The movie follows a young college student Jay (Maika Monroe), who after sleeping with a new boyfriend (Jake Weary) is tied up by said boyfriend and told that he passed something onto her, a curse of sorts. She will be followed by a shape shifting creature that can take the form of anyone. It walks and it follows, and if it catches you, you die.
Following the significant buzz surrounding the film after a successful showing at Cannes, I was weary that It Follows would be one of those art house indie horrors that critics champion because of its confident formalism and restraint, but which audiences – particularly horror buffs – won’t connect with. In many ways this expectation was met. Horror is a genre that thrives on predictability. Films that move away from from that traditional formula of jump scare after jump scare are threatening to alienate an audience who come to see a HORROR MOVIE. And as a horror movie, It Follows is merely adequate. However, as a gorgeously mounted, minutely budgeted calling card for writer/director David Robert Mitchell, it’s amazingly successful.
The film has many flaws, which I’ll get to soon, but from a production perspective, it’s nearly flawless. DP Mike Gioulakis’ crisp widescreen images and Rich Vreeland’s deeply unnerving John Caprenteresque electronic score, along with the naturalistic performances Mitchell elicits from his young cast (especially Monroe who is the epitome of girl next door beauty and warmth) are what makes this movie successful and unique. Not that It Follows is purely an exercise in style, but it’s clear that Mitchell’s instincts as a director are more finely honed than his talents as a screenwriter.
Which brings us to the ‘I enjoyed this, but’ part of the review. However before leaping into that I want to clarify that focusing on mood over scares does not make this a less enjoyable movie. There are enough legitimate scares to qualify this as a horror. The issues arise from the film’s sometimes awkward mix of horror conventions and the naturalistic low key teen drama of Mitchell’s previous sleeper hit, The Myth of the American Sleepover. The relatively intelligent teen characters in the film are constantly doing the dumbest thing possible in the classic ‘don’t go in there, girl’ vein of stupid horror cliches, especially during the non-sensensical climax. Also the awkward love triangle between the ‘bad boy next door’ type character (Daniel Zovatto) and the ‘nerdy friend who has a crush on the lead’ type character (Keir Gilchrist) is not developed enough to connect emotionally and just distracts from the seriousness of the threat following Jay. In fact, I’d go as far as to say the film would read really badly on paper. In the hands of a lesser director, the film would be laughable and dull.
The film also suffers from the ambiguous nature of the antagonist. Initially I appreciated the brevity of the follower’s introduction, after all who cares why this is happening, I can take the premise at face value. It’s a horror movie for god’s sake. However as the film went on I spent way too much time pondering questions like ‘but wait, who can see it, who can it touch, how does it kill, how does it choose it’s random, often naked forms?’ and so on, which distract from the movie and its retro ‘John Carpenter meets John Hughes by way of Sofia Coppola’ vibe. Despite shitting on this movie, it’s that exact vibe that lingers with you after the movie is over. The movie feels inexplicably timeless in its subtle 80s throwback way and gives the movie a naturalistic quality that informs its characters and tone.
So to extrapolate on the answer to my question of ‘can a horror film get by on atmosphere and filmmaking chops alone?’ Yes, kinda. As long as you treat the film as an unpretentious teen drama with some tense thrills rather than a full blown supernatural horror movie.
Overall Rating: 7.5 STD metaphors out of 10