The ingenious new teen horror film It Follows will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns. Set in some nondescript American suburbia in a period that isn't properly specified (we could be in the 1970s or the present day), this is a determinedly slippery affair. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell doesn't provide much contextualisation.
The title hints at his oblique approach. "It" certainly follows the heroine Jay in a very menacing fashion but we are left in the dark as to what it represents. Is "it" her fear of sex, or is this Mitchell's clever new spin on old-fashioned zombie movie conventions? Or is the "it" a manifestation of the teen's hormone-driven confusion and tendency toward violence and self-harm? The director isn't letting on. When most movies tend to come crammed with an overload of information and back story, Mitchell's minimalism is both refreshing and disorienting.
A mood of unease is established right at the outset. We see a girl in high heels and a silk nightdress run out on to the streets in panic. She looks like a deer in the headlights as she races away in terror, as fast as her heels will allow her to go, fleeing an unseen aggressor. A subsequent image of a corpse on the beach with its arms and legs twisted at obscene angles, as if they're broken matchsticks, suggests some malign alien force. We could be in the world of Jonathan Glazer's mind-bending Under the Skin.
The film-makers undercut the most bizarre moments with scenes that are utterly mundane. Nineteen-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) is a typical, slightly bored and listless American teenager, keen to have her first sexual experiences. We see her lying back in a garden pool as local boys spy on her. She jokes around with her younger sister and her friends, who spend their time watching goofy cartoons and sci-fi shows on old TVs. This may be a horror movie but it has some of the same feel as Larry Clark's cautionary tales about mixed-up, laidback American kids. It is shot as artfully as Clark's films and, like them, portrays a self-enclosed teen society in which parents and teachers don't intrude.
There is a wonderful scene early on in which Jay goes to the cinema on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary). Stanley Donen's romantic comedy Charade, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, is their unlikely choice of movie. As they wait for tickets, they play the "trade game". Each picks another person in the queue they would like to be and the other has to guess which one they've chosen. Their jokey attempts at imagining alternative identities soon take on a very sinister hue.
From what starts as an innocent date, Mitchell plunges us (thankfully briefly) into the world of Eli Roth-style torture porn. Hugh has seen some phantom woman in the audience, invisible to Jay. They flee the cinema. The couple have sex in a car but then he drugs Jay, ties her up and warns her that "this thing" (still unspecified) will now follow her instead of him. "You can't get rid of it. Just sleep with someone else as soon as you can and pass it along," is his advice.
The predator, which can only be seen by the person infected, can take the form both of loved ones and of strangers in a crowd. It is lustful, shape shifting and often seen naked. The only consolation for victims is that it moves at an inordinately slow pace.
On one level, It Follows can be seen as a teen version of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, which famously followed a series of sexual encounters between interlinking pairs of characters in turn-of-the-century Vienna. (The play is an allegory about the transmission of syphilis.) It is too reductive, though, to regard It Follows as simply a film about sex and disease. The characters themselves can't identify what is preying on them – and one guesses that Mitchell doesn't know what beast he has unleashed either.
The film uses rhetorical devices familiar from plenty of other horror movies to crank up the tension. There are jump cuts, sudden bursts of strident noise, giddy point-of-view shots and plenty of close-ups of terrified-looking faces. Rich Vreeland's synthesizer music adds to the creepiness. The director uses long, slow camera movements which create suspense precisely because nothing seems to be happening. Such shots also underline the sheer tedium of teenage suburban life. (Alan Clarke's influential 1986 TV drama Christine, about a young heroin addict, used a similar shooting style.)
It Follows plays not just on the kids' ambivalence about their own sexual desires, but also on their disgust at the idea of their parents' sexual lives. The Freudian elements sit alongside action sequences (a car crashing in a cornfield, an explosive final-reel stand-off at the local swimming pool). This is also a love story of sorts. Paul (Keir Gilchrist) is besotted with Jay. He is just a little too geeky for her to consider as a suitor but he is persistent and loyal. His innocent devotion is in very stark contrast to the depravity that surrounds the teenagers.
In typical teen fashion, the kids will be traumatised one moment and casually hanging out the next, as if they have no worries in the world. "Everything is going to be cool," they tell each other as they reminisce about the fun they used to have reading porno magazines on their parents' lawn. Monroe, who looks like a youthful Chloë Sevigny, plays the heroine in an engaging fashion, capturing both her fear at her predicament and her resilience.
Arguably, this is more a compendium of arresting ideas than it is a fully realised movie. The film-makers leave blank spaces. They are more concerned with creating atmosphere than with explaining. The film may leave audiences scratching their heads – but the mounting sense of bafflement it induces is a large part of its appeal.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies