'It Follows': Film Review

It Follows Still Cannes - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

It Follows Still Cannes - H 2014

Canny manipulation of tone, atmosphere and tension makes this a satisfying little horror movie.

David Robert Mitchell follows "The Myth of the American Sleepover" with another excursion inside the suburban teenage bubble, this time bringing supernatural dangers.

CANNES – Writer-director David Robert Mitchell's 2010 debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, was a gentle depiction of adolescence in the Michigan suburbs as a time of inchoate yearnings and fading innocence. He returns to that territory with the same sensitivity in It Follows, only this time the danger is far more malevolent than just plain old emotional vulnerability. Creepy, suspenseful and sustained, this skillfully made lo-fi horror movie plays knowingly with genre tropes and yet never winks at the audience, giving it a refreshing face-value earnestness that makes it all the more gripping.

Passing references to 1950s horror are sprinkled throughout the movie, which at times feels like Invasion of the Body Snatchers by way of a dreamy indie teenage limbo portrait. The 'It' of the title evokes the classic threat of the ominous unknown. But in a tradition that took hold much later, starting at the end of the '70s when the promiscuous kids were the first to go, the menace is unleashed and spread via sexual encounters.

Beautifully shot by Michael Gioulakis, with lots of unsettling long takes and voyeuristic tracking sequences, the film opens with a terrified girl running from her house and then racing off in her car, shooting panicked glances over her shoulder. Alone on a beach, she takes a call to reassure her worried folks that she loves them. But clearly she's reconciled to the unstoppable certainty of an unpleasant fate.

Via a needling John Carpenter-influenced electronic score from Rich Vreeland, who records as Disasterpeace, Mitchell lets us know that evil is lurking around pretty, untroubled 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe). She, of course, is oblivious to it, hanging out with her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and their friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a sweet nerd whose obvious crush on Jay dates back to childhood. But she's deep into new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), and when she has sex with him for the first time, the afterglow soon turns very ugly.

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Mitchell keeps the exact nature of the force preying on these characters enigmatic. But there are enough details in Hugh's dire warnings and Jay's first taste of what's in store to create a vivid nightmare scenario. We learn that the immediate danger is passed from one person to the next through sex, and then whenever someone gets killed, the last person in line moves to the top of the victim chain. It's like a less gimmicky Final Destination.

There's a cool, understated touch of trance-like possession in the zombie dispensers of death, who walk purposefully and silently toward their victims and can appear as friends or strangers. That device is so effectively set up that we spend the remainder of the movie scanning the background for imminent threats, though the partially or fully naked ones tend to be easy to spot.

The cops are called after Jay returns home in deep shock and Hugh vanishes, but given that the sex was consensual, they conclude that no crime was committed. Kelly, Paul and Yara are skeptical of Jay's ravings about people coming for her, as is Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the mellow dude from across the street. But even though only Jay can see the figures targeting her, the others eventually feel their physical force. This gets them on board, at first to help her escape and then with a plan to fight back.

While the place where they live is never named, the film was shot in and around Detroit, and though the characters' immediate world is tree-lined, sleepy suburbia, there's an acute sense of being near the borders of a depressed environment. That aspect adds atmosphere, notably in a scene where they lure Jay's assailant to an indoor municipal pool on the wrong side of town one stormy night. (There's a visual echo here of the superb Let the Right One In.)

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As in Mitchell's previous film, parental figures are absent, oblivious to what their kids are up to, and it's in keeping with standard genre rules that the protagonists are compelled to avoid seeking outside help. The director also has a persuasive way of validating every seemingly insane choice Jay makes -- bolting into the woods at night, lingering on the swing set in a deserted playground or retreating with the others to Greg's lonely family beach house.

Whether violence arrives at these red-alert locations, the tension remains ratcheted up to a steady thrum, punctuated by jump scares and bursts of intense action. The reliance on solid storytelling, a brooding soundscape and old-fashioned film craft rather than pumped-up visual effects heightens the fear factor, and the handful of direct encounters with the deadly force have a real visceral charge.

While Monroe (At Any Price, Labor Day) is a fresh-faced beauty, the film benefits from casting young actors who look like regular kids, not magnificent specimens of golden youth. The performances are natural and appealing throughout, with lovely awkward chemistry between Jay and Gilchrist’s adoring puppy, Paul. By teen horror movie standards, this is a subdued affair; it's not especially original, and the characters, while likeable, could have been more developed. But it's also assured and genuinely unnerving enough to find an appreciative audience for savvy genre entertainment.  

For director Mitchell, It Follows marks a distinct shift in tone and style that nonetheless feels like an entirely fluid progression from the characters and milieu of his debut film.

Production companies: Northern Lights Films, Animal Kingdom, Two Flints

Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe

Director-screenwriter: David Robert Mitchell

Producers: Rebecca Green, Laura D. Smith, David Robert Mitchell, David Kaplan, Erik Rommesmo

Executive producers: Frederick W. Green, Joshua Astrachan, P. Jennifer Dana, Jeff Schlossman, Bill Wallwork, Alan Pao, Corey Large, Mia Chang

Director of photography: Michael Gioulakis

Production designer: Michael T. Perry

Costume designer: Kimberly Leitz-McCauley

Editor: Julio C. Perez IV

Music: Disasterpeace

Sales: Cinetic/Visit Films

No rating, 100 minutes