David Robert Mitchell’s intelligently observed first feature “The Myth of the American Sleepover” captured a group of teenagers over the course of a long summer weekend. At times, the 2011 release evoked nostalgia for the limited goals of a young person’s mind. For his sophomore effort, “It Follows,” Mitchell returns to that subject from a perspective that at first may seem like a radical change of direction, since it finds him working within the constrains of the horror genre. But rather than altering his approach to accommodate expectations, Mitchell manages to bend them into an instrument for his own ideas.
While “Myth of the American Sleepover” elevated the whiny young archetypes of a John Hughes movie to expressionistic heights, “It Follows” turns to eighties teen slashers of the “Halloween” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” variety with an eye for their metaphorical implications, by rendering the looming threat of adulthood in ominous terms.
At the movie’s world premiere in Cannes, a programmer introduced “It Follows” as a blend of the atmospheric classic horror movies of Jacques Tourneur (“I Walked With a Zombie”) and the metaphorical coming-of-age elements of John Carpenter. That’s an apt starting point for describing a strange and menacing supernatural story that offers its fair share of allegorical depth. Even its calculated scares come from a real place.
The opening scenes establish the presence of an unseen force, as a 360-degree pan tracks an unnamed young woman wandering the streets of suburbia fleeing an invisible presence. Moments later, we see her broken body on the beach, the victim of something horrible.
Like the opening of “Jaws,” the monster is immediately present even as its true nature remains obscured, but it doesn’t take long for “It Follows” to put the danger in more precise terms: During a sexual encounter on a run-of-the-mill date, 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) winds up tied to a chair by her frantic companion Hugh (Jake Weary) as he explains to her the new challenge she faces: By sleeping with her, he has transferred to her the presence of a phantom being that consistently appears to him as it slowly walks in his direction—taking on the form of people he knows or suppressed fears. It can’t run, but it always knows where your location, and never stops heading that way—step…by step.
And just like that, a nude woman gradually begins to advance towards them from the shadows. Vaulting them to safety, Hugh explains the terms of the situation: Stay away from the being at all costs, and try to sleep with someone in order to pass the danger along.
While that premise may suggest a canny metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases, Mitchell instead uses it to construct an elegant portrait of teen confusion in much broader terms. Cinematographer Michael Gioulakis’ lush images lend the movie the look of a delicate tone poem, while the dreary synth score by Disasterpeace allows for the teen’s mindset to take on a grim literal dimension. At first, that’s the only way that Jay can grapple with her situation. The ghostly figure slowly approaches her wherever she goes, from school to home, while nobody else can see it. Eventually, her concerned friends catch on—but rather than calling the mental ward, they take her seriously, furthering the impression of representative storytelling on display. There’s a deep uneasiness associated with the creepy possibilities of something awful slowly walking towards you out of the darkness. Each of these characters, in the process of growing into young adults, can relate to it.
As with “Myth of the American Sleepover,” Mitchell pairs his believable ensemble with a dreamlike world that resembles their perspective of reality. Aside from the ghastly being that takes on numerous appearances as it stalks Jay around town, the movie features no prominent adult characters. Those limitations extend to the environment as well. The period details hint at a story set in the eighties, but Mitchell keeps the specifics of the time and place obscured throughout. It’s as if the teens are alone in an imaginary place defined by their limited perspectives, and their anxiety over the entity’s recurring appearances in various different forms becomes a potent symbol of inescapable challenges lurking just beyond their understanding.
No matter its conceptual intentions, “It Follows” never ventures too far from visceral horror. Mitchell populates a number of scenes with well-timed jump scares as the being frequently bursts out of the shadows or appears in unexpected forms, while the score provides a screaming punctuation mark. But even if this gimmick has been done to death, it takes on a more dreadful quality in the context of such an otherwise low key mood piece.
As “It Follows” finds Jay and her friends gradually attempting to take control of the situation, learning its rules and planning to outwit the creature, Mitchell rarely indulges in clichés. Scenes often end with unassuming fades to black; the passage of time is riddled with ambiguity. Though a final confrontation lacks the internal logic that makes the scenario effective from the beginning, Monroe’s subdued performance gives her a credible dimension that allows her distress to remain believable throughout.
She’s complimented by the rest of the controlled cast, which includes a wide-eyed Keir Gilchrest (“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”) as an old friend pining for her affections and the slick Daniel Zovattao (seen last year as the star of Larry Fessden’s similarly minimalist horror effort “Beneath”) as his semi-rival. Her other friends, played by Olivia Luccardi and Lili Sepe, never develop substantial personalities, but in this spooky fairy tale the real star of the show is its artfully crafted atmosphere. For that same reason, it’s unfortunate that Mitchell leans on special effects during a few key sequences when the characters confront their invisible foe, turning “It Follows” into a literal horror movie that distracts from its powerful symbolic core.
But the movie manages to keep hold of the eerier aspects embedded in its themes. In one blatant maneuver to place the movie in a literary tradition, a character reads passages from Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” throughout the story, eventually arriving at one quote that epitomizes their dismaying situation: “Your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person…the worst thing is that it is certain.”
Facing the anxieties of their encroaching mortality as their carefree teen years begin to fade away, the teens in “It Follows” realize they’ve been trapped by a frightening inevitability. There’s nothing as inherently terrifying as the steady approach of an evil presence that just keeps on coming. “It Follows” explores the intimate aspects of that fear by suggesting that it will never, ever dissipate.
“It Follows” premiered in Cannes at Critics’ Week last weekend. It does not yet have U.S. distribution, but is expected to sell in the near future.