The following contains mild spoilers for It Follows.
Although primarily an academic, British writer MR James was a master of the ghost story. His beautifully-written stories often unfold along similar lines: an educated, usually single protagonist unwittingly releases a supernatural force while investigating some ancient book or relic.
One of James’s most effective stories was Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To Thee, My Lad, published in 1904 and first adapted for television in 1968. In it, a Cambridge professor discovers an old whistle near a deserted beach. Walking back to his hotel, he notices a figure emerging from the hazy distance. The professor thinks little of this at first, until he later notices an inscription on the whistle: “Who is this who is coming?”
It’s a taut, bone-chilling story, and made all the more powerful by its economy: the image of an apparition, slowly but inexorably closing in, is unforgettable. Like all great ghost tales, it seems to hover on the boundary between nightmare and reality.
It Follows, the second feature from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, is an unusually observant, literate horror film. This is no less than an MR James tale directed by John Carpenter – an exploration of the usual American horror themes of sex and death, but served up with an assured, intelligent supernatural twist.
The opening’s a great tone-setter. A teenage girl comes running from a quiet suburban house, terrified of something neither we nor her father can see. “What is it?” the father says, as the girl leaps into a car and skitters away at top speed. Later, on a lonely beach, the girl cowers, seemingly resigned to the fate which awaits her.
Like that old Edwardian James tale, It Follows’ victims are stalked by something implacable and terrifying: a figure which appears first in the distance but is always closing in. George Romero used a similar idea to powerful effect in the opening of Night Of The Living Dead: the strange, shuffling figure that at first seems too far away to be a threat, but then, suddenly, it’s in our faces, ghoulish and terrifying.
Mitchell’s original idea for It Follows actually emerged from a recurring dream, as he explained to us in a recent interview:
“I was followed by a monster, and I instinctively knew it was bad,” the writer-director told us. “It looked like different people, and it seemed like I was the only person who could see or was reacting to it. It was very slow, and it was always coming towards me. It would walk towards me when I was with friends or family, at all different times. I’d have to run away, or climb out of a window, or run down the street. It was just this constant feeling of dread and anxiety.”
The memory of that dream clearly burned itself into Mitchell’s mind, because it was only much later that he began to think about using the nightmare as a basis for a screenplay. “I started thinking it would be cool to have it be something that could be passed between people,” Mitchell continued. “Then it dawned on me that if it was through sex, then it would connect the characters physically and emotionally. I don’t know, it just seemed to tie in to the idea of being followed for me, in some way. That was obviously much later, when I put that altogether. But the basic idea was in the back of my head for a long time.”
It Follows attaches supernatural horror ideas to elements from the ’70s slasher template, creating a version of Halloween where the threat of impending violence is sustained throughout. Heroine Jay (Mika Monroe) engages in her first bout of backseat automotive passion with her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary), and is left with the mother of all sexually transmitted diseases: a silent figure which tracks her every movement like a heat-seeking missile. Hugh, she learns, has been stalked and terrorised by this being for some time, and Jay’s only option is to have sex with someone and pass it onto them.
The premise raises one or two logical questions, but they don’t necessarily spring to mind while the lights are down. It Follows rolls along on its crashing momentum, its heroine reeling from one terrifying situation to another. It’s like Steven Spielberg’s TV movie masterpiece Duel, but with a polymorphous, malevolent sex demon instead of a 10-tonne truck.
It’s the sex that makes It Follows zing. In some horror films, it often feels as though the makers are fumbling around with the notions of sex and death without really knowing what they’re doing; they have a boy and a girl trysting in the back of a car and then kill them simply because that’s what all the other slasher films have done since Janet Leigh first took a shower back in 1960.
It Follows, by contrast, knows exactly what it’s doing. The buttons it pushes are carefully chosen. When Jay’s fateful night with her boyfriend ends with her crying and dishevelled, it doesn’t take a genius to spot the symbolism: this was a betrayal and a violation, both physically and psychologically. With the damage done, Jay has few choices open to her: spend the rest of her life fleeing the demon, or try to pass the curse onto somebody else.
Mitchell’s film is mesmerising when the full force of its inventive lensing and electronic score (the former by Mike Gioulakis, the latter by Rich Vreeland) are brought to bear. Where most horror films of this type assault us with aggressive cuts, Mitchell lets his shots play out in agonisingly long takes. The demon can appear seemingly anywhere and in different guises, and the director torments us with this idea almost as effectively as the poor, haunted Jay. In one dizzying sequence, where a slowly revolving shot takes in a view of Jay inside a school and a view through a window to a playing field outside, we can see the figure walking towards the camera. We can’t be sure whether the figure’s just another student or Jay’s supernatural stalker; all we know is that we can see it and that Jay isn’t aware of it.
This is but one example of the way It Follows uses the camera to create suspense in engaging, inventive ways. Guillermo del Toro once remarked that suspense in storytelling comes from the withholding of information – we know something the characters in the movie don’t know, or vice versa – and It Follows uses this better than most recent horror films I can think of. One sequence even manages to echo Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window while still forming an organic part of the story.
Unexpectedly, It Follows is also an unusually upbeat, humanistic film. Jay’s an interesting heroine not just because she’s tough and self-sufficient, like Laurie Strode or Ellen Ripley, but because she has good friends she can rely on, including her younger sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), kooky friend Yara (Olivia Lucardi), childhood sweetheart Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and tearaway neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto) who may have been cast because he looks and acts uncannily like Nightmare On Elm Street-era Johnny Depp.
Jay is unusual in that she’s a heroine who embraces the help of others rather than strikes out as a sole survivor. (There’s also a quite funny subtext here, where the young male cast members are so horny that they’re still keen to sleep with Jay even with the threat of a deadly curse coming as part of the package.)
Most of all, It Follows plays on its horror lineage, but not self-aware in an arch way which distances us from the characters or their plight. The quasi-sexual dread is the same on which dripped from Ridley Scott’s original Alien in 1979, John Carpenter’s Michael Myers, or George Romero’s ’60s zombies. It’s that same unstoppable, relentless force that keeps looming up out of the darkness in horror, both in cinema and in literature.
It Follows takes that age old spectre and dresses it up for a 21st century suburbia, where its group of young characters stand on the cusp of an uncertain future. Beyond their cosy suburban home lies a seemingly endless sea of abandoned homes, factories and city buildings, all brought on by the financial crisis; the demon itself seems to have emerged from this apocalyptic landscape of post-recession malaise.
If a horror writer’s job is to come up with interesting new masks for Death to wear, then It Follows is succeeds admirably. Because this, surely, is how the very notion of death looks from the perspective of someone still growing into adulthood: a remote figure, insignificant at first, but closing in with each passing moment. Once again, this is death with a new face – and what a terrifying face it is.