It’s that time of year where horror is the thing to be watching, but I just caught up with one that was released way back in January, and it’s kind of a shame because this was undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year. It Follows is the second feature from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, and if this guy goes out of his way to take his cues from 70’s and 80’s horror films (John Carpenter especially, is an obvious influence here), this movie’s all the better for it.
It’s rare to see a horror film more concerned with mood than scares, but here’s one that evokes an enormous amount of dread and fear around every corner, almost regardless of whether anything is ever actually coming at you in that jump scare shot perfected by guys like James Wan of (Saw and The Conjuring). A college student named Jay (Maika Monroe) happens to be dating a guy who seems pretty into her, until it’s revealed that he was using her to “pass on” the entity that’s been following him wherever he goes. How does he pass it on? Well, through sex of course- this is horror movie about teenagers. Nothing good ever comes from having sex, and in this one the fear is made literal. The supernatural being in question is vaguely ambiguous, sometimes taking the form of loved ones, alive or dead, and always catching up with you eventually, even though it’s actually slow enough that you can outrun it for a period of time, but only temporarily.
In line with the old 70’s and 80’s horror movies, Jay isn’t totally alone in her plight. She’s surrounded by a group of friends, including her little sister, who try to believe her fear of impending doom despite being unable to see the thing that’s haunting her every living moment. The movie becomes a quest to get rid of it or pass it on before Jay meets her maker (if the thing catches up with you you’re dead, and if it kills you it comes after those who passed it that far), but the mechanics of the plot are not what makes this movie great. This is a supremely controlled effort from a very talented filmmaker, and every shot betrays a talent who knows exactly how long to hold a shot and what kind of atmosphere will present a mood that will make you afraid, no matter what it is that’s really following Jay. What is it anyway? Is it the fear of death or the fear of life? Is it everything that scares anyone of a certain age before facing the ultimate fear of adulthood? Is it the slut-shaming that follows women of any age whenever they choose to own their sexuality in positively assertive ways (that idea of passing it on is explored to exactly the point where you’d expect it to go).
This movie can certainly work on the level of metaphor, thanks to the mood, the style of acting (which is subtle and low key) and the direction which places us in a world that seems vaguely set in that 70’s Halloween era (someone has a cell phone, but not everyone, and the clothes and cars are ever so slightly retro in that respect). But Mitchell makes a crucial mistake when he decides he has to give the entity a physical presence beyond the atmospheric haunting. This occurs in two scenes, two scenes that are so miscalculated they nearly take you out of the film in a manner that makes you angry at the movie for failing to stick the landing that could have catapulted this film to the level of a classic. Because of this it must settle for being merely good, not great. But what a crying shame that is, because without such a turn of events that forces the film’s villain into a mortal movie monster, this would qualify as an essential entry in a genre that rarely produces such essentials. And with such a terrific closing sequence, I’m tempted to name it such anyway. Still, I say to David Robert Mitchell- bring on your next movie and fast. You’ve certainly captured my attention.
* * * 1/2