Michael Myers goes to the arthouse in It Follows, David Robert Mitchell's superlative second film, released this week. Mixing lilting evocations of the American suburbs with moments of gut-wrenching terror, the film concerns the predicament of a teenage girl, Jay (Maika Monroe), who is stalked by a shapeshifting, malevolent presence after she has sex with a guy while out on a date.
The presence, which our heroine learns will stop only if she "passes it on" by sleeping with someone else, can take any form it pleases and is rendered no less terrifying by its insistence on moving inexorably towards its victims at a slow walking pace. Which makes for a great premise and a load of creepy POV shots.
It's Mitchell's lyrical take on the material, however—assisted by Disasterpeace's surreal synth score—that makes this one of the best horrors in recent memory, thoughtfully exploring teenage hopes and fears about adulthood and sex even as it keeps you on the edge of your seat.
We spoke to Mitchell—who wrote the film based on a recurring nightmare he had as a child—to learn more about his unsettling vision. (Mild spoilers ahead.)
VICE: What kinds of stuff did your parents let you watch when you were young? Was there anything off-limits?
David Robert Mitchell: No! I was watching Dawn of the Dead when I was very young. But also the old Universal monster movies. Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of my favorites. Poltergeist was one that really bothered me. Just because it's a seemingly average sort of family: Everything seems normal but terrible things start to happen. I had a tree by my window at home and the branches would scrape against the glass, too.
Do you hold out much hope for the remake?
No. I think Sam Raimi is executive producing… there are a lot of great people involved, so maybe it'll be good. But the original is so great, I wouldn't go near the remake, personally.
How did you decide what forms the mysterious "it" would take when writing for your film?
Whatever seemed to trouble me I would put in there. Part of it is playing with what you expect. People expect one thing, so you give 'em something else!
Did you enjoy working in the horror genre? Were there any cliches you wanted to avoid?
For the most part I really enjoyed working within the genre. There was a bit of pressure to put jump-scares in there, which I pushed back against a little. There are a couple in the film, where you don't necessarily earn it. It's fun to have some of that, but I wouldn't want to overdo it.
There's a bit of a trend to do those things. I'm not sure if the audience expects it or it's just that people think you need to do it. You hate to go into making a film and feel like there are certain things you have to do. That's not interesting to me. But I loved working in horror because you can actually get away with all kinds of strange things, and people will go along for the ride.
Are there any moments of homage to other horror films in there?
Most of it is not a specific reference; it's more like a general feeling. I mean, there are some specific ones—the pool stuff is a specific reference to Cat People. People mention Halloween, and I love Carpenter, but I wasn't so much trying to copy any particular film. It's more that I've watched his movies a million times; I really love his use of blocking and composition, so some of that comes out. But there are tons of horror movies that I love; Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Shining, Night of the Living Dead, Hour of the Wolf, Island of Terror…
One area where the film does consciously seem to echo Carpenter's work is in the score, by a guy who makes music under the name Disasterpeace. How did you approach him to soundtrack the film?
I heard some music he scored for a video game called Fez, which I was amazed by. I immediately thought of It Follows, which I was trying to put together by that point. So I reached out to him online, sent him the script, and showed him what I wanted to do. He would write music for scenes and send stuff to me. It was maybe not what I was expecting, but it was wonderful, and that's one of the reasons I wanted to work with him—it felt like he had such an interesting voice. He's going to do the music for the next film, which will be a very different thing.
How about Maika Monroe? She's so good in the film. How did she come to be your leading lady?
She auditioned for the film and everyone in the room was instantly like, "Whoa." I knew that the movie would live or die based on the strength of that lead performance, and we knew we were in good hands with Maika. We had to find someone who could do the semi-naturalistic parts of the film and then take it to those moments of chaos and fear, and make it believable and genuine. Because in a lot of films, it's not.
The premise is based on a recurring nightmare you had when you were young. Can you tell me more about that?
The one I remember most clearly, I was playing on some sort of jungle gym thing with my friends, and when I looked across the parking lot at my school—way into the distance—there was this kid walking straight towards me, and instantly I knew it was some sort of vampire-monster thing. It looked like a normal kid. I kept pointing it out to my friends and no one seemed to know what I was talking about, so I ran away and got to the end of the street and stood there waiting. I waited and waited, and finally it turned the corner and kept walking towards me, so I ran home.
Then, in another part, I was with my family having dinner and someone else—an adult this time—walked in the house and started coming toward me, so I ran and climbed out of a window. I could always keep a little bit of distance (from the thing) just by walking—I guess maybe I'd seen too many vampire or zombie movies. But even if you lost them, they knew exactly where you were. It was disturbing, but I've talked to other people since who had similar dreams—I think it's an anxiety dream.
As a viewer, it feels like there's no respite in the film; even in its quieter moments, something could always come wandering into the frame.
That's one of the things that worked for us. Once you set that [premise] up, there's something there, even if nothing is happening for a moment. It's about dread. I mean, there are some chaotic moments of attack in the film, but I'm a little more interested in the wider spaces in between.
A lot of mainstream horror movie-making has felt pretty lacking in recent years. Do you see any danger of a return to the classic horror era of the 1950s, say, or late 1970s and early 80s stuff any time soon?
All I can say is I wanted to make a film that would be closer to the kinds of horror films that I want to see, and a lot of those are the classic horror films that are maybe not made as much now. I was interested in more classically composed frames, and a certain amount of love and care in the style and approach to the movie. But I think there'll always be people making interesting things—you can do so many cool things with the genre, there'll always be people trying to do their own take.
One way your film nods to horror tradition is in the ending, which leaves open the possibility of a sequel, albeit in a non-hokey kind of way. Would you ever rule it out?
I can tell you that it was not my intention. The ending was more about leaving the question of what does this mean for them—what will happen from this point? I think, ultimately, you can work that out—the general sense of it. As for a sequel, you can't do this without having ideas pop into your head, but for now I want to do other things. I like the idea of working in many different genres. But I would definitely make a horror film again. This is the first one I did, and I learned a lot doing it. I know what I would work harder for and what I would avoid. But as for whether or not there'd be a sequel, honestly I don't know.
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Buy tickets to tomorrow's sneak preview of the film in New York City here.