The best premises are often the simplest. David Robert Mitchell’s new coming-of-age horror delves into that well-hewn territory of sin=death, but with a ‘catchy’ new twist. In IT FOLLOWS a curse that brings a nightmare vision slowly stalking to the victim spreads by sexual contact. Once the victim has sex with someone else, the curse is lifted, and taken on by next person. Wow! Talk about the greatest health class abstinence film ever made (sorry, I went to Catholic School), It Follows is fresh, fun, funny, and totally terrifying.
Jay, played by star-in-the-making Maika Monroe (who I loved in THE GUEST), sleeps with the wrong boy. After he drugs her and ties her to a chair, he explains what he has just done, which is to give her this virus of death. All she has to do is sleep with someone else and she’s safe. Unspoken but obvious is that he selected her because she is a bit slutty, and someone he thinks will have no problem passing the curse on to someone else quickly, ensuring her own safety. He ties her to a chair to prove to her that he’s not crazy, and Jay gets her first glimpse of ‘it’ and what ‘it’ does, which is… follow. I love this aspect of the film. The evil is incredibly simple, and fortunately slow. You can always run away from it. But ‘it’ always follows. I had a chance to speak with Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell and the US premiere at Fantastic Fest about this particular horror, and where it came from.
“The basic idea came from a recurring nightmare I had when I was a kid,” says Mitchell, “I remember being at recess, my friends and I are playing somewhere, and I look across the parking lot, and I saw this other kid like walking really slow straight towards me and in the dream I immediately knew that this kid was not a kid, that he was something else, some kind of monster and that he was going to hurt me.” In the film, this terror is directly translated on screen. Once Jay goes back to her life, she catches the sight of ‘it’ again and again, sometimes very far away. No one can see this curse, and because she can so easily escape it initially, it is easy to convince herself that maybe it isn’t happening. “I ran away from school,” he continues, “and I got a block away and I just waited and eventually, he turned the corner, and I could see that he was still coming after me.” Mitchell and I talked extensively about dream logic, how the dreamer often knows things they shouldn’t or couldn’t or how scenes and people can shift, but the plight remain the same. “I would be other places like with my family,” he explains “and it will look like someone else, and I immediately knew it was this thing coming for me and I had to run.” In the film, Jay’s follower takes many forms, including those of her closest friends, sometimes making it difficult to tell who she can trust. Mitchell let every element of the dream inform his writing, even the less ‘frightening’ aspects of it. “In the dream it was very easy to get away from it, but knowing that it was always walking towards me was very disturbing,” he says.
This knowing and waiting allows IT FOLLOWS to embrace a different pace and plotting. Unlike most horror films that take the typical Scooby-do gang and divide and conquer, all of Jay’s friends stick with her to the end, even sacrificing themselves and their own safety. Mitchell’s first film, THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER, plays like a perfect snapshot of teenage summer. It Follows has much of the same charm, but lifts those characters out of their comfort and drops them into something they cannot possible understand. “The idea was to take some of the tonal things,” Mitchell explains, “the feel of the characters from that first film, age them up a bit, and then imagine how they might react if placed in a nightmare.” Keeping the story focused on the teenagers (there are almost no adults in the film) which works perfectly for creating both isolation for Jay and dependence on her own selected community. “That’s one of the interesting things about that age,” says the director, “and something that I think tends to fade as we get older, but that is a moment in life when friendships are seemingly absolute in a way that is difficult to maintain.” Maika Monroe is again mesmerizing on screen. She is the ideal mix of vulnerable and dangerous; it always seems like she could survive, because she’s willing to do what it takes (even putting others at risk), despite the overwhelming odds against her. Mitchell places a nice supporting cast around her, and they all really gel together. “The goal is to find the right sort of mix in the actors,” he acknowledges, “they really bonded, offscreen and on, and that was nice. It was cool to see them become friends and I think that carries over into the movie.”
