Detroit-made 'It Follows' gives the horror genre a much-needed jolt

It Follows / B+

Horror films have, for the most part, run out of original ideas. Now that J-horror has become passe and mumblegore, found-footage flicks have proved maddeningly resilient (and redundant), the genre has become little more than a proving ground for fledgling filmmakers who are looking for a B-movie calling card to prove their technical and stylistic chops. Unfortunately, very few of these would-be auteurs have the desire or talent to rise above expected genre expectations. Subtext, allegory, and metaphor have all been dropped in favor of incessant call-backs to their cinematic influences. It's a cynically transparent attempt to appeal to fanboys and goregirls in order to gain some buzz.

Even a mainstream hit like The Conjuring was just a slick retread of 50 other haunted house movies — albeit with a first-rate cast. One has to wonder whether there will ever again be horror filmmakers willing to push the envelope like David Cronenberg (The Fly, The Brood), Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone) or Clive Barker (Hellraiser). Where are the A-list directors like Roman Polanski (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby) and Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) who ambitiously attempted to reinvent the genre? Over the last three years, nearly 100 horror films have hit the silver screen, yet only Jennifer Kent's terrific The Babadook stood out as a real innovation. Sure, Cabin in the Woods was a hoot, Let the Right One In put Swedish horror on the map, and a few indie scare flicks have earned their praises honestly. But for the most part, the genre has been on creative life support for more than a decade.

With his sophomore effort, It Follows, metro Detroit native David Robert Mitchell has jumped onto the low-budget horror bandwagon and delivered a movie that is both spine-tingling and thought-provoking. Maintaining the same patient, atmospheric approach he demonstrated in his debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, Mitchell reshapes tried-and-true scare conventions — teens in peril, a relentless malevolent force, jarring soundtrack — into an unexpectedly unique creepfest that’s cleverly geared to its modest production budget.

Its The Breakfast Club-meets-The Ring plot focuses on Jay (Maika Monroe), a 19-year-old who sleeps with her new boyfriend, Hugh, then finds herself in a surreal and dangerous situation. Knocked unconscious after their bout of back-seat sex, Jay awakens to find herself strapped to a chair in an abandoned Detroit parking structure. Hugh explains that he's passed something onto her — a supernatural STD if you will — that will now stalk and kill her if she doesn't pass it onto someone else through sex. But there's a catch — even then, the threat is merely delayed, as the slow-walking specter (which can look like anyone) murders the afflicted, then works its way back up the chain. Just what does it do when it catches up to you? The film opens with a frightening scene where a pretty teenager desperately runs from the unseen force only to ... well, I won't spoil the awful surprise.

Hugh then dumps Jay, in her underwear, onto the street outside her house and drives away. Her sister (Lili Sepe), and a pair of friends Yara (Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist) — who, of course, harbors a lifelong crush — immediately step in to help track Hugh down and better understand the curse. An ex-boyfriend (Daniel Zovatto looking like an indie version of Taylor Kitsch) soon joins the gang, and things spiral further into darkness.

The first thing locals will notice is how much Detroit and its inner ring suburbs help create an atmosphere of emptiness and dread. Mitchell cleverly sets his film out of time, mixing ’80s fashion and consumer technology with contemporary vehicles and even strangely futuristic gadgets (like a seashell-shaped e-reader). It's disorienting but well-suited to the local landscape, with Ferndale and Berkley's ranch-style homes, the crumbling ice cream stand on 12 Mile Road, and the Redford Theatre erasing any nostalgia for the past while accenting the divide between decaying Detroit and bland suburbia. Southeast Michigan's perpetually gray skies seem to seep into every frame. If it reminds you of the distraught photographs of Gregory Crewdson it's not an accident. Mitchell has cast the suburbs as a deliberately anonymous place haunted by paranoia. Every person you see at the edges or background of the frame is a potential threat, forcing audiences to search the screen for signs of danger and immersing them in Jay's constant state of fear. It Follows even suggests that the evil that pursues her came from the other side of Eight Mile Road.

More interestingly, Mitchell's riffs on sex and adulthood are refreshing in their allegorical complexity. The specter that relentlessly follows those who have been cursed is more than just a physical manifestation of the old sex ed mantra “every time you sleep with someone, you also sleep with everyone in his or her past.” Here, intercourse can simultaneously damn you and save you. But either way, you're on your own. Parents — almost entirely absent from the film — can offer no meaningful guidance or help, further driving home the alienation and self-obsession teens experience as they struggle with adulthood.

It Follows occasionally drags, and its third act opens the door to a few more questions than the film can handle, but with its eerie circular pans and wide screen compositions, likable naturalistic cast, and Disasterpeace's amazingly jarring synthesizer score (cementing John Carpenter's obvious influence), the film overwhelms you with its creepy-crawly vibe. Maybe there's hope for horror after all.

It Follows is rated R and 107 minutes.

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