Like 2014’s The Babadook, It Follows is an independent horror film made by a relative newcomer (though, in this case, It Follows’ writer/director has only one other film in his resume) that manages to become a highly praised critical darling through its many festival runs. The writer/director in question is David Robert Mitchell, whose previous picture is The Myth of the American Sleepover back in 2010. One interesting thing about the film is the release. It was meant to have a very limited theatrical release as well as an On Demand release. However, the film did so well in its theatrical opening weekend (specifically $163,453 in four theaters) that Radius-TWC decided to expand the release to over 1000 theaters and ditch the VOD plans. The film follows Jay (Maika Monroe), a teenage girl, who goes on a date with a man that results in a curse being passed onto her, which took effect after a sexual encounter.
The thing about the film that strikes you first is easily its visual prowess. The cinematography and synth-heavy music by Disasterpiece take many cues from 80’s horror, most obviously from John Carpenter. Shots are composed in a very calculated sense, with many of them being wide shots that capture a sense of emptiness with impending doom. Occasionally, you will see a figure in the background that may or may not be the entity stalking Jay, and it makes the film an incredible work of suspense filmmaking that isn’t utilized as much these days. This is combined with effectively used handheld camera moments and one particularly intense scene with a static wheelchair cam-rig. The various pans, zooms, static shots, even the editing and pacing are very reminiscent of older horror films from the eighties, but it never comes across as gimmicky or empty. It’s a well-executed technical homage that gives the film a unique identity, despite a sense of familiarity. What helps is the rather unique production design of the film, which keeps the time period of the film’s events ambiguous. A house would have a small TV’s like those from the 70’s, yet we only see them play B-movies from the 50’s; add onto that a device used by Jay’s friend, Yara (Olivia Luccardi) which seems to be a small tablet that she occasionally reads from. There are some interesting and deliberate design choices like this everywhere, but it is well done and never feels distracting.
So, while it certainly excels in its technical qualities, it’s really the screenplay that truly impresses. The film has an unusual conceit that doesn’t quite hit you as odd until you really put some thought to it. David Robert Mitchell shows that he is knowledgeable of the horror genre, and uses its various tropes to his advantage, applying certain twists that keep the story interesting. The film is not just a horror film, it’s also a teen/coming-of-age film of sorts. It simply uses the horror elements to open up the film on a thematic level. Sure, there is the rather obvious STD allegory, but it’s too surface level, it doesn’t go anywhere, and quite honestly it’s the most boring way to read the film. The smartest decision by Mitchell, in writing the script, is through understanding what elements are to remain ambiguous and when to keep the rules of the curse vague. It keeps the film just simple enough to allow various interpretations of the film’s themes. I mostly picked up on the theme of adulthood and dealing with the responsibilities of growing up. For example, during the date in the beginning, Jay has a more romanticized vision of her relationship with Hugh (Jake Weary), but as the film goes on, she is more careful about her decisions, for which the ramifications and consequences are clearer to her. This is physically manifested through sexual activity, the way in which the curse is passed on. It’s a natural occurrence, and many consider having sex for the first time a life-changing experience to a degree, but there’s a certain responsibility that comes with that, which is almost never clear for any teenagers who don’t know what they’re in for. This is one of the things that I found with some of the theme of maturing and dealing with adulthood.
There are also ample opportunities to analyze what the curse means. The deal is that when Hugh passes the curse to Jay, she will begin to see a supernatural force in a human form that will stalk her. Jay cannot let the being get too close or it could end in a very disturbing way. The being appears in many forms, and I think you could look at each version and have a different take. One of the first time she sees it, the form is off an elderly woman. This could be interpreted as Jay’s fear of growing old, of losing that youthfulness she holds so close and becoming something she doesn’t even recognize. Each form could be seen as a fear, anxiety or an inevitability that is deeply rooted in primal fears that any teenager would be able to identify with. Adding to that effect is the sense of isolation. This is done not only with the often wide, but empty frames, but with the fact that aside from a couple of scenes, you rarely see any parental figures or even any adults for that matter. It emphasizes the daunting sense of heading into new territory as adults. This is practically stated during one particular scene where Jay and her friends are going through the inner-city, where many houses and places of businesses have been abandoned. They talk about how, as kids, have been told to never go to that area, but they are going now as adults facing the dangers and realities that they would have otherwise not have been prepared for. There is more that the film offers, but it is worth it to see for yourself and pondering its many themes and ideas firsthand.
Now, the screenplay may be great, but it ultimately boils down to the performances to sell the drama and horror of the film. Thankfully, the film has a relatively small, but very talented group of young actors who are able to bring enough dimensions to their characters to ground the film in a way to get you to care about the situation. Keir Gilchrist, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto, Olivia Luccardi and Lili Sepe all do a fine job with their supporting roles, but it is Maika Monroe as the lead, who comes out on top. Her performance shows vulnerability, complexity and intelligence. It’s an excellent follow-up to her promising role in 2014’s The Guest, and quite honestly, she’s only a few movies away from being a cult icon/scream queen for today’s generation.
It Follows is an incredible and original work of filmmaking. It manages to speak on the level of today’s younger audiences despite its unabashedly retro roots. David Mitchell Roberts is able to take something that could have come across as silly and unintentionally hilarious, but through genuinely smart and human writing and careful, yet visceral direction, he turns the unusual ideas of the film into a thematically rich and intensely creepy and suspenseful horror film. It’s the kind of film you can watch multiple times, and find some new way to look at it each time. While I do think the film does go down a notch when the special effects begin to take front and center, it is by no means a deal breaker, and it is still supported by a great cast led by a brilliant lead performance from Maika Monroe. Like The Babadook (which I’m sure is unfortunately going to be pinned against this film online as a sort of pointless competition), It Follows takes a look back at the history of the horror genre and use elements of the past to say something new in an interesting and uniquely modern way.