Back in 2010, I attended a film festival in Chicago and came across a great film by David Robert Mitchell called ‘The Myth of the American Sleepover’. Unfortunately, my 4-star review of that wonderful picture never got to see the light of day because the movie did not end up getting a theatrical release anywhere in Canada. ‘The Myth of the American Sleepover’ was Mr. Mitchell’s directorial debut – a beautiful and intimate coming-of-age story. ‘It Follows’ is his sophomore effort, and even though this is a horror story (an ingenious one), he is able to take what worked so well in his previous film and superimpose it over this one.
Jay (Maika Monroe) is a teenager who has this very strange sexual encounter with her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary). How strange? Once they are finished, he uses chloroform to render her unconscious, ties her to a wheelchair in a decrepit building at night, and informs her that he has infected her with some sort of supernatural curse (a slow-moving shapeshifting entity that can be anyone she knows as well as strangers – living or dead). It, whatever it is, will relentlessly try to kill her and if it succeeds, he becomes the next target. She would have to sleep with someone else in order to pass on the curse.
I realize I’ve made this sound like an AIDS metaphor. I don’t think that is what the movie is going for. You can interpret it however you want. One thing is for certain: the movie does not condemn her for being in control of her own sexuality – it is very empowering to her in a lot of ways.
The sense of dread in ‘It Follows’ is palpable right from the get-go. Let’s talk about the opening. With the help of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, Mr. Mitchell opens the picture with some virtuoso camerawork which showcases his gift as a widescreen visual artist: a long, 360-degree take of a scared young woman running out of the front door of her home, following her down the street, following her back to her driveway as she hops in her car and drives away. With the exception of some perfunctory exchanges she has with her neighbors, this entire section is essentially wordless. And we are enamored right from the start. The 360 degree pans and long takes have us scanning the frame for what follows.
I wasn’t exactly scared by ‘It Follows’ but there is something indisputably unsettling about it. We can’t always see what Jay sees but when we do the bumbling images are bizarrely disarrayed, almost zombie-like. Mr. Mitchell’s leisurely tone is counterpoised with a screechy, jarring, and off-putting (in a good way) electronic score by Disasterpeace that puts us on edge from the moment we hear it. There are echoes of John Carpenter to be found here, particularly ‘Halloween’.
‘It Follows’ couldn’t be more different from ‘The Myth of the American Sleepover’ in terms of plot and yet the tone feels just as restrained and the pacing just as deliberate. This is one of the most hypnotic and suspenseful horror movies I have seen in a long time, and I know I said the same thing about ‘The Babadook’. We may very well be in the midst of a bona-fide horror boom. There aren’t many jump scares but it is heavy on atmospherics – the film quietly builds, generating tension organically. And like ‘The Myth of the American Sleepover’ this is a movie that could have taken place at nearly any point in time at any place and that is part of what makes it so mesmerizing. It isn’t until about two-thirds into the film when we discover that this takes place in suburban Detroit. And I don’t even know exactly when this story takes place – it could be the 1970s or it could be now; it occupies a unique semi-retro world. Interior spaces suggest a bygone era: the big television sets with cathode ray tubes, the wood paneling in the house, the terrible flowery wallpaper. A character is seen reading a book from a compact case of some sort – it isn’t an Apple device, that is for sure.
The movie works as well as it does because it keeps us at arm’s length. You won’t get an explanation of what “it” is. How did Hugh know the rules of this thing given that it was passed onto him by a random girl at a bar?
As I mentioned before, I don’t think the titular “it” in ‘It Follows’ is an AIDS metaphor. It could be representative of the sexual and social fears of transitioning from a teenager to adulthood. The shapeshifting “it” ranges in age, gender, size, and beauty. It could be about Detroit and the widespread fear of a crime-ridden city that now consists of failed businesses and declining property values. Maybe that is why the teens’ parents are almost never in sight.And in that sense, is it about America? All the things that made this once promising city have passed and now the next city (whatever it is) is next.
Or maybe I have gone off the deep end with this one. But isn’t that what great films do? Interpretations will vary but see it to find out where you land. And rent ‘The Myth of the American Sleepover’ after. I can’t wait to see what David Robert Mitchell comes up with next. QED.