London Film Festival 2014: It Follows (Mitchell, 2014)

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Any child of the 90s will tell you that sex = death in the horror movie, that the moment the virgin (and we’re only talking women here) pops her cherry, she signs her own death warrant. It’s a trope that hasn’t yet borne much scrutiny: Scream highlighted it but did nothing to dismantle it; Cherry Falls attempted to flip the script on it but failed by not being very good. So, it’s a huge relief that we now have It Follows, one of the first horror movies to really examine the idea that teens need to be punished for having sex, and one of the best, scariest, and most visually ravishing horror movies in years.

Its premise seems simple: after having sex on a third or fourth date with a guy,nineteen year-old Jay (Maika Monroe, fast on her way to becoming a scream queen for the ages) violently discovers that through the act he has passed onto her a curse, and that she will be followed, slowly but unwaveringly, by something that can take on the appearance of anyone, loved ones or strangers, scary-looking or normal-seeming, and that it will keep on following her until it catches her and kills her or she passes the curse onto someone else by having sex with them. There are more rules to this curse – it goes after the previous victim once more once its killed its current one; it doesn’t stop but it only ever walks, so it’s easy enough to evade but exhaustingly relentless in its pursuit; it’s invisible to those who haven’t been cursed, but not intangible to them – but what it really boils down to is the image of a figure walking slowly in a straight line towards her.

We end up constantly scanning the frame for it – is it that man in the far background? – fearful of where it is when we can’t see it, worried that our heroine won’t notice it in time. Director David Robert Mitchell says he based the idea on recurring nightmares he had as a kid where he’d see someone in a crowd and instinctively knew that they intended him harm, and the image again and again inspires a kind of intense but unplaceable, dreamlike fear. During the film’s many, terrifying setpieces, it provides us with some big, inventive scares, too, literally playing on our expectations: we know exactly what’s going to happen, we can see it coming, but can they escape it in time?

As a pure genre exercise, then, It Follows is as effective as they come. What pushes it past this and into greatness, though, is its deconstruction of the “sex = death” trope, in such a way that doesn’t lead to easy moralising or definitive answers. The sex that Jay has is entirely consensual, but its aftermath feels like violent rape, particularly as she did not consent to a life-destroying curse. One is reminded of predators in the gay world who infect others with HIV without their consent, though that parallel isn’t explicitly referenced here – Mitchell seems most concerned with the idea of consent and the impact of such a violation. Jay ends up broken from the encounter, too afraid to leave her room until she is forced to – the fact that the entity appears to her again and again as family and friends implies the internalised guilt that so many rape victims feel. She is forced into sexual encounters she would not otherwise engage in, and these only alleviate her fear for short periods. Her male friends – both of whom she has had difficult romantic pasts with – offer to take the burden from her, but their offers feel thornily self-serving, even exploitative.

For someone who begins the film as someone who seems secure, even mature, in her sexuality, the process she goes through is heartwrenching. She isn’t entirely isolated – the lived-in-feeling friendship group that supports her even before they fully believe her provides the film with a core supporting cast – but adult authority figures are curiously absent, only ever on the edge of the frame, or asleep, or being decidedly unhelpful, and it feels as thought they, together, are alone in this.

The absence of core adult roles could be more of a stylistic choice, though. As with Mitchell’s previous The Myth of the American Sleepover, American suburbia, specifically Detroit’s, is the chosen milieu here, and as with that film he renders it in a gorgeous, dreamlike haze that is utterly beguiling when it’s not utterly terrifying. Director of photography Mike Gioulakis draws some real poetry out of his locations, shooting with a tenderness and sense of enchantment rarely seen in genre film, and the technical acrobatics he performs in the film’s horror sequences are extremely accomplished. Other stylistic and tonal choices work beautifully too – the pounding electronic score by Disasterpiece recalls John Carpenter and Goblin whilst being a unique beast of its very own, and his decision to use props and signifiers from a variety of different decades and setting it in a city that is slowly falling into decay, all gives It Follows a timeless quality that only adds to its intoxicating mood.

The Myth of the American Sleepover was pitch-perfect in tone but low on ideas, the debut of a director that had immense promise but quite hadn’t pulled his influences together. It Follows delivers on that promise absolutely, a rich, intelligent, beguiling horror film that refuses to sacrifice its mood for scares and vice versa, and it is so full of ideas that it is remarkable that it doesn’t buckle under its own weight. By the time he ends his film on a note of cautious optimism, he has only begun to explore his central conceit, and if there’s any justice in the world it will be inspiring “what would you do?” conversations across forums and at sleepovers for years to come. At the Q&A I attended, Mitchell stated that this film explores just one person’s reaction to this situation, that there were all sorts of ways that this story could go. The thought is endlessly appealing: to see this style applied to an inner-city, or another country, to other walks of life and kinds of people. One can only hope.

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