Form leads function with “It Follows,” a stylish and inventive yet not especially frightening horror film.
The buzziest independent release of early 2015, “Follows” drew critical raves and robust box office in its first two weeks in theaters, prompting distributor Radius-TWC to open the film wide March 27 instead of releasing it on video on demand as originally planned.
The excitement derives from filmmaker David Robert Mitchell’s unexpected, unusually artful approach to the slasher-movie subgenre.
In “It Follows,” pretty, 19-year-old suburban Detroit college student Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex with Hugh (Jake Weary), a guy she does not know well.
Then she’s punished for it, like all those campers and prom-goers in 1970s and ’80s horror films.
But what afflicts Jay is not instantly fatal. It’s invasive, slow and persistent. Hugh informs Jay that through sex, he intentionally passed on “it,” which takes the form of creepy figures who will stalk Jay until one catches her.
Figures then appear in Jay’s kitchen and in outdoor settings, dead-eyed, often nude, seemingly intent on killing her. The only possible relief from “it” lies in passing it on to other people.
Along with replacing the usual machete with an STD/monster, Mitchell defies slasher-movie convention by shooting “Follows” in a style more reminiscent of Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick than John Carpenter or Wes Craven. Add in composer Rich Vreeland’s (a.k.a. Disasterpeace) fat synth chords, and the film also evokes early Michael Mann.
Slasher films usually look cheap and take the cheapest route to drawing a reaction – the jump scare. Mitchell and cinematographer Michael Gioulakis, by contrast, favor long takes and beautifully composed, wide shots. In these shots, the active ingredient makes an impact simply by entering the frame instead being thrown at the viewer.
This approach gives “It Follows” as a whole a sense of importance that most horror films by young directors (this is Mitchell’s second feature after 2010’s “The Myth of the American Sleepover”) lack. Within scenes, it gives a sense something big is about to go down, thus stoking tension and offering a viewing experience that feels almost participatory.
For example, a scene in which two characters sit in a diner reveals too much of the window for the scene to be just about their conversation. The camera diverts the viewer’s eye to outside, to where a figure approaches in the distance.
Mitchell’s sex-is-danger allegory is less elegant. “Follows” belongs to no particular time in the past 30 years. Jay’s short bangs scream “late ’80s,” and the furniture in her mother’s house, where Jay still lives, is from the 1970s. As in, it has been in the house since the ’70s. It is too inexpensive and ugly to be collectible.
Yet Jay’s pal (Olivia Luccardi) consults the Internet, on a hand-held device, in the same house. Jay and a group of friends visit dilapidated sections of Detroit, producing moments that are eerie precisely because we know such neighborhoods exist there now.
Were “Follows” more ’80s specific, the “it” angle might resonate as an AIDS metaphor. As is, it simply seems like a play on how ’70s and ’80s slasher films handled sexuality, which is not much to hang a story on. The nature of “it,” of how it manifests and spreads, also shifts and becomes confusing as the film progresses.
What we know for sure is “it” moves slowly, and you can see it coming from a distance. Therefore, “It Follows” is essentially a zombie movie, and zombie movies rarely chill to the bone the way great horror can. “It Follows” does not rank up there with the truly frightening recent films “Oculus” and “The Babadook.”
But it succeeds as a thriller, with performances that strike a grave, quiet tone suited to the film’s wide shots, long takes and carefully cultivated mood of foreboding.
This film’s teens sometimes follow horror tropes – like heading out to a lake house to try to skirt “it,” because vacation homes are such safe havens in horror movies – but they aren’t idiots rushing headlong into danger.
Monroe lends Jay a haunted quality, and Keir Gilchrist (“United States of Tara”) is equally sober as Paul, a childhood friend still nursing a longtime crush on Jay. Paul is out-sensitive-hunked by Daniel Zovatto as Greg, a lank-haired, pillow-lipped horror-filmed staple in the Johnny Depp-Skeet Ulrich tradition.
“It Follows” contains so many horror staples that counting them – an abandoned swimming pool, a supporting female character (Luccardi) wearing oversized eyeglasses, a la “Carrie” and “Scooby-Doo” – becomes another act of viewer participation.
But “Follows” is no “Scream” or “Scary Movie.” Mitchell’s approach to B movies of the past resembles Quentin Tarantino’s in being knowing but not winking. Though Mitchell does not show Tarantino-level talent here, he displays a similar respect for genre films, along with a desire to mold elements previously believed cheesy (kung-fu movies for Tarantino, slasher films and synth for Mitchell) into new, satisfying forms.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Rated R (disturbing violent and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language)