Panic in Detroit

Why David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is a teenage sensation.
By Philip Matthews

When you heard last month that Wes Craven had died and you wanted to pay homage, you could have sat down with any one of five of his films that helped reinvent American horror at least three times over three decades – the crude but effective exploitation cinema of The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes; the suburban 80s VHS horror of The Nightmare on Elm Street and its 90s meta-sequel, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare; or the 90s ironies of Scream and its sequels, which, in a circular way, led to the revival of the brutal 1970s of Craven, Tobe Hooper and others via 21st century remakes. Or you could just have watched one of the greatest recent horror films that would probably not exist without Craven. I went for the latter. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows.

New Zealanders caught It Follows relatively early. It ran in the International Film Festival last winter, just a couple of months after it played Cannes, which was way ahead of international releases and the reviews that followed. All we knew last year was that it was the rare kind of horror sensation that crossed over into the critical mainstream without betraying its roots in mass-produced teen suburban horror. A year later, watched on DVD, it has lost none of its power. In fact, it is better the second time round. You became more aware of its detail and its sophistication.

It opens on a quiet leafy street in a tranquil Michigan suburb outside Detroit, the same kind of neighbourhood that Mitchell grew up in. A young woman runs from a house, screaming. She is being chased by something we cannot see. “I’m fine, dad!” she shouts, but she is clearly not fine. What follows her? She runs back into the house, and then runs back out again. She drives off. This is all done in one long take (Mitchell’s style prefers slow, patient, dreamlike takes to rapid edits). She sits on a beach at night, terrified, lit by car lights, expecting … something. The next morning, we see that she has been violently killed and one of her legs is twisted into an impossible angle.

That was just prologue. The real story opens with Jay in her backyard swimming pool. A couple of kids are gazing over the fence. Suburban sexual curiosity and spying is a minor theme, but the bittersweet experience of growing up is a more overt one. Jay is surrounded by things she is outgrowing. At one point, she makes a getaway on a small child’s bike, to a deserted playground. Childhood’s end: characters in their late teens reminiscence about being little kids. Jay heads inside where her sister, Kelly, and friends Paul and Yara are watching an old, bad sci-fi movie. Paul seems to be an aficionado of old, bad sci-fi movies. Yara is reading The Idiot on her phone (“It’s about Paul”). At suitable moments, she reads aloud from it. Later, when death is stalking, a teacher happens to be reading The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock to her class (these literate nods within a sophisticated take on a teen genre movie might remind some of Donnie Darko). The electronic score by Disasterpeace also does retro work, with allusions to John Carpenter’s scores and, I’m pretty sure, the film music of Tangerine Dream.

As Jay, actress Maika Monroe has a melancholic air and looks uncannily like Sheryl Lee as the doomed Laura Palmer. That can’t be coincidental. The David Lynch of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks was just as responsible as Craven and John Carpenter for the enduring idea that there is a strange and deep netherworld of sex and terror beneath the placid surface of middle-class suburbia. In the Nightmare on Elm Street films, terror came, ingeniously, in dreams, via the unstoppable spirit of the worst kind of 80s criminal, a killer of children (implicitly, a paedophile). One of the achievements of It Follows is the way that it cleverly makes literal some of the conventions of the teen horror established in Carpenter’s Halloween, while also undermining them. Sexual activity was often a problem in the post-Halloween slasher, creating the cliché of the “final girl” who was usually the most tomboyish or virginal of the young women on screen. In It Follows, the curse or the stalking, invisible terror – whatever “it” is, exactly – is passed on sexually, like a STD or the curse of sexual knowledge and adulthood itself. Mitchell breaks completely with the “final girl” conventions: all three young women are strong characters, with the sexually active one of the three the strongest, while the three young men in their orbit are more likely to be the victims.

Jay goes out with Hugh on a cinephile date: they are seeing Charade at the Redford, a repertory cinema in Detroit (Mitchell is blessed with some great locations and plenty of picturesque urban ruins). Before the movie can even start, something spooks him. Later, they have sex in his car against the backdrop of a huge ruined building, in one of those spots where the wilderness is reclaiming the city. Following that, Hugh drugs her, ties her to a chair and explains the curse he just gave her: “It can look like someone you know. Or it can be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.” The killer can look like anyone. Sequel possibilities are endless!

The sex was consensual but has suggestions of rape. The police are called. When Jay and her friends try to find Hugh again, to get a better explanation, the trail takes them to an abandoned house in a street of derelict Detroit homes: overgrown gardens, broken windows, empty rooms. The contrast with their well-kept suburban neighbourhood is obvious and it gives you the impression that the contagion, or the curse, has crept out of the city’s famous urban blight and economic decline and threatens to destabilise their safer lives. The idea of the urban/suburban border is made more explicit later in the film when Yara tells the others that, “when I was a little girl, my parents wouldn’t let me go south of 8 Mile”. That was the line where safe suburbia ended and the dangerous city started.

You might be reminded of Wes Craven again, or at least his debut: the crude, notorious exploitation shocker The Last House on the Left, from 1972. More notable now as a case study of censorship and banning, Last House was a brutal, topical remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring with unnerving switches in tone from clumsy slapstick to John Waters-like satire of deviance and criminality to sudden, graphic scenes of rape and torture, inspired at least in part by news photos of Vietnam atrocities. As in The Virgin Spring, you’re on the side of the father avenging the murder of his daughter but Craven skips the medieval religious dimension, the miracle that gives the Bergman film its name (no spring in the Craven film, just virgin). These are stories of innocence versus violence that play on deeply conservative fears: the two young women in Last House travel to the inner city for a rock concert by a band called Bloodlust and encounter exactly the kind of “murder and mayhem” the father of one warned them about. Worse, they bring it home with them. In these nightmares, violence cannot be contained: it contaminates.

IT FOLLOWS, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, 2014.

THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, written and directed by Wes Craven, 1972.

Editor’s footnote : Quentin Tarantino has recently made some specious criticisms of It Follows, which you can read and mull over here.

David Robert Mitchell was gracious in his reply to QT, which mimicked Taylor Swift’s recent demonstration of how best to defuse gratuitous criticism. ( Show polite deference.) Also : any opportunity gratefgully accepted to evangelise for DR Mitchell’s previous film The Myth of the American Sleepover, an excellent variation on Dazed and Confused that also made good use of Detroit’s urban blight.