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Arts & Entertainment

AFI Fest: 'It Follows' offers Hitchcockian take on 80s slasher fare

R.H. Greene says
R.H. Greene says "It Follows," an AFI Fest offering, is easy on the gore, hard on the dread. It tells the tale of an unexplained and murderous shapeshifting entity that is transmitted from victim to victim via sex.
Courtesy "It Follows"

Off-Ramp contributor R. H. Greene is covering AFI Fest for Off-Ramp. Today, he reports on one of the more celebrated recent horror titles at  the festival.

"It Follows," a more-artful-than-most teen horror film, broke out at Cannes last year and will be distributed by Radius-TWC (the Weinstein Brothers) in 2015. Very well directed by David Robert Mitchell ("The Myth of the American Sleepover"), the film uses a quasi-Hitchcockian approach — easy on the gore, hard on the dread — to tell the tale of an unexplained and murderous shapeshifting entity that is transmitted from victim to victim via sex.

This post-coital demon can take any shape, and slow walks implacably toward whomever is the latest victim in the chain. The only way to find respite from the monster's scary intentions is to remove yourself at a vast distance, and then pass it on through intercourse before it catches up to you.

Enter a brace of horny college-aged kids and you have the recipe for an over-the-top blend of farce and violence — which is not at all what you get.

Mitchell, whose first feature was the well-reviewed coming-of-age drama "The Myth of the American Sleepover," is not the kind of writer-director who sketches in his young characters just enough to make them interesting targets. He's truly invested in character dynamics, and the relationships are plausible and nuanced. That's dynamic is especially true between lead actress Maika Monroe as Jay and the two young men who desire her, Daniel Zovatto as the stud and Keir Gilchrist as the yearning geek.

Mitchell is also a somewhat fussy student of the form. His slow-walking succubus is a quite overt homage to Michael Myers in John Carpenter's "Halloween," and the cars and TVs are all improbably vintage (1970s to 1980s). just to emphasize the point. The film's blat-blat-tinkle-tinkle synthesizer score could have come straight out of "Phantasm." Even Mitchell's use of homage feels old school.

It's tempting to wax large about the thematic implications of a film where the monster is in effect a sentient STD. "It Follows" is about AIDS, Ebola, the scary passage to adulthood. It's "La Ronde" for the modern monster kid.

All of those subtexts can be projected on to "It Follows" quite easily. 

Vast thematic speculations seem to be virtually invited by Mitchell's effective but quite heavy-handed usage of readings from Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" and TS Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" as his Greek chorus.

More interesting by far are the moral implications in the premise — a variation on the classic Richard Matheson scare story "Button Button," where a greedy couple can strike it rich if they'll just push a button that vaporizes someone they don't know.

Here, the shiny bauble isn't money but temporary safety — once passed on, the entity will work its way backwards across the coital chain if it kills the latest victim. But the effect is the same: utter corruption, where the monster makes each victim in turn the agent of its wrath.

Mitchell is purposefully vague about how far his sympathetic young leads are willing to go to protect themselves, but he strongly suggests that both Jay and Paul go the limit by passing the demon on to strangers.

As in the classic films of its type, "It Follows" is at its scariest when it suggests the real monster ... is us.