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Gorgeously shot, lushly atmospheric and as funereal-paced as a Sabbath song, writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore feature, It Follows (2014), has already been pegged as this year’s The Babadook (2014): in other words, the mature, intelligent and well-made antidote to the seemingly endless horror remakes and sequels that clogged multiplex arteries for over a decade now. A hit on the festival circuit, It Follows managed to kick up quite a bit of dust with both critics and fans alike, leading to early calls of “neo-classic” and “the next Halloween (1978).” As someone who was quite taken with Jennifer Kent’s Babadook, I approached this with no small amount of excitement and trepidation. Does It Follows live up to the hype, propelling the horror field into a bold, exciting new era? Follow me and we’ll find out.

Jay (Maika Monroe) is, for all intents and purposes, a pretty normal young lady: she likes to sun in the pool, enjoys hanging out with her friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe) and is just wasting away the lazy days before they all have to head off to college. She’s also dating a “really nice guy” named Hugh (Jake Weary) and, despite some obvious jealousy vibes from “friend-zoned” Paul, Jay and her beau are about to take their relationship to the next level.

After a tender lovemaking session in their car, in the middle of the woods, Jay’s post-coital glow is rudely interrupted by her “nice guy” knocking her out with chloroform. Upon waking, Jay is tied to a chair in the middle of a gutted building and Hugh, albeit apologetically, fills her in on her very grim future. It would seem that Hugh “contracted” some form of curse/demonic STD from a one-night stand and has slept with Jay in order to save himself and pass it on to her.

The “rules” are simple, if somewhat less than consistent: Jay will be followed relentlessly by “something” that has the ability to look like anyone it wants. It will walk after her, slowly, literally willing to pursue her to the ends of the earth. If the “presence” touches Jay, she’s DOA. If it kills Jay before she passes it on, Hugh is DOA, meaning he has an obvious stake in keeping her alive. The only thing that Jay can do is stay on the move and find some unlucky guy to screw (literally and figuratively).

As she rushes about, always keeping one eye behind her, Jay and her friends, along with some dude named Greg (Daniel Zovatto), try to unravel the true nature of Hugh’s identity and get to the bottom of the curse that threatens to end Jay’s very young life. No matter where they go, however, “it” is always just over the horizon, slouching towards Jay like that “rough beast” towards Bethlehem. Will Jay opt to meet her doom head-on or will she, like Hugh, decide to damn another innocent? She’d better make her mind up fast: it follows and it has no intention of stopping.

Writer-director Mitchell first appeared on my radar via his feature-debut, the surprisingly exceptional teen relationship drama The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010). Mitchell’s first film was exquisitely shot (the cinematography, alone, was worth the price of admission), realistically acted and full of some genuinely thought-provoking moments: the script, alone, was probably one of the better ones to come down the pike in some time and the film established David Robert Mitchell as “someone destined for great things.”

Flash-forward a few years and we arrive at It Follows, Mitchell’s next major step into the public consciousness. Like his debut, Mitchell’s follow-up looks absolutely beautiful: Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography has a warm, panoramic quality that makes every single frame look immaculately composed, framed and presented for maximum visual impact. The score, courtesy of Disasterpeace (aka Rich Vreeland), is pretty damn awesome, handily recalling both John Carpenter and Goblin’s moody, synthy masterpieces: when combined with the astounding camerawork, It Follows is reminiscent (in mood and look) of something like Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001), albeit filtered through a neo-slasher aesthetic.

The acting is solid across the board, with Maika Monroe proving that her fantastic performance in last year’s The Guest (2014) was anything but a fluke: endlessly likable, strong, intelligent and utterly human, Monroe’s Jay is the epitome of the “final girl” and a massively successful hero. The selfish part of me secretly wishes that she’d get pigeonholed into horror roles for the next several years although, realistically, Monroe is way too talented to get stuck anywhere for long: if It Follows marks her big leap into prestige pictures, it’s still a win-win for everyone.

Despite her commanding performance, Monroe has plenty of able support in the backfield. Gilchrist, perhaps best known as the son on United States of Tara but possessed of a resume that includes stellar performances in everything from Dead Silence (2007) to It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010) to Dark Summer (2015), is great as the love-sick Paul, bringing just the right combo of frustration, obsession, disappointment and infatuation to the role. Paul is a character that could have come across as kind of a creepy perv but Gilchrist makes him as eminently likable as Jay.

While Luccardi, Sepe and Zovatto all turn in strong performances, Jake Weary really surprises as Hugh, the “nice guy” who does a very bad thing. On paper, Hugh could’ve come across as a real villain, a callous, vaguely threatening presence (his chloroforming of Jay carries more than a little hint of rape, despite coming after the actual sex) who exists only to jumpstart the action. Onscreen, however, Hugh is much more sympathetic and seems genuinely concerned about Jay: he’s not a bad guy, per se, just an exceptionally desperate one. While stepping over Jay to “get to safety” will never wash as the “gentlemanly” response to the situation, nothing about Hugh (or Weary’s performance) bespeaks of douchebag bros or raging misogynists.

