(2015) Horror (Radius) Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto, Bailey Spry, Carolette Phillips, Loren Bass, Charles Gertner, Debbie Williams, Ruby Harris, Linda Boston, Leisa Pulido, D.J. Oliver, Ingrid Mortimer, Kourtney Bell, Alexyss Spradlin, Mike Lanier, Scott Norman, Claire Sloma. Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Horror films are kind of the bastard stepchildren of cinema. Disrespected critically, nonetheless horror films have a rabid following that have kept it the most profitable genre in movies as they tend to cost very little to make but when they connect with audiences, they can bring in hundreds of millions in revenue.
However, horror movies tend to attract a lot of hack filmmakers who assume that they can just recycle a tired concept, throw some fake blood at the camera and that millions of teenagers will automatically love them. It doesn’t work that way. Truly innovative horror movies are a sad rarity these days and ones that are skillfully made even less so. We’ve been in a drought over the past six or seven years in terms of really good horror movies, but there are indications that not only is that drought over but we may be entering a new golden age of really good horror movies much as we did back in the late ’70s.
This movie is giving me reason for that kind of hope. The premise is terrifyingly simple; Jay (Monroe), a beautiful blonde teen girl living in the suburbs of Detroit, has been dating a sweet young man named Hugh (Weary). As teenagers will do, they have sex together in a parked car. Then the wheels fall off.
It turns out that Hugh – which isn’t his real name – has a curse. Not a sexually transmitted disease, although it is sexually transmitted, and he has passed it on to Jay. She is now being stalked by a demonic presence that approaches at a slow walking pace. If it touches her, she’ll die. The only way to stop the curse is to pass it on to someone else – by having sex with them, and then telling them the rules. If the demon kills one of the cursed, it then goes after the person who gave the curse back to them and then down the line, presumably to the person who started it all. Oh, and the person infected is the only person who can see the demon, who takes human form, often of people that the victim knows.
Of course, Jay’s circle of friends – her sister Kelly (Sepe), their bookish friend Yara (Luccardi) and their quiet friend Paul (Gilchrist) who has a huge crush on Jay which he’s had since grade school, as well as neighborly stud Greg (Zovatto) – are skeptical at first. Then, they experience the demon themselves, which has a physical presence, they just can’t see it so it manifests itself by moving objects or throwing them about like rag dolls. Since they don’t have the curse, its touch isn’t deadly to them. See how that works?
Mitchell, whose previous film was the gentle comedy The Myth of the American Sleepover shows that he has the proper chops for a horror master. Few movies have ever pulled off the kind of tension that Mitchell has. Basically from the first ten minutes on most audience members will be on the edge of their seat. Think about it; any person at any time that is walking towards the main character can be the demon. It can make for some harrowing viewing.
Mitchell doesn’t give a lot of information about the rules beyond what I’ve already explained; this is a good and a bad thing. Good in that it doesn’t overburden the movie with exposition, bad in that at some points the movie could have used some.
The teen characters here act a lot like teens; they don’t always make smart decisions and they tend to operate more on hormones and emotions rather than good sense. They aren’t bad kids, mind you – they’re more like normal kids who are capable of being both real sweet and real assholes. Like I said, just like normal teens. The acting is solid though not spectacular and all of the kids here are more or less attractive.
One of the ongoing bits of business in the movie is that Yara, the bookish friend, is constantly reading from a Kindle-like device that’s shaped like a clam shell for no discernible reason although for the sake of transparency I did hear one teen in the audience at my screening exclaim “I want one” so maybe there was a reason. This leads to the point that the time period that the movie is set in is kind of indeterminate; the cars and houses look like they came from the early ’80s, the clam shell device from a few years from now and the movies the kids watch are all at least 50 years old. That makes It Follows kind of timeless.
There are a few nitpicks. The book Yara is reading is by Dostoyevsky which isn’t what I would call normal teen reading; it would have been more believable to have her reading one of the Twilight books although I would imagine getting the rights to use the name of that series might have been too dear for a micro-budgeted indie horror film like this.
The main problem is the climax, set in a gorgeous public swimming pool in Detroit which provides a spooky enough setting without adding a CGI thunderstorm (which they add anyway). The idea of lining the edges of the pool with electrical devices plugged into wall sockets with the idea of kicking them all in simultaneously once the demon gets into the water without knowing whether or not the thing is immune to electrical shock seems a bit dumb; clearly the electrical devices don’t work on Jay because the creature tosses them in the pool while she’s in it to no discernible effect. The last image in the movie is rather ambiguous but I kind of liked that; I respect any filmmaker who lets audiences draw their own conclusions.
I was strongly reminded of the feeling I got seeing the John Carpenter Halloween in theaters back in ’78. It Follows has the same Midwestern suburban vibe but as a modern twist it adds the crumbling structure of Detroit itself with ruined and abandoned buildings providing an eerie backdrop, like pretending to be normal as the world is ending. I suspect that this will be considered a horror classic the same way Halloween was and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were plenty of imitators that come out after this, but hopefully that will also spur a lot of really good directors and writers to try their hands at making a horror movie that’s smart, scary and innovative. The fact that the response at the box office was so strong that Radius was prompted to change their distribution plans from a slight release in a few select theaters with a simultaneous VOD release to a wide release while postponing the VOD release. Horror fans should make a point of seeing this as should fans of good movies. Definitely one of the year’s best thus far.
REASONS TO GO: One of the most tense horror films of the past 20 years. Imaginative concept. Propulsive score.
REASONS TO STAY: The climax is a bit of a stretch.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing violence and sexuality with graphic nudity, terrifying images, and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Redford Theater depicted in the film really exists in Detroit. It has a Wurlitzer Organ and is one of the finest revival houses in the Midwest.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Halloween (1978)
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Higher Ground