There are certainly of plenty of potential reasons for the current renaissance in indie horror, not the least of which is the well-established helpful ratio of low budgets and high potential box office reward that the genre offers. Just as road movies were once the handiest ways to develop high drama with limited dollars (and inspiration, quite frankly) so too are horror movies one of the most direct routes to getting a film made for a fledgling filmmaker. But I think the more interesting consideration is the growing proliferation of artistically rich horror films, particularly in terms of the visual choices made from those occupying the director’s chair. It strikes me as a direct reaction to the overabundance of “found footage” horror films, a style for which The Blair Witch Project blazed the trail years before Paranormal Activity paved it over so it could be used over and over and over again.
Thankfully, there are a small fleet of directors pushing back against the deliberately amatuerish — even if it’s only feigned artlessness — approach. Ti West was one of the first, and Jennifer Kent currently holds the title belt, thanks to The Babadook, but there are plenty more inspired breathless praise from those who favor the sort of film festival offerings that tend to screen at roundabout midnight. One of the most feverishly praised of late — often playing side-by-side with The Babadook at fests over the course of the past year — is David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, the writer-director’s sophomore feature. It’s not difficult to understand why. From the opening moments, the film operates with the patient, low-key, and genial disaffectedness, as if something terrible was seeping in to an early Richard Linklater movie. Mitchell has an impressive eye and a welcome tendency to frame his shots in a way that rejects a lot of the visual tropes of the genre (he seems largely disinterested in relying on the trickery of deep shadows or explosions of menace from offscreen space). He also has a fantastic allegorical hook, with the ferocious supernatural beastie locking in on its victims after they’ve had intercourse with someone who’s already picked up the curse. It’s a fine metaphor for sexually transmitted infections while simultaneously exploiting the eighties horror flick cliche that the ultra-powerful masked villain is most likely to strike after some randy teens have distracted themselves with heavy duty nookie.
And yet It Follows is sometimes overly restrained, a touch too refined. Mitchell excels at the slow burn creepiness, but struggles when it would be useful to pivot into grander, more exuberantly wild mayhem. It’s a movie that rumbles beautifully without ever delivering a satisfying cymbal crash. Even when Mitchell manages to set up a promising set piece (such as a scene at an indoor swimming pool, the site used to great effect by everything from Cat People to Let the Right One In), the flatness that is an effective default elsewhere undercuts the stridency of the scene. That hint of hesitation also leaves one of the most promising details under-utilized. The ghoulish creature can take whatever form it likes, including those of actual people from its intended victim’s life. The set-up implies there will be some moments of confusion as our heroine (Maika Monroe) can tell if a familiar face actually signals safety. Instead, there’s rarely any doubt as to who or what is shuffling towards her. Given other clear intents within the film, I’ll concede the choice could be grounded in sly satire (monsters masquerading as friends is fairly commonplace in horror stories), but it mostly serves to drain danger out of scenes. By the end, the shape-shifting seems like a random choice (or a money-saving exercise) rather than a piece of purposeful narrative design.
These drawbacks don’t sink It Follows. They merely cast a shadow of what could have been. Overall, it’s rich and memorable, offering a fresh reminder as to the great possibilities in any story, even when it resides within a often maligned and too-easily dismissed genre. And at its strongest — a moment that immediately follows a tryst in a car comes immediately to mind — the film shudders with dark ingenuity.