David Robert Mitchell returns to the Detroit suburbs that were cruised by the young hopefuls that made up the cast of his charming debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover. But where a hot summer day lazily rolled through twilight and into a magical nightscape in that film, the tree-lined streets are now rusted with the yellow and orange brushes of autumn and they are inhabited by something quite sinister in It Follows, Mitchell’s second feature. Far from succumbing to a case of the sophomore slump, Mitchell elevates his universe of latchkey kids to edge-of-fall mystery hounds where the inevitable and natural slide into adulthood is an equal thing of beautiful mystery and abject terror.
Like The Myth of the American Sleepover before it, It Follows takes place in a world where the adults are just kind of around; they numbly day-drink and gossip across a formica table while the kids watch bad horror films or play Old Maid on the porch, sipping a cocktail mixed from their folks’ stolen booze and generic soda. The lack of parental supervision is exemplified by a week-old sandwich and juice that sits and festers in the room of our traumatized heroine as she hunkers down and tries to figure out how to survive. Claire Sloma, who portrayed incoming freshman Maggie in The Myth of the American Sleepover, pops up in a tiny moment as she shares a cigarette with the hot boy from across the street making It Follows the dark flip of Sleepover as it explores, with no small amount of horror, the dark journey of maturation.
When the film begins, we’re plopped into a homage of nostalgia porn as Detroit, Michigan does an amazing Pasadena-as-Haddonfield and we almost immediately witness a troubled teen named Annie, clad in a ridiculous ensemble of 80’s sleepwear and heels, flee a house right out of A Nightmare on Elm Street as she is fearfully running from… something. While this is unfolding in front of our eyes, it’s almost impossible to hear Disasterpeace’s minimalist, synth-driven, propulsive soundtrack and not recall the musical scores of John Carpenter or Charles Bernstein. Annie drives to the shores of Lake Michigan where she doesn’t last past dawn and ends up a perfectly posed beach corpse having befallen a terrible and malignant force nobody but she and a handful of others can see.
The opening meditation on the last swim of the season for Jay (Maika Monroe) our protagonist is a loaded metaphor as the kids all seem in that nebulous time where one by one, they lose their virginity and move toward adulthood, an inevitable horror they will never outrun. Jay is dating Hugh (Jake Weary) a boy from another school with whom she’s considering going all the way for the first time. And in clocking the rites of passage, fucking in a car among the urban decay of Detroit is what passes for parking in this day and age as Mitchell is deliberately expands his geographical universe as a metaphor for maturation; your neighborhood may be your world but there are a lot of scary things in that neighborhood on the other side of town. The further one travels away from the neighborhood, the more twisted and immoral and confusing things become.
“Imagine how cool that would be to have your whole life ahead of you,” says a 21 year old Hugh, speaking like he’s on the other side of the divide and, in this world, he is. For he will later deflower Jay and will pass the curse on to her; sexual activity being the stark tipping point between victim and innocent. Once the rules of the game are set up, the film mostly becomes an exercise in pure cinema in which more is shown and not told, leaving the audience to puzzle out how the differing embodiments of the lurking figure factor into the terror and the psyche of its victims. Simple, yet effective, stylistic choices right out of the John Carpenter playbook such as its drab suburban setting evoking a new kind of neighborhood folk tale where bold, center-framed compositions rule the day and negative space is utilized to an astonishing level.
And the more I examine It Follows, the more my eye catches the forever friend-zoned Paul (Kier Gilchrist) and can’t be sure if he’s not something of a sub-villain in the piece. Operating from a place where his motivations are kinda suspect and maybe a little less selflessly heroic, his nitwit idea utilized during the Scooby Doo’d climax in a derelict pool backfires so spectacularly and with such a quickness that, in the film’s beautifully clever denouement, Jay is correct in fucking him right into Troublesville.
Aside from the excellent performances from the young cast, much should be said about Mitchell’s attention to the kind of detail that barely even registers as detail. Check out the subtleties within the frame that don’t call attention to the fact that there is also a class struggle that is occurring in this nightmare scenario. Chain-linked fences and above-ground pools where the bottoms have become besotted with leaves and the standard, half-moon window cutouts on the garages clash with the rolling lushness of Hugh’s neighborhood. An uptight rich bro who lies in a neatly trimmed house that backs up to a bucolic soccer field, it becomes more than aware that Hugh has picked Jay to pass along this curse because, to him, she’s south side trash. Later, we’ll see a character travel below his station and to the outer boundaries of town where two prostitutes stand among the landscape that looks like a war zone. No matter how old we are, we seem to want to always drop our troubles onto poorer people.
It Follows is very smart about what it’s doing. Folding the natural angst into a horror framework is as old as movies itself so rare is the one that finds a way to explore its themes as cleanly and carefully as this. It’s a top to bottom examination of the invisible line into adulthood everyone must cross where boundless pleasures certainly await but that also comes equipped with a countdown clock; an emblematic place in everyone’s life where, as one character says, the city begins and the suburbs ends.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain