Talking Movies: David Robert Mitchell’s ‘It Follows’

It Follows

Now showing at Sycamore Cinema

Writer and director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows hits many of the notes that are by now (beyond) familiar to horror aficionados — it is, in part, a good summary of the horror movie tropes of the last 25 years or so. The film includes a relentless stalker, the thematization of teenage sexuality, a handful of fake-out jump scares, unseen-but-material malevolent beings, scary children, heroes who make terrible decisions and a moment of shocking gore. But this rather typical assemblage of tropes and characters belies the film’s originality, which consists more in the effective and often unique way these elements are deployed.

In the film, Jay (Maika Monroe) is a college-age girl who still lives at home with her younger sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and her mother (Debbie Williams), although we see only brief glimpses of the latter, or any adults, for that matter. The cast of characters is almost entirely Jay’s neighborhood friends and their little siblings: Paul (Keir Gilchrist), the shy boy that’s always been in love with Jay; Yara (Olivia Luccardi), his little sister; Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the resident bad boy; and Hugh, the boy she’s been seeing lately.

As it turns out, Hugh is not as great a guy as Jay and Kelly take him to be. Having slept with Jay for the first time, he reveals to her that he has transmitted to her a sort of supernatural STI: From now until she sleeps with somebody else, she will be relentlessly, if ploddingly, pursued by a creature only she can see, and which can take the forms of different (but equally abject) people. If the slow-moving creature manages to catch and kill her, it will then begin killing all the other people whom it has followed, beginning with Hugh.

The “high concept” plot as described here comes off as a bit hokey, and even conservative, suggesting an allegorical story about venereal disease and the dangers of sleeping around. But the film’s not so easy to pigeonhole. For one thing, there are the seeds of a feminist critique of the cultural forces of sexual shaming here, as the film focuses on the psychological effects of this male-induced haunting, which begins to turn Jay from a young woman with sexual agency and control into someone at the will of a pernicious, inscrutable and sexually defined force.

Secondly, as regards the hokiness — It Follows is just terrifying. Apparently based on a recurring series of nightmares Mitchell had about a figure who slowly stalked him across dreamspaces, it is an often chilling and highly suspenseful condensation of the irrational, unconscious fears and the social anxieties that many of us share. At times, it does veer closer to bald clichés, evoking moments from the already-staid Paranormal Activity films and the Japanese horror films of the last decade. But the force of its central concept carries it through these moments, and it never stops being smart, effective horror.

The film’s sophisticated use of horror-film stylistics also makes it effective. It exploits the limited space of the frame and the camera’s field of depth to create the dramatic irony that’s a necessary component of good suspense: Aas characters talk unawares in the foreground, we frantically scan the screen for slowly approaching figures from the background, which may be out of focus or glimpsed only briefly. Although this is a familiar device from slasher films (“Watch out! He’s right behind you!”), it’s reinvigorated here by the fact that the monster might be just about anyone in a given crowd, inducing the spectator to conduct an even more nervous, paranoid surveying of the screen space.

Some of the more moody, eerie effects of It Follows rely heavily on the film’s representation of its setting: a suburb just on the other side of the Detroit city line. After Jay is infected, so to speak, the teenage clan’s investigation into the monster’s origins bring them across the city line to North Detroit, which is largely abandoned, full of hauntingly empty houses that speak not only to a class divide, but an historical one. The film as a whole seems to take place in an uncanny fusion of time periods: although the little sister of that boy has some sort of make-up case smart phone, the characters watch only black-and-white B-movies on televisions that seem to be out of the mid-’70s, and if you’re attentive, you might notice the rented VHS tapes sitting on the end table in the boy’s house.

It’s tempting to see the callbacks to ’50s monster movies and VHS tapes only as part of the film’s self-reflexivity, tracing its own lineage back to cheesy sci fi (where nondescript pronouns like “it” often name the monsters) and the VHS boom of the 1980s. And the film’s sophisticated play on the tropes of horror are undoubtedly why it’s generated so much buzz as this year’s must-see horror film.

But unlike one reference point for some of the film’s advertisements, 2012’s brilliant Cabin in the Woods, the central target isn’t necessarily the horror film. Its anxious representation of youthful sexuality turned violent, its strange representation of post-industrial (and almost all-white) American suburbia, its uncanny combination of historical periods — these things make me think the film’s got bigger fish to fry, and its mysterious evocation of these topics ensures we’ll still be talking about this horror movie years from now.