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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Review: It Follows

After garnering some critical praise at its debut at Cannes, It Follows was to have a four screen release followed shortly by VOD, but those four screens drew in a bigger audience than expected, and Radius-TWC opted for a semi-wide release instead. There's been a lot of buzz around this one–some identified it as the scariest movie of the year, and the trailer is absolutely fantastic. While there have been a couple of really great horror movies in the last few years, most notably The Babadook that made several of our best of 2014 lists, there is a sea of bland horror surrounding those few exceptions. I went in with high expectations but very little knowledge of the movie–and I strongly recommend you do the same. If you're a fan of supernatural and surreal horror, do yourself a favor and see the movie without reading up too much on it–I'll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible here.

It Follows takes place in the suburbs of Detroit during a lazy summer for a group of teenagers. Jay (Maika Monroe, The Guest) is dating a boy a little older than her, and things are going great; he's fun and innocent enough, but starts to act strange. After a romantic night, though, things take an extremely dark turn: he reveals to Jay that by sleeping with her, he has passed "it" on to her. "It" is some sort of curse, one that causes a creature that can look like anyone to constantly walk towards you, killing you upon contact. No matter how far you run, it will always catch up, and only you and others in the chain of the curse can see it. This sets off a paranoid and terrifying mystery as Jay and her friends try to find a way to escape, being forced to "pass it on" to others through intercourse to provide temporary safety–until that partner is killed and It comes back for Jay.

The concept is frighteningly simple; it is reminiscent of some of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone or Doctor Who in that it takes something seemingly innocuous (a person walking towards you slowly) and makes it increasingly terrifying with almost no use of blood or special effects. While the editing at times feels a bit amateurish in its pacing, the majority of the film is put together with a level of suspense and dread that is thoroughly unmatched by the endless multitude of haunted house/possession movies that fill our theaters. In this way it is wholly unpredictable, which makes it all the more hair-raising.

Relatively newcomer director David Robert Mitchell gives It Follows a dreamy tone that really captures the feel of teenage summer, and every aspect of the film builds into this and turns it into something undeniably creepy. The movie is shot with bright, bubbly colors, and the haunting score by Disasterpeace (probably most famous for his score for the game Fez) feels like it comes from an 80's arcade game gone sour. While it isn't the focus, the setting of Detroit works perfectly, as it means the parents are always working endless hours and cops are even more scarce. There's a timelessness here too; while one of the girls has a futuristic sort of clam shell e-reader, all the TVs and cars seem out of the early 80's. All of this is built up in a successful effort to sell the dream logic of the central concept, never allowing the idea to seem as ridiculous as it actually is and instead making it supremely effective.

So the idea on the surface is that "it" is a metaphor for STDs, but there's much more to it than that, and the film allows for multiple interpretations. Yes, there's definitely an element of sexually transmitted disease in the idea that it is passed along, but there's just as much to support the idea that it is young sexual desire or even guilt. Once "infected," the characters desperately seek to give it away, which provides unique sexual tension between Jay and Paul (Keir Gilchrist); does he genuinely want to make himself the target, or does he just want to get laid by his childhood crush? 

The idea that if the person you pass it on to dies, it comes back for you really recalls a sense of the persistence of desire, that you can get rid of it for a while, but it always comes back when you least expect it. The infinitely creepy creature frequently shows up in the form of family members, often naked and bruised, which seems to hint that it represents the guilt that sex can bring when it means nothing but the satisfaction of a base desire. I could go on and on about this, but suffice to say It Follows turns the genre trope of sex=death on its head; while it does punish those who have sex, it also forces them to continue to have as much sex as possible to survive.

Although it probably sounds like the movie is a lude sex-fest, its actually very sweet. The central cast is quite good and the script does not paint them as bimbos and perverts but rather the kind of friends you probably will feel very familiar with; they goof around and watch old sci-fi movies on TV, ride their bikes through the empty streets, and work at an ice cream parlor. There's a playfulness to the flirting between Paul and Jay, and all the sex scenes are soft and endearing; you'll find no co-ed games of truth or dare here.

While not totally perfect, It Follows provides a lot to sink your teeth into. There's more subtle symbolism than could be covered in a single review, but the metaphorical aspects never distract from the character work and the genuine terror that ensues. There are a few threads that I would have liked to see explored more–particularly the very young neighbor boys who spy on Jay throughout the beginning of the film–but while watching, these things faded away as I felt as nervous and paranoid as Jay and her friends. It's the scariest movie that's hit theaters in quite a while, and while It Follows is stylistically wonderful and metaphorically brilliant, at its core is a masterful horror movie that will have you looking over your shoulder for days to come.

It Follows is in theaters now. See it while you can!
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