Considering only first and second films are eligible, it’s no mean feat to be a director returning to Cannes Critics Week--it necessarily means that your debut was selected too and that you therefore have a 100% hit rate with the Critics Week committee. It’s just such a feat that David Robert Mitchell, director of 2010’s charming coming of age tale “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” has managed to pull off, and it perhaps accounts for some of the advance buzz surrounding his sophomore effort “It Follows.” After the first screening however, the word of mouth only got louder and its status as one of the breakout hits of this or any other sidebar seems assured, with not a few impetuous critics rushing to declare it their find of the festival. If, to our mind, that might rather be overpraise, that’s not to suggest we didn’t greatly enjoy the film’s spirited ambition to fuse an arthouse sensibility with classic genre horror, but there were occasions when we felt the two impulses cancel each other out rather than complement and comment on each other. And while in the context of Cannes, the unstuffiness of its genre elements may feel like a refreshing change of pace, elsewhere, audiences versed in horror may be disappointed by the film’s relative softness, as it favors mood over outright scariness and features a threat that feels a little undefined; as chimeric in its abilities and limitations as it is in perceived form.
It sure starts off great, though, with a downright odd, creepy prologue featuring a young girl in inexplicable stilettos bolting out of her suburban house (much of the film unfolds in the suburbs, their banality eloquently counterpointing the supernatural menace) pursued by some phantasm that she can see but we cannot. We learn her grisly fate and then cut to our main protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe) the beautiful older sister of Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friend of Yara (Olivia Lucardi), Greg (Daniel Zovatto) and the lovelorn Paul (a very endearing Keir Gilchrist). Jay has sex with her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) for the first time, but instead of a post coital cuddle, Hugh chloroforms her and, when she wakes up tied to a chair, explains sorrowfully that he had sex with her in order to transfer the apparition that’s been following him, and whose touch can kill, to Jay instead. Naturally she doesn’t believe him at first, but soon she starts seeing the apparitions–the evil spirit (or whatever) shambling along toward her in different guises, a naked woman, a very tall man, a child. Hugh establishes the parameters of the haunting early: ‘it’ can take any human form it likes, walks slowly but is constantly coming for her, and can only be transferred by sexual intercourse at which point the sexual partner becomes the hauntee.
The parallels to the well-known pattern of ’70s slasher films in which teens are punished for sexual behavior are clear, but the film cleverly works in clues to alternate, metaphorical readings, adding layers of texture and allusion. So we notice that many of the forms that “it” takes for Jay are family members (recognized from photographs) and yet the film unfolds in a largely parent-free environment, suggesting the impassable gulf that can exist between the teen world and the the lives of benignly neglectful adults who are nominally responsible for them. And with the entity itself at one point seeming to kill a victim through sex, and the potentially fatal haunting’s status as a kind of sexually transmitted disease everything from AIDS panic to peer pressure over virginity loss (though the film is refreshingly smart and non-judgmental about teenage sex) to the almost mythical hold that the sex act can exert over the adolescent imagination, can be read in if you care to.
It’s also dreamily photographed, by DP Michael Gioulakis with a terrific sense of the atmosphere-building potential of the long take, and clever compositions designed to have us scanning the backgrounds for movement even where none exists. And Rich Vreeland‘s score deserves a mention all by itself–heavily John Carpenter-influenced, the blaring atonal drones of ascending volume are so omnipresent and willfully overblown that it’s where the film’s two-sided ambition is most fully realized. It may riff on classic horror in terms of instrumentation and even melody (or lack thereof), but how it’s used it far more arthouse than grindhouse.
So the artistry and atmospheric richness of the endeavor are not in doubt, but it’s the film’s credentials as an effective horror that we are less sure of. The “rules” of the phantasm’s limitations, (and therefore the way that they work out how to defeat it) are a little diffuse–how does it catch up to the kids at the lake? Why do they wait within walking distance? Where does it go after being temporarily defeated? Similarly, the fact that despite being invisible it has form that can be hit or felt or outlined by having a sheet thrown over it is kind of awkward too–where does the blood come from when it’s shot? And shouldn’t the whole point of setting the climax at a swimming pool be so that in water you’d be able to tell where it is? These and other no doubt overly literal-minded niggles, as well as a general lack of truly frightening moments left our horror itch a little unscratched. Refreshingly unironic in its retro vibe (it nods to the classics, but never winks), for us “It Follows” worked like gangbusters as an exercise in atmosphere and allusion, but a little less so as an out-and-out supernatural horror, and only at certain times did it achieve a perfect synthesis of the two. [B]