by Matt Levine
The opening shot of It Follows could have been lifted from John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978): a wide, tranquil suburban street, dotted with autumn-colored leaves, an ominous synth score pulsing in the background. A young girl, scantily clad in a silky nightshirt, runs from her house, terrified. The camera slowly pans to follow her, its presence stealthy and phantasmal. The girl stares at something offscreen. Then she runs back to the house (the camera forming a complete, dazzling 360), tells her father she loves him, and flees in the family sedan. The next morning, we glimpse her corpse on a Michigan beach, distorted in gruesomely impossible directions. It’s one of the best openings of a horror movie—or any movie, really—at least since last year’s Under the Skin.
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Producers: Rebecca Green, David Kaplan, Erik Rommesmo, Laura D. Smith
Writer: David Robert Mitchell
Cinematographer: Mike Gioulakis
Editor: Julio Perez IV
Music: Rich Vreeland
Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto
Premiere: May 17, 2014 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 13, 2015
US Distributor: RADiUS-TWC
Surprisingly, It Follows has much in common with Under the Skin—not only in its allegory of sexual victimization, but also in a concept that might sound absurd on paper, though in practice it’s overwhelmingly moving and disturbing. The film follows (pun intended) a teenage girl named Jay (Maika Monroe), who lives at home while attending college in the outskirts of Detroit. Described as “annoyingly pretty” by her sister’s friend, Jay could probably entice any man she wants. The initial scenes do an incredible job at conveying Jay’s mostly carefree personality, her desire to take advantage of her teenage years and, in particular, her youthful beauty. In an especially effective scene, Jay regards herself in a mirror before a date, relishing her good looks in a way that seems more confident than narcissistic. Monroe gives a near-flawless performance as Jay, in a role that will hopefully bring her more attention; she deftly balances strength and terror, pride and regret.
The boy she’s about to meet on her date is named Hugh (Jake Weary)—or so he says, though we’ll soon find out this is an alias. He seems nice enough, taking Jay to an arthouse cinema to see Charade (these teenagers have uncommonly great artistic tastes), but acts strangely at the theater, claiming to see a woman who isn’t there. That night, Jay and Hugh have sex in his car—a consensual act conveyed with refreshing matter-of-factness, both of them enjoying the experience and making the most of their rampaging hormones. But the night then takes a turn for the sinister (and bizarre): after chloroforming Jay, Hugh straps her to a wheelchair and tells her, in the ruins of an abandoned building, that he’s “passed it on” to her.
The “It” in this case turns out to be a murderous entity that follows its target until it kills them, moving with the slow invincibility of a zombie. It can only be seen by its prey, though it can take any shape that it wants, from intimate loved ones to complete strangers. The only way to deter the demonic figure is to have sex; this horny devil then moves on to the new sexual partner, turning promiscuity into an unlikely defense mechanism. As mentioned before, the plot carries a pulpy, ridiculous undertone, but It Follows is so committed to its allegorical ideas (and so sensitive to its characters) that its concept comes off as richly bittersweet rather than ludicrously silly.
Such an outlandish idea also has tremendous potential for thematic and aesthetic undercurrents. Not surprisingly, the movie functions as a metaphor for the throes of teenage sexuality, especially STDs. (After all, the shapeshifting monster is essentially the nastiest STD imaginable.) Jay is neither vilified nor lauded for her sexual adventures; she’s simply a teenage girl, subject to the forces of biology and puberty. Rather than a conservative denunciation of the horrors of premarital sex, It Follows symbolizes both the tumult and liberation of teenage sexuality. This is poignantly conveyed by Jay’s relationships not only to the younger boys in her neighborhood—who ogle her while she swims in her family’s pool—but also with her sister’s friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who has loved Jay for years and who semi-altruistically offers to have sex with her so she can “pass it on.” These relationships form the movie’s emotional center, lending depth and sensitivity to its horrific conceit.
It Follows’ lecherous monster also enables a spectacular visual metaphor, as the invisible being is often represented by the camera itself, which pursues the protagonists with sinister resolve. Director David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover) and his cinematographer, Mike Gioulakis, utilize a chilly visual style as the camera moves in slow, lateral movements—each ominous zoom, parallel tracking shot, or hypnotic 360-degree pan seems to represent the unseen tormentor. “It follows” thus applies equally to the camera as to the unstoppable evil force. Of course many horror movies play with perspective in such a morbid way—not only Halloween, but any number of Dario Argento’s elaborate POV sequences, in which we see through the eyes of a killer. In It Follows, though, the fact that any figure, onscreen or off, could always serve as the monstrous villain makes its visual ambiguity that much more dazzling, not to mention intensely creepy.
Indeed, aside from its thematic complexity and visual audacity, It Follows is a horror movie at heart; what matters most, maybe, is the chills that it provides. Thankfully, this is the scariest thriller in years, especially to come out of America (You’re Next offering the only real competition in that regard). While The Babadook builds a few interesting characters, it’s also tepid and clichéd in the horror department, failing to provide any lasting scares. It Follows, on the other hand, is at times oppressively intense; the slow buildup to its money shots (so to speak) are extremely well-done, waiting to unleash its scariest moments until the suspense is at a fever pitch. (The best example involves Jay’s encounter with the succubus in her kitchen, a skin-crawling moment that brings to mind the terrifying Red Door scene in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse.) While keeping the gore to a minimum, It Follows expertly builds suspense, frightening us by concealing its horror as often as it reveals it.
It Follows eventually leads to surprisingly profound territory, using one character’s reading of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot to evoke a more existential terror. (Is it unlikely that one of these teenagers would read passages from Dostoevsky to her friends off of her cell phone? Probably—but who cares when it raises such fascinating parallels?) The specter of mortality is ultimately one of the film’s more sinister presences, especially since it undermines the eternal youth that most teenagers feel belongs to them. This emphasis on the unavoidability of death is doubled by the visible decay and urban blight of the movie’s Detroit setting; it’s no accident that the climax takes place in a public swimming pool that has been abandoned for years, mostly because it lies on “the wrong side of the tracks.” It Follows’ interest in social inequality and urban decay is less substantial than its other themes, and writer-director Mitchell can’t quite incorporate it into the story as fluidly as one might hope, but at the very least the ghostly setting, perched on the border between suburbia and the inner city, provides a suitably eerie backdrop.
Visually dazzling, emotionally powerful, conceptually rich, and legitimately scary—it’s hard to find flaws in It Follows, which uses its genre template as a springboard for exploring fascinating material. Like Halloween almost forty years ago, It Follows does its job as an entertaining horror flick, but the formal innovations and sexual metaphors beneath the surface might prove to have a more lasting influence. Ostensibly a thriller about the potential horrors of getting laid, It Follows is, much more powerfully, about the fears of being young—the sense of perpetual youth on one hand, and the subconscious acknowledgement of its transience on the other.