Passing on the curse is a time-honoured horror tradition. Through an innocent act, the victim unwittingly brings a malevolent force down on themselves. The only chance for salvation is to make someone else the next target. That’s the plot for The Ring (2002) and its Asian originators, and it stretches back to Jacques Tourneur’s occult Night of the Demon (1957), which in turn takes literary inspiration from M.R. James’s short story Casting the Runes. (The Stephen King/Richard Bachman classic Thinner is another haunting example.) With his new film It Follows (2014) at this year’s TIFF, American indie filmmaker David Robert Mitchell turns the conceit to a sexually transmitted serial haunting. He takes that idea and runs with it, or rather, walks very… creepily… slowly. Now take a look around. We don’t have much time. But you need to know this.
Nineteen-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) lives in a Detroit suburb, hanging with her sister and her friends. She goes to school but life seems pretty aimless in that post-high school haze. She’s taking things not especially slow but letting them build with her new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary). Their eventual tryst in Hugh’s car is innocuous enough, until Hugh drugs her, taking her to an abandoned building and tying her to a wheelchair. There she meets her nemesis, a shape-shifting revenant in the former of a naked older woman, shuffling implacably toward them. The spirit is a kind of sexually transmitted curse, Hugh explains, always looking to kill the last person in the chain who had sex. It knows where you are, always, but only moves at a lumbering zombie-like gait. No one can run forever, so Hugh implores Jay to pass it on, and sleep with someone else. He then whisks her away, only to dump her on the street in front of her friends at her house.
She and her friends think Jay’s been attacked by a garden-variety psycho. But it doesn’t take long for her to start seeing unnerving figures creeping toward her. Other people can’t see it, but she does. It can take the form of people you know or strangers, Hugh warns her, and that constant morphing is one of the film’s most disturbing tactics. We, too, find ourselves searching the backgrounds and the crowds, anxiously looking to pick out the shambling intruder. And the skins it wears never fail to disturb, whether it’s a naked old man perched on a rooftop or an angular giant emerging suddenly out of a darkened hallway.
The film draws heavily on 80s John Carpenter, with a lush and eerie synth score pulsing throughout. The cinematography is richly atmospheric, with Mitchell employing a slow-circling swooping camera at times to capture the anxiety of a strangely ubiquitous unseen enemy. His well-received but little seen first feature The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010) mined similar territory with a completely different tone, more an homage to the suburban comedies of John Hughes. Mitchell’s shift to horror comes as a bit of a surprise, but its dreamy teen angst gives way to the real thing in a manner that’s completely believable. The movie’s elegant, confident and unsettling, especially in the first half, before it loses focus with a muddled set-piece conclusion.
The sex demon as venereal curse is an interesting choice. The standard horror line is only the virgin survives, so it’s a wry inversion to offer the only way out by having more sex. In an era where sex is more ubiquitous than it’s ever been, it’s easy to think of teenagers as jaded and already too aware. But the vast unknown of those partners in the future and the internet images that can never be unseen must make for a peculiar subconscious stew. It’s less resonant than the classic horror trope, but it’s a fear that fits our time. As Jay wrestles with the morality of bedding someone new only to pass the terrifying creature onto them, we see that sex can be an attack, a defence, or sometimes if you’re lucky a loving comfort. With virtually no adults in the film’s drifting suburban nightmare, it looks like the kids just have to figure it out for themselves. The more things change…
It Follows is screening at TIFF as part of the Midnight Madness programme, appearing on Sunday, September 7th at 11:59pm and Tuesday, September 9th at 4:00pm. For more info and tickets, see here.