With It Follows, David Robert Mitchell puts his own spin on the unstoppable supernatural force subgenre: no uttering strange incantations or taking something that doesn’t belong to you; here, if you have sex with someone who is cursed, the curse passes to you. Wherever you go a spirit (could be male, female, old or young) follows you – always walking, never running – and it always finds you. All you can do is give the curse to someone else, by sleeping with them.
It Follows has some imaginative cinematography, an impressive John Carpenter-inspired score by Disasterpeace (real name, Rich Vreeland), and plenty of frank, true-to-life dialogue (Mitchell, who wrote the screenplay, knows how teenagers think and behave). The massive, hard-to-ignore problem is that the film’s not scary. At all. Not even slightly.
Mitchell has a fantastic, original idea for a horror film, and he wastes it. The opening is intriguing enough: a young girl runs out of her house, steals her dad’s car and makes several phone calls saying goodbye to the people she loves. In the next scene she’s dead, her body lying on a beach, contorted into an impossible shape. Mitchell makes the wise decision of only showing glimpses of his nameless spirit, but despite using wide shots to great effect, making you search the screen to try and work out where the ghost will appear next, there is no tension here, no threat. The spirit rarely appears and, when it does, it’s easy enough to avoid (keep running, shoot it in the head, or, if all else fails, lock the door and you’ll be fine). Earlier – and better – ghost stories, such as Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon or Hideo Nakata’s Ring keep their antagonist out of sight, yet still manage to scare you, to convince you that a powerful force is after its main character and can’t be stopped.
Scenes that, on paper, should be tense, look away from the screen set pieces are let down by ropey CGI. It Follows’ ghost is silent, so if your back’s turned you’ve no clue it’s there. This happens during one scene as you wait for the inevitable pay off. What follows looks terrible. CGI has been the downfall for many low budget horrors (the closing seconds of Paranormal Activity), and It Follows falls into this same trap. The film’s climax falls flat; it’s unintentionally funny thanks to some dodgy CGI toasters and hairdryers.
Mitchell even has the nerve to throw in some cheap scares, the kind that sub-par horror films have dredged up since the seventies: a football hitting a window, a shelf collapsing in an old house. If you’re a fan of horror, these shocks won’t even register.
It Follows isn’t a complete mess. Instead of the easy option – take some dark locations and point and shoot – Mitchell plays around with the visuals. One highlight has Maika Monroe on a park swing at night. She turns her head and the camera cuts to where she’s looking. Nothing. She turns her head again. Nothing. Looks behind her. Again, nothing. This goes on for just over a minute, no music, just Monroe’s breathing. While Mitchell avoids an obvious scare, the smartest thing would have been for nothing to happen here and cut to the next scene (that’s what early John Carpenter or Dario Argento would have plucked for).
Mitchell’s young cast are all using mobiles, Kindles and social media sites, contrasting this with shots of run down Detroit. Like the malevolent ghosts of M.R. James’ stories, there is no explanation for why the spirit in It Follows does what it does, but the various crumbling buildings at sunset suggest that this is an ancient evil, let loose in these technology-driven times.
Maika Monroe gives an excellent portrayal of a young woman who is not only working out how she sees herself, her body, and how others (especially boys) look at her, she also struggles when she figures out the curse’s Get Out of Jail Free card. The boy who gives her the curse tells her she’ll be fine; “You’re a girl, you’re pretty”, but it’s not about that. Sex is important to Monroe’s caring, gentle Jay, something she only does with a man she loves. Jay takes a long time to work out what she wants to do; she’s having sex to stay alive, but this still makes her feel cheap.
Much of a horror film’s power comes from the isolation of the protagonist. It Follows bucks this trend, Jay having friends who are willing to go out of their way to help her, even risk their own lives. The whole cast are believable: shy, introverted Paul (Keir Gilchrist) who can’t convey what’s going on in his head, or Yara (Olivia Lucardi), an attractive girl still working out how to dress and make herself look. You can’t fail to notice that Jay’s female friends all comfort her, give her emotional support, while her male friends quickly volunteer to sleep with her. In a subtly written scene, Paul asks Jay why she chose to have sex with Greg (Daniel Zovatto) and not him. Jay explains it’s because she cares about Paul that she didn’t sleep with him; Greg’s tough, he’s proactive, she knew he would be okay. Jay couldn’t take that risk with Paul and end up losing him.
Disasterpeace’s score for It Follows is something special. Using old-school electronic synths, Vreeland deftly flits between gentle, vulnerable sounding pieces, to discordant and brooding. Vreeland’s score can remind you that here we have a protagonist who is still figuring out how to find love and how express it, but also that there is something coming after Jay, something wrathful, that could be anywhere at any time. If anything, too much pressure is put on Vreeland and his music; there is no pace to Mitchell’s script, its antagonist isn’t anywhere near as frightening or convincing as it needs to be. Vreeland is doing all the work here, and while his music is outstanding, it can’t hold up an entire film.
It Follows is a waste of a great idea. Mitchell’s script doesn’t even take the time to examine what you would do in Jay’s situation. Would you chat up a guy in a bar, pass it on to a willing friend/victim, go on one of these meet for sex websites? Also, how different is it for men who have the curse compared to women? None of this is discussed in any great detail. Despite being influenced by early horror films that ooze atmosphere (Jaume Balagueró’s The Nameless, Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge, the Pang Brothers’ The Eye) It Follows won’t scare you; you’re less likely to be thinking about it after you leave the cinema, more wondering why the poster has so many rave reviews. Mitchell’s second film isn’t the worst horror film of recent years, but it’s one of the biggest let downs.
2 out of 5