It FollowsReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/20/15 03:32:25
It is no secret that the horror film has been in a bit of a creative lull, to put it mildly, for the last few years thanks to a glut of unnecessary and creatively bankrupt sequels, remakes and ripoffs that have reduced a once-proud genre to such dregs as "Annabelle," "Ouija" and the "Paranormal Activity" series entire. However, the last couple of months have seen a sharp upswing in the quality of horror-related offerings on display. First there was "The Babadook," the intense Australian thriller about a harried single mother trying to protect herself and her hyperactive young son from a creature that resides within the pages of a creepy children's book. Next came " A Girl Walks Home at Night," a lovely and lyrical Iranian-American take on the vampire mythos. Just a couple of weeks ago saw the release of "What We Do in the Shadows," a hilariously gory fake documentary following the day-to-day (well, night-to-night) lives of a quartet of vampires living together in a dilapidated New Zealand flat. Now comes the low-budget American-made shocker "It Follows" and as good as the aforementioned titles were, it is an even better film. I would go so far as to say that it is the slyest and smartest take on contemporary horror tropes to come along since "Cabin in the Woods." The difference being that while that one leaned more towards comedy (albeit of an exceptionally black and bloody variety), this one is more concerned with sending chills down your spine and achieves that goal in spectacular fashionIf you do go--and you do--be sure to be in your seat in plenty of time because the very first scene is a little masterpiece of pure cinema that is bound to go down as one of the great opening sequences of recent years, regardless of genre. In it, the theoretically bucolic sight of an ordinary suburban neighborhood street at twilight is upended when a clearly petrified teenaged girl runs out of one of the house and begins frantically stumbling up and down the street as if she were being chased--only thing is, there is nothing else there as far as we can see. Eventually, she gets into her car and drives off into the night, eventually winding up at a deserted beach where she shivers in the sand while leaving her parents a phone message telling them that she loves them. Clearly she is expecting the worst and without giving it away, her expectations are met in an exceptionally gruesome manner. This opening is flawlessly executed in every possible way--from the jaw-dropping cinematography from Mike Gioulakis to Bailey Spry's performance as the girl, who starts off at 10 on the hysteria meter and only goes higher from there--and when it comes to its grisly conclusion, you will a.) think that it is one of the best sequences of sustained terror in recent memory and b.) wonder if the rest of the film can possibly live up to its promise. Let me just say that a.) it is and b.) it does.
After that opening, we are introduced Jay (Maika Monroe), who almost seems to have been bred specifically for all of her 19 years to one day be the heroine of a horror movie--she is pretty, blonde and definitely a Good Girl, if perhaps not a virgin per se. One night, she goes out on a date with new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) and while he occasionally seems a bit distracted, the night is otherwise perfect as they go from a movie to the backseat of his car where she finally succumbs to his charms. It is all perfect up until the moment when he informs Jay, in an especially harsh manner, that by having sex with her, he has passed on a mysterious curse that manifests itself as a relentless shape-shifting apparition that only she can see and which will continue to pursue her, no matter how far she goes, until it catches and kills her. The only way to stave off the inevitable, at least temporarily, is to have sex with someone else and pass the curse on to them (as he points out in a way that is presumably meant to ease the blow but which is even crueler in hindsight, since she is young and beautiful, she should have no problem finding someone to take the hit)--however, if that person gets killed, she is back in the crosshairs.
Upon hearing the explanation of the film's basic premise, many hardcore horror buff may find themselves grinning at the way that writer-director David Robert Mitchell has taken one of the hoariest cliches of the mad slasher genre that he has clearly been evoking--anyone having sex is dead meat while the virginal girl is the one who gets to survive to at least the final reel--and stands it on its head. However, "It Follows" is no joke as it manages to mine its conceit to marvelously disconcerting effect. Alone, vulnerable and increasingly terrified (a sensation quietly underscored by the general absence of parents or any adult authority figures), Jay knows that she is in the middle of a waking nightmare but, unlike the guy who infected her, she is not willing to use her charms to pass the curse on to another hapless soul. Instead, with a few close friends, she tries to get to the bottom of what is happening in order to find a way to rid herself of it once and for all. Of course, the two boys amongst them--lovesick nerd Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and hunky Greg (Daniel Zovatto)--offer to help temporarily relieve her of her burden, purely for her sake, of course.
Mitchell made his feature debut in 2010 with "The Myth of the American Sleepover," a meditation on coming-of-age films of the sort perpetrated by John Hughes and his various acolytes. I liked that movie well enough, though I was not quite as enthusiastic about it as some of my colleagues, perhaps because of my general antipathy towards the genre he was exploring, but I never would have imagined on that basis that he would have a film like this in him. Perhaps that is not quite accurate since many of the most appealing elements of the previous effort--his facility for creating interesting, complex and recognizably real characters and his ability for choosing the proper setting to help establish the mood (while both films are set in the suburbs of Detroit, the one pictured here is a little tattier and closer to the burned-out outskirts of the city, adding an additional edge to the proceedings)--are on display here in full force. At the same time, however, he proves to be just as adept in creeping out an audience without always resorting to cheap shocks and overt gore--he milks the gorgeous widescreen cinematography for all that it is worth as viewers find themselves in Jay's shoes as they are constantly scanning the horizon to try to determine who is real and who is the latest manifestation of her paranormal pursuer. Even before the film goes into full horror mode, Mitchell is suffusing the film with a subtle sense of dread and foreboding--a brief bit with Jay swimming in a backyard above-ground pool is quietly unnerving in ways that most movies of this type never come close to approximating.
Although "It Follows" is top-notch across the board, there are two elements that deserve to be highlighted further. The first is the star-making central performance by Maika Monroe as Jay. She has been in a few things before in supporting roles--films like "At Any Price," "Labor Day" and last year's cult hit "The Guest"--but this is her first time at the center of a film and she knocks it out of the park with an absolutely winning turn that sees her going from sweet and vulnerable to fiercely determined in an entirely realistic and appealing manner. What "Halloween" did for the career of the then-unknown Jamie Lee Curtis after it came out, this will hopefully do for hers. Speaking of "Halloween," another key aspect to the success of that film was the driving score by John Carpenter and likewise, "It Follows" is driven by a relentless synthesizer score by Rich Vreeland, recording under the name Disasterpeace, that evokes the music from the classic films of Carpenter and Dario Argento without ever feeling like a retread and which many viewers will want to download as soon as they get out of the film. (Some people may insist that the score is too overpowering at times but those people are clearly missing the point.)For the vast majority of its running time, "It Follows" is as good as one could possibly hope for it to be and it is only towards the home stretch that it comes close to stumbling--Jay and her friends attempt to execute a plan for dispatching the demon once and for all that is a bit of a botch both in concept (it is hard to figure out exactly what they are trying to do or why they think this approach would have a chance of working) and in execution (there are points where it comes uncomfortably close to an homage to "Hollow Man." Even though this stuff doesn't work, the rest of the film is so good that I was willing to forgive this misstep as the one idea of Mitchell's that just didn't quite come off as well as the rest. Besides, it does lead to an immensely creepy and quietly effective final shot that is more concerned with concluding the story and giving viewers one last legitimate chill than in trying to set up an unasked-for sequel--like the rest of "It Follows," it will knock you for a loop and haunt you for a long time after you have left the theater.
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