Most cinema-goers should be familiar with the horror-movie trope whereby the most sexually adventurous teenagers get picked off first by whatever malevolent killjoy has lately availed themselves of a suitable knife, machete or pair of customised gardening gloves. Once this puritanical pattern had been established by such dubious moral guardians as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees in the slasher flicks of the late 1970s and early 80s, it’s almost surprising that it took until the likes of Scream (1996) and Urban Legend (1998) for the silver screen’s teenagers to start to work out the rules of the game and strategise to stay alive. The killer in Cherry Falls (2000) then served up a nasty backhander by flipping the sex rule: this time, virgins were the prey and as the film’s tagline put it, “If you haven’t had it… you’ve had it.”
It Follows combines the sexual paranoia of the 80s slasher flick with something of Cherry Falls’s more sex-positive set up, and adds its own intriguing moral twist. After Jay (Maika Monroe) sleeps with a new boyfriend, he explains he has passed her a sort of hex whereby she will now be followed by something that had been following him. If she sleeps with someone else, that person will become the new target – but she must beware: when a victim is killed by the malevolent presence, it will shift its attention back to the last link in the chain. The question becomes: would you sleep with somebody knowing you might be sentencing them to death?
It’s to writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s credit that this contrived-sounding setup plays very naturally onscreen and never devolves into a hand-wringing allegory for sexually transmitted disease (it’s there, but worn lightly). He even manages to throw in a few more rules – it cannot run, it can only walk; it can look like anyone it wants; it’s invisible to those it’s not targeting – without getting bogged down in J-horror style exposition. (Ju-On and Ringu are the sorts of films whose underlying premises It Follows most recalls, but it’s more slyly enigmatic than either.)
The tone and milieu help the suspension of disbelief. Shot by talented DP Mike Gioulakis in and around Detroit with plenty of menacing Steadicam, with an appealing cast of not particularly famous young actors, the aesthetic is similar to Mitchell’s likeable debut The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010), though the end product is more satisfying and sophisticated. Of particular note is the score by Disasterpeace, which combines doomy synths and skilfully orchestrated mounting dread with a fuzzy grunginess that feels like a John Carpenter score for a new era (there’s a dash of Vangelis in there too).
Updating the misanthropy with which so many 80s slashers treated their young casts, Mitchell also provides us with protagonists we can care for – regular kids who hang out and watch campy movies together (there’s a brief glimpse of the 1953 B movie Killers from Space, with which It Follows shares a couple of tiny narrative parallels). They’re a far cry from the vain and obnoxious sorts (heroine excepted) that populated Carpenter’s Halloween.
Halloween is also the most obvious visual reference for the film’s terrific pre-credits sequence which, like the film’s Cannes poster (featuring a grabby image of our heroine bound to a wheelchair in her lingerie) sets us up for a film much schlockier than It Follows actually is. Still, it’s a hell of an opener: a panicky girl in absurdly impractical high heels and scanty nightwear runs outdoors in a leafy, suburban clapboard-house neighbourhood highly reminiscent of the one so memorably terrorised by Michael Myers. She heads for the beach, where she waits, petrified, for her fate, revealed in a gloriously perverse image I won’t spoil here. It’s a red herring of an opener in some ways: this film is smarter than you think it’s going to be.
Judging by the reaction in the Miramar where I caught the first press screening, it’s also scarier than many were expecting. In one scene, Jay and her friends are nervily awaiting the possible arrival of It from behind a closed door. At that moment, the door at the back of the cinema swung open to plenty of gasps, followed by nervous giggling. The entire room had been tensed in readiness; it was almost a relief to have the tension eased by something so mundane.
It’s the sort of reaction I’ve yet to experience in Competition here at Cannes, where ‘spellbound’ is not a word many of the films thus far can be said to evoke. Cinema has, of course, many purposes, but surely few as joyous as the collective transportation of an entire roomful of viewers into a parallel world of the filmmaker’s imagination.