What a great time to be a horror fan the past year has been. After a several decade lull in the medium that felt like an eternity, a collection of scrappy filmmakers with minds and styles to match have turned to the horror genre with remarkable consistency over the past few months, constructing deliberate haunts and melancholy ghouls that deserve the lingering spirit of the classics of the genre. Even better, they do so without openly copying the specifics of horrors that have been before; rather, they divulge their understanding of the past but skyrocket the genre into the future with tools and tricks only fringe, obscure talents could dream up. Under the Skin, The Babadook, A Girl Walks Alone at Night, and now It Follows, have all shocked the world in the past year or so, and they’ve done it without mimicking each other either. Whether it’s the prismatic abstraction of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, the classical formalism of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, the omnivorous sensual high-style of Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Alone at Night, or , now, David Robert Mithcell’s high-flying, postmodern sepulcher to the slasher genre, all are great films. And they are four giants with their own individual voices.
It Follows has burrowed into the public consciousness almost out of nowhere. The big “hook” of the film at a superficial level is that it rereads the “death as metaphor for punishing sexual transgression” air so prominent in ’80s slashers. In fact, the film abstracts the whole idea by taking away the physical reality of the “killer” and giving it an amorphous identity that can change form to play with the unconscious of its victims, even as it always moves forward. Its newest intended victim is Jay (Maika Monroe), a teenage girl beset by the knowledge that, upon having sex for the first time, a curse has been passed on to her. That curse entails her being stalked and killed by an implacable, albeit slowly moving force that always comes but does so without the benefit of speed. Still, nothing can stop it, and others can’t even see it. The only way to extend your life is to always move away from it, or to transfer the curse to another by repeating the sexual act; even then, however, if the force claims its new victim, it continues back down the chain until it reaches its original host. Knowing she can’t truly stop it, Jay gets to moving.
Conceptual theatrics are well and good, but the real hook of It Follows is how pervasively, elementally well made it is, and how studied and meticulously malevolent it feels at the levels of atmosphere and mood. A significant amount of credit for the lugubrious, dismal atmosphere is owed to the lost remnants of Detroit, Michigan, where the movie was filmed. The empty dirges of land and privatized patches of destruction where once a thriving industrial center had stood now stand-in for an intentionally vague, nondescript suburbia. The autumnal dread permeating the film sees director Mitchell opting for abnormally wide-angle lenses to instill his patch-work suburbia with an empty, hopeless feeling. It plays like a walking hole in the ground, intentionally voiding any semblance of realist geography for a world absent people to talk to and help to be given.
Our teenagers breathe death with every second, but there’s a sense that their lives were never meaningful even before tragedy beset them. As it exists, they feel out of time, never much going to school or really striving for anything; they sit around as Mitchell infuses the film with the spirit of boredom and mundanity. It’s a mundane quality he interrupts with the uncanny and the surreal, sure, but the most fearful thought of all is that the scares are more pervasive than one figure chasing after them. The death pervades in the fallen trees, the crippled buildings of worn-out brick and mortar. It’s not shock-scares but creeping, festering dread crawling up from the ground itself and infesting the air and the teenage soul. It’s the kind of world where living itself is a mundane, boring act; in the way Mitchell melds technology from the present day and the 1980s, he structures a world that exists out of time and feels disarrayed. It feels wrong, like it never moves forward with progress and is always stuck in the muck of stagnancy and time.
And within, what does Mitchell really feel for his characters? It should not be ignored that the whole idea of the film from the ground up is a rereading and abstraction of the slasher aesthetic, and specifically the latent neo-conservatism of a genre where teenagers were chopped to bits for drug use and sexual activity. It was a moralistic genre for a moralistic Reagan-suffering time, and It Follows is not a satire or parody of this genre. It is an extension of it, and a subversion. Most slasher films implicate their characters as “deserving punishment” for engaging in illicit activity, with Freddy Kreuger or Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers taking the role of “the man” coming down hard on the wasting-away youths for actually enjoying their teenage years for once. They were judgmental killers, saving virgins and those who abstained from drugs and laying waste to those who imbibed. They were like blood-crazed, corporal Pat Buchanans who never stopped coming.
