After spending a solid decade at the bottom of the film-world totem poll, the horror genre is positively thriving, and regaining cult fans by the handful. Yes, the Ouija's and The Lazarus Effect's of the world are still at large, but so are micro-budget indie darlings (The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night) and runaway mainstream hits (The Conjuring, The Paranormal Activity franchise). The battle against 'Torture Porn' or 'Gorno' films like Saw and The Hills Have Eyes has officially been fought and won, debunking the myth that carnage alone can produce terror, and leading to major studio's recent aversion toward the style. But for all the critical love and internet hype these fright-fests have been receiving over the last few years, they share one thing in common with the grisly flicks that now reside in our cultural rearview mirror: they're just not that scary. Perhaps we're all too busy dancing on Hostel's grave to notice, but the annoyingly frequent severed limbs of yesteryear haven't given way to terror, but rather another placeholder all together, one which informs nearly every waking moment of It Follows.
The sophomore effort of writer/director David Robert Mitchell (following 2010's slept-on The Myth of the American Sleepover) sees the up-and-comer change gears in drastic manner, swapping out the lo-fi nostalgic sweetness of his debut for a chilly thriller straight out of the late 70's or early 80's. In a seemingly parentless, comparatively cozy corner of Detroit, Jay (Maika Monroe) spends a night out with her boyfriend that, following a moment of intimacy, takes a dark, unexpected turn. Suddenly stalked by overwhelming fear and anxiety, sometimes in the literal form of a dead-eyed pursuant, Jay turns to her band of young adult compatriots for support, the group working frantically to relieve our protagonist of her curse before it's too late.
Only two pictures into what will hopefully be a lengthy filmography, we already know a few things about Mitchell for certain. The auteur is clearly interested in youth, listlessness, the loss of innocence (especially in a sexual context), and finding new ideas within familiar rhetoric. Don't confuse that last bit with boundary-breaking or trail-blazing; Mitchell is far more concerned with exploring the parameters of our established storytelling rules than he is in refuting them. Prior to release, the filmmaker cited George Romero and John Carpenter as influences, the type of proclamation that initially inspired the immortal expression 'needless to say.' Halloween makes up about 75% of the flick's bibliography, from Disasterpeace clearly (and masterfully) aping the score of that film, to the way cinematographer Mike Gioulakis captures the beauty of the suburban dog days of summer with foreboding, paralyzing beauty. Even the assailant's molasses-slow approach feels like a salute to Michael Meyers' stayed bodily movements. Again, this is a guy fixated on working within convention, a focus that makes his involvement in the horror genre that much more perfect.
His film greets the world at a point where genre deconstruction has completely taken over the scary movie landscape, IF sharing that tendency with all the lauded efforts mentioned in the first paragraph of this review. Seemingly every respected frightener over the last several years has managed to wrangle in a story-behind-the-story, be it metaphorical like The Babadook, or satirical like Cabin in the Woods, a middling success that somehow birthed an entire sub-genre simply by following the blueprint that Scream laid out nearly two decades ago. It Follows fits much more cleanly into the former category, ramming that aforementioned metaphor down your throat in a manner that makes it nearly impossible to miss (I'll opt against calling it by name, and let the film tell you its own story).
It's a juicy idea in that it employs tried-and-true framing to relay an unfamiliar idea, which is seemingly the only thing we want in our horror movies nowadays. Obviously I prefer this new strategy to the heedless physical trauma of the early 2000's, but I can't help but feel like it's an over-correction. None of these movies stand by themselves; they're all thin veneers for obvious agendas, applying to the viewer's intellect while almost completely forgoing all the cold sweat and raised hair that a horror flick should, to my mind, at least attempt to produce. It Follows might get your wheels turning, and it's certainly made with expert craft, but I'm growing tired of popcorn flicks that only serve up organic kernels without even a hint of butter or salt. Yes, it's clever and thoughtful, but since when is that all we want from a 'scary' night out at the flicks?