Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
"Pass it on to me" may very well become a millennial catchphrase if teenagers get on the wavelength of writer-director David Robert Mitchell's supernatural horror film It Follows. Premiering at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival to widespread critical acclaim, Mitchell's picture joins a recent crop of horror-themed vehicles riffing on 70s/ 80s tropes while still pushing a modern paradigm. In this case, there's a definite sense that Mitchell is harkening back to the John Carpenter school of mood-based horror, ala 1978's seminal Halloween while giving it an atmospheric Wes Craven vibe, like the teenage dream gone awry from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. While this emphasis on mood over gore and slow-building dread over cheap jump scares is admirable, the film's open-ended metaphorical conceit and stylized pretensions means that when thing slide into complete silliness half-way through, It Follows falls apart since there isn't much under the surface holding it all together.
Maika Monroe (also from last year's excellent Carpenter-influenced pastiche The Guest) stars as Jay, a bored 19-year-old Michigan resident who longs to ride in cars with boys and more importantly, have sex with the hunky older guy she's seeing Hugh (Jake Weary). She has a small group of aimless friends, including Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a childhood mate harboring a serious crush for years, and even a mysterious kid living across the street (Daniel Zovatto) who always seems to be lurking on the fringes. The film's central idea is a clever inversion of the usual trope found in teen slasher horror films where young people have sex and are then instantly punished for it by being hacked to death by some unknown assailant. Here, the only way to stay alive is to actually have sex and then pass along the supernatural "creature" to the other person. The creeping monster in question can take take different forms, from friends/ family members to complete strangers, and stalks its victims by slowly walking toward them.
By setting his film in the crumbling Detroit suburbs in an indeterminate time-frame (clothing, soda cans, and TVs all seem to be late 70s/early 80s replicas, even as certain modern cars crop up, along with a kindle-type device), Mitchell creates a nightmarish sense of place thats intermittently effective. Meanwhile, his use of negative space, compositional framing, and artful steadicam shots (particularly a bravura opening sequence which sets a tone of escalating creepiness) means that theres a real attention to gradually teasing out the suspense that works within a specific context. He also elicits strong, if underplayed, performances from his young cast; most notably Monroe, who has a slightly waifish quality that works well in the scenes where she has to conjure a sense of panic-stricken fear.
However, even though Mitchell is clearly skilled at handling tone, It Follows fails on the fundamental level of being even remotely terrifying. The best horror movies; The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, The Blair Witch Project, etc are effective because they tap into something primal that ignites a sheer tense of universal terror. Thinking that something could happen in the real world even if it defies rational understanding is the key to tightening the screws, and Mitchell, for all his skillful technique, never really seems fully invested in that. Instead, It Follows takes an initially clever idea and then simply does slight variations on it before eventually dovetailing into complete ludicrousness by the third act. Meanwhile, the metaphorical thrust of the conceit is so ambiguous (which could be read as a positive), that it never becomes a relatable prism for the audience to project their fears onto. Themes involving sexual abuse, adolescence moving uneasily toward adulthood, fear of impending death, and the lack of parental guidance are all here, but they are tied into a horror framework which is little more than a carefully calibrated pastiche of older, better films from past decades. One is always aware that Mitchell is making an overdetermined hat-tip to horror movies of his youth, and while aficionados may get a deconstructionist kick out of the results, the rest of us will shrug our shoulders and wonder what all the fuss is about.
It Follows has a lot going for it: artistic direction, Rich Vreeland's brilliant 80s synth score, a strong central performance from Monroe, an interesting central idea; but it never really congeals. The notion that sex is an inevitability and the panic teens have in terms of how it will effect their lives is a relatable fear, but constant scenes of the slow-moving monster (in one laughable case, an elderly lady limping through a school hallway) becomes repetitive rather than escalating into anything stomach-churning. Additionally, though the gradual pacing and lack of gore is a welcome respite from the usual glut of unimaginative splatter-fests we get these days, its clear after the 45-min mark, Mitchell really has nowhere to go with his conceit. Therefore, the last half of the film becomes increasingly unhinged in a way that speaks to the fact this is simply an academic exercise in horror film tropes rather than a legitimately unsettling piece of work in its own right. Still, the "pass it on to me" refrain may indeed become the catchphrase of a new generation; if only kids can pry themselves away from their tech devices in time to notice a creeping zombie-like force walking toward them.