It Follows

March 27, 2015

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The low budget horror genre is the tried and true way for young, aspiring filmmakers to get noticed and, just maybe, recoup expenses.  It’s also one of the ripest –and tiredest – areas for metaphorical ruminations on the state of youth, society, politics, or whatever is topical or just easily exploited to give us chattering cinephiles a way to legitimize our interest in violence and gore.  I’m a little glib, but that’s one of the most rational ways to approach the news that David Roger Mitchell followed up his little-seen, ultra-sensitive indie portrayal of youth, The Myth of the American Sleepover, with a horror film.  As a great admirer of the former, it was natural to have doubts – the combination of the desire for him to make more of what he’s good at with the fear of that film’s more, shall we say, precious moments could see a turn into a wryly knowing, dareisay condescending attitude, towards the material.  Happily, Mitchell knows what he’s doing, and if the latter concern is occasionally flirted with – mostly in the music – it’s evident that he’s put himself in the genre rather than stand above it. 

Beginning with a controlled 360 shot of a house in a Detroit suburb (recalling, as do many elements throughout the film, John Carpenter’s original Halloween), a young woman runs out into the afternoon in a nightgown and heels, screaming and fleeing from an unseen enemy while her father and a neighbor with groceries puzzle over her behavior.  It’s a virtuoso prologue that culminates in the victimized girl alone on the beach, saying goodbye to her father on her cell phone, and accepting some an unknown inevitable.  This mild generic reversal (victim accepts fate, but is still a victim) is symptomatic of the surface level ideas inhabiting the story of the film, which soon centers on Jay (Maika Monroe), a high school graduate living with an alcoholic, virtually unseen mother and younger sister, and who has recently been dating a slightly older 21 year old, Hugh (Jake Weary).  She spends her days in the above ground pool, smirking at the neighborhood boys watching her through the bushes, before going on a date where Hugh acts peculiar.  Despite this she goes out with him again, and after having sex in the backseat of pointedly lit vintage automobile (parked in an overgrown parking lot in front of a disused industrial building), she muses about how she looked forward to being old enough to go on dates before she’s subdued and tied to a chair.  The initial twist is that his abduction is not quite the horror we’d expect, even if it is horrific in itself.  It turns out he’s showing her the menace that has been following him ever since he had sex with someone he picked up in a bar, and now he’s passed it onto her.  He explains it walks a pace but never stops, and she must have sex with someone else to get rid of it – a line that would presumably continue forever.  She’s dropped off on the street outside her home, and from then on confides is supported by her sister Yara (Olivia Luccardi), her sister’s friend Kelly (Lili Sepe), Paul (Keir Gilchrist), the boy that’s obviously in love with her, and eventually the more sexually active boy across the street, Greg (Daniel Zovatto), who has an amusing curiosity and supportive streak despite privately not believing her.

If the plot welcomes a rather ambigious reading of the STD metaphor, or even the teens-get-punished-for-having-sex routine (not as reveled in here as it was in its heyday, but there’s a gruesome terror to a character’s sexual end at the hands, and legs, of his mother) – having sex will kill you, but having sex might save you, but you might kill others, etc…, it’s probably the best line to take given that the metaphor itself is as much a genre convention as jump scares and orchestra stings.  It is, in its way, a post-Scream movie in that its reaches a degree of honesty in some areas by playing on an ironic knowledge of ironic knowledge.  No matter how this element is interpreted, it’s a solid driver for some startlingly effect horror set pieces even if it leaves a rather confusing set of rules for the teens to follow and/or break in an attempt to stay alive.  Not that such particulars are the point, of course, and Mitchell is far more interested (as, I think, most are) in visuals, tone, scares, and meaning.

The impressive style is buoyed by an extraordinary sense of place, and in particular the suburbs of Detroit.  This is a similar (if not the same) that Mitchell so beautifully represented in Myth, and he’s particularly attuned to the look of the economics of the lower middle class. Mirroring the themes of Myth (and it is entirely possible I’m being too much an auterist here), the destructive force is tied directly to the loss of childhood and some ideal of innocence, which not, as mentioned, strictly sexual.  On their way to the supposedly final confrontation they talk of how when they were younger their parents wouldn’t let them travel beyond 8 Mile because that was technically the city, and how ludicrous that seemed now.  Mitchell shows the economic decay infecting entire streets of suburbia, a disease of ghost towns and collapse (that so many are unable to see) spreading and spreading, threatening the safe, pleasant future existence of Jay.  If it ends in a way that indulges one of my least favorite tropes regarding unrequited love, it does so with the sweet insistence that growing up is scary so it’s better to go through with someone rather than alone, a fitting finale for a film that so expertly wrenches suspense from a monster only one person can see.

-M

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