Sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised to be wrong. I caught my first glimpse of this at Fright Fest – a couple of scenes were tossed together in an extended preview, that came before one of the big features. There was a bit in a school and another on a beach, with some invisible killer and a few good looking ladies etc. etc. The screen went dark again and I remember whispering something scathing to a fellow festival goer who sniggered. How context changes everything. Fast forward to 2015 and, experienced as part of their whole, these become two of the most genuinely tense scenes I’ve watched in the cinema for a long time. And they’re not even the best bits. As far as first scenes go, the cold open ought to go down as an all-time great of the genre. In a stunning 360 degree pan, a terrified teenage girl leaves her house in fear of an unseen threat. Moments later she’s driving to the coast where, lit only by her headlights, she makes a tearful phonecall to her father. Something is out there, and from what we see of her in the morning sun it’s vicious. Welcome to It Follows.
The premise for this low budget chiller, from writer/ director David Robert Mitchell (behind the rarely seen indy gem The Myth Of The American Sleepover), sees Jay (Monroe) contract an invisible sexually transmitted demon from Hugh (Weary). But unlike the STDs this film draws clear parallels with, it cannot be read about in a medical textbook. Akin to a personalised zombie only our heroine can see, unless she gives it to someone else (pun fully intended), the titular It shuffles towards her through forests, suburbs and the run down outskirts of Detroit. Yeah viral based tension has been done before (with The Ring being the most notable). But not like this. It’s form changes by the scene, appearing as a child, a pensioner and any age between. What remains consistent though is the foreboding feeling that it won’t be stopped. It’s mysterious, dangerous and Mitchell’s stunningly wide shots suggest it could come from anywhere. And with the horror being as effective by day or night, the tension rarely let’s off. For a while every scene seems scarier than the one before, as figures appear menacingly in the background. Are they pedestrians or It? You won’t know, and often nor will the followed. Really there’s a lot to recommend here. The visuals are very strong, the cast are likable and when it comes to both characters and threat the script prefers to show rather than tell. Most importantly it’s also bloody scary. Nobody acts like a moron either. In a film variety often plagued by bad decisions to fit the plot, it’s rare to see one where nobody does something a real person wouldn’t. Furthermore, scenes like the aforementioned opening and a sleepover, complete with hormonal remember whens, can effortlessly transition from moments of real tenderness to absolute terror. And herein lies one of the film’s biggest strengths. Beneath the immediate plot our young team are up against a very real horror: coming of age. Their insecurities, horniness and angst are entirely believable, without verging on annoyance. Some of the bits where the teens are allowed to just be teens are among the most effective. In this middle America nightmare, where adults are mostly notable in their absence, the slow but inevitable approach of It is mirrored by maturation.
Unfortunately the central metaphor is not so fully realised. For a film to explicitly tie it’s danger to sex there is very little attempt to round off the infection allegory as being more than a gimmick. So on contracting a disease, the best way to save yourself is to spread it? Such a notion is uncomfortably analogous to the virgin cleansing myth. Of course the film never says this. But the problem is it doesn’t say much at all on the topic at all except STDs exist and they’re unpleasant. No this isn’t a hard hitting documentary, and I don’t mean to champion a film whilst simultaneously acting as if I’m above it. Just when art deals with a potentially sensitive subject matter I can’t help but feel it has a responsibility not to do so with such levity. Of course some will say this doesn’t matter since “it’s only a dumb horror!” But that sensitivity to thematic content is what can separate a movie which transcends its genre to one defined by it. Note that this feature only frustrates me because the rest of the film is so exemplary. Frankly I doubt there’s many movies I’ll be reviewing here where the subtext can be considered one of its weaker points. Another aspect I did find grating though, was the contemporary setting being countered by a self-conscious 70s aesthetic and soundtrack. Much like 2014’s The Guest (also starring Monroe), It Follows forfeits part of its individuality in pursuit of an unnecessary homage. Yes the synth is cool and Carpenteresque, but the effect gets punctured by modern slang and a character frequently reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot from an e-reader. The book is thematically linked, as anchored by a fairly on the nose, yet effective, quote towards the end. But for a movie that flirts with being temporally unspecific it seems like a needless motif. Sure there are other problematic aspects to the film; the means by which the gang tracks down Hugh is unconvincing, and the structure gets formulaic in the third act (though in fairness, it recovers with a gripping finale). But it’s worth emphasising these are fairly minor faults to a film that gets so much right.
This soon it’s rare to watch a movie it wouldn’t seem premature to call an early contender for horror of the year. But I can see this making top fives on numerous scary movie websites. The problem with being a genre fan is the more you see then the rarer it is to find one that really gets to you. I think this one will. And as with its characters, I reckon you’ll want to pass it on fast.