Editor’s Note: This review originally ran during the 2014 Fantastic Fest. We’re rerunning it now that It Follows is in limited release.
David Robert Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover is a movie about the resigning of innocence; the last gasp of youth that is gracefully exhaled before inevitably breathing in the fumes of the adult world. Like American Graffiti before it, there’s an overwhelming sense of melancholia that hangs over the movie’s single night setting, as if the writer/director is mourning the cycle of childhood as it moves into the dawn the responsibility. With his follow-up feature, Mitchell has crafted a natural progression in terms of thematics, only he adds a dash of perverse Cronenbergian genre play, resulting in what may be the defining horror film of this generation. It Follows is a dynamite piece of supernatural storytelling, equal parts touching and thrilling. Though fundamentally the film is more of the same from Mitchell, who is emerging as the premiere cinematic observer of youth in the modern auteurist pantheon.
To synopsize It Follows feels like a disservice to the potential viewer, as this is a movie that is best experienced completely cold. But for those who need to be convinced via some sort of narrative breakdown, the basic conceit is rather simple. Jay (Maika Monroe) is a girl living in Michigan. She has a new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), whom she is considering jumping into bed with. Only once she makes and acts on this decision, Hugh transmits to her something far worse than any STD — a sexually transmitted ghost who will stop at nothing until it takes her life.
That’s it. The rest of the movie is eighty minutes of Jay attempting to figure out just how she can rid herself of this spiritual presence. Through purging himself of the burden of heavy narrative, Mitchell gets to flex his cinematic muscles for all to admire. Ostensibly a stylistic exercise on the surface, Mitchell is able to convey a wealth of information through the usage of scope cinematography (lensed with an eye for golden hour by Mike Gioulakis) and an array wide lenses. Every frame becomes a potential mine field, laden with mystery and potential threats to our young heroine and her friends. But don’t be fooled. This isn’t some empty formal roller-coaster, devoid subtext or deeper meaning. Mitchell simply exploits the intelligibility of his story, resulting in a tone poem dedicated to the disease of having to grow up.
It’d be easy to label the most obvious influences found within It Follows as simple “homages”. The suburban photography echoes John Carpenter’s Halloween, as does the constant playfulness with different photographic planes. Mitchell’s seeming obsession with symmetry is pulled right out of the Stanley Kubrick playbook, as many of his numerous follow shots keep characters centered as they navigate increasingly treacherous territory, the world shifting ominously around them. Jay and her friends’ unseen assailant harkens back to Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity, but its containment to being a tangible being is a new spin on an age-old archetype (this ghost can’t move through walls and can be shot in the head). The influences are certainly there; no doubt. But Mitchell transmorphs these inspirations to serve his own unique vision.
Detroit has become a playground for horror filmmakers in 2014. Jim Jarmusch utilized the Motor City as a kind of apocalyptic wasteland for his vampiric cultural critics to lament; a world lost to the everyday “zombies” who care for nothing more than consumption and disposal of the things they should cherish most. For Mitchell, the city acts both as a character and a towering symbol. It Follows could easily take place in the same Michigan neighborhood as Myth of the American Sleepover, to the point that I kept waiting for Jay and her comrades to pass the Abbey Twins on the street. It’s a subtle bit of world building that makes me wonder (and frankly want) for Mitchell to never leave the landscape he seems to know best. His ease with evoking the laid back nature through which teens communicate only strengthens this universe, as even when the terror kicks in, the performances are completely naturalistic and effortless.
Beyond acting as a house for these coming-of-age tales, Detroit becomes a metaphor for the realm of adulthood these characters are about to enter. Late in the film, one of Jay’s friends relays the boundaries her mother laid out for her when it came to exploring her hometown, telling her which street she was not allowed to cross over (Detroit’s infamous Eight Mile Road). Besides calling back to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (“You’re not going down to Franklin Street, are you Jeffrey?”), it’s a definition of a line that, once the characters cross, they cannot return to their youthful innocence. And as they physically venture into the heart of the city, seeking answers to how they can fend off this spectral predator, the landscape changes. Foreclosed and boarded up homes line long stretches of road, and a public pool acts as an oasis in the middle of this hellscape, a body of water at which the teens first explored kissing and caressing. It’s an uncanny use of place that again cements Mitchell as being a cinematic talent of significant prowess.
Any writing regarding It Follows would remain incomplete without a mention of the terrific score from Berkley, California electronic artists Disasterpeace. Brimming with buzzy synths and crunching attack rhythms of percussion, there are times when the soundtrack threatens to overwhelm the entire film. But the drops of bombastic bass are placed perfectly, signaling intensity but also pulling back for tiny moments of intimacy between our teenage protagonists. Like the visual aesthetics of It Follows, the score is the perfect mix of horror film nostalgia and broken nosed modernity, combining into something totally its own thing. It’s terrific.
Ultimately, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is a film for anyone who must grow up, meaning it is a movie for nearly every human being on this planet. With his sophomore feature, Mitchell has crafted an undeniable classic of the genre that pays tribute to its roots while still staying true to its own self-established identity. But beyond being merely a great horror film, it’s an example of an artist recognizing a trend that has overtaken the current cultural landscape and utilizing it to his own advantage. Modern horror has become plagued with numerous knockoffs of recent supernatural hits (Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring), to the point that the ghosts that haunt the genre no longer stand for anything anymore and have lost their ability to get under our skin. By injecting meaning and subtext into the proceedings, Mitchell has claimed a stake in the current filmic landscape that sets him apart from his dime a dozen brethren. It Follows may be the film that defines this generation of horror filmmakers and acts as a lesson for artists moving forward. To wit, it’s a film that needs to be emulated in ethos, not execution; a manifesto that demands others follow their own path and mature as artists. In short, It Follows is a shining example of a filmmaker growing up and evolving into being one of the best of his class. Here’s hoping whatever’s next for Mitchell continues to see him leading the pack while still keeping what makes his movies so special intact.