Fright fans, remember the name – David Robert Mitchell channels his inner John Carpenter in a gripping feature stalked by an unseen, unknown spectre
In the annals of filmic frights, the obscure, unnamed spectre which haunts David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is not, ostensibly at least, likely to challenge the more recognisable entities of the horror brand.
Its motivations are completely unknown, so too is its source. Wielding few obvious powers besides the ability to possess random people, familiar and unfamiliar to Mitchell’s youthful cast, this poltergeist-cum-demon-cum-
angry spirit could be forgotten in a less assured picture.
In Mitchell's steady grasp, however, the Follower (for want of a grander name) is rendered terrifying, a relentless, stalking presence which glowers, inside and beyond the immediate frame, for most of the film. With this as the impassive antagonist, It Follows is transformed into a thoroughly affecting chiller, ripe with a sense of cool and a charge of intense foreboding that runs throughout its confidently glacial progress.
Maika Monroe, who broke out in last year’s bonkers but brilliant The Guest, excels again here as Jay, an engaging lead blessed with easy charm. Monroe finds much to work with as she goes from pretty and cheery teen to the desperate prey of a terrible darkness.
In the early scenes, Jay’s world is turned upside down when a new boyfriend, Hugh, reveals that he has slept with her for the sole purpose of transferring the hex that hovers above his head, one which manifests itself in the form of murderous individual human automatons, distinguishable by their steady strides and blank stares. The bane is passed between lovers, like some warped venereal disease, reverting to its previous unwilling owner upon the death of the present mark.
She is understandably devastated after this betrayal – capped by an suitably creepy episode in which the chivalrous beau confines her in a wheelchair and explains the new reality – a situation made worse when she discovers that Hugh is indeed telling the truth. Her only hope of survival, for a while, is either to foist the unwanted evil on the next unsuspecting man or try to outpace it. She chooses the latter path, aided by her sister Kelly, friend Yara, a former lover, Greg, and Paul, whose unrequited affection for Jay registers as interesting instead of especially pathetic.
Crucially, Mitchell has populated his piece with believable personalities, warm and good-natured individuals radiating their own distinct identities. Even Hugh is no mere villain, driven by the need to survive rather than any desire to prove his masculine prowess; the Follower has stripped him of all superficial priorities.
Taking a narrative that occasionally borders on frustrating, the detached air hinting at a larger mystery waiting to unspool, It Follows harvests much from an oppressive, paranoid atmosphere. The director places his story in myriad sparsely populated suburban locales, faintly unsettling characters in themselves. The Detroit setting eventually shows itself through a prism of abandoned urban sprawl, where a verdant invasion creeps over the factories and brickwork of a vast metropolis given back to Gaia.
Mitchell captures all of this with genuine panache, often shooting the action from watchful, far-off points — springing one subtle surprise, as the group lolls on a beach, with a nifty dash of misdirection — or affixing his camera to moving props as a means of wringing maximum tension from heightened moments.
A peppering of genre tropes, from floating household items to ghoulish strangers, anchor the substance, not the style. Yet he does commit to a visceral impact alongside the technical accomplishments: bleeding all but the necessary sounds from the screen; colouring his vision with earthy shades and cloudy tones.
Late on, a frisson of sexual tension complicates matters further. The expedience of sex comes to undermine its emotional significance, though, in actuality, coitus proves no better at staving off the inevitability of the approaching terror than the key conundrum of the film’s unnerving premise. Flee to the ends of the earth, goes the message, it matters not; this curse may never be shirked.
Struggling to bring such a bleak prognosis to a neat conclusion, It Follows suffers some jitters in the latter stages. Any pretensions of context for its ghostly happenings are ultimately abandoned, while a set piece based around a deserted swimming pool offers no discernible point to go with its admittedly striking tableau.
Driven by a curiously evocative electro score, recalling the synthy menace of John Carpenter’s finest work, this is gripping fare that explores surprisingly profound themes and skirts around convention without succumbing to it. If a filmmaker of Mitchell’s considerable stylistic talents can resist the allure of the mainstream, there should be many more scares in store.
It Follows runs at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast, until March 5.