With more than $8.5 million at the box office over four weekends, writer/director David Robert Mitchell's moody new horror film “It Follows” may not be a sleeper hit on the order of a bona fide blockbuster like “Scream,” but since its release in only four theaters in early March, it's transformed into a tidy small-scale success that no one could have predicted just a month ago. Like Wes Craven's 1996 self-aware slasher, the critically-acclaimed fright flick is a true word-of-mouth sensation; it raked in so much money in limited release that distributor Radius-TWC put off the film's planned VOD debut and gave it a wide release in over 1,600 theaters.
To what can we attribute this unlikely good fortune? For starters, “It Follows” is good — very good. Along with Jennifer Kent's masterful 2014 supernatural scare machine “The Babadook,” “It Follows” has arrived like a breath of fresh air in a genre currently littered with endless dumb sequels (“Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension,” “The Purge: Anarchy,” “Insidious: Chapter 3”), remakes (“Poltergeist,” “Carrie”) and lifeless, middle-of-the-road spins on classic monsters (“I, Frankenstein,” “Dracula Untold”).
It also boasts surprisingly strong replay value, much of which can be attributed to Mitchell's insistence on leaving the film's thematic underpinnings open to audience interpretation. It's a stance that lends the film an intriguing aura of mystery and, much like Richard Kelly's 2001 cult film “Donnie Darko,” makes it well suited to multiple viewings.
Will a better horror film come out in 2015? It's certainly possible, though if I were a betting man I'd put my money on “It Follows” remaining at the top of the heap come December 31. Below are six reasons why the frighteningly-good new film will be tough to beat this year.
1. The flawless cinematography
In a genre flooded with cheap-looking found footage fare, it's always refreshing to see a formally classic film like “It Follows” come along. Mitchell has cited John Carpenter's use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio as an influence (though unlike Carpenter, he wasn't able to use “true” anamorphic lenses), and it can be seen in the film's gorgeous use of the widescreen format. The much-heralded single shot that opens the film immediately calls to mind Carpenter's “Halloween,” with its crisp, tree-lined suburban streets and elegant gliding camerawork. Hell, the classroom scene alone appears to be a direct nod to an early moment in that 1978 trailblazer. Throughout, Mike Gioulakis' painstaking cinematography harkens back to a time in horror cinema when individual freeze frames were themselves works of art.
2. The hair-raising score
Composed by Rich Vreeland (a.k.a. Disasterpeace), the film's pummeling, often atonal score creates a claustrophobic, propulsive sense of doom from the very first scene, leaving us fittingly off-balance as the life of our heroine Jay (Maika Monroe) begins to unravel in the face of an inexplicable evil. Though some have understandably compared Disasterpeace's work here to John Carpenter's self-penned “Halloween” score, what immediately sprang to mind for me was Goblin's work on Dario Argento's “Suspiria,” which similarly throttles us right from the get-go. Whatever Vreeland's influences (he has also cited composers Krzysztof Penderecki and John Cage as informing the film's sound), it's one of the most memorable musical accompaniments to a horror film, or really any film, in years.
3. Maika Monroe's performance
I was so bowled over by Monroe's performance here that I immediately Googled her name after returning home from the theater. Did you know she used to be a professional kiteboarder? Did you know she also starred in last year's well-received Adam Wingard thriller “The Guest”? The actress absolutely kills it in this movie with her big frightened eyes, unforced sex appeal and formidable ability to project utter terror. When she stammers “I think there's something wrong with me” later in this scene, you believe it.
4. The oddly fascinating Yara
The young cast in the film is uniformly good, but as supporting characters go Yara (Olivia Luccardi) is the most interesting. With her giant glasses and bizarre pale-pink clamshell e-reader device — on which she's seen diving in to Dostoyevsky's “The Idiot,” naturally — the character is by far the quirkiest, most fascinating member of Jay's Scooby gang. Part geeky '80s best friend character, part woozy hipster, part unapologetic slob (our first introduction to her culminates in a well-timed fart — an early indication that the film will defy all the well-worn “teen scream” cliches), as a collection of character traits she's the embodiment of Mitchell's singular, anachronistic, deeply weird vision of post-adolescent hell.
5. The gleefully anachronistic production design
What universe is this, exactly? Mitchell has previously stated that the film's sense of time and place is intentionally jumbled — “Those [anachronistic elements] were all used to place the film a little bit outside of time, like in a dream or a nightmare,” he told Filmmaker magazine — and it was a brilliant directorial choice that further points to the director's unwillingness to ground his vision in the world of standard slasher fare. From old-school 1970s TV sets (playing old-school black and white horror movies) and retro soda cans to the almost complete lack of modern technology (we see only one cell phone in the entire film), “It Follows” truly takes place in its own subtly strange world.
6. Its rare thematic depth
If you were to look at a still of the young-adult group at the center of “It Follows,” you likely wouldn't expect the film to play much differently than, say, the Michael Bay-produced board game adaptation “Ouija.” But beneath the film's rather ordinary surface qualities lies a universe of subtext that has given rise to a number of theories as to Mitchell's ultimate thematic intent. Perhaps the most rampant interpretation is the “'It'-as-STD” theory, but that seems the most simplistic explanation of a film that seems to be trying at much more than that.
More intriguing is the idea that “It” represents the young protagonists' awakening sense of their own mortality, as exemplified by a closing scene in which a hospital bed-ridden Yara quotes a passage from Dostoyevsky's “The Idiot” that reads in part: “When there is torture, there is pain and wounds, physical agony, and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering, so that one is tormented by the wounds until the moment of death. And the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within 10 minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant-your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that this is certain. The worst thing is that it is certain.”
Tying in with that theory is this quote from an interview Mitchell gave to Defamer: “It's about waiting for something terrible to happen and that on some level, that might be worse than when something terrible does happen. A lot of the movie is structured around the dread an anxiety that the characters feel in the spaces in between things happening or between the monster arriving. You still feel the presence of the monster even in those moments because it could show up at any time.”
Other theories on the film's thematic significance include but are not limited to:
– A Puritanical meditation on the dangers of random sex (a reading that Mitchell has deemed “offensive”);
– A metaphor for the financial crisis (“Even the financial crash is evoked by the way the curse functions like a sexual Ponzi scheme that could collapse at any minute, something reinforced by the symbolic value of shooting the film in Mitchell”s home city of Detroit,” writes Alistair Harkness in the Scotsman);
– A metaphor for the terrifying transition into adulthood, the responsibilities of which typically begin looming like a piss-covered demon-woman shortly after high school (evidence for this theory lies in the group's foray into the big, bad city of Detroit in the film's final third, and Yara's reflection on being forbidden from venturing beyond “8 Mile” as a young girl);
– A take on the idea of our interconnectedness in the age of social media;
As I mentioned before, given the incredible number of theories that have sprung up in the wake of “It Follow's” theatrical release, the film could in many ways be pegged as the “Donnie Darko” of its time — a low-budget, auteur-driven indie effort that traffics in dread and formalistic beauty while inviting endless speculation around its true thematic purpose. Credit must go to Mitchell for his unwillingness to spell it all out — though in the various interviews I've read I get the impression that even he isn't certain of what it all means.