Innovative indie horror flick creeps into the mainstream
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi
It’s refreshing to find out that, occasionally, the movie industry is capable of surprising itself and its audiences. Normally, Hollywood movie studios prefer things to be as predictable as possible. They like it when the art of moviemaking is reduced to a simple formula. (“The marketing department calculates that a reboot of a movie franchise originally made between 1982 and 1991 with Will Smith cast in the lead role will make $140 million on a Memorial Day opening weekend. Let’s get on that!”) But there’s still the rare, unsung indie that busts out of the art house circuit to overperform in mainstream cinemas. And it’s that kind of thing that keeps a lot of us going back to movie theaters.
Last month Radius—the genre film division of The Weinstein Company—yanked David Robert Mitchell’s innovative horror film It Follows from VOD and independent theatrical distribution (including, it should be noted, a visit to Alibi Midnight Movie Madness at Guild Cinema). Apparently, the film was getting such lavish praise on the internet after its film festival debut that the company felt it deserved a wider platform. Weeks later, bolstered by a national ad campaign, Radius put the film in more than 1,200 multiplexes across the country. The film pulled in more than $5 million—which isn’t a lot in Hollywood terms—but it’s not shabby for a low-budget film that probably cost a lot less than that to produce. Plus, it’s already surpassed 20 Feet from Stardom as Radius’ biggest-ever theatrical release.
So what is it that’s launched this little chiller from film fest favorite to “the best American horror film in years”? Let’s turn off the lights and head into the basement to find out.
Mitchell’s only previous feature was a little-seen 2010 dramedy called The Myth of the American Sleepover. And yet, It Follows demonstrates an amazingly mature command of genre, style and budgetary constraints. The story centers around Jay (Maika Monroe from Adam Wingard’s underrated thriller The Guest), a young woman stuck somewhere between high school and college in the suburbs of Detroit. Like a lot of people her age, she has a casual sexual encounter with her short-time boyfriend in the backseat of his car late one night. That’s when things get weird. The soon-to-disappear boyfriend informs her that he’s passed along a mysterious curse by sleeping with her. She’s now going to be pursued by a nameless, faceless creature that will kill her if it reaches her. It’s not fast, but it will never, ever stop.
Mitchell has taken what was something of an unspoken ’80s horror movie trope—have teenage sex, and the mask-wearing slasher will catch up to you and murder you—and turned it into the central plot point. The usual paranoia over teenage sex (with its fears of discovery, failure, embarrassment and disease) has been amped up a thousand-fold here.
Convincing her gaggle of young friends that the threat is real, Jay fights to stay one step ahead of the shape-shifting succubus nipping slowly at her heels. This gives her the luxury of contemplating her one “out”: passing the curse along to another person by sleeping with them.
Mitchell has taken what was something of an unspoken ’80s horror movie trope—have teenage sex, and the mask-wearing slasher will catch up to you and murder you—and turned it into the central plot point. The usual paranoia over teenage sex (with its fears of discovery, failure, embarrassment and disease) has been amped up a thousand-fold here. There are elements of The Ring and other “curse”-based films, but Mitchell knows how to pick and choose his influences. Whereas other horror films tend to operate on the principal of random evil, It Follows contemplates an entirely intentional supernatural comeuppance.
Working within an obviously limited budget, It Follows does wonders. It joins a short list of indie films that have thought long and hard on their limited resources and come up with a project that is entirely fitting. (Other notable genre examples might be Shane Carruth’s Primer, Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes or Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool—all of which cannily incorporate their low-budget roots into their storylines.) With It Follows there are just enough bloody, practical effects on display to convince viewers of the visceral danger. And the judicious CGI work is sufficient to sell the film’s supernatural angle. The “monster” at the heart of It Follows is its greatest asset. The budget-conscious creature (wisely left without origin or explanation) assumes the form of ordinary people, who shamble quietly toward our heroine. It’s a rare film that can summon up pinprick dread simply from showing a person walking toward the camera. So good is the gimmick that it keeps viewers nervously searching the background of every shot for a conspicuously out-of-place person.
The production design of the film is also incredibly thoughtful. It’s set in a purposefully drab suburb filled with curbside garbage cans and chain-link fences. The color scheme is burned-out and dull. The props consist of old rotary phones and hulking television sets (which only seem to broadcast 1950s horror movies). Mitchell has clearly been influenced by ’80s horror films. The tacky, suburban vibe borrows a lot from Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, while the throbbing synthesizer score is pure John Carpenter. But Mitchell isn’t satisfied simply aping the flashback ’80 styles. One character carries around a tiny, Kindle-like e-reader that surpasses today’s technology. It’s a brilliant blurring of eras that leaves audiences adrift in time and place.
In the end, It Follows doesn’t break entirely new ground. It’s not as if viewers have never seen anything like it. Instead, it’s an incredibly fresh look at familiar material—a savvy, slow-burn horror flick that lives in the quiet, shadowy spaces between scares. The filmmakers knew what films to borrow from, and they knew what they could get away with given a small budget, a limited cast and a handful of memorable settings. The result is easily (and deservedly) one of the best horror films in recent memory.