by Charles Lewis III
It seems only right that one of the most crucial elements to successfully telling a scary story is also one of the trickiest: creating atmosphere. All of the jump-scares, fake blood, and horrific monsters don’t count for anything if you can’t make the audience believe in the world where your story takes place. Pull that off well and you can forego a lot of the visual tricks altogether. When this is done right, you wind up with an atmospheric masterpiece like Robert Wise’s The Haunting and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. When done wrong, you wind up with The Blair Witch Project or almost any American remake of J-horror.
David Robert Mitchell’s second feature film is one that revels in its own atmosphere the same way it expects the viewer to be unsettled by it. After a cold open – featuring what may be the film’s most violent imagery – the story proper begins with young woman named Jay (Maika Monroe) going on her first date with Hugh (Jake Weary). Hugh seems like a nice guy, though he appears to have something a mild panic attack during a trip to the movies. Still, things go well enough that the two have sex in Hugh’s car later that night. But things take a terrifying turn when Hugh then chloroforms her and ties her to a chair in an abandoned building. He promises that he won’t hurt her, and he doesn’t. The same cannot be said for the ghostly-looking woman slowly approaching them. This will be the first time Jay encounters a manifestation of “it”.
The real power of It Follows is how it injects life into two of the most well-worn horror clichés: the Unkillable Virgin and the Slow-Moving Killer. Jay is only followed by “it” because she had sex with Hugh. Then we’re told early that “it” can appear as anyone at any time; just run once you see it. This puts both the characters and the audience on a heightened state of awareness, as every extra shuffling in the background may or may not be “it” coming for Jay. The film blessedly spares us any convoluted mythology for the vengeful spirit, telling us only that, like an STI, it’s spread through intercourse (protected or not). Not knowing its origins means not knowing how to stop it for good.
Adding to Mitchell’s subdued direction, Mike Gioulakis’ muted cinematography, and Disasterpeace’s mood score are equally subdued characterizations. The cast tread the line between “realistic” and “amateurish”. Though they appear to personify types, we’re spared any forced exposition pigeon-holing them into those roles. The first appearance of Jay and her friends is especially refreshing in the way characters are allowed to be, rather than try to fit a demographic.
Although the film isn’t exactly perfect – some character seem to vanish for mere plot convenience – it’s earned its reputation as a festival darling. With an unsettling atmosphere and debatable commentary on sexuality, the film succeeds in using old tricks with new players.
Rating: **** (Four-out-of-Five)