As a sensation, the thrill of a good scary movie is never more heightened than at the peak of young adulthood. With the world still an eternity away, and a youth that seems everlasting, the most abstract idea in the world is death—that exotic custom from a foreign land for other people. Smart horror invites this stranger home.
It Follows does it one better.
As the best horror movie in years, David Robert Mitchell’s second feature assimilates death into the fabric of American youth culture, making its fatalism not only intimate, but unshakable—like that knowing feeling you’re being watched. Right now.
Purportedly based on one of Mitchell’s own childhood nightmares, It Follows grasps onto that primal terror that something is coming for you, and that no matter what you do, it will have its way with your innocence, vitality, and even your life, leaving nothing in its wake but spoiled meat. It’s a metaphor that doesn’t need much explanation, because we all know it, and the beauty of this film is that it’s personified by an inexplicable and unstoppable Other that makes the lives of the film’s central teenage heroes not only truncated, but unbearably aware of a brutally imminent finality.
Set around the aimlessly idyllic lives of Jay (Maika Monroe) and her friends, It Follows takes place in a timeless teenage wasteland, located somewhere between modern day decaying Detroit suburbs and a 1980s John Carpenter Neverland. As Jay herself monologues, she’s dreamt about being an adult and riding in cars with boys for so long that now she has no idea of where to go with them. But she’s only too happy to get into Hugh’s (Jake Weary) car. Hugh is a handsome older guy who, at only 21, is already looking at children with the awe of a man with one foot in the grave—he then proceeds to bring Jay down to his level.
After they have sex, Hugh immediately chloroforms Jay, and wakes her to a horrifying reality: he has passed It along. He doesn’t know what It is, or what It wants, but It is like the world’s worst chain letter, a supernatural creature whose gaze is transferred from one young person to the next via sexual encounter. Once It has passed to you, there is no hiding; It will find you and It will kill you, unless you pass the curse along to someone else. However, if that person should die, then the nameless hunter will renew its search for you.
Oh, and It can look like anyone or anything while marching you towards oblivion.
There is an obvious allegorical quality about STDs barely hiding beneath the surface of It Follows, yet this feels almost like a red herring. Mitchell’s film is far more interested in conjuring a dreamlike and universal distillation of youth’s death obsession, made immediate and omnipresent by the titular and unstoppable evil entity that’s always shuffling towards Jay and the audience, whether onscreen or off.
Thus this long-building scare has the appeal of a campfire ghost story, right down to its unspoken 1980s setting. It Follows does not feel period, but rather purely and implicitly horrific, even before death comes calling. After a century, the dreary castles and stampeding gothic carriages have been supplanted in the horror zeitgeist with paneled station wagons and raspy electronic synthesizers. Indeed, Rich Vreeland’s weirdly melodic score lingers as a lullaby, but like other 1980s genre heroines, don’t be foolish enough to fall asleep. In this vein, the corded landlines and cheek-wide earphones attached to background characters’ walkmans add to a wordless cinematic menace still resonating from the Reagan Years.
Still, at its core, It Follows grounds the terror in uncomfortably authentic and modern teenage life. I have not seen Maika Monroe before, but her performance as Jay bodes well for her career since she’s instantly sympathetic due to her unending, pitiable terror. While hardly the trite archetypical “good girl,” Jay is still a very good girl, or young woman, who is both coveted and envied by her friends for always making the right and attractive choice—which she is nonetheless punished mercilessly for when It appears with a creepy new visage, sometimes as an old nursing home escapee, and sometimes as a grotesquely ravaged naked body. There is an implicit knowledge between It and Jay that each of these pursuing countenances are those of victims who succumbed to death’s unavoidable persuasion.
The rest of the cast Mitchell builds a quiet affinity for, be it meekish Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a childhood friend that has carried a torch for Jay since they shared their first kiss in middle school, or more charismatic Greg (Daniel Zovatto), a high school ex still convinced of his own invincibility.
Yet, the greatest character remains Mitchell’s own adroit camera, which rarely posits for the cheap jump scare. The opening scene of It Follows alone is instantly able to ensnare viewers into its suburban myth when another girl, presumably one of Hugh’s previous conquests, is chased out of her home by an invisible nightmare. Whereas we can see the transmuted monstrosity after Jay has likewise been blighted, we do not see this young woman’s demon. But in a striking 360-degree shot by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, we witness It dauntlessly chase her around her concerned father, in and out of her childhood home, across the driveway, and onto the parkway towards Hell.
We also eventually see what becomes of those who surrender to the chase.
Later, in another visually hopeless moment, Jay sits on a beach chatting with her friends about how far she must go while It approaches at a ginger pace from a distance to right behind her shoulder over several minutes in a forced camera angle. The terror isn’t from the suddenness of annihilation, but due to its ceaseless presence.
The inescapable dread of It Follows is so pervasive, and so relentless, that long after the movie house lights go up, it continues to march forward in the mind, and this will be especially true for its target audience of young adults, who have found their generation’s Curse of the Demon. By introducing an artful nihilism to a well-worn genre, It Follows births a new ticking crocodile that is far more incomprehensible and malevolent than any in the past, because it preys on children who will never grow up.
This review was first published on Feb. 19, 2015.