Yet It Follows asks something different of us. Namely, it asks us to empathize with its heroine, who in fact does have sex, and does so with a lived-in teenage awkwardness and angst as well as a genuine, honest desire to experience that which teenagers are wont to experience. Mitchell does not wish us to want her dead, nor does he want her dead; rather, he invites us in, not playing with her but getting to know her insecurities and losses. And this isn’t even to mention the ways his film plays around with imagery of sexual assault and casually implicates the male who has sex with her for abusing the protagonist against her will; the film never once blames Jay for her actions. It is a uniquely transgressive motion picture, picking up the shackles of a tired genre and breathing life into it anew using bellows that are as crusted and worn as the genre itself. It flips the script on the neoconservatives and asks us to break down the dichotomy where “bad” teens engage in sex and drugs and the “good” ones know their place away from it. The way the film privileges sex as a commonplace awkwardness is a great equalizer, reminding that it isn’t necessarily good or bad as much as it is something that just is for teenagers, a complicated mass of thoughts and pulses and urges that confuse and befuddle. And scare.
Thus, the film emerges not as a societally-imposed weight crushing its heroes with moral superiority but as a descent into the minds of teenagers who have been taught to feel this top-down, external pressure all their lives. In other terms, it does not adopt the perspective of the conservative adult telling teens not to have sex, but of the teen who has been taught to believe these adults and starts to actually fear normal human actions and experimentation. It is a film about these internalized contradictions and tensions, not telling us its characters are bad for having sex but feeling and sympathizing with the shame its characters feel because they have been told to feel shame. However visceral the film is, and it is visceral mind you, a thick coating of disturbed teenage psychology persists in the subtext and in the depressed world around these characters. The destruction of Detroit essayed in the film’s geography, a product of neoconservative privatization in the early ’80s, mirrors the latent critique of neoconservative sexual moralism in the film’s plot, creating a dismal view of the modern era where the effects of paternalist conservatism have convinced teens that death and destruction are always after them. It always reminds us of the ways teens have been taught to hate their bodies and hide them away. And even, as It Follows tacitly reflects, to kill themselves for it.
Which means we have a rather wonderful critique of the slasher form on one hand, but all of this doesn’t even hint at all of the wonderful physical and tactile pleasures lying in wait within, skulking in the background and always walking closer and closer to the foreground. The hanging atmosphere and sense of crippled suburbia in the film’s location work is the undeniable highlight, but there are plenty of other feats of pure filmmaking on display. Mitchell’s camera almost always moves for one, turning with whiplash abandon to expose the 360 degrees of fear operating around the characters, reminding us that they do not know where death will come from and must cover all directions at all times. The movement also conveys the tension of the chase like nothing else, always reminding us that something is out there waiting and watching, and that movement is the only true escape. Meanwhile, the grain-less, sickly-clean cinematography moves with uncanny grace and conveys a land that feels deadly antiseptic and thus all the more deranged and unreal to the characters and us.
Then there is the soundtrack, which words fail. By composer and musician Disasterpiece, the pulsing, nervous thumps of the largely synthetic, ethereal soundtrack evoke mournful menace. The wide-open, lingering spaces of the notes drift off into Mitchell’s empty visual compositions. It doesn’t quite nail John Carpenter’s eternal “Halloween” theme, but the spirit of unending formlessness is there, especially when it evolves into a cacophony of dissonant jabs and joints that sacrifice form for an always-present quality. Like the film that houses it, the music has an elemental, primal quality. Notes don’t exist individually; they bleed into one another, and they evoke a sense of never beginning, never ending, and always chasing. Just like the ghouls and haunts that refuse to leave Jay, the music is a population of her mind manifesting in external space and following her to the world’s end. Or her end. Whichever comes first.