Horror has never been a consistently popular genre with the general public. In recent years however, multiplex audiences have been fed on a diet of cheap knockoffs that believe the best way to scare an audience is to unexpectedly make a lot of noise at random intervals across 85 minutes. Every now and again, a film is appointed as the saviour of the horror genre; a film that realises that true scares come from a connection to something relatable or human. It Follows arrives just a few months after the similarly hyped The Babadook; both films differ greatly, but both manage to take familiar tropes and ideas of the horror genre and twist and blend them into some fresh and distinctive.
Teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) is enjoying her life at school, with her friends and with her new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary). After having sex with Hugh, Jay finds herself tied to a wheelchair with a panicked Hugh keeping lookout. Hugh has transferred a curse to Jay, a curse which manifests itself as a person slowly walking towards her. If it catches up with Jay, it will kill her and move back to the previous victim. Wherever Jay goes, it will follow and to make matters worse, it could take the form of any person at any time. The only way to get rid of it is to have sex with someone else; to pass it on as Hugh did to Jay.
Right from the off, the film takes situations and concepts that seem familiar to us and twists them into something unnatural. A girl runs out of the house, desperate to get away from her pursuer. It’s a situation that can be found in almost every slasher film, going all the way back to John Carpenter’s genre defining Halloween. Except no one appears to be following her. She runs out of the house, across the street before coming full circle and re-entering the house. It’s something recognisable but slightly odd, yet it makes perfect sense in the context of the film.
The central threat of someone persistently following you may not initially sound particularly frightening but works so well here because it is only following one person at a time. This is not a monster that is causing everybody to panic. It’s so unnerving because it can blend in to the most calming and natural situations. Whilst the walking threat is reminiscent of the zombies in George A. Romero’s early “Dead” films (films where the zombies were terrifying not only because they wanted to eat you, but because of their unwavering persistence), the person does not shuffle or stumble along; they walk steadily but with purpose. This makes it almost impossible for Jay to spot her attacker until she is close enough to see their face. Writer/ Director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis use long takes, panning across spaces or circling round as if the camera was a character surveying the area for the approaching curse. It’s highly effective and you can’t help but scan the area for the curse and if you spot it, the tension grabs a hold of you as you wait to see if Jay spots it in time.
The sense of unease is further compounded by the Mitchell’s reluctance to overtly place the film in an identifiable time period. It is the present day but the inclusion of old films, the almost complete absence of modern technology and the use of the decaying streets of Detroit (shown in a similar fashion in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive) give the film a undoubtedly nostalgic feel.
The true nature of the curse is left somewhat unanswered; it’s a representation of a more abstract idea instead of a tangible threat with a backstory. This can lead to a sense of initial dissatisfaction but is ultimately makes for a more interesting film. I felt that it wasn’t simply advocating abstinence nor was it a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease; it was something more than that. Peter Bradshaw pointed out in his excellent review that it had to be something more than that because the only way to get rid of the curse is not to become abstinent and that sexually transmitted diseases can’t be gotten rid of by passing them on.
The key for me lay in some of the conversations between the teenagers and how, when taken out of context, they could’ve been lifted from any coming of age/teenage film. When you take away all of the dread and unease, It Follows is a classic coming of age story with teenage anxieties, unrealised crushes and where sex is a rite of passage. It encourages the acceptance and exploration of sex and love that develops at that age as well as acknowledging the difference. The ending elegantly hints at how the curse may be escaped whilst remaining tantalisingly ambiguous.
It Follows was released in UK cinemas on Friday 27th February 2015.