Something about the combination of sex and death seems to be endlessly endearing in the spooky little world of horror movies. It defined the entire genre for the stretch of the 1980s when slashers ruled the world and David Cronenberg milked metaphoric power out of the combo. Yet, sexualized horror has somehow been absent from the genre for a little while. As such, ‘It Follows’ feels like a bit of a revelation.
The flick has one of those horror movie hooks so strong that word-of-mouth builds just by describing the setup, and writer/director David Robert Mitchell executes his first genre outing with such exquisite mastery of craft that you can’t help but be impressed. The movie has been showered with praise since touring the festival circuit, to the point that it already felt like a cult film before release. It is indeed a damn fine horror outing, just don’t believe the “Greatest Horror Movie in a Decade” hyperbole. That sort of histrionic hype will ruin the type of smart little genre gem that ‘It Follows’ actually is.
New starlet Maika Monroe (who has already cemented a horror convention side-career between this and ‘The Guest‘) stars as Jay, a dazed and confused teenager dating the 21-year-old Hugh (Jake Weary). Eventually, they do the deed that all horny teenagers want to do, but unfortunately Jay wakes up immediately afterwards tied to a wheelchair as Hugh explains the premise of the horror film she’s now trapped in.
There’s an unknown evil force. Call it a demon, call it a ghost, call it a projected STD metaphor, call it what you will. (Thankfully, director Mitchell doesn’t get hung up on useless explanation.) But it exists and it will now follow Jay wherever she goes in a slow and measured pace. If it touches her, she dies. However, if she has sex with someone, she’ll pass it along just like it’s been passed onto her. Worst of all, if it kills whomever she passes it to, it will return to following her and back on down the line to the original, unknown source. Only those who have been infected can see the specter, but the danger is very real for anyone who tries to stop it.
From there, Jay returns to her gang of equally despondent friends and their conveniently absent parents, and the film follows her through a series of expertly staged set-pieces, along with some pained characterizations, until the credits roll.
It has to be said up front that the mysterious “It” isn’t the only thing haunting the movie. No, the ghost of John Carpenter hangs over almost every frame as well. Though clearly a talented director in his own right, Mitchell shoots the film with the same ever-creeping Cinemascope camera, and makes the same atmospheric use of the added visual space in which horrors might pop up at any time as Carpenter did way-back-when in ‘Halloween’. Composer Rich Vreeland also delivers an absolutely brilliant score done in the same simple synth style that Carpenter created and an entire decade worth of genre composers knocked off. The influence of the real J.C. is impossible to deny (even the slow-moving threat is eerily reminiscent of that master’s monsters) and yet, it thankfully remains just an influence. Mitchell isn’t hiding his love of Carpenter, but he also isn’t merely playing pretend. He knows how and why those tricks work and applies them to his own delightfully devilish creation.
The STD horror metaphor at the center of ‘It Follows’ is far from subtle, but it’s also far from overplayed. There’s poignancy to the concept, and also added scares that come from leaving things unexplained. Sure, with most of the teens presumed virgins, the concept of sex being their entry into the adult world (and with it the inevitability of death) is present, but Mitchell never makes his themes too explicit. If you like subtext, dig in and write that first year academic paper. If not, don’t worry.
The concept also pulls all the right influences from the ‘Final Destination’ series and slow moving zombie movies to give you the willies. Mitchell rarely lets up on his ever-ratcheting suspense. He gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that even in quiet scenes of rest, the potential of “It” popping out of the corner of the frame at any time remains.
Within those quiet scenes of queasy anticipation, Mitchell also builds a truly engrossing world with an excellent young cast. His previous film, ‘The Myth of the American Sleepover’, was a well-observed slice of life about listless lost teens, and ‘It Follows’ is often just as relatable, even though it adds an evil force in relentless pursuit. The kids are all sad, lost and lonely in a way real kids are. Their dialogue is loosely conversational with dramatic speeches only in spots that feel natural. The performances are all quietly underplayed. It’s rare for a horror film to have a universally strong cast, and ‘It Follows’ shows just how important that can be. You may not get fed backstories beyond what’s required to keep the forward-momentum of the narrative pumping, but you’ll always empathize with everyone just enough to care when the supernatural threat arrives.
Mitchell also creates a curiously out-of-time world of an uncertain era that’s evocative without being showy, and has fun with using unspoken exposition as both deadpan comedy and eerie mystery. For example, the total lack of parental presence in the movie might feel like a plot hole were it not part of the filmmaker’s otherworldly sense of place. That’s both efficient genre storytelling and an eccentric stylistic choice, a two-for-one package of clever filmmaking.
Words like “masterpiece” have been tossed around when describing ‘It Follows’, but that seems a bit inappropriate. Without a doubt, this is an excellent piece of work that should be discussed and admired. But it’s not that much better than, say, 2013’s ‘Oculus‘. It’s just a movie that reminds viewers of a type of horror that had been missing so long they forgot how good it could be – much like how ‘The Babadook‘ was over-praised for being a human drama with horror flourishes, or how ‘The Conjuring‘ was a massive hit because audiences hadn’t been moved by conventionally manipulative horror filmmaking techniques in years after the Found Footage and gore-horror trends. Not that these movies are bad – quite the opposite, they are very well made. They just caught the cultural zeitgeist at the right moment to make old tricks feel new again.
Still, when the old tricks come from strong sources and the execution is as expertly done as ‘It Follows’, a little over-praise is fair game. Little movies like this deserve the attention. With luck, the inevitable ‘It Follows’ knockoffs won’t flow out too quickly. It would be nice for this little genre gem to feel special for a while.