David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature The Myth of the American Sleepover is a wonderful evocation of time and place. This coming-of-age picture is set at the end of the summer, evoking classics like Dazed and Confused or American Graffiti with a measured visual approach that is all its own. What’s surprising about his sophomore effort It Follows, is just how little recalibrating was necessary in order to shift that suburban teenaged milieu in the direction of horror while changing very little about what made Myth such an auspicious debut. Still set in the suburbs of Detroit, filming with a gauzy, dreamlike sensibility, coaxing wonderfully naturalistic performances from his young leads, Mitchell continues his work as a filmmaker with complete command over his craft.
The stakes of the film are immediately and gruesomely established, if not necessarily contextualized. A young teenage girl is pursued by an unseen assailant and found dead the next morning. We then follow Jay (Maika Monroe, who between this and last year’s spectacular The Guest has cornered the market on modern synth-drenched genre pieces) as her tender courtship with college-aged Hugh is finally consummated only for her to be drugged and awaken bound to a wheelchair in an abandoned building. Here, Hugh reveals to her that he’s been plagued by a curse that he has now passed to her wherein she will be doggedly pursued by an otherworldly force only visible to herself that can take on many appearances but will always make itself known by the measured pace by which it tracks you down. It never runs. It never speaks. It merely follows. And the only way to rid yourself of this curse is to continue passing it on.
So yes, this is basically The Ring meets HPV, but to talk about it in those terms is reductive. While it gives itself over easily to such interpretations, the film actually allows for any number of subtextual readings without ever tipping its hand. Even moreso than a binary curse-as-STD story, it seems much more about the loss of innocence and the impossibility of retrieving such a thing. And lest you think this is some heady teenaged reverie that is more art than horror film, know that Mitchell’s sensibilities are too straightforward for such a thing. His dialogue is frequently deadpan hilarious and entirely without artifice, and the performances are the same. Monroe sells the emotional burden of the film beautifully in a realistic manner, with utterly believable moments of hysteria. The same can be said for the rest of the young cast (Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Daniel Zovatto and Lili Sepe), as their interactions form the fearful, funny and banal backbone of the film.
There aren’t enough superlatives to lavish upon the work Mitchell accomplishes visually here. Swirling panoramas of expansive landscapes make the viewer complicit in the character’s paranoia, as we continually scan the periphery of the frame in search of a steady gait. And while the film does feature horror set pieces (a beach-set sequence is shot and edited to perfection), the brief lyrical interludes that he slips in are just as memorable, be it Jay noticing an ant crawling upon her as she idly floats in a pool or placing single blades of grass on her bare thigh. Too many people slept on Mitchell when his timelessly wonderful debut came out four years ago, but I think that won’t be the case here, if for no other reason than It Follows makes sleep a very dicey proposition indeed.