So: It Follows is beautifully made and features a great cast…how does it actually stack up as a horror film? To be frankly honest…it’s good but definitely not exceptional. Unlike The Babadook, which possessed more than its share of genuine scary moments but was also appropriately knotty and weighty, It Follows is a much more obvious, straight-forward kind of monster. The entire film consists of sinister figures appearing in the background, usually without the main characters noticing, and proceeding to slowly advance to the foreground. There’s certainly a variety of “stalker” represented here (one of my favorites was the exceptionally odd zombie-cheerleader who appears to urinate all over the place) but that’s about it, as far as the “monster” goes.

In fact, one of the places where It Follows stumbles the hardest is with the actual mythos/rules surrounding the sinister presence. To be blunt: the rules end up being vague, inconsistent and more than a little nonsensical. We’re told that the presence walks everywhere (slowly, to boot) and that driving away is a good way to get a head start. No matter how far Jay drives, however, the presence is always just over the horizon: for an exceptionally slow walker, that damn thing sure can sprint, when necessary. There’s also the matter of traveling to someplace like, say, Australia: would the presence need to walk through the entire ocean to get there or would it hop a plane, too? While I realize that the “always there” factor of the monster is a nod to classic slashers like Freddy and Jason, it’s kind of undone when the film goes out of its way to hammer home the whole “walking” aspect.

There’s also the question of the creature’s forward momentum. Hugh makes it a point to say how the creature never stops moving but, time after time, we’re treated to atmospheric shots where the presence is just standing there, looking menacing (chief among these being the rather silly bit where it appears on top of a nearby roof). For my money, the notion of an endlessly moving threat is pretty terrifying: take a minute to catch your breath and kiss your ass goodbye! Here, the creature seems to be given to so much inactivity that, at one point, Jay even goes into the woods and falls asleep on top of her damn car: while I never expect perfect logic from horror films, this silly scene pulled me right out (if only briefly).

A third issue lies with what the creature actually does. Hugh tells Jay not to let it touch her but, at several points, it does and she seems to be just fine. At one point, it appears to fold its victim into something resembling a human pretzel (which is, admittedly, a really nice touch): at another point, it appears to violently “hump” someone to death. There’s also the notion that the creature is only hazardous to its intended victim, since no one else can see it: despite this, however, the others are able to attack it, shoot it, throw blankets over it, et al, while it can handily toss them around the room with impunity. Again, the details of the actual creature become so foggy that it’s hard to ever get fully invested. In a zombie film, we know that a headshot kills, so we automatically tense up when a character shoots anywhere else and assumes it’s groovy: in It Follows, we’re never quite sure what needs to happen (aside from the passing it on part), so it becomes difficult to know when a character is truly in danger.

Thematically, It Follows splits the difference between a coming-of-age story (ala Mitchell’s own Myth of the American Sleepover) and a thinly-veiled metaphor about sexually transmitted disease, ala Contracted (2013) or Afflicted (2013). As such, the coming-of-age aspect actually works a little better: Contracted was much better at portraying the inner turmoil and anxiety of not only the act of sex but the acquiring of an infectious disease, whereas It Follows really shines when it comes to the interactions between the various characters.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed It Follows but definitely didn’t find it to be the “genre savior” that others seem to have. While the film never looks or sounds anything less than gorgeous, it’s also got more than its fair share of problems, including that aforementioned dodgy mythos and a few too many plot holes for my liking. The film is also a little long, which only becomes problematic in the final half where too many scenes devolve into what seems to be time-killing and foot-shuffling. I worship at the altar of slow-paced films but there’s a balance and, too often, It Follows had trouble with the ratio.

Despite all of this, however, I eagerly await David Robert Mitchell’s next foray into film, whether it be horror or something closer to his debut. He’s an obviously talented filmmaker and writer with a real knack for capturing eye-popping visuals: in certain ways, he reminds me of an up-and-coming Adam Wingard, which is certainly no insult. When It Follows is good, it’s pretty damn great: at times, it seems to so perfectly evoke the spirit of J-Horror films that it could almost be an import. It’s a smart film that features realistic, likable characters relating in ways that feel authentic, never phoned-in or phony. It’s also a fairly original film, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at: even if the mythos is inconsistent and vague, it’s obvious that Mitchell put lots of thought into the overall feel. It Follows may not be the next Babadook (and it’s certainly not the next Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), despite the scuttlebutt) but it’s a more than worthy entry in the modern horror sweepstakes and deserves the attention of any discerning fan. Best of the year, though? Not by a long-shot.

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