Determinedly awkward, dizzyingly tense, and scalp-prickingly scary, It Follows is a gender-blind demonic delivery vehicle; a spine-tingling variation on the teen horror formula; and a hair-raising, spectacularly unnerving film that will haunt your waking hours for weeks. Every minute is stamped with nameless dread.
After a strange sexual encounter involving chloroform and a wheelchair, Jay (Maika Monroe) is haunted by nightmarish visions and the inescapable sense that something is after her. Less a conventional horror film than a fitful, disturbing dream, It Follows is a triumph of atmosphere. There’s a 1980s vibe to everything, down to the princess landline phones and clunky picture tube televisions. Fans of John Carpenter will immediately recognize the master’s fingerprints: the voyeuristic slink of the camera, the pulse of the throwback score, the transformation of warmly-lit residential environments into landscapes of trepidation.
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover) employs techniques cribbed from the avant-garde, including dislocating widescreen cinematography and an unsettling soundscape, which ratchet up the tension in creative ways. Michael Gioulakis’ crisp composition and eerie pools of light at night bring an arrestingly static, tableau-like quality that echoes the staged scenarios of Gregory Crewdson’s photos, as if a boogeyman has walked into a Norman Rockwell painting. The nuanced, synth-heavy score by Disasterpeace provides a screaming punctuation mark.
Mitchell slyly inverts the conventions of dead-meat teenager flicks: It Follows spits in the eyes of the wink-wink comedy of Scream or the wacky fun of Drag Me to Hell. No matter its conceptual intentions, It Follows never ventures far from visceral horror. Mitchell pulls off some sensational moments of fear and suspense, populating a number of scenes with well-timed jump scares as the Stalker bursts out of the shadows or appears in unexpected forms. Mitchell is serious about creeping out viewers, and just artistic enough to create a minor masterpiece.
The crash-bang-wallop set pieces are efficiently edited and economically choreographed, but their real weight comes from the gripping face-value earnestness and the sense of brooding menace established in interim sequences where not much is happening. With grave performances, wide shots, long takes, and a carefully cultivated mood of foreboding, It Follows has an sustained sense of usurping unease. It doesn’t generate gore to jangle our nerves; it preys on our imagination.
Refreshingly unironic in its retro vibe, It Follows recycles familiar horror tropes and borrows cleverly from the best – the laneway camera zoom-ins of The Evil Dead, the inevitable terror of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the “chain-of-responsibility” curse of The Ring, the pool confrontation of Let the Right One In, the screeching soundtrack of Psycho. The malignity of the morphing, remorseless antagonist is seemingly motiveless. Not since Freddy Krueger stalked teenagers in their sleep have the young targets on screen had nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide.
Yet It Follows also eschews the genre’s common tricks and manages to feel like no other example in recent years. There’s no obligatory scene in which the characters gather in a library and discover an old book that tells the background of Jay’s tormentor, just enough detail to the mythology to make it hold together, and enough left unexplained to make things creepy as hell. There are no computers or mention of social media (though one of Jay’s friends reads The Idiot on a handheld compact device). Literary quotes are tossed in out of nowhere and adults are rarely present.
Where the majority of teen horror movies revel in splintering the peer group, It Follows is interested in how people gather around a friend and shield her from harm. Filled with alarming imagery and a paranoiac tenor, it has a wicked slant on the horror genre’s obsession with burgeoning sexuality and evokes the attacks on lust that have flourished in since Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and the “have sex and die” maniac movies from the early 1980s. The unpretentious, meaningful subtext doesn’t undercut the spookiness: it’s both scary enough to please horror fans and deep enough to inspire term papers.
With a ferociously single-minded rightness that keeps the nerves in a state of high, perpetual thrum, It Follows turns its viewers into paranoid spectators, scanning the frame for signs of trouble. Its thematic textures run deep, but the picture retains real visceral force. Low-budget, well-engineered, and sure of itself, It Follows makes a virtue of silence, living in the shadows between the splattery kill scenes that pepper the average slasher.
It’s difficult not to share Jay’s mounting panic as she watches the Stalker walking slowly and steadily toward her wherever she may be, invisible to everyone else, intent on destroying her. You may prefer (as I do) the extreme unslackness of Halloween and resourceful pluck of Jamie Curtis to the dreamier panic of Monroe. But give Mitchell credit: It Follows sticks to you with a grim unshakability that is at once stylish, smart, and deadly serious.
Let’s hope nobody gets the idea of making a sequel; It Follows needs nothing to trail in its wake. It’s based on the simplest scare of all: don’t look now, but something’s behind you. Be careful It doesn’t follow you home from the theatre.