Word of mouth is an important marketing technique that really, not even Don Draper can put a finger on what creates it and advertising agencies can’t figure out how to truly harness it. It’s something that just happens, be it a hive mind mentality or perhaps a piece of media that just strikes at the right place and the right time. Horror may be the film genre that benefits from word of mouth the most. It’s hard to scare people and when a movie that has the ability creep into America’s consciousness and terrorize people so well that they feel the need to tell all of their friends, a filmmaker has found something magical. Horror fans especially can be hard to please with youngsters who have been inundated by possession flicks and torture porn over the past decade needing more hardcore core and old timers just being very particular about how they think horror should look and feel. IT FOLLOWS is the first big word of mouth sensation of 2015. The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 and was purchased by The Weinstein Company’s subsidiary, RADiUS-TWC for North American distribution.
In March of 2015, the film garnered a limited release, mostly to art house theatres in big cites but positive buzz led to the film being granted a wider release on March 27th to more of the suburban theatres. I have been lucky enough to see several great word of mouth successes in the horror genre in my lifetime; I remember being 16 and excited upon the release of Wes Craven’s SCREAM. The release of SCREAM was the first time I ever saw a movie premiere at number four at the box office and work it’s way up each week until it sat high at number one. Being a teenager at the time, I can say that this boost was due to kids talking about it in the halls. Four years later, I saw people lined up around the block at one of the suburban theatres for THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT which had everyone in my circle of friends talking, either loving it or hating it. Each one of these films revitalized the horror genre for a few years and influenced scores of sequels and imitators. I had the pleasure of seeing IT FOLLOWS last week and hope that this film may have the same effect on horror films for the next few years.
While IT FOLLOWS owes plenty to the style of horror people my age grew up on — the late ‘70s into the early ‘80s — it does not rely on cheap throwback gimmicks to sell itself. The setting of IT FOLLOWS feels timeless, like it could be taking place fifteen years ago or maybe even tomorrow. There are little touches throughout, such as ‘90s minivans and a compact Kindle style device that one of the kids plays with constantly, that gives the film an otherworldly quality that services it well.
Like most great horror films, on its surface IT FOLLOWS is about sex. Our heroine, Jay (Maika Monroe) engages in sexual relations with a new guy, Hugh (Jake Weary). It is revealed that during their tryst, Hugh infected Jay with a curse that will follow her until it kills her and that when she is dead, the curse will return to him and so on and so on just like that commercial about AIDS in the 1990s. In the hands of a less talented writer and director, IT FOLLOWS would degenerate into a heavy-handed allegory for S.T.D’s, but David Robert Mitchell is too smart for this. It is a misconception that 1978’s HALLOWEEN is about sex, as all the sexually active members of Laurie Strode’s circle die violently at the hands of Michael Myers, while the virginal Laurie remains alive to fight another day. Carpenter has stated that that theory is off base, as the film is actually about awareness. The teenagers that are killed in Haddonfield that night die because they’re not paying attention to what’s going on; they’re too interested in boys, girls, drinking and drugs to see that they are in serious trouble. The curse that Jay is infected with is a metaphor for the shame and reputation that comes with having sex in your formative years, particularly for a young girl in a smallish town.
IT FOLLOWS has been garnering quite a bit of comparison to the films of John Carpenter and rightfully so. The movie features gorgeous widescreen photography, a chilling synth score by Disasterpeace and the setting of suburban Detroit, Michigan could easily pass for Haddonfield, Illinois (actually Los Angeles). However, as much as IT FOLLOWS owes to HALLOWEEN, the film owes just as much if not more to Wes Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Wes Craven’s 1984 shocker can be seen as a metaphor for the coming of Generation X; Freddy Krueger’s return symbolized the sins of the parents being revisited upon their children. The baby boomers were destroying America and leaving their kids with fewer jobs and fewer resources to succeed. IT FOLLOWS can be perceived as a metaphor for this new generation known as the millenials; the curse that follows our characters can be passed onto someone else and the curse will follow them until they pass it onto someone else. It’s this selfishness that the millennial generation has become known for, however, in the movie, if the cursed is killed than the curse will return to kill the prior carrier. You can’t run away from your sins and they will always haunt you. This is the state of affairs in America right now and there is no more American of a city than Detroit. The portrayal of our group of teenagers seem to suffer from many of the same problems that plagued the kids of Springwood, Ohio thirty years ago. They’re all basically good kids with absentee parents combating supernatural forces that the adults of the world wouldn’t even believe.
The casting of Maika Monroe (last seen in another gem from 2014, THE GUEST) is pitch perfect. She straddles the line between beautiful movie star and coming-of-age teenager perfectly. Unlike some other Hollywood horror, it’s hard to buy the leads as average kids from an average town, but Maika and the rest of the cast are on point. The kids in this movie remind me of the kids that I hung out with in the Chicago neighborhood of Beverly. Writer and director David Robert Mitchell has a certain knack for portraying likable, real teenagers onscreen, as he displayed in 2010’s THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER.
Of course, what’s the point of all this if the movie isn’t scary? Sometimes directors in horror get caught up in metaphor and allegory and forget to make a good popcorn flick. That’s how you end up with Romero’s DEAD movies post-DAY OF THE DEAD. But IT FOLLOWS delivers on the scares in spades. The movie burns slowly, much like Carpenter’s best works, but gives the audience enough to look at and listen (again, Disasterpiece’s score is amazing) to while waiting for the big scares. More importantly, the big scares pay off, particularly during a sleepover scene early in the film. Mitchell uses his visual style and the music to play the audience. Mitchell also understands that we the audience want to see these kids band together and to fight the monster at the end. The climax of IT FOLLOWS, with the kids using average means to defeat the monster, is more satisfying than a hundred big, summer blockbusters.
Overall, the film is perfect for teenage girls. There seems to be a misconception that girls don’t like horror (or video games or other geek nonsense.) Growing up, all the girls I knew loved Freddy Krueger as much as I did; we all loved being scared. IT FOLLOWS seems custom made for girls of that age, but it doesn’t mean the boys aren’t going to be on board. As I stated earlier, it was high school kids that made SCREAM the hit that it was in 1996. The marketing team should be pushing it that way. It doesn’t matter if the film is rated R –I know I got into them all the time in my formative years.
After being disappointed by 2014’s other word of mouth hit, THE BABADOOK, I remained cautiously optimistic going into IT FOLLOWS. I’m glad I got to see it in a crowded (for a Monday) theatre. Horror always works better with a crowd. The weekend numbers are calling the film a flop, but it marks a quiet victory for the independent horror film in this day and age. Visually this movie deserves to be seen big and wide. I’m hopeful that the same way SCREAM, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY started new trends in the genre, that IT FOLLOWS will do the same. IT FOLLOWS lives up to the hype — highly recommended.
For another point of view on IT FOLLOWS, check out Matthew Monagle’s review from January!