The main point of comparison for most people reviewing It Follows is Halloween. Undeniably, David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature, an insidious, diamond-sharp indie horror flick, draws heavily from John Carpenter’s classic. That’s apparent from its opening frame, an image of an American suburban street whose expansive front lawns carpeted by auburn autumn leaves could be ripped straight from Halloween. Its pulsing synth score, too, owes a debt of gratitude to Carpenter’s work as a composer (and owes more than a little to Goblin’s Dario Argento soundtracks, while we’re at it). But the film that It Follows reminded me of most strongly was another John Carpenter joint – The Thing.
The Thing, you see, is one of the best examples of a ‘perfect’ horror film. Perhaps it’s not as aesthetically pure or iconic as Halloween, but it marries its horror elements – embodied in grotesque flesh and subcutaneous dread – with a thematic underpinning in a way that epitomises what great horror should be. The Thing scares you with its surface-level conceit – a creature that can take any form – while its concept resonates at a primal level. It taps into something deeper. Something equally evocative and elusive. It opens itself up to multiple readings – the thing as a sexually transmitted disease, the thing as homophobia, the thing as paranoia – while, much like the creature itself, refusing to commit to one interpretation. Significantly, these interpretations feel like an integral part of the film’s horror, rather than an extraneous addition, and it’s here that It Follows most resembles The Thing.
It Follows’ concept is ingeniously simple. The antagonist – if that’s the word – of the film operates as a distillation of iconic horror villains, boogeymen before they were stripped of their mystery with backstories and explanations. “It” is passed on via sex; a trigger familiar to anyone who’s seen a few slasher films. “It” is inexorable; once it’s been ‘passed on’ to you, it – as the title suggests – follows you at a walking pace, never stopping. Even ‘passing it on’ is an imperfect solution; once it kills its target, it returns its attention to the last link in the chain. “It” is invincible; it cannot be harmed. “It” is invisible to all but those it stalks. “It” lacks any identity of its own, assuming the appearance of anyone at whim – your friends, your parents, a total stranger.
Its latest target is one Jay Height, played by Maika Monroe (who has already earned the title of ‘scream queen’ after her appearances in this and last year’s The Guest). She ‘catches’ it after sleeping with her boyfriend (Jake Weary), who turns out to not be quite who he says he is. The film follows her subsequent ordeal carefully, methodically. Like The Thing, there’s a sense of rigour to Jay and her friends’ attempts to avoid her seemingly inevitable plight – they think, they strategise. But these are teenagers in a horror movie, so their plans aren’t always especially intelligent.
It Follows is a genuinely terrifying film, but it delivers few conventional scares. There aren’t many moments that are likely to elicit screams or nervous laughter from its audience. But it’s frightening not simply for moments like the shattering of a window at night, or the moment that you spot an out-of-focus figure in the background lurching, unseen, towards Jay. No, the scariest moments are the ones where you watch Jay awaken and you see her realise that it’s still coming. That it’s always coming.
About this point in the review, I’m obligated as a reviewer to provide my read of the film. My take on “it” as a metaphor. Personally, I find those moments where Jay wakes up chilling because they remind me of being deeply, desperately depressed. When I would wake up and have this moment of freedom, crushed under the weight of the world. It’s not hard to read “it” as a symbol of any such kind of debilitating disease, mental or otherwise, a spectre of anxiety or depression or loss that never, ever goes away. Equally, it could embody more specific fears – for example, those of a rape survivor, seeing the potential for evil in every man. I’m reluctant to nail “it” down as one thing, because dilutes the potency of the film, the way it infiltrates down to your very marrow.
That said: I feel like sex is a distraction. Sex isn’t irrelevant to It Follows – it’s especially important as a universal symbol for coming of age, of assuming adulthood – but it’s more important as a mechanism than thematic underpinning. I’m not going to say people reading the film as about STDs or similar are wrong, per se, but it seems like a shallow reading in most cases. David Robert Mitchell has so carefully crafted this concept that reducing it down to just another film about the perils of teenage sex feels reductive to me. (That said, the way the film associates sex with parental figures surely provides ample material for any post-grad film studies students looking to examine the film from a Freudian perspective.)
If I had to guess at authorial intent though, I’d suggest that Mitchell is erecting his incorporeal monster at the other fundamental pole of human experience besides sex: death. The film is littered with clues that suggest Mitchell intends to depict the existential dread that accumulates as one becomes cognisant of their own mortality. At the movie theatre, Jay’s boyfriend contemplates trading places with a young boy because “he has his whole life ahead of him.” A friend (Olivia Luccardi) reads ominous quotes about “inevitable destruction” from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. They play “Old Maid” and one of the first figures Jay notices following her is an elderly lady clad in a funereal hospital gown. There’s even cut to a cemetary right after Jay muses, “…now that we’re older, where the hell do we go?” This is a simple reading, granted, but a potent one, and one that elevates the meaning of the film’s final shot.
Stephen A. Russell described It Follows as “horror as delivered by Sofia Coppola” – a description I’ll happily appropriate. Mitchell’s approach to the material has the hypnotic, syrupy resonance of Coppola’s best films. He primarily operates in two different modes. The first is a distant, voyeuristic approach. For example, as Jay relaxes in her backyard pool, the camera zooms in on her as though manned by a perving neighbour. One of the film’s best innovations is the regular use of a fixed, wide-angle camera lazily revolving 360 degrees, used alternatively to create a reflective mood and a sense of dread. But there’s an intimate subjectivity too, with the camera often assuming Jay’s viewpoint, dwelling on little moments. We’re drawn to her hands and their chipped, somehow childlike red nail polish. We patiently observe Jay’s world and inhabit it; it’s an aesthetic defined by clarity and control more so than any Halloween mimicry.
It’s rare to see horror nowadays with such an original concept, let alone one grounded in resonant ideas and executed with such distinctive vision. It Follows is an exceptional horror film; actually, scrap that: it’s an exceptional film.