I have little patience for reviews that applaud the “rare” horror film that eschews gore in favour of “real scares”, thereby proving that the genre “still has something new to offer audiences”. I can see that the purpose might be to attract people who would otherwise avoid it entirely. Still, I find myself becoming defensive of the horror genre, which turns out at least a dozen or so brilliant cinematic disembowelments of the human condition every year. What they see as the shining exception I see as part and parcel of a genre that is doing just fine, thank you very much.
Which brings me to It Follows. If you follow any kind of horror media, you’ve probably already heard some of the hype surrounding the indie film that seemed to appear out of nowhere, stalking from festival to festival, leaving a trail of petrified filmgoers in its wake. It has already earned sweeping praise from mainstream and genre critics alike. As for me, the year is still young, but I’m already saving a spot for it among my top 5 favourite films of the year. Here’s why.
When genre newcomer David Robert Mitchell wrote and directed It Follows – his first horror feature – he had the audacity to create a brand-new monster, with its own mythology and rules. The threat is deceptively simple: a young woman (Maika Monroe) has a sexual encounter that leaves her with a kind of hallucinatory infection. So far, so Cronenberg. What she sees, and what the uninfected can’t see, is people – one at a time, and in various stages of undress – walking slowly and deliberately towards her. They appear at random and haunt her waking hours. What happens if they get to her? She’s not about to wait around and find out.
This constant menace has a number of effects that make me wonder what it must have been like to have been among the first audiences to see A Nightmare on Elm Street, with its sense of brutal inevitability, or Night of the Living Dead, with its eerily ambling assortment of the undead. While the threat may be somewhat avoidable in the short term (as opposed to, say, a charging grizzly), the sense of dread is created by the knowledge that a real life cannot be lived under its shadow. The sexual element recalls early Cronenberg and is just outlandish and retro enough to (probably) avoid stepping into the political hot mess of a decade where everyone is offended by everything.
The film’s 1980s aesthetic is not just a gimmick, but has the escapist effect of detaching the audience from the era of mobile phones and social media. The only handheld device in sight is used to read Dostoyevsky. Rich Vreeland’s neo-80s synth score has been a popular talking point in reviews of the film, and for good reason. It rumbles ominously at the right moments, and soars thoughtfully at others. The camera engages in old-school slow pans and zooms that create a sense of both nostalgia and voyeurism, contributing to an atmosphere of dread as well as intimacy: perhaps the two words that best describe the emotional core of the film.
The other bold move Mitchell makes is in creating a horror film that is so sentimental or, indeed, intimate. One gets the impression that the setting, a suburb of Detroit, holds a great deal of personal significance to him. The teenage friendships we see on screen, thriving on the outskirts of a city in ruins, feel genuine and carry an unspoken history with them. Scenes of, ahem, passion are ardent and steamy enough without becoming gratuitous or uncomfortable. The entire concept of the film lends itself well to creating a bond between audience and heroine (Monroe), as we are so often privy to horrors only she can see. What I enjoyed most, though, were the simple but surprising POV shots of her twiddling the stem of a flower, putting on lipstick in front of a mirror, or calmly watching an ant crawl across her arm.
As much as the term is overused, I think Maika Monroe is the scream queen we need. This performance, combined with her role in last year’s The Guest have proven that she is more than just a pretty face. I think she makes a far more believable young, introspective female lead than Jamie Lee Curtis’ iconic Laurie Strode (Halloween). That’s not to say she’s fascinating or edgy; to use the parlance of our times, she’s on the “basic” side of the spectrum – more Taylor Swift than Debbie Harry. She’s the young woman still clinging to childhood nostalgia but eager to start living her life and to find out what that means for her. In other words, she’s perfectly poised for some supernatural terror to write its name in that blank space of hers. One way or another, it’s gonna get her, get her, get her, get her.
It Follows is a fantastic and memorable work of horror, but it doesn’t prove anything about the genre’s merit that fans didn’t know already, because it doesn’t need to. After a long festival tour and wide releases in France, the UK and Ireland, It Follows finally finds its way stateside on March 13th.
If you like the blog, feel free to follow me,