It Follows is the best throwback to ’80s slasher flicks since the Me Decade ended. Eschewing the self-aware humor of Scream and Cabin in the Woods and skipping the camp qualities that marred so many of the reboots and re-imaginings and homages of recent years, It Follows embraces the horrifying nature of unstoppable, implacable evil.
The movie opens with a short prologue, in which we see a teen girl fleeing some unseen foe before winding up dead on a beach, limbs snapped and horribly askew.
We then cut to Jay (Maika Monroe), who goes on a date with her new beau, Hugh (Jake Weary). It’s a normal teen outing, a movie and a bite to eat. But something seems a little off. Hugh claims to see someone in the theater that Jay can’t; when she questions him on it, he freaks out and asks to leave. Jay assumes it was just an ex in the theater. No big deal.
Actually, it was kind of a big deal. Turns out Hugh spotted a deadly apparition that has been following him since he engaged in a one-night-stand a while back. And now, after having sex with Jay on their following date, the ghost is following her.
Hugh tries to help Jay out by … well, chloroforming her and tying her to a wheelchair in the spooky ruins of an abandoned building on the outskirts of Detroit. A bit jarring perhaps, but effective: terrified and vulnerable, she is more susceptible to his message. And she is even more so when an old nude woman silently stalks toward her and Hugh shouts out the rules. "It" can appear as anyone, It will never stop coming, It is slow, but It is not dumb, and It can only be passed on by having sex.
What follows is a master class in tension and paranoia. Jay’s friends, including Jay’s sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), the bad boy Greg (Daniel Zovatto), and the nice guy Paul (Keir Gilchrist), are slow to believe her. But they all come around, one way or the other.
The audience is drawn into the action. Every time we see someone on the street, we wonder if he is actually the monster. Some instances are more obvious than others, like when a nude man perched on Jay’s rooftop stares down at Jay and her friends.
Other frights are more casually introduced. Indeed, some are never even acknowledged by the characters at all, as in the instance on a high school campus when we see a girl in school clothes and a backpack making a beeline toward Jay, but Jay and her friends depart before the girl can close the gap. Was the girl "It"? Or have we simply absorbed the film’s paranoia?
It helps that writer-director David Robert Mitchell has put together an extremely well crafted film. In the aforementioned scene at the high school, for instance, the camera does one 360-degree spin and then a second, allowing us to see both Jay and Greg doing a bit of investigative work as well as the oncoming possible It. The shots perfectly represent the way that Jay is now forced to live her life: with her head on a swivel, constantly checking for a threat only she can see.
I also appreciate the rather generic set-up (sex leads to unstoppable terror) and Mitchell’s almost sadistic refusal to explain It’s origins. As such, the story is something of a blank slate, one on which the viewer can project just about any fear he wishes.
Is it a reactionary cautionary tale about the dangers of premarital sex? Or is It Follows a progressively minded denunciation of rape culture and slut shaming? Perhaps the film is a meta-metaphor, a comment on the teen horror films that proliferated throughout the 1980s. Surely the ear-catching, synth-heavy soundtrack means something.
It Follows is not flawless. For a film that makes a point of having its characters behave more like actual human beings than stock figures in a schlocky horror flick, a scene near the end in which the teens try to confront It is rather silly and breaks some of the tension so perfectly built beforehand.
Still, this is a very impressive entry from Mitchell. And it’s one that audiences appear to be responding to. Initially, It Follows was scheduled to hit Video on Demand (VOD) providers following a brief theatrical engagement. However, box office was strong: It Follows averaged an astounding $40,022 on four screens in its first weekend, and a very respectable $10,777 upon expansion to 32 screens. So the VOD release has been delayed and the movie will expand to 1,200 screens this weekend.
Given the paucity of advertising, I’d be surprised if the film maintains its momentum. But word of mouth is strong. And it’s strong for good reason: It Follows is one of the best horror films in recent years.