The world presented to us in It Follows is a surreal, dreamlike variation on our own, at once uncomfortably alien and unnervingly recognizable. Contemporary midwest minutiae clash with hazy, ’80s-glazed sensibilities in a universe that clearly exists outside of any one identifiable time period. Yet, while the universe often feels disconnected from the one we know, the sense of genuine dread this movie generates with its shockingly simple concept is intensely, at times disturbingly familiar. This is a horror film that targets primal human feelings with razor sharp precision in a way that the average jump-scare movie pushed out by Hollywood simply does not attempt.
The low-budget hit, directed by David Robert Mitchell (three names is how you know this guy means business) is to my eyes the greatest American horror movie created in my lifetime thus far. That said, I am biased for a few reasons. For one, this is not just a horror movie but essentially a coming-of-age movie — one of my favorite genres. Except It Follows deals with the conflicting excitement and fear of transitioning out of innocence and into adulthood via murderous monsters. John Hughes and Alfred Hitchcock would be ecstatic in equal measure.
The story hinges on teenage girl Jay, who finds herself hunted by a slow-moving, shape-shifting force as a result of having sex. She can pass it on by having sex with someone else, but if that person dies, the monster will return for Jay. While the idea of some sort of demon as punishment for sexual activity could have easily come off like a PSA on STDs and abstinence, the themes of sexual anxiety are treated with nuance and never made too overt. Let’s also remember that most classic horror movies are already thinly-shaded allegories for sexual behavior.
Luckily, dialogue remains just short of being on-the-nose, keeping its social commentary on the periphery in favor of classic, straight genre storytelling. At times this works against the film, as the way the ‘monster’ operates doesn’t really seem to connect in any way to Mitchell’s thematic intentions. The plot eventually becomes so caught up in its procedure that it almost forgets what it’s really about in the first place.
It’s impossible to complain, though, given how effective the horror elements are. Clearly laid out rules, and the innately terrifying concept and visual of someone walking right at you with the intention to mutilate, make it easy to get captivated by the plight that Jay faces. Effective horror filmmaking is employed almost every step of the way. The camera constantly obscures and reveals just enough to keep audiences feeling like anything could be coming at Jay from any direction. Cinematography is beautiful, with a strange foggy aesthetic that both adds to the eeriness and also recalls the confusing, nostalgic cloudiness of adolescence. The soundtrack by Disasterpiece, though it at first sounds distractingly like an old-school video game, eventually finds its footing to become another indispensable, arresting element in Mitchell’s arsenal.
If there’s one other thing that horror fans should be aware of, it’s that the movie isn’t that scary. I’ve used the word ‘dread’ because It Follows is ultimately more Psycho than Paranormal Activity, tightly scripted and shot for maximum tension. This is a film far more concerned with building and sustaining suspense rather than trying to keep the audience jumping out of their seats every few minutes. And like last year’s fantastic The Babadook, the film’s secret weapon is its ability to draw that tension out of real, human emotion.
Maika Monroe does a great job of leading the film, revealing different levels of internal and external fear at perfect intervals. I would say the real star of the movie, though, is Keir Gilchrist, as Jay’s loyal, well-meaning friend Paul. We haven’t seen Gilchrist on movie screens since 2010’s decent It’s Kind of a Funny Story, so it’s great to know that not only is the guy still acting, but he’s improving as well. Look for him to become a bigger name in the years to come. The other actors, most of whom play different friends and acquaintances of Jay, do passable but altogether less remarkable jobs in comparison.
The one other reason I’m admittedly biased towards the film (though it’s not as though the rest of the world doesn’t love it as well), is because it takes place, and was in fact shot in the metro-Detroit area. I thought I had recognized some of the locations early-on, but chalked it up to the film simply doing an excellent job of nailing the suburban teenage experience… that is, until they overtly reference their location and even make their way to Detroit proper. Having lived my own teenage years in and around the area that the film takes place in added a personal layer to the experience that made it even easier to relate to and even harder to shake.
It Follows is a glowing example of both horror and coming-of-age filmmaking, successfully blending the two in inventive and effecting ways. Though one could rightly nitpick some acting missteps or a few gaps in logic, the film powers through those flaws with pure cinematic mastery. Thematically fascinating, visually and aurally captivating, and with a firm grasp on how to harness suspense, this is truly one of the greatest horror movies of the past ten years.
Score: 4.5 out of 5