Film Review | It Follows

Director David Robert Mitchell's sophomore feature may sound ridiculous on paper, but this story of a sexually transmitted haunting makes for an absorbing, thrilling coming-of-age story masquerading as a horror slasher

Lust, caution: Maika Monroe suffers a unique consequence of a sexual encounter in this heavily-buzzed horror film
Lust, caution: Maika Monroe suffers a unique consequence of a sexual encounter in this heavily-buzzed horror film

John Carpenter has a lot to answer for. The cult director of horror classics like Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982) influenced a generation of other filmmakers whose work appears to be coming into full bloom over the last couple of years.

One recent film that distinctly bears the Carpenter stamp is last year’s The Guest (dir. Adam Wingard) – whose smooth electronic soundtrack and disarming suburban setting bring to mind Carpenter’s pioneering use of both during Michael Myers’s first psychotic outing as the lumbering ‘Shape’ in the original Halloween.

But while Wingard’s film also folded in the likes of The Terminator movies into its 1980s mélange, a more recent tribute – which shares a common actress in the young Maika Monroe – keeps a sharper focus, privileging its young protagonist’s struggle with supernatural forces nestled within a placid American neighbourhood.   

After she sleeps with a stranger, teenager Jay (Monroe) doesn’t exactly contract a sexually transmitted disease… but something far stranger, and potentially as life-threatening as the worst of them. Soon after the fateful event, Jay is pursued by strange, zombie-like beings who appear to be hell-bent on securing her demise. Turning to her sister and clique of friends for help, Jay ultimately discovers how to break the curse… but the key to it all comes down to a very difficult decision.

Director David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover) is hardly a horror-hound, a fact that elevates this, his second feature film, from by-the-numbers dross and places it on far richer thematic ground. It’s an atmospherically involving piece too, making use of the genre’s inclination towards the slow build-up to full effect.

But it’s the pervasive ambiguity and stylization that ensures Mitchell’s film is not just another entry in the suburban horror genre (and not yet another Carpenter pastiche to simply be consumed and discarded by film geeks). The obvious allegorical link to make between Jay and her plight would be sexually transmitted disease, but Mitchell’s roving and immersive film isn’t after settling on boilerplate thematic ‘beats’, and the viewer isn’t forced to accept any single interpretation of the horror.

But neither can this rich and troubling brew be taken at face value. A postmodern folk tale of sorts, It Follows zooms in on that pervasively taxing psychological time in any person’s life – the teenage years – and Jay’s plight will trigger associations for anyone, reminding you either of current or previous experience, despite being drenched in a very particular American milieu.

And because he’s not exactly keen on name-checking horror tropes for their own sake – instead employing them to deepen the atmospheric tension and psychological make-up of his film – Mitchell thankfully doesn’t indulge in yet another facile ‘deconstruction’ of the genre ala Scream (1996-2011) or Cabin in the Woods (2012).

Its playfulness is subtler than all that, adding a twist to the ‘don’t have sex or you’ll wind up dead’ trope by dint of the fact that you could selfishly shake off the curse by having sex with someone else. This throws a cheeky consideration of sexual politics into the mix, with Jay’s agonised handling of the ghostly disease contrasted starkly against the laissez-faire attitude of her male counterparts.

But conventional thrills are present and accounted for too, with a nail-biting climax at a swimming pool justifying the price of admission on its lonesome.

It Follows will be showing at St James Cavalier, Valletta tonight at 21:00, May 22 at 20:00 and May 30 at 21:00

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