With It Follows, director David Robert Mitchell aspires to produce a humanist slasher film in which the victims’ pain is felt and empathized with front and center. The demon that hounds the characters of this film, passed between them like a STD, doesn’t represent a delivery of the kind of just deserts that a Jason Voorhees-type reliably feeds his horny victims, but a realization of the protagonists’ blossoming vulnerability at the point of activating their sex lives. Namely, their fears of being slut-shamed by their parents and friends, or by being spurned by their partner once the latter has gotten what they wanted (another form of slut-shaming). There’s no need to be coy about gender though, as this is a movie specifically about girls’ anxieties toward boys, which are fueled by parents and authority figures who cast a stark, puritanical light on sex by telling the former that the latter only want one thing, and that the girls no longer matter once said thing is procured.
Tellingly, the plot is set in motion, after a terrifying prologue that opens the film in media res, when Jay (Maika Monroe), a gorgeous, pointedly all-American blonde, sleeps with a guy (Jake Weary) in his pointedly all-American convertible. We’re never told this, but for some reason, we sense that Jay’s losing her virginity in this scene, despite an element of stylized tenderness and grace to the sex that eludes most people’s first time. Jay’s friends are poignantly protective of her in a way that suggests that her dalliance with this somewhat older boy is an experiment—a voyage embarked on for the informational good of the entire group, save for Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a prototypically awkward late-bloomer who’s clearly, painfully in love with her. This context renders Jay’s later betrayal, the revelation that this boy has duped her into a life of evading a looming, shape-shifting monster, all the more devastating.
The monster, which can physically approximate both strangers and loved ones, following its victim slowly until cornering them and tearing them apart, represents not only the uncertainty that accompanies sexual initiation, but the figurative scar tissue that sexual abuse yields, leaving someone adrift and alienated from society, feeling tainted. Jay resembles a rape victim after her encounter with this boy, which is staged, particularly in a scene in which he drops her off at her house, as if it’s a date that ended in assault. Jay’s efforts to escape the monster, then, resemble a quest in which she must learn to trust and rejoin society after a violation—her healing signified by her unlikely union with Paul, who accepts her monster and all.
It Follows is an unusually ambitious, beautiful, and thoughtful contemporary American horror film, made with a level of care and craftsmanship that’s verboten in franchise cash-ins like the Paranormal Activity sequels or those Platinum Dunes remakes. But the film also grows boring and redundant, with no spontaneity and few thrills that feel truly in-the-moment dangerous. The story is all subtext, some of it incoherent, which is to say that It Follows is one of those films that’s more stimulating to discuss than to actually watch. (Mitchell especially fails to earn one disturbing, randomly incestuous murder sequence, and there’s a recurring, ultimately pointless riff on Detroit-centric class boundaries that appears to be included solely for the way it thematically recalls the considerably more visceral Candyman.) Mitchell’s striving for an expressionist emptiness that directly quotes John Carpenter and Wes Craven’s early films, but he lacks their talent for informing their conceits with a pulse. Characters here utter poetically contrived sentiments against backdrops that are artfully, eerily unpopulated so as to foster curiosity as to when and where “it” will strike, though surprisingly little fun is had in terms of toying with your expectations of guessing where the monster will spring. “It” tends to proceed, glassy eyed, up from the dead-center of each and every frame, which eventually grows tedious.
Though the film more or less takes place in the present day (one seashell-shaped cellphone is spotted for the sake of laboriously namedropping The Idiot), its world is devoid of any casual cultural textures, inspiring pitiful gratitude for the occasional monster-movie snippets that are seen on self-consciously ancient TVs so as to reference Halloween referencing The Thing from Another World. Mitchell is one of many contemporary young directors to willfully ignore the fashions in which the Internet’s connectivity challenges the isolating properties of the horror genre: Every element of every image is obviously planted, or omitted, to mean something. The cinematography is stunning and impressively rendered in that richly colored, gauzily lit old-school Lynch or Brian De Palma fashion, and Disasterpeace’s score strikingly recalls Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, and Vangelis’s music, but the movie is ultimately dead from the neck down; despite its sexual theme, it’s asexual and meekly, defensively aestheticized.
You’re never not aware of the work that’s gone into It Follows, particularly when Mitchell resorts to his one significant formal flourish over and over again: a camera pan that aggressively, slowly emphasizes its own horizontal movements, occasionally pirouetting in 360 degrees, suggesting the determined tracking of the monster. But only Mitchell’s determination truly registers; aiming for a canonical horror classic, he embalms his film in borrowed signifiers. It’s time for directors of Mitchell’s generation to resist hiding from the terror of contemporary life among the comforting detritus of 1970s and 1980s movies, face their own horrors, and deal with them.
Despite its faults, It Follows is undeniably attractive, visually and aurally, and this transfer fully honors those qualities. The image is wonderfully detailed, which is important for a film that’s devoted to prowling tracking shots set in the universal suburbia of our movie-fed dreams. Distinctive textures abound, from the bricks in the rancher houses to the twigs floating in the above-ground swimming pool to the cracked plaster dotting the abandoned homes on the wrong side of 8 Mile. Colors are awesome, particularly the primary blues and reds, which are most effectively displayed in the night-lit sex scene that sets the story in motion. The soundtrack is similarly subtle, differentiating the varying sounds that accompany characters as they tread on continually changing surfaces (such as when their feet crack down on the aforementioned plaster). Disasterpeace’s excellent score has a willowy, multi-dimensional presence. One can discern the different instruments and their alternating, contrasting heaviness and softness. It’s a score that can be called a soundscape without fear of hyperbole, and it’s a font of pleasure—the single most consistent element of the film, apart from the achingly vulnerable performances of the cast.
The critics’ audio commentary hosted by Scott Weinberg, featuring Eric D. Snider, Britt Hayes, Samuel D. Zimmerman, Alison Nastasi, and Eric Vespe, is prone to stating the obvious in a rambling, repetitive manner (which Weinberg himself even admits at one point). There’s too much time devoted, for instance, to explaining how "It" partially represents the terrors attached to growing up, which even non-cinephiles will accept immediately as a given. Skip-able. The interview with Disasterpeace is disappointingly too short to get into the actual business of film composition, subsequently working only as a charming puff piece. A poster gallery and the theatrical trailer round out this slim collection of supplements.
Though this wannabe in horror classic’s clothing is overrated by its cult, It Follows offers plenty of formal pleasures, which have been superbly preserved by Anchor Bay. Only the supplements disappoint.