I have a difficult personal relationship with the horror genre. As a child I often experienced vivid nightmares that would keep me up most of the night. Consequently, I learned early on to avoid anything that might fuel my fetid imagination with frightening imagery. To this day I experience frequent and occasionally very disturbing interruptions to my sleep, including bizarre hypnagogia that, itself, would not be out of place in a horror film. It should come as no surprise, then, that I usually choose not to watch horror films– a decision further vindicated by the fact that the vast majority of entrants to the genre are low-concept schlock designed to wring a few dollars out of seasonal box-office trends. All that being said, along with the low lows come the rare, stunning highs. Well-executed horror projects have the potential to be absolutely unforgettable; visceral, psychologically and archetypally rich journeys through the chilling recesses of our most vile selves, examinations and exorcisms of the demons that haunt us from within. It Follows represents one such high: a tonally magnificent teen-horror monster film about the tendency of the past– our decisions and our fortunes– to follow us slowly, inexorably, towards the inevitable moment of our death. Beautifully filmed, incredibly well-written, and featuring a soundtrack that frankly sets the standard for the use of sonic landscapes to create and amplify tension, fear, and agony, It Follows represents a tour de force that shines as an example of the genre’s purest form.
Written and directed by newcomer David Robert Mitchell, It Follows debuted, to great acclaim, at Cannes in 2014. Shot with a relatively unknown cast and filmed on location in and around Detroit, Michigan, the film has all the trappings of C-reel teen horror; a leering exploration of adolescent sexuality where young men and women suffer hellish, puritanical consequences for their careless backseat assignations. Despite appearances to the contrary, however, It Follows is not a story about punishing heathen children for their irrepressible lusts. Rather, it’s a story about reaching out from within the isolation of youth, towards the romance and companionship promised in our stories and fairy tales.
“Lynchian” is perhaps the simplest way to describe the attention to detail and obsession with framing and color that characterizes the photography of It Follows, not to mention the powerfully Freudian metapsychology of the thing. It’s all a convoluted allegory for sex and death and coming of age, every existential dread and anxious horror of adolescence incarnate on the silver screen. The addition of several thoughtful literary interludes (T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” makes an appearance) solidify the ambitions of the project, reaching far beyond a few supremely aesthetic thrills. Despite an abundance of violent and frightening imagery, It Follows maintains a disarming warmth and kindness to its scrappy band of protagonists, better and truer friends than one typically finds in the world of teen-horror. As Jay prepares for her fateful date, the camera lingers on her with almost paternal care. There is nothing in the disposition of the camera to suggest the predatory gaze that defines so much filmmaking in the genre. That is, of course, until we inevitably take up the nerve-wracking perspective of the monstrous force which pursues her so relentlessly.
In the moments before horror sets in, Jay delivers an unforgettable monologue, as she lazily fingers a flowering weed growing in the dirt beside the car. She admits that she used to daydream about going on dates; longing for intimacy and companionship with the unbroken heart of a child. It’s the film’s clearest moment and is easily among the finest moments that the genre has seen in more than a decade. It’s true that the story plays out much as you might expect, but each facet of the project is crafted with discipline, love for the genre and, above all, compassion for its characters resulting in an understated masterpiece; a film which calls little attention to its own artistry, but which lingers long after the chilling final frames have flicked past the lens.
Johnson Hagood is an aimless millennial living in Southern California, where he did not grow up, despite being a long-hair and everything. You can follow him on instagram @ants_in_my_eyes where he quotes Kanye West and brags about how much money he wastes on expensive craft beer.