David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, the latest from the John Carpenter Sensory Ethnography Lab, begins with a stunning confluence of panic-rousing stimuli. As the camera pivots slowly to the right, the soundtrack throbbing with sinister synth washes, a girl runs from her home, pausing briefly in the middle of her suburban street to stare in horror at a threat that’s invisible both to the audience and the neighbor who kindly asks her if she needs her help. Before running back into the house, before driving off into the dead of night, before tearfully calling her father from a lonely beach, and before Mitchell jump cuts to a ghoulish vision of the girl’s corpse, leg broken and dreadfully twisted back toward its head, the camera unbelievably, in one unbroken movement, flips between positioning the audience as victim and victimizer.
Mitchell’s aesthetics, so rigorously yoked to his main character’s point of view, even consciousness, are one of synesthesia, and they remain agonizingly unnerving even after the film’s voyage into the unknown dubiously reveals itself as a cautionary tale. After their movie date is mysteriously cut short, Jay (Maika Monroe) happily consummates her budding relationship with Hugh (Jake Weary) against the backdrop of an ominously abandoned factory. But Jay’s post-coital bliss quickly turns sour after Hugh knocks her out and hogties her to a chair, explaining to her that he’s infected her with a sexually transmitted haunting. No exorcism will save Jay from this shape-shifting killer, presently manifest as a naked girl, that will appear to her and follow her at random—though she can stave off the promise of death, if only for a little while, by sleeping with someone else and passing the haunting on.
The exact tone and modulations of Mitchell’s camera, his disarmingly gorgeous delineation of slow-growing madness, and those synths that loudly—perhaps too loudly—dominate the soundtrack all align the filmmaker rather explicitly with John Carpenter. And as in his prior The Myth of the American Sleepover, Mitchell’s innate sense of visual beauty internalizes his characters’ fears, and often ingeniously projects them onto us. In one particularly unnerving pirouette of the camera, Jay remains oblivious to the figure that moves slowly toward her from across campus as she speaks to an employee inside her school, so when she exits the building and the film cuts to another scene, the audience is left choking on the unresolved tension—of never knowing if the figure is Jay’s tormenter or just another kid at school.
It Follows’s sense of horror is chic, but far from cold-eyed, for Mitchell mines the uncertainty of his characters for humor, too, as in a scene that sees Jay and her friends searching for Hugh in order to get his advice on how to best deal with Jay’s ghostly stalker. But the nostalgia for the vintage that abounds throughout the film—the old black-and-white movies, a strategically placed game of Parcheesi, the late-night screening of Charade that Jay and Hugh attend—feels scarcely expressive of the characters’ desires. And the titular menace can, as metaphor, feel too catch-all: for STD transmission, the phenomenon of “gift giving,” and, more generally, the prickly, vulnerable crawlspace between adolescence and adulthood. And it’s a metaphor that Mitchell pushes to its absolute limit in two scenes that actually see the film’s characters traveling to their suburban enclave’s actual limits: Conflating the disease that haunts Jay with the detritus of Detroit, the filmmaker gives new, and self-conscious, meaning to ruin porn.
Though visionary, It Follows abounds in undigested ideas and dubious sexual politics. Adults in the film are largely conspicuous in their absence, mirroring how teenagers are wont to make their parents strangers to their sexual evolution. And while the shape-shifting nature of Jay’s pursuer is initially intriguing, that this entity often takes on the appearance of the characters’ parents weirdly raises more than just the specter of that sex-education scare tactic that, each time you sleep with someone, you also sleep with everyone in his or her past. And by the time that Jay’s predictably uncomfortable relationship with her friend, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who’s pined for her since their first kiss years ago, seemingly resolves itself—spoiler alert!—as a concerted go at a monogamous union, the film leaves one with the impression of having slut-shamed its characters toward potential salvation.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 22—February 1.