We’ve had The Evil Dead, Insidious, and The Conjuring. Last year’s The Babadook smashed into theaters and became required watercooler talk for genre junkies and horror fans. BBC critic and horror aficionado Mark Kermode named it his top film of 2014. Each release came with the branded praise of being the best horror in ages, a lofty claim if it wasn’t for the bloody genre suffering from a steady stream of pandering let-downs and disappointments. Anything close to a good horror pic screams for attention, and often gets it, just by the virtue of being a diamond in the dirt.
It Follows, the latest film by David Robert Mitchell, has been called the best in ages, the best in years, and the top horror of the decade by some, seemingly forgetting its aforementioned and acclaimed brethren. Consequently, horror hyping is easy but not always deserved, and It Follows is closer to a double than a home run. If it qualifies as a top-tier horror film, it isn’t by its own merits, which impress without blowing you away.
Carefully constructed and with a strong sense of internal logic, It Follows is a clever use of genre as tactical storytelling. A virginal but very cute young girl, Jay (Maika Monroe), is seeing a new, handsome guy who has a car that makes him the automatic kind of cool. On a date that references the wonderful ‘60s caper Charade, the guy freaks, identifying a girl in a yellow dress that wasn’t there. We know what’s coming, but here’s the tricky part. What most critics will tell you, I won’t. I walked into my screening blind, knowing nothing of its premise or plot— something I do more and more. Instead of describing the particulars, I’ll say there’s a ghostly curse transmitted through sex, which is both the only way to save yourself and entrap others. We have a rulebook to follow, hardlining tense sequences of trying to work out strategies of both defense and attack. Jay and her best friends are off on a Steven Moffat adventure bore from hell’s gate, where the line between gimmick and inspired idea is thin but daring.
Literal ghost figures aside, the villain comes from universal fears. Everyone feels the fear of being followed, the sensation of an inescapable invisible presence you can’t perceive through your senses but your brain nevertheless warns you is there. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell goes further, turning our fear into a clever narrative device that allows for much in the way of inventive scares. When scouting the area for the it in It Follows, the difference between friend or foe is imperceivable, eliciting a fight-or-flight response that forces distrust in everyone. The illusion of safety pervades, with false safehouses and moments of contentedness that play on the quiet-loud habits of horror. Mitchell controls his movie with a knowingness of his chosen genre, and there are delights in how 360 degree panning shots and eerie lateral cinematography command suspense more than the jump scares of today.
John Carpenter’s early work with Halloween and even Assault on Precinct 13 is felt in every small town house, dirty, low-class street, and point-of-view monster shot, often thrown together for contrast. It Follows plays like a well-chosen mixtape of genre favorites, and the flow of music is impressive (to say nothing of the actual synthy score, which is appropriately atmospheric and effective). To indulge the metaphor, the disc is front heavy, and starts to lag around tracks seven or eight. The first 45-50 minutes are tight, focused, and blend slow burn suspense, you-got-me scares, and genuine terror like De Palma did with Carrie. The rest is haphazard and random, possibly intentionally, as the kids are faced with how little they know about their foe, and ultimately, themselves. The climax has deliberately dubious logic (as Mitchell himself notes), but it undermines the potency of the moment. As set pieces become less and less frequent, a final jolt can’t uplift the weight of undercooked pacing. Screenwriters hate this critic cliche, but another pass on the script might have been redemptive.
The flexibility of horror gives genre hallmarks an agility to master strong thematic issues, and the heightened atmosphere of It Follows personifies the vulnerability of youth. As a youthful parable, Mitchell’s writing excels, presenting a Scooby Doo team who must defend themselves and unravel a mystery. Equally concerned with homage as it is with reinventing, classic tropes (like loss of sexual innocence and going into adulthood feeling unprepared) are key concerns. Parents are ominously absent, making this primarily a kid-centric film about coming of age. The minimalist script has startlingly little dialogue, brought to life with a refined sense of visual literacy, and it also has an underwritten story and narrow characters that luckily have charismatic leads in Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Jake Weary, and Daniel Zovatto.
Mitchell’s real triumph is a cohesion of style and substance, where the inevitably of growing up is echoed in the ghost’s relentless nature of haunting every bit as much as it’s echoed in the dialogue. Jay’s early-film date laments his age and wishes he could return to childhood, as well as a later scene when Jay reminisces when she was a young girl and fantasized being old enough to go on dates. Scary, taut, and allegorical, It Follows is the horror highlight of 2015 (so far).
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