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At The Picture Show
March 2015

It Follows

Don't look back

'It Follows' is a master class in slasher filmmaking and a wise reflection on the end of youth

It Follows
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Screenplay: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Daniel Zovatto, Olivia Luccardi and Jake Weary
Rated R / 1 hour, 40 minutes
March 27, 2015
(out of four)

Growing up is never quite what you expect it to be. You get older, but you don't really feel any different. You still have the same friends, but invariably the nature of those relationships has changed. You finally have the freedom you always wanted, but with it the isolation you didn't bargain for. Your parents aren't always there like they used to be, but neither is their protection. You're making your own rules and your own decisions, and dealing with the ensuing responsibilities that you're not quite equipped to deal with yet. At last, you're able to have sex ... and brave all the physical and emotional perils that come with it.

Stories about innocence lost are about as old-hat as horror movies about teenagers, and in both cases, sex is typically a - if not the - driving thematic and narrative force. It Follows certainly encompasses each of those elements, but writer/director David Robert Mitchell harnesses them into a uniquely potent rumination on all three, crafting a stylish genre exercise as ruthless as it is thoughtful.

The slasher-movie premise itself is ingenious enough, the "slasher" in this case being a malevolent figure whose pursuit is passed from one person to another through sexual intercourse. It follows you - relentlessly, perpetually changing its appearance from one human form to another - until it catches you and kills you, or until you sleep with someone and pass "it" over to them. Far from being just a playful STD allegory (although it's certainly that as well), It Follows finds its resonance by situating itself in that rare space where adulthood is still in its infancy.

The characters could be mistaken for high-school students* - they still live at home, still find solace in their childhood bedrooms with carefully decorated walls, still lounge the days away with the same friends they've known for years, and they certainly still look young enough to get carded for cigarettes - but in fact they're college students. (Most of them, anyway.) There's a very old-fashioned familiarity between them, like they all grew up in the same neighborhood. The character dynamics are one of the film's great accomplishments - there's such an unforced naturalism among them, an unfettered comfort and jocularity mitigated only by the occasional bit of sexual tension.

* Mitchell's debut effort, 2011's The Myth of the American Sleepover, navigated similar waters, exploring characters either at the tail-end of high school or the beginning of their college years, no one quite sure what to do about the ambiguous yearning still tying them to the days they just left behind.

It's no wonder the characters in It Follows keep harkening back to places of innocence - the neighborhood swing set, the backyard pool, even an impromptu sleepover they all know they've outgrown. They reminisce about one another in younger contexts - first kisses, old traditions, memories of childhood whose meaning they didn't understand until years later. But just as crucially, parents - adult figures in general, for that matter - are deliberately absent (as they were in Sleepover). They're only rarely seen, and when they do show up it's often in the corners of frames, or from obstructed angles. In some cases they're nothing more than a figure in a photograph, or the unheard voice on the other end of a one-sided phone call. Mitchell makes sure these kids - if you can call them kids - are, for all intents and purposes, on their own. One of the film's key sequences takes place in an old building in an area of town their parents always warned them to stay away from. Wide-eyed and uncertain, they find themselves confronted by the ubiquity of danger.

As is so often the case with this genre, the film centers primarily around a female protagonist (the better to explore vulnerable sexuality with, my dear). Her name is Jay and she's played by Maika Monroe in a second impressive performance (after last year's The Guest) in which she establishes herself as the de-facto go-to girl for '80s-inflected suburban thrillers. She's dating a boy - well, he's 21, or so he says - named Hugh (Jake Weary), and she's on the cusp of taking the relationship to the next level. The moment finally happens - in the backseat of a car, of course, on the outskirts of town next to an abandoned building - and her post-coital demeanor is pleasant and carefree. Until, that is, Hugh chloroforms her and she wakes up tied to a wheelchair in one of the aforementioned building's empty floors.

No, Hugh's not the predator the imagery might suggest - well, not exactly. He simply is - or was - the carrier of a disease that he has now passed on to her. And in a scene that both establishes the premise and warns Jay about what is to come, he explains the situation. She is now afflicted, and the only way to get rid of it is to have sex with someone else. If that someone else were to be killed, it will come right back to Jay, and then to Hugh, right on down the line. (Those who have been infected but have passed it on can still see the thing - whatever or whomever it is - but are no longer its target.)

He keeps her tied to the chair until it arrives - initially appearing in the form of a naked middle-aged woman - walking in the slow, steady, unrelenting pace that will be its custom. Obviously, it can be outrun, but only for so long - it, of course, never wastes time sleeping or standing still. It's always following. When his demonstration is through, Hugh drops off Jay - obviously distraught, and still only half-dressed - back in front of her house and peels away. She spends the ensuing days finding comfort with her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), her childhood friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist) - who harbors a not-so-subtle crush on Jay - and the cool kid from across the street, Greg (Daniel Zovatto). She mostly disregards Hugh's warning - it couldn't be possible, could it? - before the thing finds her in class one day. This time it takes the form of an old woman in a nightgown. She spots her through the window, from across the schoolyard. Initially Jay's just a bit curious, then gradually unsettled, and finally terrified as it keeps walking toward her, expressionless and unseen by anyone else. Mitchell deploys the thing's appearances cleverly and in some cases very subtly - at times we see someone who might be it, but no one ever notices. Other times we see it arrive - maybe from the distance, on the side of the frame - well before anyone catches on to its presence.

This is where the most impressive pieces of craftsmanship come in, and one of the many areas Mitchell solidifies himself as the real deal. Over the last couple years, I've written extensively about the number of films and filmmakers quite obviously - and deliberately - indebted to the work of John Carpenter, but of all the recent films drawing that influence, It Follows is easily the most impressive, and among the only ones that genuinely belong in Carpenter's orbit. This is pitch-perfect horror filmmaking, from the withholding opening shot (a slow 360-degree pan around a mostly serene suburban street, disrupted by the terror of a teenage girl in heels who bursts out of her house on the run from the something, only we don't see it yet) to the jarring, unnerving electronic score (which, again, calls to mind Carpenter, as well as directly referencing Herrmann's Psycho score) to the genuinely unusual and even inexplicable forms that "it" takes throughout the movie (making the calm matter-of-factness of the way it moves all the more eerie as a result). The thing can appear as you, it can appear as a family member, it can appear as a ghoulish figure you've never seen. (It never speaks, it never runs, but it never stops, either.)

At one point, it appears to Jay in a form that unsettles her to the core, and which she can't even say out loud. Eventually, the movie makes a subtle reveal as to that particular vision - and that reveal speaks right to the deeper issues at the heart of the film, as well as even hinting, perhaps, at something even darker. But that, like so much else, remains unspoken.

Like any other group of movie teenagers caught in an impossible supernatural situation, Jay and Friends try to do all they can to understand or solve the situation - run from it, hide from it, trick it, kill it - but their actions do more to reveal their innocence and naïveté than protect them from the evil hunting them. No grown-ups are around to protect them. Whatever it is, they alone have to come to terms with it. (Cue the film's great final shot sequence, both chilling and oddly serene.) They long for the safety and comfort of youth, but know they can't have it. Not anymore, and never again.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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