I’m not exactly sure when it happened exactly but the walls between the world of horror cinema and the world of more respectable indie fare seems to have largely collapsed at some point. Well, maybe the walls were pretty porous to begin with. Given the general disrespectability of the genre combined with low costs involved in their production horror films have long been made independently, but they rarely feel like quote unquote “indies,” because they’re “low” populist productions that so often catch on with the “wrong kind” of filmgoers. However, in the last few years we’ve seen a sudden surge in filmmakers who seem just as willing to make splatterfests as they are to make dramas about the relationship travails of ill-spoken twentysomethings. It’s a trend that’s been so prevalent that it’s even earned a nickname: “mumblegore.” The latest (and perhaps most successful) example of this crossover is It Follows, which was directed by a guy named David Robert Mitchell, whose last film was a dreamy meditation on youth called The Myth of the American Sleepover.
It Follows is about a college aged girl named Jay Height (Maika Monroe) who has been seeing a guy named Hugh (Jake Weary) who has been acting a little strange. After Jay and Hugh consummate their relationship in the backseat of a car one night Hugh suddenly attacks her with chloroform brings her to a secluded spot and ties her to a chair. He explains that he isn’t doing this to hurt her and that she would be released soon but that he needs to warn her that he’s just passed a curse on to her. This curse passes from person to person through sexual intercourse and that the only way to rid herself of the curse is to pass it on to someone else. Until she does this she will be stalked by a slow moving ghostly figure that could look like any number of people to her but who will not be seen by anyone else and will kill her if it ever catches up to her (at which point the curse would fall back onto Hugh). He then drives her away, leaves her at her doorstep and promptly disappears without a trace. Jay is skeptical about the story he told her of course, but as you can probably guess this supernatural stalker does eventually show up and begin to make her life a living hell.
Trying to find underlying social messages both intentional and unintentional is certainly something of a pastime among horror fans, and one doesn’t really need to dig too deep into It Follows in order to find some themes to chew on. It is certainly no coincidence that this curse is passed through sex rather than, say, a haunted VHS tape. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to view this as an allegory for a sexually transmitted disease but given that one is allowed to fuck this curse into somebody and then leave them with the consequences would actually point more towards an allegory for an unwanted pregnancy. Of course it could be that the allegory is actually for both STDs and pregnancies at the same time while also more broadly representing the full spectrum of physical and emotional baggage that people push onto their sexual partners during casual hookups. Beyond that there is sort of a moral quandary at the film’s center as Jay is forced to decide whether or not she wants to escape her problem by transmitting the curse into someone else, which would be a somewhat coldblooded act, especially given that it isn’t exactly a guarantee.
Of course the other great pastime of horror fans is to hold an incredible reverence for the genre’s past and to expect new entrants in it to show their horror fan credentials. This movie certainly shows its admiration for past horror film, more specifically it displays a deep indebtedness to the films of John Carpenter. The film’s widescreen shots to teenagers running scared through suburban streets are highly reminiscent of Halloween and the film also has a very Carpenter-esque ambiguous ending. The biggest Carpenter nod though is almost certainly Rich “Disasterpeace” Vreeland’s synth score which has all the distinctive stings you would expect from a John Carpenter score. Vreeland’s ability to mimic Captenter’s style is admirable but his score is laid on a bit thick at times. It works well during the suspense scenes but it can be a little distracting during the quieter moments so overall the score is a bit of a double edged sword. The movie is also set in a strange sort of temporally ambiguous world. One character has a cellphone/tablet thing, but the characters all seem to have CRT televisions and old cars and most of the time the film could easily be mistaken for an 80s period piece.
To David Robert Mitchell’s credit, this movie isn’t purely a Carpenter derivative. I haven’t seen Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover but between the trailers and the reviews I do have a pretty good idea of what its general tone was like and I do recognize it in this to some extent. The movie has a number of quiet spells that you wouldn’t expect from a studio horror movie and a certain melancholy over the characters’ lives. His interest in the lives of young people and their awkward friendships does appear to be genuine and he doesn’t fill his movie with airheads who exist to be killed off. This indie movie tone pervades the film, but the visual style does pick up when it counts and the movie is able to pull some really accomplished shots out of its back pocket at certain key moments.
It Follows exists in a horror cinema environment that has been in something of a rut for the last five years or so. It seems like every horror movie since the decline of torture porn and the release of Paranormal Activity has been a slow burn haunting movie where ghosts stalk people and jump out and say “boo!” Boiled down to its base horror elements the same could more or less be said about It Follows. Like last year’s The Babadook this isn’t so much a revolutionary game changer as it is an interesting twist on a current trend. Its stylistic flourishes and its moderately interesting subtext do elevate it above its competition and definitely make it a must see for horror aficionados, but it still wasn’t that that bold new step for the genre that I was hoping for.
***1/2 out of Four