There is perhaps nothing more frightening than the boundless nature of the unknown. This is the very mentality director David Robert Mitchell has latched onto with his newly released horror film, “It Follows” — one of Amherst Cinema’s newest features. The film unnerves, as once the notion of the unknown has been rooted, there’s no knowing where it’ll creep. “It Follows” premiered in Cannes last May and was released in theaters March 27.
The film hones in on tropes grounded in the uncertainty of adolescence. It’s not the first time Mitchell has played with the notions of first love and fragile friendships — his debut 2011 coming-of-age drama, “The Myth Of The American Sleepover,” follows four teenagers on their last night of summer. “It Follows” is very cleverly a magnification of adolescent sexual uncertainty, and a terrifying one at that.
An opening scene introduces the tactics Mitchell maintains throughout — it starts with a slow pan that originates with an ordinary shot of an ordinary neighborhood. The shot leads us to a door from which a young girl emerges. It continues as the girl, clad in heels and clearly disturbed, runs around in a circle and then back to her door. The single shot then waits for her to re-emerge from her house only to speed away in a car. She drives away — not toward the quintessential parent-free, teenage angst-reliever of an adventure, but toward her death. The scene ends with a shot of her body, contorted into a disturbingly artful shape.
And thus the fear of the unknown is established — where Mitchell will lead us next is far from an explanation. The sprinting girl of the unsettling opener is completely abandoned, and we’re introduced to the film’s protagonist, Jay, played by Maika Monroe, as she ends a date in car-sex scene. Much like the scanty attire of the first girl, the car scene is a clever manipulation of coming-of-age and horror film tropes, rather than a reliance on them. Following the car scene, Jay’s date, Hugh, played by Jake Weary, reveals the motivation behind his pursuit of Jay. Hugh confesses that their sexual encounter has transferred some source of fear, or “It” to Jay. Plagued by presumably the same fear and confusion as Jay, we are unable to make meaningful sense of Hugh’s explanation, and are therefore left drowning in the unknown.
Here the film takes a turn toward psychological horror, as Jay begins to feel “It” lurking about her life. Is she crazed by the traumatic sexual experience or is there really something to be feared? Hugh warned Jay that the “It” would follow her, physically manifesting itself in a variety of ways, until she is able to pass it on to another. Even then, she is never really free. If one person breaks the chain of transferring, a ripple effect begins, killing all who came before. Mitchell has essentially touched on every aspect of that which is terrifying — “It” is unexpected, “It” is unknown and “It” is unyielding.
Even as “It” takes on physical manifestations, the fear of the unknown remains. Usually when the unknown takes on a physical manifestation, our fear is slightly quelled — Hollywood makeup and special effects often fail to compare to the personalized monsters we quell up in our individual minds. The Australian psychological horror, “The Babadook,” perhaps the scariest movie of 2014, only offered relief when it revealed its physical monster. The first half of Nicolas Winding Refn’s film was horrifying because the “Babadook” creature was merely the unseen, yet personified grief of the film’s protagonist. As soon as the creature took on a physical shape before the mother and son, the unknown was shattered, and fear was scaled back — it was a reminder that we were just in movie-land.
Something about the physical forms of “It” only make the unexplainable force spookier. First of all, the force is always changing. The collection of figures alters so that every viewer is sure to have a run-in with their own personal fears. Secondly, each form is some sort of an alteration of an ordinary human being — there’s something undeniably off-putting about the distortion of the familiar. Finally, “It” is slow. There are a few jump-scares packed into the film, but Mitchell primarily uses this slow-creeping movement for the source of fear, a technique that leaves the viewer feeling utterly queasy.
The mystery of “It” is paired with a soundtrack that is possibly the best feature of the film. Yes, every good horror movie has a good soundtrack, but Rich Vreeland’s score gets under your skin. It’s as if Freddy Krueger remixed the soundtrack of Nicolas Winding’s “Drive.”
The acting of the teenage leads isn’t anything particularly noteworthy, but that allows for the stimulating cinematography to take forefront. Mitchell manipulated pan shot after pan shot, and it never failed to drive home the horror. The slow 360 pans leave a pit in your stomach, as they begin on nothing, and ended on … nothing. The manipulation of colors is an artful visual trigger — Mitchell repeats a bright red against white, or a cool blue (most notably with Jay’s red nails against a patch of white flowers). The stimulating color contrasts seem to occur right before we are reintroduced to the “It,” creating a really interesting tension between that which is beautiful, and that which is the source of our fear.
Of course, the use of adolescent sexual practices as the source of “It” draws an obvious parallel to sexually transmitted diseases. But, this was far from a trite distraction. The sexual encounters as the source of terror were actually a relief from the typical role of sex in horror movies — a departure from the overused plotline in which the attractive characters die first right after a steamy hook up.
The dread of “It Follows” is so effective because it is continually nourished by the characters’ adolescence — they are unsure of themselves and simultaneously unsure of the “It.” Furthermore, the film is completely void of any impactful adults. There are no mommy and daddy to run home to. Not to mention that you can count the instances of comic relief on one hand.
“It Follows” is a must-see if you’re looking to lose a few nights of sleep. Amherst Cinema will be screening it for a limited time, along with a notable selection of indie new releases.