Film Review #2: It Follows (★★★)

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Although you may not have seen “It Follows” yet, you’ve probably heard about this indie horror film that everyone’s gushing about. And, trust me, it’s for good reason. Ever since the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival back in May, the film has been slowly, but steadily garnering buzz with stellar reviews from critics and heavy fan praise on social media. It’s been doing so well, in fact, distributors have pushed back a VOD release and opted for a wider release, following it’s limited theater release earlier this month. While “It Follows” is not frightening enough to keep you up at night, it’s chilling enough to haunt your thoughts throughout the day, as it gives new meaning to the phrase: the dangers of teen dating.

Director/writer David Robert Mitchell’s (“The Myth of the American Sleepover“) sophomore feature is gearing up to be a sleeper hit. Box-office wise, it’s been pulling in impressive per-screen averages and currently has a 94 percent average rating on rottentomatoes.com (just so you know, “Birdman” currently stands at 93 percent) – a high rating for a horror film not seen since 2012’s horror satire “The Cabin in the Woods.”

Set in a picturesque suburban neighborhood, the film introduces us to Jay (Maika Monroe) a blonde, doe-eyed college student who begins dating Hugh (Jake Weary), a seemingly nice, strong-faced suitor. They go out to dinner and a movie, then consummate their date at the end of the night. This is when things begin to go down hill for our protagonist. In what is perhaps the worst post-coital conversation ever, Hugh explains that there has been something malignant following him and the only way to stop it from killing him is to have sex with someone. He tells her to pass it on before it kills her, then skips town, leaving her to her own fate. This is essentially a film version of those persistent chain letter we all got in grade school that we had to pass to ten people “or else.” Now that the curse has been passed to Jay, she begins seeing silent stalkers coming after her, also. Jay, along with the help of her friends, try to stop whatever force is after her, while she figures out what to do: should she just keep running away every time she sees someone ominously walking towards her or should she take Hugh’s advice and make it someone else’s problem?

School’s might as well begin incorporating this film into their sexual education program, because it’s an on the nose metaphor for a real life horror – an STD scare. What is so disturbing about the film is how much it borrows from real life: from the curse’s sexually transmitted feature; to the paranoia that ensues days after its transference, wondering when something, or in this case someone, will show up; to the guises the film’s monster takes, “it’ll look like people you love,” Hugh tells Jay; to the conspicuous lack of adults in the film, an obvious reference to the fact that parents are often oblivious to what their kids are up to in their own home. The film doesn’t try to offer a pedagogical solution to a large-scale issue – it’s just a really fun thriller, laden with social relevance. Of course, that’s an ambiguous and, perhaps even, pretentious claim. You could come at this film, dissecting it from different angles, offering that the premise is a cloak for date rape; incest; the morals of having sex with people, knowing you have a disease or other really heavy real world problems. While it may be fun, if you’re like me, to speculate what Mitchell intended his “monster” to represent, the question that, I think, arises with this movie is how much over-speculation can ruin your experience. There is one interesting thought, however, that I kept revisiting due to the director’s ubiquitous shot of the suburbs. Not to sound preachy, but as a person of color, I tend to notice when there is a conspicuous absence of other persons of color in a film. In this case, every character in the film (other than a few extras) are white. I don’t have any qualms about this, but the reason I bring this up, is because I feel Mitchell was surreptitiously dangling this notion in our faces the entire time. The film takes place in ostensibly present-day Detroit in a quiet upper-middle class neighborhood, with noticeably white residents. In one scene, the actors head to the city – we’re talking decrepit, graffiti-laden buildings on each side of the road – to head to a forlorn school building. One of the characters states that while growing up, her parents never let her travel to that part of Detroit. Why Mitchell decided to plant this racially-conscious idea into the film is something I’m still thinking about. If the director intended for this to be a topic of conversation, he never makes it transparent enough. But it certainly seems so.

But I digress…

As I mentioned, this horror film won’t disturb your dreams, but it offers plenty of jumps, mostly thanks to a heart-pounding-inducing score by Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace), reminiscent of John Carpenter‘s memorable leitmotif in his “Halloween” films or Bernard Herman‘s distinct staccato sound in Hitchcock‘s “Psycho.” But don’t think this is a rip-off of great horror films before it, “It Follows” plants touching homages here and there for the meticulous genre aficionado, while bursting into the conversation with a clever approach and creative ingenuity that will likely impress even the most phlegmatic audience member.

Vreeland’s magnetic score is compounded by surreal-like cinematography by D.P. Mike Gioulakis, lending the film a dream-like/nightmarish vibe. In addition to these elements, add Mitchell’s beautiful camera work – his gorgeous (and quite often creepy) long shots to his emotion-externalizing shaky camera to a 360 degree pan – and you have the technical stew for a horror film to please the senses. The missing elements are a great story and acting. Oh, but don’t worry. Mitchell delivers on those aspects, as well. The film is led by a non-stereotypical performance by Monroe, who easily shuts down “scream queen” labels with her nuanced delivery as a pretty mature young adult who has brains to match her all-American girl good looks. The other performances were fine, but nothing worth the praise Monroe will get from me. The story, though, is what I believe will hook audiences (other than that chilling opener!) Early on, audiences learn the curse Jay is burdened with has an interesting twist that will leave you clutching your arm rest for a good portion of the film. Yes, I jumped a few times. Nothing that left me traumatized, but the pacing was perfectly sufficient to keep the jumps persistent and my heart rate at a moderately elevated pace throughout the experience. My only real issues with the film were some unsatisfactory special effects and an anti-climactic face-off in the end that felt desperate. However, the film’s last scene, which I heard polarized most audiences who’ve seen it, was oddly satisfying and appropriate for what, I think, the film was trying to convey.

This isn’t the type of horror film I’m used to watching. And that’s what I liked about it.

“It Follows” opens wide this Friday, March 27.