It’s finally happened: I’ve left my days of impressionable adolescence behind, instead embracing the sort of critical cynicism totally befitting a twenty-year old BA Student. As such, I’ve become dismissive of – even desensitised to – the hype that often accompanies those films that critics have deigned to designate the Next Big Thing. So I think I can be forgiven for having approached indie flick It Follows – lauded as having revolutionised the supernatural horror genre – with a healthy dose of scepticism.
The film, which marks director David Mitchell’s sophomore foray into feature-length cinema, centres on a premise which is – at face value – unashamedly outrageous: a teenage girl, Ajay (Maika Monroe) is relentlessly pursued by a supernatural being after having sex with her boyfriend. Some critics have interpreted this as a parable on the dangers of a prolific sex culture vis-à-vis the rise of STDs, others as a commentary on our psychological anxieties surrounding intimacy. Subtextual readings aside, however, there’s no denying it – this is a premise absolutely dripping with triteness. It is not only of its genre: it typifies it.
Somewhat paradoxically, however, Mitchell’s film succeeds as an unconventional horror precisely because of this apparent unoriginality: he takes well-worn tropes of horror, and spins them anew within an almost ethereal nexus of American adolescence. His previous opus (The Myth Of The American Sleepover) was unabashed coming-of-age territory, and its legacy permeates It Follows. Moments of wrought teenage angst and rumination are both imposed, and impose, upon the supernatural suspense. In one scene, Ajay dangles from the seat of a car, brushing her fingertips against flowers as she voices the frustrations of unwillingly inert American youth everywhere… but then she’s violently chloroformed and hauled into an abandoned factory, tied up in a wheelchair and told that she’s going to be pursued by a shape-shifting spectre – a deadly consequence of her copulation. Later, as Ajay and co amble through the remnants of urban Detroit, a friend reflects on the ruination of the city, and its abject contrast with the vanilla-white suburbs that lie just beyond the border. All stock-standard filmic fare, until you put it into context: the group are en-route to a long-abandoned swimming pool, where they plan to ensnare the spirit.
The film is replete with these sorts of odd conjunctions, in which Mitchell doesn’t so much meld the coming-of-age and psychological horror genres as he does collapse them into one another. And yet, it never feels overdone. Perhaps this is because of the way in which he and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis so masterfully evoke the Detroit setting. Make no mistake: visually, this film is hauntingly resplendent, commingling the bucolic but barren suburbs, the decadent remnants of Detroit City, and the somnambulant Great Lakes with expansive wide-angle shots that linger. It is perhaps this cinematographic mastery that allows us to ignore the conspicuous unreality of the tropes that are deployed, because the world that we are presented with is precisely that: unreal. Gioulakis casts a misty patina over the unmistakeably American environment, imbuing it with a Coppola-esque otherworldliness that ensures we don’t passively watch this dream-cum-nightmare: we are drawn deep into it.
Rich Vreeland’s (AKA Disasterpeace’s) score undeniably drives the audience deep into Mitchell’s world: It Follows’ music vacillates from otherworldly, unsettling melodies to maddeningly atonal synths that both complement the ethereal cinematography, as well as feverishly accentuate the drama. When the characters (and audience) are offered a brief reprieve when they flee to Greg’s (Daniel Zovatto) lake house, it is Vreeland’s score that acts as a key anchorage to the taut horror of the never-ending pursuit. The discordant nature of the music is consistently unsettling, thus helping to achieve a feat little seen in modern horror films: It Follows sustains tension for almost the entirety of the film.
Although the film does lag a little towards the end (there are, after all, only so many ways that a group of teenagers running from a walking spirit can be spun), its grip is nevertheless relentless and lasting. Perhaps this is because of the film’s ambivalent, irresolute conclusion; perhaps it is because of the acting. Monroe’s performance is a particularly stellar example of the refreshingly understated, almost lethargic, portrayal of the disaffected suburban teen that almost all the film’s actors play well. They work as an engaging counterpoint to the hyper-satirical, petulant teenage archetype that usually dominates scare flicks. Alongside the universal resonance of the spirit’s chase (it never runs towards you; it walks – and it could be anybody), this makes the horror seem all too familiar, all too close to home.
I rarely believe the hype, so it is through gritted teeth that I say this – believe the hype. This is a disturbing, entrancing horror whose resonances will take root in your mind long after you’ve emerged from Mitchell’s phantasmagoria and Vreeland’s jagged synths have faded away. It Follows is a work that does more than make good on its titular promise: It doesn’t just follow, It stays, as well.