slow-moving figure of doom. Such scenes make a nice change from close-up, sudden shocks, though there are some of these in the film too: a figure lumbering into a room when the coast seems clear, for example, or the sudden smashing of a window or door. Throughout there’s a fine, equally-disturbing use of slow-moving Steadicam, as well as fixed cameras that are sometimes rotated slowly so that we can see even more of the environment; at one point a camera positioned on the end of a chair that Jay is tied to stays on the character so that we see her reaction to certain events unfolding off-screen and experience the same sense of nausea).
Rich Vreeland’s atmospheric synth-heavy soundtrack forms the film’s most obvious stylistic link to the 1980s, referencing as it does John Carpenter’s magnificent scores for the likes of Halloween, Christine and Prince Of Darkness (and indeed sounding not unlike Carpenter’s Lost Themes album of 2015). Mitchell’s film also nods to other horrors of the decade by way of the plot, with its clean-cut, scantily-clad teenage girls in peril, the near-total absence of adults when they’re most needed and the way in which it punishes female characters for the simple act of having sex, all of which will be familiar to anyone who grew up with a VHS player and a video rental shop nearby. A man is also placed in a situation of grave danger here, without wishing to give too much away, but it’s overwhelmingly a film where women suffer. It Follows also becomes briefly concerned with the great power and responsibility that comes with the ability to effectively pass ‘death’ on to another person; this may have something to do with two brief, mysterious scenes in the second half of the film — one involving Jay and a boat containing three boys, the other involving her friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) driving past a pair of prostitutes. The characters are contemplating passing on the curse to save themselves, or to buy more time, though it’s unclear as to whether they actually go through with this selfish act. All of which is a long-winded way of pointing out that Mitchell is operating at a higher, more cerebral, more artistic level than most other horror directors, but I like the fact that the clever-clever allegory doesn’t get in the way of the important business of maintaining a sense of dread or scaring the viewers. It Follows is a fatalistic psychosexual chiller that has lingered in my mind since viewing, and I highly recommend it.
Directed by: David Robert Mitchell.
Written by: David Robert Mitchell.
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Jake Weary.
Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis.
Editing: Julio C. Perez IV.
Music: Disasterpeace (Richard Vreeland).
Running Time: 100 minutes.