(SPOILERS) David Robert Mitchell’s unstoppable horror has received rounded acclaim, even embedding itself in Sight and Sound’s hallowed Top 20 of 2015 list. It’s certainly an effective, confidently-directed latest incarnation of the relentless boogeyman, heavily indebted to John Carpenter (complete with retro-synth score from Disasterpeace) but also bringing its own psychosexual component (a bit like Cronenberg but shorn of the grue). In other words, it’s no wonder Kim Newman loved It Follows.
To the extent that there’s nothing new under the sun, I’m not entirely sure the kudos heaped on the picture in terms of its exploration of sex and death are entirely deserved, however. It Follows is essentially raking over coals. But Mitchell is so sure of himself in technique and execution, taking a leaf out of Carpenter’s aforementioned book with his widescreen lensing and long lingering set ups (of empty Detroit suburbs), allowing the space itself to become threatening in its own sweet time, usually when “It” idles into frame, or merely through someone looking for “It” to no avail, that it’s almost impossible not to be won over.
The world Mitchell envisages is hermetic, isolated and claustrophobic, even when its protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe, following last year’s acclaimed genre effort The Guest, which was also indebted to ‘70s/ ‘80s cinema and synths) isn’t stuck in a room without an easy exit. It’s the knowing exteriors that most evoke the dream logic Mitchell’s aiming for, though, where it’s impossible to evade your pursuer no matter how far you run. As Newman notes in his review, It Follows is curiously absent of adults, adding to the cumulative sense of divorce from anything approaching a normative environment.
While much of the attention has focussed on the means by which It gathers victims, apparently this notion came later in Mitchell’s conception of the picture. It’s a classic horror trope, of course; teenagers having sex spells death, so embodying that force has a certain inspired literalness to it. With that inevitably come readings regarding STDs and AIDS (“Someone gave it to me, and I passed it on to you…”) complete with the fear of a faceless virus that exists anywhere and everywhere (“It can look like anyone, but there’s only one of it”). Then there are the post-infection consequences belying the truth (“I don’t feel any different”, comments Paul) And eventually, no matter what precautions you take to survive (by fucking as much as possible, the ultimate act of feeling alive) it will encroach on you again. All potently familiar, then, but it’s in the execution that Mitchell makes an impact.
And much of what really works here is also about the observation of character, as opposed to the mechanics of the monster or why the cast haven’t watched Scream and its sequels, so continue to do really stupid things despite having clear rules to obey (that should be a relief in a way, although those who claimed Scream was going to change the horror map forever were mostly writing puff pieces rather than devout believers).
Mitchell makes some interesting choices that break with the expected for such fare, some of which work and some of which are less successful. As so often happens, Jay tells others of her waking nightmare, and they either don’t believe her or tell her not to worry. More surprising is that It ends up manifesting to her friends, who then no longer doubt her delusions. On one level, this is a bold move; now the isolated teen has friends rallying around and attempting to defend her. On another, the rules by which this wraith operates no longer seem quite so comprehensible or overpowering, leading to an over-stoked climax that doesn’t make much sense in either the planning our outcome (this may be why no one actually discusses the plan aloud; Mitchell knows it isn’t much cop, but he can’t come up with anything better).
But the means by which archetypes are highlighted in interesting new ways is striking. There’s pretty Jay (Gwen Stefani-pretty; Monroe, who gives a mesmerising performance, gets that a lot) who will have no trouble finding a guy to pass It on to. Says Jake Weary’s Hugh, the guy who impregnates her with “It”, then drugs her and ties her up so she can have a really close look at her ardent pursuer; one wonders how long he spent figuring out this modus operandi. Like the classic one-night stand guy, Hugh is only interested in his own satisfaction (she should sleep with someone as soon as possible, as “If it kills you, it will come for me, you understand?”)
Platonic nerd childhood best friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) nurses an eternal flame for Jay, and is more than prepared to be pursued to the death if it means he can have sex with the object of his desire, but Jay is interested in handsome Greg (Daniel Zovatto), whom Jay’s sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) fancies. There’s also Yara (Olivia Luccardi), focussed on her clamshell reader and seemingly not especially into anyone, so she may well survive longest post-credits.
Jay’s congress with first Greg and then Paul is less about passing the buck than seeking some kind of protection, but she is nevertheless knowing about what she is doing, just less ruthlessly so than Hugh. The closing sight of her and Paul walking hand-in-hand, having trapped herself with someone she isn’t attracted to for the sake of peace of mind, is revealed as a slow death itself (curiously both are wearing black and white in the last scene); inevitably the struggle and cycle to feel alive will have to begin again.
I liked the early scenes where Jay and her gang decide to track down Hugh; it makes for a refreshingly pro-active approach, one that is abandoned once the need for characters (Greg) to disbelieve resurfaces. But the rules at points feel a little Gremlins for a picture taking itself so seriously; an interesting moment comes when it appears Jay will swim out to a boat and have a threesome with the men on board, but clearly she decides against it (unless It made short work of them). Yet such conjecture raises the prospect of mockery, like that scene in Gremlins 2; does this thing really just walk everywhere? What if you hop on a plane and travel to the other side of the world? Will you have respite for several years (or will It hop on a plane too?)
And, while It’s revealing itself as interactive with those uninfected makes for an original twist, it doesn’t entirely make sense. Earlier we see the thing seemingly not interacting with others (in corridors, in the Jay’s house in the form of a giant), but now It’s visible in its actions, can punch Paul and have a rug thrown over it. Most bizarrely, it seems it can be shot.
Maybe this is Mitchell referencing the unstoppable Carpenter “Shape”, such that it will inevitably resurface in the final reel, but there’s a lot of difference between starting with something supernatural and Carpenter finishing with the intimation that something may be. I wondered too at the different approach the thing took; the attack on Greg made most sense in terms of the kind of creature this is, an incubus/succubus that feeds on sexual activity, and which will suck the life essence from you (most queasily while appearing as Greg’s mother; "It looks like people you love, just to hurt you"). But this contrasts with the more typical “crazy” monster that snaps the leg of the first victim we see backwards, or starts throwing stuff around a swimming pool.
Inevitably, there’s talk of a sequel, in which Jay traces the source of the curse, and Mitchell who is “personally not that interested in where it comes from” is also open to the possibility. I tend to think he’s better treating It Follows as a one-off; once you start unravelling or deducing, 9 times out 10 you diminish the mythology. And you also run the risk of making it seem like just another movie series. Perhaps It will become a one-off anthology series come the second sequel, before reverting to increasingly pedestrian follow-ups with the third.