Most contemporary horror films underestimate the audience's intelligence, with jump scares and obvious "twists." But It Follows refuses to dumb anything down. Its story about a girl who becomes infected with a mysterious, relentless curse is smart and original — not to mention scary as hell.
And that's not all. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell's film also works in canny nods to slasher films past. It also boasts a terrific lead performance by Maika Monroe (last seen in another innovative-yet-retro horror entry, The Guest.) And it contains the most artful production values we've seen in a genre movie in some time. Mild spoilers follow.
It Follows begins on a quiet suburban street, the last place you'd expect to encounter white-hot terror. But that's exactly what shatters the peace when a girl, clad only in nightclothes and (in a perfectly impractical touch) high-heeled shoes, bursts from one tidy home. We wonder what the hell she's afraid of that makes her sprint up and down the block, before jumping into her Prius and zooming off to escape ... or confront? ... whatever is freaking her the fuck out.
Her recognizably modern car is one of few 21st-century signifiers in a film that's careful to avoid pegging itself to an easily identifiable time period. Its technological juxtapositions — as when a cell phone appears in the same scene as a black-and-white TV that only seems capable of broadcasting old-school monster movies (shout-out to Halloween) — are just part of an overall feeling of timelessness that permeates the film.
Though It Follows favors the 1970s and 1980s in its wardrobe choices (a puka shell necklace and an acid-wash jacket make irony-free appearances) and dread-filled synth score (by Rich Vreeland), it's also set in present-day, post-crash Detroit, with multiple scenes unfolding amid the city's ghostly abandoned buildings.
All of this careful mood-building, helped along by Mike Gioulakis' saturated cinematography (can we get an amen for a horror movie that's not a washed-out, monochromatic portrait o' bleakness?), would be for naught if It Follow's script didn't deliver frights. But it does, by introducing a remarkably simple idea that's made all the more nightmare-inducing by its relatability.
Jay (Monroe) is 19, still living at home while attending a local college, and spends a lot of time hanging out with her younger sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), childhood buddy Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and their friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi). In the grand tradition of slasher films past, Jay and Kelly's mom is but a faint physical presence, offering limited support when the supernatural shit starts hitting the fan. Before that happens, though, Jay has a very real, very nasty experience: after fun, consensual sex with the cute new guy she's been seeing (Jake Weary), she awakes tied to a wheelchair in a grimy parking garage. Major buzzkill! He's apologetic, but he's shouting apparent nonsense and seems insanely freaked out: "I'm sorry … this thing is gonna follow you."
At first, we're as confused as Jay, but the situation soon becomes alarmingly clear: Jay's been purposely infected by some kind of next-level STD/curse that means she'll be followed by a being that can take any human form. Followed isn't even the right word ... more like pursued. Stalked. Hunted. With what little information her ex-beau shares, we learn "It's very slow, but it's not dumb" and "Wherever you are, it's walking toward you." It's no running zombie, but it's in constant motion, which means Jay has to be, too. Any moment of inertia means IT is drawing closer.
This set-up lends itself to abundant scares. Soon after she's infected, Jay is sitting in a classroom staring out the window (another Halloween shout-out) and notices an elderly woman striding purposefully across the campus lawn. It's her first real encounter with the monster, and the moment is so alarming that it imbues every scene that follows with paranoia. Since only the afflicted can see the monster, her friends can't warn her when a figure begins striding up behind her ... but we, the audience, can see everything. In every scene, we anticipate the appearance of the next follower, our eyes darting into crowds, seeking any figure that might be moving, sharklike, in a straight line directly toward Jay. We're nervously eyeballing that the open doorway, waiting for whatever is lumbering down the hallway to appear. We're waiting, and waiting, and OH GOD WHAT IS THAT waiting ... as a result, throughout the entire viewing experience, we are on edge.
Most of It Follows is one long, slow-burning chase scene, with Jay's sister and friends (and their across-the-street neighbor, who has a car) pitching in to help her after quickly realizing her crazy-sounding story is one hundred percent real. Though it becomes a little here-we-go-again by the end (and there are some plot holes ... just don't let yourself worry over the "monster logic" too much), the movie never falters in its commitment to its overall mood.
What's more, the fact that this movie offers audience interaction beyond "Don't go in the basement!" makes every scene a magnificent exercise in suspense. It offers an unpredictability that's become increasingly rare in horror. For that alone (and for not being a sequel, a remake, a found-footage extravaganza, or gratuitously gory) It Follows deserves high praise. This movie is absolutely one of the year's must-see horror films.