The best horror films are often not so much about what is onscreen as about what they tells us about ourselves, expressing fears of isolation, or abandonment, of physical violation and deformity. So it should be with It Follows, the second feature of writer/director David Robert Mitchell who attended the Scottish premiere held as part of the 2015 Glasgow Film Festival, a cautionary tale of intimacy and deception.
Jay (The Guest’s Maika Monroe) is an ordinary teenage girl from an upper middle class home; she hangs with her friends, she floats in her back yard pool, drifting as aimlessly as she does in her life, without ambition or direction. Her friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) quotes Dostoyevksy’s The Idiot as though the borrowed nihilism of Russian literature will grant her depth while Paul (Keir Gilchrist) watches reruns of black and white science fiction movies, but tonight Jay has a date with handsome hottie Hugh (Jake Weary). But Hugh is not all he appears to be…
Offering herself to Hugh in the back of his car, parked outside an abandoned building, she did not expect her lover to then smother her with a choloroform soaked rag (he had taken her to see a Cary Grant retrospective rather than Fifty Shades of Grey which might have tipped her off). She awakens, tied to a wheelchair, and he tells her that he has been pursued by something only he can see. “It can look like anyone, but there’s only one of it.” Now he has passed it to her she must now pass it on again as quickly as she can, and he has as much interest in Jay’s survival as she does. “If it kills you it’ll come after me,” he explains before driving her home, pushing her out of the car in front of her home and vanishing from her life.
With a genuine raw physicality rather than a reliance on prosthetics, though this later gives way to the inevitable digital manipulation, the natural lighting, smooth pans and long tracking shots of It Follows recall the films of earlier decades, and filmed in Michigan it has the placid suburban feeling of Haddonfield or Elm Street. Similarly, the synth soundtrack consciously evokes the memory of John Carpenter and Charles Bernstein, and with a lone female protagonist stalked by an assailant only she is aware of there are other obvious parallels with those acknowledged horror classics but there is a more significant ancestor in the deeper past.
Released in 1942, Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People grossed almost sixty times its budget and turned around the fortunes of the struggling RKO studio with its tale of Eastern bloc immigrant Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) whose folklore has led her to believe that she harbours a deadly beast within her which will kill anyone to whom she makes love if aroused. Like It Follows, there is a key scene of a character being followed by an unseen presence hidden just out of sight, but many remember that film for when that same character is later trapped in an unlit swimming and terrorised by the lurking presence which circles the poolside in the shadows.
To underestimate the intellect of the audience is the downfall of many a film, and it is when It Follows recreates this scene that it spectacularly jumps off the diving board of acceptably naive to bellyflop into the pool of helpless stupidity. Having established that the entity which pursues her cannot be stopped by bullets and without any attempt to research whether there have been any other encounters which might offer useful information (there has been at least one, depicted in the opening scene of the film), Jay and her cohort decide based on precisely no information whatsoever that luring it into a swimming pool and electrocuting it will prove successful.
To this end, they break into an abandoned building with a fully appointed full size swimming pool, and Jay treads water as her friends plug numerous appliances into the sockets which line the poolside, swimming pools being noted for their copious and unprotected electrical supplies which won’t at all throw a circuit breaker the moment a surge is detected.
Attempting to ascertain what Mitchell intended to express with the film is difficult. Is it a plea for abstinence, with Jay’s wanton behaviour having brought a potential death sentence upon her? Is it a reminder of the continued need to practice safe sex? Whether Jay and Hugh took precautions or not is never addressed, so the question of whether it would have offered additional supernatural protection is also sidestepped.
It is to be praised that Mitchell has created a teen horror film in which the lead characters are not loud, obnoxious and perpetually tiresome, but nor do they seem to exist in any semblance of the real world. For horror to be successful, it must connect with the viewer, yet these characters seem to drift in and out of school and undemanding jobs on whims, they live in homes where parents are largely absent, they drive off to holiday homes carrying firearms without asking permission or even leaving a note, and while horrible murders take place on their doorstep, the police never seem to investigate.
Having apparently passed up the opportunity for an orgy on the waves with the trio of men she spies in a passing speedboat (were they gay or did they laugh at her plaster cast? the question is unanswered) it is not until Jay finally expresses that she has qualms about passing on the curse that any indication of her decision making process is revealed, and until that moment she is largely a blank slate. For the most part, Monroe fails to display any emotion other than mild consternation throughout the entire film, and when she is unconcerned for her fate, why should anyone else care?
For the pain of the betrayal of young love and the consequences, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance in the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains the reference against which this fails to even make runner up; if it follows, it is hopelessly far behind.