Note: A version of this review was featured in Kitchen Drawer, Volume 7, Issue 5. For more, visit kitchendrawer.net
Early in It Follows, there's a shot of a teenage girl reading a book on a tiny e-reader designed to look like a clam shell makeup case. The device caught the attention of my wife, who began searching online to see whether she could find out whether such a thing actually exists. It doesn't... not yet, anyway. Is the film set in the near future? Maybe, but at other points the film offers background props that suggest we're watching a period film set at some point in the mid-1970s. The film never draws much attention to these inconsistencies, but you see them often enough to get the idea that It Follows takes place in an alternate universe that blurs the lines between the conventions of each decade. In more ways than one, this is a timeless horror film.
The story centers on Jay Height (Maika Monroe, The Guest), an ordinary high school student with an active love life. She recently started dating a boy named Hugh (Jake Weary, As the World Turns), and the relationship seems to be going fairly well. Eventually, they end up making love in the backseat of a car. Then, things take a nasty turn: Hugh knocks Jay out with chloroform, ties her up and forces her to listen while he tells her a deeply unsettling story. He claims that their act of intimacy was his way of freeing himself of a terrible curse and passing that curse on to her. From now on, a deadly... thing... will start following Jay. It will always take the form of a person, and it will always move at a relaxed pace, but it will never stop following her. The only way she can get rid of it is to sleep with someone else. Why does Hugh bother giving Jay all of this detailed information? “If it gets you, it starts coming after me again,” he admits.
It Follows certainly isn't the first horror film to draw a connection between sex and death (the slasher films of the '70s and '80s were fond of punishing their most promiscuous characters, and David Cronenberg's 1975 feature Shivers explored the notion of of a sexually-transmitted virus that turned people into monsters), but it does so with remarkable effectiveness. While it's a bit of a stretch to say that the unnamed demon of this film is a living, breathing incarnation of STDs (last time I checked, you can't get rid of an STD by passing it on to someone else), it certainly seems to represent the subconscious knowledge that our relationship choices have serious, life-altering consequences. The notion that the creature simply represents death is also a compelling one: the thing that will eventually get us all no matter how hard we work to avoid it.
The film is much closer in spirit to something like John Carpenter's Halloween or Prince of Darkness than it is the bulk of modern horror; demonstrating a level of restraint, craftsmanship and focus that deepens the impact of its central idea. There are brief moments of violence and shock, but the film is built on lengthy, slow-burning passages of suspense. The terror is in the uncertain atmosphere director David Robert Mitchell builds, not something jumping out from behind a corner. The monster is easier to escape than many horror film icons, but every escape merely delays the next inevitable encounter. This thing must be stopped eventually, and Jay is faced with a serious moral decision about whether she's willing give her curse to someone else.
One of the things I admire most about It Follows is that it takes no joy in persecution of its young characters. In many horror films, we're encouraged to laugh at the fate of foolish teens who do all the things you shouldn't do in horror movies: they stick their hand in the dark pool of water, scoff at the notion that a monster really exists or get too distracted by a member of the opposite sex. The teenagers in It Follows aren't much smarter than that (there are some borderline stupid decisions made by these characters in the third act), but the film cares about them and empathizes with their plight. Monroe does fine, layered work as Jay, and there's a soulful young kid named Paul (Keir Gilchrist, United States of Tara) whose supposedly self-sacrificial willingness to help Jay get rid of her curse is both sweet and amusing. Life-endangering sacrifices are a little easier when they involve living out your greatest fantasy, I suppose.
This is Mitchell's first feature film, and it's obvious that he has a bright future. He has a great eye for composition, and the level of technical precision he demonstrates goes a long way towards making It Follows a film that stands out in a crowded genre. His use of music is striking, too, as the synth-heavy score (penned by Disasterpeace) alternately sounds like John Carpenter, Vangelis, an Italian giallo score and atmospheric new age ambiance – a level of diversity which further suggests that the story being told isn't limited to a specific era. This isn't the sort of horror film that will have you jumping out of your seat on a regular basis, but rather the kind that quietly gets under your skin and sticks with you for a long time. In other words, it lives up to the title.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Year: 2015