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26 February 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:15pm

It Follows: a film about a sexually transmitted curse forces us to face mortality itself

Ryan Gilbey reviews It Follows, directed by David Robert Mitchell.

By Ryan Gilbey

It Follows (15)
dir David Robert Mitchell

A horror movie need only be frightening to be effective and It Follows is certainly that. The nature of its scares incorporates the superficial (things going bump in the night) and the visceral (figures looming out of the darkness). That alone would have been enough to render it a success. The writer-director David Robert Mitchell, though, is interested in terror on a molecular level – the sort that refuses to end when the film does.

Plainly put, It Follows is about a sexually  transmitted curse. Sleep with someone who is afflicted and it passes to you. From that point, you will be pursued for the rest of your life, at speeds of slow to plodding, by a figure that is intent on killing you but only you can see. It will appear in different forms and it will change each time you encounter it. (A cheerleader in the kitchen may have metamorphosed into a gangly, cadaverous giant by the time it reaches the top of the stairs.) Wherever you choose to hide, you will know that “it” is out there, somewhere, moving inexorably towards you. Sleep with  someone else, however, and you become free of the curse, at least until that person perishes, in which case it’s back with you again.

Horror is typically confined and claustrophobic but It Follows has space – lots of space. Mitchell and his cinematographer, Mike Gioulakis, leave sizeable areas of the widescreen frame empty, inviting us to treat every corner and each void or vacuum as a potential entry point for the next shock. The camera is fond of slow, circular movements, sweeping each scene with the meticulousness of a radar, or the second hand of a clock.

The deserted streets in which much of the film is set (it was shot in Detroit, including many of the city’s abandoned areas) are wide and airy and in a state of perpetual late-summer dusk. There is ample room here for dreamy teens such as the sleepy-eyed Jay (Maika Monroe) and the plump-lipped, doleful Paul (Keir Gilchrist) to mosey around or hang out on the porch or roam beneath the leafy canopies without bumping into their elders. A parent is glimpsed briefly in the first scene and a schoolteacher is seen reading a pertinent passage from T S Eliot’s “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” (“And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,/And in short, I was afraid”). But as in ET: the Extra Terrestrial, adults are in short supply. It is a choice that seems eerily right for a movie steeped in youthful, unchecked desire.

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There is something pleasantly odd, too, about the film’s timelessness, an aspect that will resist future efforts to carbon-date it. This is manifestly the present and yet clunky televisions with set-top aerials show nothing but cheesy 1950s horror and science fiction. The local cinema is a picture palace with a Wurlitzer organ. Pornography is consumed through magazines rather than the internet, and the only e-reader is disguised as a pink seashell (it’s loaded with Dostoevsky, not the sound of the ocean). Mitchell’s one previous film, the gentle comedy-drama The Myth of the American Sleepover, also nailed its colours to the past. The drowsy mood of the earlier work has survived intact the journey from wistfulness to dread.

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If the premise of It Follows suggests an Aids parable, the film never presses the point. It is more plausible as an allegory about mortality itself. Though there is a grotesquely carnal aspect to the zombie-like creatures, the sexual imperative simply ensures the continued survival of the curse (there is no suggestion that contraception would halt its progress). However far or fast we run, death will always be stalking us. It may hurry, or it may not. No matter. It will catch us eventually.

Mitchell’s skill is to take this prosaic truism and turn it into poetry that is as terrifying and seductive as the score (by Disasterpeace), which ranges from the plaintively melancholy to crunchy, distorted walls of electronic noise. Mitchell has also found within his subject a latent romanticism that complicates the horrific without overruling it entirely. When the characters are in trouble, they offer to help one another out like any true friend would. Only in this case “help” takes a unique and not unpleasant form. Decades of sex comedies – Porky’s, American Pie, and so on – have primed audiences to view adolescents in a disreputable light. It Follows is not only great cinema. It provides for teenagers the sort of positive PR that money can’t buy.