It Follows review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
It Follows may draw from the well of classic 1980’s horror, but it only fishes out the notable elements. The finest features happen to be its tone, lifting the creepy synthesizer soundtrack and dark photography right out of the era. These are inserted not as campy winks, but skillful homages used as ingredients for an original horror story. It’s that extra edge which helps transform a spooky allegory about teen sex into something more engaging and far from the simple traps of commercially viable horror films.
It doesn’t take the obvious or easy route for a concept of ghosts that haunt via sexual transmission. Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell keeps the ghastly nature aloof and intriguing, slowly building the mystery. While the true nature of the magnetic ghosts is revealed, the film takes time to develop some real teenage characters. These are the types that relax in pools on cloudy days and spend nights cozied up to the television watching bad sci-fi movies. They are the easygoing products of the suburbs, quietly falling in love and secretly fooling around in the backseats of cars. But the latest love interest of Jay (Maika Monroe) turns out to be a boy infected with visions of the paranormal. After passing down his condition to her during one romantic night in the car, he briefly explains her new condition. She will start to see ghosts that will slowly start walking towards her, inching closer until they can zip in for the kill. The only known way to get rid of them is to pass this trait onto another through sexual intercourse.
You can probably guess how Hollywood could ruin such a plot. It could turn into a wild sex romp of the teens bickering and feuding, passing the condition back and forth among each other like a game of hot potato with some of them raping each other to avoid death. It could even insert some tasteless jokes about practicing safe sex and how a condom could’ve prevented ghost visions. At its worst, this could’ve been a warped bit of propaganda for abstinence, which it very likely could be for the most gullible of viewers.
But Mitchell has a wickedly crafty hand for creating more of a chill than a bludgeoning message. Part of creating such a real world is Mitchell’s inspiration for the walking ghosts from a nightmare he had at a young age. He utilizes the sexual transmission as a means of passage more than a major allegory. It’s easy enough to see why Mitchell wanted to keep such a script so secret given how he remarked that saying the concept out loud “sounds like the worst thing ever.”
His worries can be put to bed, however, seeing as how he has created one heck of a horror picture with beauty and smarts. It feels very personal and relatable the way there are plenty of moments where the characters are just hanging out without much going on. Jay comes in from the pool and drips a little bit of her wet hair on to her TV-watching friends as a playful joke. There’s a very relaxed tone to these college kids who are quietly enjoying their youth. By that same coin, the terror and dread of looming death is perfectly set by the photography and music. It came as no surprise to discover that Mitchell’s biggest inspirations were the works of George Romero and John Carpenter, encapsulating their methods of building on terror. He turns the decayed areas of Detroit, Michigan into a gorgeous spectacle with wide-angle lenses and dark lighting.
Mitchell also relies on more atmosphere than gore in how most he plays up more genuine thrills than blood. The kills are mostly kept off screen, playing more with your imagination and fears of the following spirits. The opening scene finds one unlucky girl escape to a beach where she speaks her tearful goodbyes over the phone. The film then cuts to morning where her corpse has her legs bent so far back they have snapped off at the bone. Not only does the film leave it up to the audiences to discover what the ghost does, but it leaves it entirely up to the kids to decide how to deal with them. There is no lengthy backstory or spooky old relic they have to track down to lift this curse. They’ll have to use their wits to defeat these ghosts rather than some lame MacGuffin. It may sound a little off that guns are actually effective against these ghosts, but sometimes it’s more engaging to go with something more simple than blessed bullets or ancient artifacts.
It Follows is the moody bit of horror that plays on the best elements of the genre classics, but never winks or ribs with its nods to the greats. There’s been quite a bit of these atmospheric horror films as of late, many of which with a similar parable for sex. But David Robert Mitchell soars over the competition with a film that’s both mesmerizing to watch, thrilling to follow and engaging to be immersed within. Where other horror films struggle with trying to generate scares in little nuggets of jumps and stabbings, It Follows creates one long sense of unease throughout that sticks with you long after the credits. Mitchell may be lifting from several classic horror movies, but the greatest artists steal and he has just raided the Fort Knox of horror films.