If we think about horror films as a medium to explore human fears at their most primitive, then you would think that there was an infinite space for filmmakers to plough through. For the most part, however, it feels like a genre devoid of invention or respect, an easy commercial outlet relying on a raft of cheap tricks. Occasionally you will see a film that seeks to subvert these tropes and try to bring some creativity to the genre, which David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows has.
The film is a subversion of horror films, not something completely new. A teenage girl named Jay (Maika Monroe) living in American suburbia has intimate relations with hunky Hugh (Jake Weary). Things start to go awry when we realise that Hugh has ulterior motives; he is being stalked by a shape shifting monster that will only relent if he passes on the curse through intercourse. Only when Jay has sex with another person will Hugh be safe, and so the chain goes on.
It is a simple but effective premise, familiar enough to slot it alongside other slasher films but with a touch of surrealism that marks it out. What makes It Follows terrifying is the execution of this set up, with the creature taking on a different form each time. It could be a grizzled mother, a demonic schoolkid or a hulking giant. As Hugh warns us, they are always walking towards their prey. The prey can never stand still, they always have to be wary of the figure in the distance.
While the concept is fertile, Mitchell’s overall vision of the film is also striking. Setting out to make an ‘arty horror film’ in his words, It Follows has an eerie, dreamlike quality, almost like Gus Van Sant had decided to swap his Bela Tarr boxset for a John Carpenter collection. Filmed around Detroit, the film has the feel of a ghost town, the teenage characters leading an almost idyllic existence where adults are almost entirely absent. If one was to read anything into the film, you might say that it explores the idea of innocence being corrupted. One fellow viewer described it as a potential miracle for sex education teachers.
Mitchell creates a beguiling mix of innocence and threat through soft, hypnagogic visuals and floaty tracking shots. The pacing of course ramps up a gear as the creature nears, but for the most part it is a languorous film. Music plays a huge part, and in Disasterpiece’s pretty and dangerous Italo Disco score we have a formidable contributor. The minimalist electronica is a throwback to the scores of the Italian giallo horrors of the 70’s, by directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava.
The film was never meant to be about the actors or their dramas, but they all give solid performances mannered in the horror style. They have a naturalistic, candy floss quality to them, again reminiscent of the characters in Van Sant’s films. Yet Mitchell invests enough in them to make the audience empathise with their plight; she is an innocent thrown into a situation she doesn’t deserve, and has the moral quandary of inflicting her curse on someone else or submitting to a grisly death.
I saw a few films at Cannes but none of them were as exciting or refreshing as It Follows. A horror film for people who don’t like horrors, It Follows subverts the genre enough to feel new while still retaining the core essential scares. It is an aesthetic delight and its simplicity works wonderfully. We may just have a cult film in the making.