Most horror movies are about teenagers (played by much older actors) but very few get at the core of adolescence as well as It Follows. The film captures the late summer malaise of young adulthood perfectly while marrying it with a back-to-basics horror concept that relies more on characterization and slow-burn chills than shock jumps and cheap scares (although those are present as well). Writer/director David Robert Mitchell brings genuine panache and stylistic chops with extended takes that find the camera tracking, swooping and swirling, while a tale of psychosexual dread and paranoia plays out amidst the homey suburbs and ruined core of modern Detroit.
Maika Munroe (The Guest) stars as Jay, a 19-year-old college student still stuck at home and living for the weekends. She lazes around in her above-ground pool, goes on dates with the older Hugh (Jake Weary), and kills time with her sister and friends. The voyeuristic camera keeps its distance and a pulsing, John Carpenter-esque synth score (courtesy of Rich Vreeland) sets an appropriate veil of unease in these mundane interactions. After Jay and Hugh consummate their relationship in the backseat of a car, Hugh reveals to Jay that the unknowable horror that’s been hounding him is now following her too.
That ghoul takes the form of someone from their past, someone they may know, and it mindlessly stalks its victims with an intent to kill them or worse. It can shift its form or be outrun but it’ll never stop (like The Terminator!) and if it catches Jay she’ll be destroyed in a most unpleasant manner. It’ll also continue to haunt the previous carriers as well, so past victims might do well to call their sexual partners and warn them. The rules are fast and loose, but it’s a potent metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases and the gravity they can have.
As Jay, Monroe is masterful at conveying fear and strength, although she’s not simply a “final girl” and has clear characterization and motives. She’s not the typical virginal lead and the movie doesn’t pass judgement on her past behaviour, instead offering a more grounded, modern view of teenage sexuality. It’s refreshing that the sex is treated matter-of-factly and, while much of the plot revolves around the act, not have it be a momentous occasion nor an insignificant act. There’s weight behind it, but it happens under a blanket or on an old couch or in the cramped backseat of a car on a hot summer night. It’s not glamourized and the story becomes universal but having this weird specificity to it that makes the experiences pop.
Jay’s not alone with her struggle, as her younger sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), mutual friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist), audience surrogate Yara (Olivia Yuccardi) and neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto) all join together to help rid Jay of the unstoppable terror that haunts her. (Adults are waived off by having Jay and Kelly’s single mom be an alcoholic and the cops be ineffective, which somewhat breaks the immersion when they glibly hand wave off the possibility of going to the authorities.) The group has believable dynamics, with strange in-jokes and slacker dialogue that rings true.
There’s a number of great setpieces that often act as a showcase for bravura camerawork, like an opening tracking shot that lasts forever and a 360 pan in a school that goes around and around, building dread by teasing out the possibility of something just off screen entering the frame. Mitchell mostly avoids closeups and makes ingenious of the distance, always creating unease by sometimes having the ghoul enter the frame but always having the spectre of it lingering over every interaction. It’s a ghost story that mostly avoids gore and is more adept at building tension and an increasingly claustrophobic sense of dread, even in wide open expanses. The pace is at times almost slack, but when it’s punctuated by a quick shock or the appearance of the central horror the movie gets a true jolt of effectiveness. There’s nightmare logic at play in It Follows, and the insanity lends an unpredictability.
The plot seems to run in circles at times, but I have a feeling that the film’s unique central conceit and clear-eyed character development will allow it to grow in stature as time goes on. There’s certainly a lot of excellent filmmaking on display in It Follows, and it truly gets under your skin as the runtime wears on. It’s reliance on the imagery of the crumbling and neglected Detroit in the final third could seem trite, but instead evokes a nostalgia and poignancy by simply showing the effect of age and wear and tear. Late summer leaves fall into a disused pool and characters have to don a sweater by the windy lakeside. What’s following them won’t stop, can’t stop, and to battle it may be as futile as trying to turn back the clock. Sooner or later, the past catches up with everyone and you have to reckon with it or be undone.
It Follows (2015)
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Runtime: 100 minutes