David Robert Mitchell’s new feature creeps up on us in all the right ways.
Getting its creep on right from the get go, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows begins, sans context, with a girl running out of her house and around the street, seemingly at random, while her neighbours and father try to ascertain what the problem could possibly be. Clearly she’s terrified but also reticent to say what’s happening. She eventually hops in a car and drives off at speed. A horror film which blends ostensibly competing sensibilities, It Follows is one part supernatural horror, one part slacker drama, and one part psychological creeper. Mitchell and co. achieve synergy with this odd recipe delivering an inventively creepy and relationally insightful feature.
After a couple of promising dates with new boy Hugh (Jake Weary), things take a sudden and inexplicable wrong post-coital-turn for Jay (Maika Monroe) when some kind of vengeful spirit begins to stalk her. What looked to be a lazy summer break with her sister and two close friends suddenly morphs into a desperate scramble for Jay’s safety and, perhaps, her sanity. This spirit, unseen by all but its single intended victim, moves toward its target with the inexorable purpose (and shambling pace!) of an old school zombie (think Romero’s Dawn of the Dead)—but beware, brains are not what it is seeking. Unsure what to believe and strengthened in number by Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the dark-haired boy from across the street, Jay’s posse close ranks around her and attempt to figure out and fix whatever it is that has gone wrong.
Some might recall the writer-director from his 2010 debut The Myth of the American Sleepover. An impressive and authentic distillation of teenage expectation, Mitchell evinced a patient directorial hand and a good feel for working with younger actors in a similar way to Gus Van Sant. Mitchell’s sophomore feature conjures another group of young friends, not long out of high school, and successfully imbues them with that familiar melange of easy intimacy and heightened awkwardness that a lengthy history of close-quartered friendship brings. Despite relative inexperience the ensemble cast have good cohesion, giving performances that play off each other and stay believably in line with their age, context, and the crazy shit they have to deal with. This spirit, you see, has a fixation (of sorts) on sexual activity. The director uses this ‘tool’ to broach the simmering feelings of desire and envy stirring amongst the friends and to dig into their social dynamic. It is fascinating that in such a dramatically charged genre piece, the director’s bent towards naturalism remains intact. The time the kids spend hanging out, including when they are on the run, have a very true sense to them. Emotions run high when need be but the urge to go big and broad is strongly resisted. Even when sex is on display it is shot in a realistically restrained manner: there are no screaming, grunting theatrics here.
Speaking of restraint, rather than your typical bloodbath and slew of gory moments, the filmmakers make inventive use of sound, camerawork, and editing to ratchet up the tension and generate the scares. The keyboard driven ‘8-bit’ electronic score by Rich “Disasterpeace” Vreeland—known primarily for his video game sound design—is front and centre, lending an unsettling early 80s Carpenteresque tone to the film (à la Escape from New York or The Thing). At times I felt the score was mixed too far forward but there is no denying how effectively this drives the film along. The film is fashioned by Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (John Dies at the End) with a ton of patiently held long shots that really pay off. Occasional ‘feature shots’ are cleverly applied, adding to the overall visual interest and level of tension. Prime examples being: a 720 degree slow spinning pan outside a high school admin block which alternately tracks the protagonists meeting with a member of staff and the slowly approaching spirit coming across the grounds toward them, and a couple of pool scenes using underwater shots looking up towards the surface. A key tension building technique utilised repeatedly by the filmmakers is a particular mid-paced zoom and follow. With this movement the camera mimics the unremitting motion of the ‘following It’ and is as creepy as hell.
The choice of setting is also an interesting one: you don’t get too many genre films firmly embedded in the suburbs, but both of the director’s features thus far have been noticeably suburban (mis)adventures. Having covered ‘sweet coming-of-age in the suburbs’ in The Myth of the American Sleepover, Mitchell has now done ‘creepy-as-fuck in the suburbs’ with It Follows. This time around they filmed in various parts of Detroit, capitalising on some of the many buildings in a state of disrepair, as did Jarmusch in Only Lovers Left Alive. Mitchell once again proves to be an impressive filmmaker with an artful sense of tone, a smart layering of themes, and deft deployment of genre mechanics. I’m very much looking forward to seeing where his muse takes him next.