Horror seems to be going through something of a renaissance this century. After the slasher-heavy cheapness of the 80s, the irony of the 90s, and the influx of remakes and misguided torture porn movies of the early 2000s, it seems that the horror movie is finally back on form. A quick search of modern classics brings up films like Let the Right One In, 28 Days Later, the Descent, [rec], Ju-On, The Others, and it’s interesting to note the nationalities of these movies; British, Spanish, Swedish and Japanese. The best horror movie of recent times – The Babadook – happens to be Australian. Paranormal Activity, The Innkeepers and Insidious are probably the best of the modern American horrors, and all of those have their flaws. The last great American horror was probably The Blair Witch Project, way back in 1999. It’s interesting that America, which dominated the genre back in the 70s – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exorcist, The Omen, Halloween, The Shining, Alien, Jaws, Dawn of the Dead, Carrie –has fallen behind now, though this is probably the fault of the studios slowly cannibalising the industry, with remakes and dreadful jump-schlock like Annabelle, the cinematic equivalent of ‘loud noises scare people.’ And that’s why David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows has done so well with the critics. It’s one of those movies where you know it’s going to be great just from hearing the title – It Follows – there’s a straight-forward, descriptive and chilling brilliance to those words. And the movie, noticeably independent, is the best American horror movie in forever, a wonderful throwback to the 70s, and a future classic in the making. It’s a must see for horror fans.
Jay (Maika Monroe) has what she thinks is an innocent sexual encounter with Hugh (Jake Weary) until he ties her up afterwards, telling her that she’s now cursed with a sexually transmitted monster. The thing, which can appear as anyone, will now constantly follow Jay, and if it catches her, it will kill her. It can only be passed to someone else through sex. Initially sceptical, Jay soon notices strangers moving in her, with the undeniable feeling that she’s being followed.
It Follows is a throwback to the genre movies of the late 70s, noticeably Halloween, which stands as something of a spiritual successor. There’s a lot of callbacks to Carpenter’s classic – the tree-lined suburbs here are remarkably similar to Haddonfield, the cinematography has the same 70s feel, and though set in the modern day, Mitchell’s movie seems to exist in a throwback bubble; it feels like an homage and many scenes, such as the one in the school, directly riff on Carpenter’s film. In fact, the entirety of It Follows seems inspired by that scene towards the end of Halloween when Michael Myers casually strolls across the street after Laurie as she desperately tries to find help. This isn’t a bad thing. There’s other movies in here too – Ringu, which has a similar curse, The Terminator, which has a similar villain, but there’s also reflections of Scream’s self-knowing, as well as various urban legends and teen camp-fire stories too. It’s a derivative movie, but it knows it, and it steals with love. There’s a real sense of passion for the old classics which gives It Follows a tremendous amount of drive and energy. It’s a very absorbing movie, and the two-hour running time flies by.
The film works as a subversion of the old slasher code – sex equals death paranoia – though the movie has fun by twisting the concept back around and there’s some really interesting sexually politics; sex is the problem, but it’s also the solution, though not an indefinite one. If the thing kills its victim, the chain goes back to whoever was previous in the list. This pre-empts a lot of callous audience questions – why not just sleep with a prostitute or someone terrible and be done with it? – by illustrating that it would just kill them and come back. Because of this, the only way to survive is to tell whoever you’re giving it to what’s going on. There’s a sense that you can never really escape the curse, and even if its passed on, it could always come back, which is genuinely chilling. The film does a great job at halting the audience before they pick holes, and crucially too, the movie never cheats. The rules are set, defined and reinforced, and the movie never strays from them, right up until the final frame, which some will find frustrating – though it does work within the narrative.
The monster, whatever it is, works like the ghost of Michael Myers and has a lot in common with that famous shape. The central concept, and the way the monster functions by simply walking, is all kinds of creepy, especially when you stop and really think about it. The audience are really placed into the situation on screen. Mitchell takes something mundane – someone walking – and twists it into something scary. Often, the thing will be placed somewhere in the back of frame, walking forwards, but Mitchell rarely focuses on the threat. We see it before the characters, building a lot of nail-biting suspense and as the movie runs on, a lot of paranoia. Audiences will find themselves scanning the film for the thing, questioning every character they see. For the most part, this is a quietly restrained horror movie, with a lot of brooding menace, and the movie’s strengths lie in its quieter moments. The atmosphere is strong throughout and very dreamlike. That said, the big set pieces when they come, are suitably large and intense, with the beach scene a highlight.
The film is smart with its concept, but doesn’t show off with it, focusing instead on outstanding technical skill. This is, simply put, one of the best visually constructed scary movies of all time. Mitchell has brilliant control of the frame, and this is one of the most beautiful horror films, in terms of camera sweeps and widescreen work. The drifting camera and 360 degree spins give the movie a nightmarish quality and there’s an art house sense to the design which sets the movie apart from the rest of its ilk. Rarely has widescreen been used so effectively. It Follows is quite beautiful to look at, getting a lot of mileage from the leafy suburbs and the ruined city of Detroit. The score is simply one of the best horror scores of all time – heavy and synthetic, it’s a great throwback to the likes of Halloween and The Shining and really intensifies the visuals on screen. The cast all give excellent performances, and Mitchell really makes us care about the main characters. There’s a sweet teen love story hidden in here, and Mitchell understands that the truly effective horror movies – The Exorcist for example – work by making us care about the characters before attacking them. It Follows will probably stand in future as a great teen movie, as it perfectly sums up the sexual longing and confusion of that demographic; you could spin the film to be about the impending, inevitable horror of approaching adulthood. The film does have a couple of issues – it has a fairly repetitive structure and unusual pacing, which means the climax comes and goes before we realise we’ve even seen it. And the climax itself is a little muddled, suffering from the most out there moments in terms of supernatural special effects, which make the movie feel more literal than it needs to.
Whilst the film isn’t out and out scary to watch (though some will find it terrifying) it’s brilliantly made and clearly comes from a place of love. It’ll be interesting to see how it fairs; the art house trappings and unusual style will probably not go down with the Annabelle crowd, who will find it weird, so it’s hard to imagine this taking off via word of mouth. Critics, however, have been rightfully impressed, and It Follows will go down as one of the modern horror classics. It’s a fun movie, and certainly unsettling – it stays with you after you leave the cinema.