It Follows is the best pure horror film in years, maybe even a decade. It does not deconstruct genre conventions like Cabin in the Woods or Resolution, and it does not use genre as an opportunity for allegory like The Babadook. There is some angst over teenage sexual hysteria, yet that’s a red herring in comparison to writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s greater purpose. Through the sheer power of his premise and his strength as a filmmaker, It Follows aspires to do no more than thoroughly creep out its audience.
In those terms, it is a smashing success, to the point whereite made me genuinely gasp with terror. And if he’s responding to those who criticize the genre’s excess, his film has minimal gore, minimal explicit sex, and no exploitation. Like the early work of Wes Craven and Ti West, this film serves as an announcement of another major genre player.
Part of the charm of It Follows is the simplicity of its premise. In fact, a detailed summary of the film would make it sound downright pedestrian, so I won’t get too detailed. The film starts on a nice, anonymous street in a Detroit suburb. It is dusk, and a young woman runs along with a look of abject horror (she’s also wearing high heels). Something is terrorizing her, and it is unclear the threat is serious until we see her mangled body moments later.
Mitchell turns his attention to Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman who hands with her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a Nice Guy who is stuck in the friend zone. Jay goes on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a handsome older guy. They have sex, and soon afterward he explains he had an ulterior motive for their coitus. He transferred a terrible curse onto her, one that only she can perceive, and it will last until she passes onto someone else (also through sex). As the enormity of the situations dawns on Jay and her friends, her brushes with the titular “it” sends her into a hopeless panic.
Mitchell makes no attempt to hide how he manipulates the audience. His camera veers between subjectivity and objectivity, so that we may scream and shudder. There are times where we see things from Jay’s point view, and how the pursuit of her is relentless, inexorable. There are other shots where we see things more objectively, or from Paul/Kelly’s perspective, and Jay seems insane without It in close proximity.
Although this is a familiar trick, particularly in horror, Mitchell uses the logic of Jay’s predicament to his advantage. The titular It goes in only one direction, so one he establishes its relation to Jay with a stationery shot, then the camera whips around the kids. The audience is unsure of the terror’s exact ETA, which creates gnawing suspense. There are other moments where we’re not sure whether It is even nearby, creating an opportunity for startling “jump” scares. Mitchell plays fair – music does not emphasize these scares – so the cumulative effect is more chilling than anything else. His style is thorough and exacting, with unusual trust placed in the audience. The cinematography adds to the atmosphere: the day-time scenes seem drained of light, while the nighttime scenes have a singular light source with pools of encroaching darkness around it. This is an exaggeration of how we might typically see the world if it were absent any warmth.
The actors are almost immaterial here – Mitchell merely requires that they are convincing – yet they’re likable thanks to their low-key nature. None of the characters speak in platitudes, and they seem capable of independent thought, even if the breadth of their concerns are narrow. What befalls Jay is the film’s emotional core, yet there are reserves of strength there so she never appears hapless. Still, what’s more important to the film’s success is its music: the score is by Disasterpiece, and it’s a full-on throwback to the John Carpenter synth scores of the 1980s. The film is not set during that period, exactly, although characters watch CRT televisions and have rudimentary cell phones. In addition to a specific sense of mood, the music adds a timeless quality to the action. With its settings of schools and beach houses, there’s a lazy quality to the hang-outs that’s like a distant, youthful memory. This is exactly why It Follows ultimately unfolds like an implacable nightmare.
On one level, anyway, this is a horror film about a sexually transmitted disease. But unlike the slasher films of the early eighties, Mitchell is no prude who views grisly death as comeuppance for promiscuity. Jay and the others are sophisticated about sex – insofar that kids their age can be – and there are no mean-spirited jokes, nor do any characters conflate sex with love. By letting his characters Mitchell treat sex as a matter-of-fact part of their lives, he’s free to abandon grandiose themes and instead lead his characters/audience through an entertaining, cathartic mix of tension and relief. As long as they don’t accidentally learn the premise beforehand, It Follows is so good that it has the potential to convert non-fans into full-on aficionados.