David Robert Mitchell's debut feature, The Myth of the American Sleepover, was a gentle, evocative story of teens and summer crushes set in Detroit. Unthreatening, sweet in the way of Freaks and Geeks, and the coming-of-age stories of John Hughes, it embraced the confusion of adolescence with warmth and affection.
That confusion feels altogether different in Mitchell's breath-catchingly alarming sophomore feature, It Follows, a horror film that also references plenty of its predecessors while somehow feeling altogether fresh. From the opening moments, the one thing clear about It Follows is that it will not follow in everyone else's footsteps.
After a brief prologue calibrated to set nerves jangling and establish the stakes, we're introduced to a well-adjusted suburban teenager named Jamie (Maika Monroe), who's amusing herself before a date with a new boyfriend by swimming in her backyard pool and hanging out with her Dostoyevsky-reading sister, and a nerdy childhood friend named Paul (Keir Gilchrist) who's had a crush on Jamie since grade school. He's pretending to be completely absorbed in a silly '50s horror flick on TV, while casting lingering glances her way, but there's nothing troubled about what we see of them. They're easygoing — recognizably normal.
Jamie's date initially seems normal too, until at a movie theater, he points to a girl behind them as they're playing a people-watching game. When Jamie doesn't see her, he gets seriously squirrelly, but once they've left the theater, everything seems fine again. So fine, in fact, that after they have a nice dinner, and a walk in the woods, they make love for the first time in the back of Hugh's car. At which point things turn darker.
Hugh tells Jamie that when they made love, he passed something on to her that is slow-moving but deadly, shape-shifting but familiar. And then, just as he did in the theater, he points to someone. And this time Jamie can see a figure coming toward them, moving slowly enough that they can easily get away...but only for so long.
"You can get rid of it," Hugh tells her. "Just sleep with someone soon as you can. Just pass it along. If it kills you, it'll come after me...understand?"
How's that for inverting the abstinence metaphor behind most teen horror flicks? Something deadly and sexually transmitted this way comes, and your salvation requires infecting someone else.
Shooting in Detroit, in suburbs that feel at once pristine, and perched right on the edge of calamity, filmmaker David Robert Mitchell doesn't resort to violence, or gore, or things jumping out of dark corners. His approach is more insinuating, letting you share Jamie's indecision about how to proceed, see the way shame and guilt have turned familiar landscapes unnerving. And once she's confided in her friends, the director lets you wonder with them where next she'll see someone that they can't. Someone coming her way, slowly. At school? At an ice cream parlor? In the front yard?
Horror usually festers in tight claustrophobic spaces, but this director loves a wide-open screen, with lots of people wandering around. Because he knows that once he's infected you with the premise of It Follows, you'll spend every second scanning the background — almost in "Where's Waldo" mode — terrified that you'll see someone who's...just walking slowly.