Director David Robert Mitchell first turned heads at the 2010 SXSW festival with his debut feature film The Myth of the American Sleepover, a coming-of-age tale set in Detroit. He returns to the city with his follow-up It Follows, plunging head-first into genre filmmaking with a delightful little chiller that hits all the genre notes to perfection, but also shows that he is an above-average talent. Visual flair and inventiveness lift this well above other flicks in the genre, and the film deserves, as well as should be able to find, a sizeable audience. The only thing that could hamper it is a couple of full frontals, but otherwise this should be a perfect date movie.
The premise is extremely silly, but that comes with the territory: Jay, in her late teens, has sex with her new boyfriend Hugh. It ends on a sour note when he informs her (after tying her to a wheelchair, no less) that he has transmitted some kind of a disease to her: from now on she will be followed by ‘it’, which always comes in the form of a person, or better: zombie. Sometimes it will be someone Jay knows, sometimes it will be a stranger, but it will always be coming straight for Jay. Oh, and others can see it. Bummer. Didn’t your mother ever tell you sex was bad?
Anyway, soon enough Jay is haunted everywhere by ‘it’. Eventually she manages to convince her band of neighbourhood friends about her predicament, and searching out the vanished Hugh, they learn that the only way for Jay to stop it is to transmit it herself again, through sex (should be easy for a girl, he informs her in a throwaway line; nice subtle social commentary there). And if ‘it’ kills its victim, it will next come for the one that transmitted it. So technically, this will never stop.
What follows is a constant cat-and-mouse chase, in which all the tropes of the genre are ticked off in elegant ways: going upstairs while the evil chases you through the house, fleeing to the lone cabin by the lake, the sudden scared-out-of-your-seat moments going on behind the back of the protagonist. All this is underlined by an excellent soundscape and a truly superbly chilling, synth-heavy score, very reminiscent of John Carpenter. Maika Monroe is the perfect blonde, wholesome American girl-next-door, surrounded by a cast of equally effective siblings, secret admirers, and boys to pine for. None of the roles require any Shakespearean acting, but all pass with flying colours.
Mitchell, however, elevates the material with daft visuals. The image is rarely still, always slowly zooming or panning, to heighten the thought of some evil lurking around. He rarely uses special effects or genre-typical gore, mainly resorting to using shadows, sound and music to create atmosphere, but when he does up the horror ante, he does so effectively (the finale of the tone-setting opening scene a particularly great example of this).
He also is not afraid to, genre be damned, add a layer of social commentary to the whole affair. Setting the film in Detroit, he smartly uses the crumbling Motor City to add to the feeling of decay and dread (smelly, drippy zombies help too in that regard, I guess). I would be hard-pushed to place the plot into a larger scheme of things, although one could say that the steady demise of inner cities, Detroit in particular, has a parallel in the slowly extending disease of It Follows. But the film does not need such ruminations to fright and delight. It does show however that David Robert Mitchell is a talent to keep an eye out for, and it will be interesting to see what genre he tackles next.