Monday 19 May 2014

Cannes 2014 : It Follows by David Robert Mitchell

A particularly interesting horror film took the Cannes Film Festival by storm this year, It Follows, which showed at La Semaine De La Critique, a sidebar selection showcasing first and second feature films. It comes from an unexpected source: David Robert Mitchell. the director of The Myth Of The American Sleepover who here takes a radically new direction for his second film.

It Follows opens with a rather traditional prologue, which sees a hysterical young woman trying to flee an unseen presence, only to be brutally murdered. The film then skips to Jay (Maika Monroe) who goes on a date she'll never forget for all the wrong reasons. After a romantic evening followed by a few hours of passion, her date reveals that he has exposed her to a ghostly and nightmarish curse, with the only way to get rid of it being to "pass it on" to somebody else through intercourse.

The film is remarkable for what it does as much as what it does not do. Real fans of he genre have grown tired of the same old tropes of modern horror films (overblown CGI, frenetic pacing, predictable scares…) but the director eschews those overused and cheap effects for a far more convincing approach altogether, understated and atmospheric, with a superb cinematography that perfectly reflects the melancholic mood. And he conjures up a slow-moving yet unescapable threat that is suitably terrifying in its ubiquity and inexorability, without resorting to the usual bombastic effects.

To emphasise this back to the roots direction, there are more than just passing nods to the master of horror John Carpenter, with lingering shots of American suburbia in autumn echoing the original Halloween, as well as an unnerving and striking electronic score, which some may find intrusive but which works incredibly well. Teen horrors often have a whiff of underlying puritanism to them but despite what its central plot device might hint at, David Robert Mitchell seems almost reluctant to tackle the expected politics. Rather, just like the best teen horrors, it is the anxieties of that age group, and mainly the inevitability of death, which is here beautifully represented.

But the main question is, is it scary? Yes, it is. There is a slow-burning tension that never lets go, with the occasional outbursts of terror, and while there are some jump scares, they are perfectly calculated and effective. The threat can take any human appearance, often the most innocuous and familiar ones, and is invisible to anyone other than its intended victim, which allows the director to take the audience by surprise, playing with shadows and the composition of his frame. There are a couple of particularly well designed and inventive set pieces, one at a beach hut in bright daylight, and the final showdown in a swimming pool.

Now I am a little wary of the hype machine which goes a bit like this: an unexpected film catches a film festival audience by surprise, said audience members rave about it for months, films get shown at FrightFest or any other film festivals and the "is that it" and "that wasn't at all scary" counter-reactions pour in. Already there might have been a little overreaction to the film, with some calling it the best horror in decades. It Follows is not quite as revolutionary, but is mightily effective and thrilling, proving once more than independent cinema is where it is all about for the genre at the moment.

It Follows. USA. La Semaine de la Critique

Directed by David Robert Mitchell. Starring Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Jake Weary...

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