Last year was an interesting year for horror films. The three most lucrative horror movies of the year—THE PURGE: ANARCHY, ANNABELLE, and OUIJA—each grossed well enough for their meager budgets (just over twenty million combined) but barely moved the critical needle, with the latter two failing to crack40 percent on Metacritic. This led some film critics to predict doom and gloom for the genre moving forward. But that doesn’t tell the whole story; last year also saw the emergence of the rare crossover horror film. THE BABADOOK was praised by genre enthusiasts and unenthusiasts alike and featured prominently on many year-end “Best Of” lists. When the best horror film of the year is released with only four weeks left, there is a compelling argument to be made that the selection was somewhat weak.
Thankfully, we won’t have to wait that long for David Robert Mitchell’s IT FOLLOWS, a horror debut that consciously bucks many contemporary horror trends and draws its inspiration from some of the genre classics. Set for a March 2015 release date, IT FOLLOWS promises to give us the year’s defining horror film with plenty of room in the calendar to spare.
Jay (Maika Monroe of THE GUEST) is your typical 21-year-old, living at home and taking classes at the local community college. When she decides that she likes Hugh (Jake Weary) enough to sleep with him—in a scene that IT FOLLOWS explicitly underlines as consensual, refuting any future claims that a horror film needs dubious sexual encounters to be scary—Jay wakes to find herself tied to a chair in an abandoned building. There is a creature, Hugh explains, and the only way to get rid of it is to pass it along to someone else. It can look like anyone, living or dead, and no matter where in the world you find yourself, it will always be walking toward you in a straight line. Hugh keeps Jay restrained just long enough for Jay to see the creature firsthand, and then he disappears, leaving Jay and her friends to try to understand exactly what is happening to her.
With a monster that attacks at about the speed of a Sunday stroll, IT FOLLOWS cannot really lean on the same tired jump scares and off-screen attacks as other horror films. Instead, Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (previously of JOHN DIES IN THE END) play with the depth of frame to get the desired effect. The creature emerges from the background of shots, moving slowly—but inexorably—toward its victim. In one dynamic long take, the camera sets up in a high school hallway and slowly spins, alternating shots of the main character searching through books in the library against the gradual progression of an student across the campus lawn. Each revolution brings the student closer to the building while Jay remains static. There will be no shaky cam shots in this film, no chase scenes from the creature’s point of view; Mitchell’s defining characteristic as a director may very well be the stillness of his shots.
When the characters begin to understand what is pursuing Jay, the eyeline-matching between her and her environment becomes another point of tension, requiring the audience to always be aware of where Jay is looking. As long as she is peripherally aware of her surroundings, then we can see the creature as well. The moment she turns her back, all bets are off. This also allows Mitchell to play with the anonymity of the creature—it can look like anyone, dead or alive, real or imagined. In a lesser film, the creature would spend most of its time appearing to Jay as someone she knows. In this film, the creature’s appearance is often chosen to match or contrast her surroundings. The creature may look like an anonymous student in a crowd or a naked old woman in a hallway; it alternates between being barely identifiable as the monster or shockingly—obviously—out of place. There are conventional scares in the film, to be sure, but what impresses most about IT FOLLOWS is how well Mitchell can scare us with no editing whatsoever.
There are a handful of reasons to compare IT FOLLOWS to a Carpenter film, including the fantastic synthesizer score by chiptune artist Disasterpeace and the effective use of IT FOLLOW’s suburban setting, and the movie will certainly deserve the positive comparisons it receives. However, there is also more than a little Romero in the film’s DNA. The creature’s slow, plodding assault evokes the finality of Romero’s classic zombie films—where the horror came from the anticipation and inevitability of death, not the act of death itself—but Jay also echoes Romero’s characters in her slow hardening toward survival. The more she does to stay alive, the easier it becomes to do more. This has been a theme of Romero from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD through BRUISER, and Mitchell handles it well, shifting the film from a traditional creature feature to a darker exploration of what Jay is willing to do in order to stay alive.
And here is the film’s one problem, albeit not as glaring as most. Mitchell is primarily focused on the aesthetics of horror, not the psychology of it. As IT FOLLOWS transitions into a more internal space, it begins to lose its footing, ultimately finding a landing place that works but does not maximize on its potential. I find the inability of many horror films to “stick the landing” to be one of the genre’s most frustrating aspects, but my reaction to this in IT FOLLOWS was fairly mild. Since the film is interested more in the filmic aspects of terror, the need for narrative closure is lessened. Mitchell knows that he has a talented cast of young actors working in his favor and trusts them to create sympathetic characters without much help from the script. Mitchell the writer seems designed to let Mitchell the director shine, and shine he does.
IT FOLLOWS hits American theaters on March 27th, 2015.