It started with a nightmare. "I'm around 10 or 11 years old, and I'm at school, playing with my friends at recess," David Robert Mitchell says, squirming slightly in his seat. "As I'm looking across the parking lot, I see a small kid, walking very slowly towards me. In the dream, I just know he's a monster. I'd run away as fast as I could, then stop after a few blocks...and there was the kid, turning the corner and coming closer and closer." The 40-year-old filmmaker is twisting his hands together as he talks, seemingly oblivious to the various publicists, celebrities and festivalgoers currently walking by him in the lobby of a Toronto hotel. "Sometimes, I'm at home with my family, but it's the same thing: There's someone coming for me. I climb out a window, I'm on the sidewalk, and it's so slow I can easily get away from it. But it's always there. I just can't get away from it."
Mitchell stops for a second and then sheepishly smiles. "It's pretty common, actually. I've talked to a lot of people who've had this exact same recurring dream. And those same people seemed to agree that the idea would make for a pretty good horror movie."
Yes, it would. It Follows, the film that the writer-director mined from his terrifying R.E.M. excursions, has had both die-hard genre fans and folks who'd never be seen dead lining up for a Paranormal Activity sequel gushing ever since its premiere at Cannes last year, and for good reason. (It's opening on March 12th.) The story involves a 19-year-old girl (played by Maika Monroe) who gets hot and heavy with a handsome high school jock, only to discover that this hook-up makes her part of a chain letter-like curse where she's pursued by some nebulous, shape-shifting thing until she "passes it on." Mitchell's contribution to the scary-movie canon tips its hat to a number of sources, from Eighties slasher flicks to The Shining. But the way he molds these influences into such a deliberate, dread-inducing experience without turning it into a wink-nudge pastiche feels like a minor miracle. It Follows is the most singularly creepy lo-fi American horror movie to slink into theaters in years.
The fact that this spooky modern classic happens to be coming from Mitchell instead of a card-carrying "mumblegore" filmmaker only makes it that much more headscratching; his feature debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010), suggested a sensitivity to suburban teenage life that feels less indebted to Halloween than it does to John Hughes. But according to the director, the two movies share an odd symbiotic relationship. "There were a surprising number of audience members who came up to me after seeing Myth and talked about the anxiety they felt watching it," Mitchell says. "They kept waiting for something bad to happen; there's always an overdose or a car accident, something tragic, that happens in most teen dramas. When I started working on this film, the idea was always: What if I take the sort of characters that were in my first movie, age them a few years — then drop them into a nightmare? How would they react?"
The answer: They'd scream, run for their lives and constantly look over their shoulders, scanning the horizon for whatever zombie-like "person" seems to be methodically approaching them. Part of the effectiveness of It Follows isn't just the fact that this phantom creature can look like anybody — a bald giant, a child, a naked old man standing on a roof or, in one particularly disturbing scene, one of the teens' parents — it's also that the thing that wants to crush you may be an innocent-looking figure at the far edge of the frame that you barely notice at first, leaving viewers on constant high alert.
"There would be places in the script that would say, 'A person walks slowly toward the camera...the characters don't see him and the audience may or may not,'" he says, laughing. "The goal was to create a space where you're always looking for danger. We don't tell you where to pay attention. You have to figure that out." The concept came from an unlikely source for a horror flick. "I watched a lot of Paris, Texas before production started," Mitchell admits. "The way that movie is composed is as big an inspiration for this as anything John Carpenter and David Cronenberg has done."
That said, the director freely admits that Carpenter's influence can definitely be seen in how the movie's suburban setting evokes Halloween's Haddonfield, Illinois (Mitchell filmed in his hometown of Detroit, near where he grew up), and heard in composer Rich Vreeland's eerie, synth-heavy score. The use of sex as a transmission for some sort of ghastly occurrence is an old Cronenberg go-to — though any attempt to find deeper body-horror meaning in Follows' method of summoning its unstoppable force may be beside the point. "There's a lot of purposeful ambiguity in the script," producer Laura D. Smith says. "But it was also clear that David wasn't using sex here as a specific metaphor or in the name of some sort of message. I can certainly see why that people would question it, however, and I don't think he's discouraging audiences thinking one way or the other."
"It's not a moral film," Mitchell says in regards to the issue. "Obviously, you get this through having sex — but you also survive by having sex, since that's what is passing this on. It's a bit more complicated than just 'sex equals death.'" When asked if people have cornered him for explanations as the film has played the festival circuit, he laughs and admits, "Yeah, a few people have. 'So, what is this thing, exactly?!?' But anything I say would ruin it. There's no logic to it — you can't really explain a nightmare. It's more like: You can't escape. Something is after you. It never stops coming. It. Never. Stops. Coming."