With the danger being spread sexually, this allows for very specific conflict amongst the teens, as all she needs to do to pass it on is to sleep with someone. Of course, if they die before they pass it on, it comes back to her. This was not part of Mitchell’s prepubescent dream, but came naturally when he was piecing together the elements for the script. “I wanted to connect people in some certain way,” he says, “and it sort of seems obvious to connect sexually, physically and emotionally through sex.” I, like most everyone else, can only watch horror in the post-modern, post-SCREAM world, where we all know, when a character has sex, they die. It Follows does a nice job of building on that and making it something new again. “Sex is a normal part of life,” according to the director, “but on some level, it opens you up to some danger, but the sex is also the way they can save themselves.” Jay has to look at the men around her not only as people who she can depend on to save her, but also potential people to which to spread the curse. But mostly, they are there to support her. “So much of the movie is about waiting and wondering when these horrible things are going to happen,” says Mitchell, “and it’s about the anxiety that they feel in those quiet spaces. Even though they can’t experience the horror in the way that Jay does, they can be there with her in those waiting times.”
After Mitchell’s first film, he spent a good chunk of time writing, and even though it had been years since he had had the nightmare, it always stuck with him. He wrote the first draft in 10 days and after having a spot of difficulty finding the financing for a drama, decided to move forward on It Follows instead. “The climate of the US is people are more willing to finance genre,” he says, “this film to me is very much a genre film, but it also works on different levels.” Mitchell hardly feels like he was slumming. “I love horror films, I always wanted to make a horror film,” he says, “horror films can be just as great as any other kind of movie, it just depends on what you do with it.”
One thing Mitchell doesn’t want to do, is dive too much into the origins of the curse, which I suggested would probably make a great third film in a trilogy (because this film really has legs, and I think could be a very successful franchise). “I’m not particularly interested in explaining how it starts,” he admits to me, “never say never, but to me what works about this is that if you and I were placed into a nightmare, all we would really want to do is to try to run from it, to survive as best we can.” Certainly in It Follows, the characters don’t have time to figure out too much about it, doing their most just to live to tell the tale. Mitchell explains by going back to his fundamental dream logic. “I have trouble believing it’s really what we would do,” he says, “the idea of there being an object in history that is the reason for a nightmare, something so concrete and logical to me goes against the fear that we feel by being thrown into the nightmare.” The dream itself, having done a bit of research, is an anxiety dream, so to get to the root of it would require curing anxiety. Possibly this is why so many people (even admitted non-horror fans) have been so drawn to this film. We’ve all had some version of an anxiety dream. “To me, what’s interesting is the way that different people might react in the situation,” Mitchell says, “because this film is very much about that. It’s not just about what ‘it’ is and what ‘it’ does, it’s about how Jay reacts to ‘it,’ how she handles ‘it,’ and so a different person, a different character would handle ‘it’ in different ways.”
Mitchell successfully dodges my questions about what ‘the rules’ are for the curse but he says he knows, and he could put them on a plaque over his desk if (please when) he has to sit down to write the sequels. And I trust him. IT FOLLOWS is a beguiling movie for me. I feel like I am holding it to a much higher standard than I would most horror films. There are parts of it that are just fundamentally awesome. The premise is inventive, Jay is absorbing, and the frightening moments are really frightening. There are also some elements of the film that just don’t work for me at all. (Spoilers here, skip to the next paragraph). They seem to live in a vacuum without any adults or people in authority, or consequences, which is frankly illogical. There are several ‘friends’ in the Scooby-Doo gang that have no purpose and do not contribute significantly to plot or remain distinct from others in the group. There is a whole sequence suggested where Jay seeks out three random dudes in a boat (ostensibly to pass off the disease) but we never see what happens on the boat or what happens to them – that’s something I really wanted to see, talk about watching how different people react under these circumstances. And then there is the whole end showdown where they try to kill ‘it,’ based on no knowledge whatsoever that it can be done and with a plan that seems pulled out of thin air without any basis in what they’ve experienced. The sequence itself is exhilarating and well-shot, but it makes no plausible sense in the film.
But again, I liked the film so much, I want it to rise above the drek of the rest of the films in this marketplace. I want it to be perfect. Maybe I’m just frustrated with the dream logic that we can never control. For Mitchell, “the nightmare is enough in itself, to be in a nightmare, it’s not necessary for us and maybe it’s not even possible for us to understand the reason why. All that we really have to know is how it affects us and what we do about it.”
Bring on the night.
David Robert Mitchell’s IT FOLLOWS is making its way around the festival circuit, having played Cannes, Karlovy Vary and Toronto before Fantastic Fest, and with screenings planned at Busan, Sitges, and London Film Festival, as well as Philadelphia International and Chicago International all before the end of October. The film was picked up by Radius TWC and will receive a national release in 2015.