Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Released in 2014
Somewhere north of Detroit, Jay (Maika Monroe) is treading water in her family’s above ground pool when she spots an ant crawling up her arm. Her expression is almost blank, lifted by a slight, dreamy smile — she could be thinking of her date with Hugh (Jake Weary) that night. She gently lowers her arm into the water and with it, the ant, which now squirms. Whether or not the filmmakers fished it out after completing the shot, the character that is “Ant” surely drowns. Jay meant no malice, nor is this scene the first in the portrait of a college-age psychopath. She probably meant nothing at all in the mere lowering of her arm. But death, miniscule as it may have been, resulted from that simple motion, and death will soon in turn follow Jay as a meaningless, inexorable force.
It Follows is an unusual and unusually memorable horror movie in that its monster is Newton’s first law of motion. Well, if you’re going to be picky, actual people assume the role of the monster, some of them innocuous in appearance and others not so much, like a creepy old lady in a hospital gown or a seven-foot-tall man without eyes. The monster cycles through so many dissimilar identities that the only constant is the way it walks — slowly but steadily — toward the person it has isolated to kill. It can be easily outrun if that person pays attention to his or her surroundings, and so becomes a paranoid wreck. But the monster cannot be stopped. In lieu of an effective opposing force, the person can pass the curse by having sex with someone else, and even then if it kills — in painful, gruesome fashion —the next person it will come back for the one before.
Jay is the lucky one chosen by Hugh, a handsome out-of-towner always looking over his shoulder, to next bear this terrifying burden. They have tender, consensual sex in the back of his car, gratifying for both involved. After, she talks of love in measured, shameless terms before he crawls on top of her and clasps a chloroform-soaked rag over her mouth. In an agonizing long take, her eyes dart in terror before she falls limp. She awakes tied to a wheelchair in an empty parking garage, where Hugh describes her raw deal. “All you can do is pass it on to someone else,” he says. For proof, he shines a flashlight on a nude woman walking toward her from a distance, and allows the figure to get real close before wheeling Jay, who is wearing only a bra and underwear, to temporary safety.
What may read as a convoluted update of the “Dead Teenager Movie,” to use Roger Ebert’s term for the slasher films primarily concerned with ogling at and then dismembering promiscuous young women, is instead a sly, nightmarish contemplation of mortality. David Robert Mitchell, who wrote and directed the film, suspends his characters in a dreamlike haze that downplays the logic, or lack thereof, of the monster’s behavior and the violent ends its victims meet. Jay’s emotional state, which ranges from bliss to knee-buckling helplessness, takes precedence above all, expressing not just a vulnerable body but also a maturing intelligence that for the first time grasps the inevitable outcome (take a guess) that meets all bodies, not just those stalked by naked weirdos. By foregrounding his protagonist’s inner life and cutting often to the talented, convincing Monroe in close-up, Mitchell instills It Follows with a sense of existential dread that lingers long after the credits roll.
Thankfully, Jay does not struggle alone. As she seeks a way to dispose of the monster once and for all, Jay is joined by her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe); her friend, Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who snacks and reads Dostoevsky off a clamshell e-reader; the sexy, Johnny Depp-type neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto); and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), the boyish childhood friend who has long had a crush on Jay. The film captures a low-key camaraderie between long-time friends who realize they don’t have many more years of bumming around left. That togetherness is what keeps Jay going, as it does for all of us.
A pistol figures prominently in the final act, which is disappointing. Bullets are as fatal as Nerf darts in good horror, as anyone who has seen Halloween knows. John Carpenter directed that 1978 classic, and he is the unmistakable influence behind Mitchell’s style and Disasterpeace’s brooding synth score. Mitchell deigns to one jump scare (hey, Texas Chainsaw has one too), but for the most part he and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis engender fear from staring at still, seemingly (hopefully!) inanimate objects (i.e., a closed closet door) or having a figure simply walk from the background to the foreground. Mitchell finds the most horror in corrupting the familiar, and thus evoking the uncanny, which leads naturally and unpretentiously to questions of mortality, public versus private space and deceptive surface appearances.
It Follows’ creepiness is hard to shake because its world is so close to normal, so open to growth and pleasure without shame. Gun flailing aside, these young adults are smart enough to recognize that this monster is undefeatable. It is a force they must find a way to ignore for as long as possible until they are ready, one day, to face it on their own terms.
This article was written of The Cornell Daily Sun.