On a seemingly regular day in Suburbia, a girl sprints – or at least as well as one can in heels – out of her home in a panicked circle, looking back at … something. There’s no clue of what it could be, but whatever it is, she’s terrified – so intensely so she hauls past her dad, grabs the car keys and drives to a beach, making tear-filled final apologies and staring wide-eyed at … something.
The camera looks, but there’s nothing to be seen. Still, the something leaves her dead the next morning with legs resembling a Barbie doll that took an unfortunate trip through the lawnmower.
And just like that, "It Follows" has instantly made the audience uneasy and afraid of nothing – a nothing that, at its worst, eventually graduates to a slowly walking menace. For the following 95 minutes or so, writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s breakout indie horror flick manages to maintain that feeling of impending, skin-shivering dread. The smart, suspenseful result is the best kind of nightmare, one where you want to wake up but are too eerily entranced to actually do anything about it.
After the horror movie First Girl bids adieu, we’d introduced to pretty teen Jay (Maika Monroe from last year’s delicious genre smash-up "The Guest"), languidly enjoying summer in Anytime, Anywhere, USA with her friends (Lili Sepe and Olivia Luccardi, as well as Keir Gilchrist as her sweet but quietly yearning guy pal Paul) and her pool. There’s also her new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary), who seems affable save for some brief skittishness upon seeing … uh oh … something, something where nothing appears to be.
Still, Jay doesn’t hold the oddness against the otherwise nice Hugh, and come the next date, the two have sex in his car. Their consensual rendezvous quickly turns sour, however, ending with Hugh chloroforming Jay and strapping her to a wheelchair in an abandoned building.
He has no intention of hurting her, however, instead just sternly first-hand informing her that he’s passed on something onto her: some kind of shape-shifting humanoid menace that slowly walks toward its prey. Only she and other infected people can see the being, and the only way to get rid of it is by passing it on to another – just a temporary cure, however, as if it kills the new host, it works its way back to its previous incubators. "It’s slow," he cautions, "but it’s not stupid."
Traumatized and quickly abandoned by Hugh, Jay starts seeing the creepy entity everywhere, slowly but insistently stalking her in multiple forms but in invisible anonymity to everyone else. Jay, her confused but supportive friends and the bad boy from across the street (Daniel Zovatto) team up, zipping across the city in the hopes of finding answers and a final solution to Jay’s all-too-real demons.
While many horror movies have little on their minds other than startling the audience and yelling abloogy-woogy-woo, "It Follows" is the rare genre entry with intriguing, earned subtext and ideas to go with its equally earned chills.
The glaring metaphor in play is obviously STDs, but Mitchell’s screenplay has much more in mind, making the entity even more so the lingering, inescapable and invisible horror of a trauma – especially a sexual one. It’s fitting that others can’t see or relate to Jay’s struggle, that the haunting’s goal – and her greatest fear – becomes intimacy and that she can’t go to her mostly absent mother at least seemingly in part of a sense of shame. Like many traumas, it sends its victim spiraling into a desperate and depressed alienation, with no escape seemingly in sight.
Then there are the horrors of simply growing up, of the end of innocence and the endless summer of childhood. The movie opens with idyllic Suburbia; Jay is carefree and blissful, floating in a pool and admiring the nature around her while also playfully chiding the young neighbor boys for sneaking a peak.
However, after her infection, the pool, the house and the neighborhood all become darkly ominous. Nature and playgrounds are suddenly dark, seemingly hiding danger even when it isn’t. The gang moves alone out of the once serene peace of home into seedy urban blight (by that description, you guessed it; it was filmed in Detroit). Near the beginning, Jay and Paul remember when they innocently flipped through a stack porno magazines as kids; when they come across a similar stack later on their journey, it’s now gross and corrupted.
Mitchell’s script sometimes gets a bit clunky with how to dish out these ideas, dumping them out every now and then in chunky monologues and excerpts from "The Idiot" that play like a pimple glaringly landing right on the nose. It’s not quite pretentious – the writer-director tends to undercut these speeches with a dry laugh or scare – but every time Luccardi’s character read off a Dostoyevsky quote, I felt a violent need to smash her shell-shaped eReader (also: is that a thing that actually exists?). Even so, "It Follows" dishes out a lot of interesting material to unpack, to the point of making me want to write a paper about it.
But while the idea of writing a paper is scary enough for most, nobody goes to see a horror movie gleefully anticipating a thesis statement. They go to be scared, and thankfully "It Follows" scores high in that category as well – perhaps, however, not in the conventional way. The movie’s tactics fall in line with its indie origins, less about startling and shouting boo – the few empty jumps are more like tension release valves rather than a genuine fright – and more about crawling under the viewer’s skin with a sense of heavy dread and constant unease.
Luckily, Mitchell – with the immense mood-setting help of Disasterpiece’s eerily synth-happy score, featuring more than a slight nod to ’80s John Carpenter classics – turns out to be a masterful conductor of continuous tension. For the most part, stuff doesn’t jump out at the camera. Instead, Mitchell is more interested in the horrifying suspense of distance, of danger always slowly but certainly approaching.
His main tool is observant calm – my favorite scare tactic – often having the sinister being in the shot seemingly unnoticed by the characters and even the director himself. Sometimes Mitchell accomplishes this through dizzying 360 pans, like a school scene where the entity is first presenting slowly walking toward the entrance, moving ever so closer on the camera’s second go-around while Jay and company visit the principal. No attack happens, but the suspense is thick and spine-tingling, lingering well into the next several scenes.
In his best sequence, Mitchell brilliantly assembles his moving parts on a beach – a familiar character seemingly approaching in the background, only to move into the frame in a completely different shot while everyone is blithely oblivious – to deliver a thrilling, shiver in your seat sequence.
Unfortunately, the end of the scene dabbles with more typical horror jolts, including a mild jump and some dumb character behavior (yes, crawl toward the hole that just got kicked open by some unseen force; that seems smart). It’s not the only time either that "It Follows" gives into some dopey horror clichés – this is, after all, a movie that starts with a girl running for her life in heels – and "No, good God why are you doing that?!" behavior. Pro tip: If an otherworldly creature-thing is hunting you, maybe don’t sleep unprotected on the hood of a car for an extended period of time. Just a thought.
Still, for the most part, Mitchell’s movie maintains its special hypnotic, bone-rattling sense of terror – scary not so much like a haunted house but, once again, like a nightmare, slowly escaping a sinister menace with the dreaded knowledge that at some point, it’ll catch up. I’ve never found slow zombies particularly frightening, but "It Follows" convinced me of why they’re such a horror staple: It’s not the threat itself that's freaky but about the inevitability of it. In the case of this film, it’s all too fitting for young characters suddenly turned adult, all too aware that their time is now counting down.
That’s why the closure-free ending (despite being greeted with mostly loud "No Country for Old Men"-level groans in my showings) fits so well. The characters will always be haunted –whether by the evil something or just by the characters’ traumatic threshold-bursting experience. And "It Follows" might just do the same to you.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.