What with all the hype surrounding last year’s disappointing The Babadook, I approached this year’s new “scariest film in years” with some trepidation. I needn’t have worried. While It Follows is not going to give you a heart attack in the cinema, it’s definitely got enough frights to at least make you very careful who the hell you do the horizontal bop with.
The now officially great Maika Monroe (The Guest) plays Jay, a 19-year-old student who has been seeing a guy called Hugh for a little while and, despite his slightly weird behaviour towards a girl in a yellow dress that Monroe can’t see, she decides to sleep with him in the back of his car. This proves to be a mistake as he passes on some kind of demon or succubus that will slowly follow her around until it touches her and kills her. The only way she can get rid of this horror is to sleep with someone else and pass the Sexually Transmitted Demon on to them. What we have is essentially M.R. James’ Casting the Runes for the modern world. The last time this was made was the ace Night of the Demon* but that had a dirty great big eighty foot tall winged beast in it. It Follows is a more subtle creation.
The first thing you will notice about the film is how the deliberately slow pace and sombre mood helps create an All encompassing sense of dread over the story. Monroe and her friends live in the suburbs of Detroit. This broken part of America really lends itself well to the isolation Monroe feels both before and especially after she is stalked by the thing. Even the nice leafy parts of town have an emptiness about them: the streets are mostly deserted of people, there aren’t even many parked cars. Adults are largely absent from the film, when one of Monroe’s neighbours is attacked, you don’t see the actual police at the scene of the crime, only the empty police car. Monroe’s parents are also absent: her father long since gone or dead (only seen in a photo in her room) and you only see her mother’s drunken hand hanging off the edge of the bed next to an empty wine bottle and a half smoked cigarette. It’s all we need to know. When Monroe’s friend takes her away to his parent’s beach house in a borrowed car she asks if his mother will be annoyed, “she won’t even notice” he replies. Monroe and her friends have been abandoned by the adults in their lives and are left to defend themselves against this stalking fiend.
The monster itself, if that is indeed what it is, the “It” of the title, does have a passing resemblance to Stephen King’s classic It. It too preys on young folk ignored by their elders, it can also change its form to suit/freak out its victim, but instead of looking like Pennywise the Clown, it usually takes the form of some naked, tragic parody of a sexualised human, often a mother or a naked old aged pensioner – or even an overbearing giant of a man at one point.
The dark mood in It Follows is further enhanced by a strange and distinct lack of technology, as if the film is set twenty years ago despite never stating this fact. No one ever uses a mobile phone or researches things on the internet. When trying to find Hugh they have to visit his old high school and look him up in his old yearbook, as if he’d left thirty years before. All the TVs are old 4:3 cathode boxes which only show old B-movies from the 1950s. The pornography Monroe’s friend Paul looks at is old copies of Playboy from the 1970s. Even most of the cars are old. The only modern thing is a weird e-reader shaped like a pink folding clam that Monroe’s bespectacled friend reads out loud from throughout the film. It all adds to this unnerving atmosphere that continually suggests that something is just not right in this place.
It Follows also looks great, it has many big wide tracking shots and great compositions which really capture the bleak landscape of Detroit. They have a very John Carpenter feel to them which is both very fashionable at the moment and also very welcome. It’s a shame it was shot on video which sometimes results in some weird motion blurring and a lack of detail. Add in the synthesiser soundtrack and that Carpenter feeling is almost complete. It doesn’t have the economy and tightness of Carpenter’s best work, some scenes do seem to go on a bit and there are superfluous shots here and there which don’t seem to add anything to the story or characters, however there is such a strong sense of control over what director David Robert Mitchell wants you to see and hear that the occasional slow patch isn’t really a problem.
It Follows probably isn’t the scariest horror movie in years but then again horror is not always just about scaring an audience outright. Sometimes its job is just to unnerve you and It Follows, with its dark subject matter and creepy attention to mood and detail succeeds magnificently in making you feel that something is very, very wrong with the modern world.
* You could say Drag Me To Hell is a remake too if you like.