It Follows is the best kind of horror movie, one with an ingeniously simple premise that allows the director to create scenes of such tension and suspense that you sit in total dread of what is going to happen next. The characters are well written and believable, the soundtrack is oppressive and threatening, and the themes about adolescence and growing up are layered in with a subtle hand. There’s no filler, no tedious scenes of exposition, and very few jump scares. It’s not meant to be a funhouse ride, as most mainstream horror flicks are these days. Instead, it’s meant to haunt you and follow you home, which gives added meaning to the title. There’s a lot going on in the film—most scenes are overflowing with subtext—but that never gets in the way of the main goal: to scare the piss out of you. It’s early in the year yet but I think it’s safe to say that it’s doubtful there will be a better horror movie in 2015. It’s an instant classic.
The loss of adolescence is the subject of many horror films and there’s a simple reason for this: growing up is scary. You think the world is going to be one way but it turns out to be another. You imagine things that will happen to you, glorious rites of passage you’ve watched on the silver screen, but the reality turns out to be far different. Your fantasies of what life will be like when you get older are just that; fantasies. The heroine of It Follows, Jay (Maika Monroe) is no different than most of us were during that strange, transitory summer after senior year. After sleeping with her new boyfriend in a car on the outskirts of town, she plays with a flower and waxes nostalgic, telling him, “I used to day dream about being old enough to go on dates. I had this image of myself holding hands with a really cute guy, driving down some pretty road. It was never about going anywhere really, just about having some sort of freedom I guess.” Moments later, her fantasy is shattered when her boyfriend knocks her out and she wakes up tied to a chair in an abandoned warehouse.
He paces around the room anxiously, shining a light out into the night as if he’s looking for something. Jay begs to be let go but he promises he won’t hurt her and insists he has to tell her something, even though she won’t believe him. He tells her that this ‘thing’ is going to follow her. He got it from somebody else and now he’s passed it to her. No matter where she is it’ll always be moving towards her at a steady pace. It can look like anyone, a stranger or someone she knows. It’s slow but it’s not stupid and will catch up with her eventually, unless she sleeps with someone else and passes it to them. “Never go anywhere with only one exit,” he advises before dropping her in front of her house and driving off into the night.
So yes, Jay has basically been infected with a supernatural STD. There are some who may find this concept silly and it is a bit. But is it any sillier than a child murderer who kills you in your dreams? Or a boogeyman in a white mask who won’t stay dead? Or a little girl spinning her head around and vomiting pea soup? In great horror films, the concept doesn’t matter. What matters is what you do with it. And in It Follows, writer director David Robert Mitchell uses the concept to create some of the most chilling, unsettling sequences in recent memory. It’s a long established trope that killers don’t run but walk. It’s scarier that way even if it doesn’t make logical sense. But here, it makes perfect sense. This thing doesn’t need to run. It’s firmly established that no matter where Jay is, it’s somewhere out there. Walking. Straight. Towards. Her. If that idea doesn’t send a chill up your spine, you’re a much braver person than I am.
This allows Mitchell to put us on edge even during the calmer scenes. He’s fond of wide shots, letting his camera take in the full suburban landscape. We’re forever scanning the edges of the frame looking for something that doesn’t quite belong. In one virtuoso shot, he spins the camera in a circle several times. There’s a figure walking towards the frame and every time he spins back to it, it’s getting closer and closer. Since the thing can look like anybody, that adds an extra layer of suspense and some much needed humor. Only Jay can see the thing and there’s more than one scene where she spots someone walking towards her and shouts hysterically to her friends asking if they can see the person too. When they look at her like she has six heads and say, “uh…yeah”, we’re able to let out a sigh of relief as we chuckle at ourselves for being so frightened. Then the real thing will show up a minute or two later and we’re back to being terrified.
Jay’s friends know there’s something wrong with her even if they are unable to believe she’s being stalked by an invisible demon. They band together anyway and vow to keep her safe. Her childhood friend, Paul (Keir Gilchrist) even offers to sleep with her so she may pass it on. There’s also Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the neighborhood tough guy who has a history with Jay. He gets involved only because he see the girl next door turning into a woman and will use any excuse to spend time with her. The scenes where Jay and her makeshift Scooby Gang hang out and talk have a real life feel to them, rich with history. They all seem slightly bored and confused, uncertain what to do with their lives now that high school is over and their world must expand. They’re spinning in circles both metaphorically and physically. They don’t know how to out run this creature or stop it so they just move from place to place, buying time wherever they can.
We’re generally frustrated by teens who make stupid decisions in horror movies. However, while I was watching It Follows, I had a bit of a revelation. You know why teens do stupid things in horror movies? Because most teenagers are fucking stupid. We know this to be the case in real life but often refuse to accept it on the big screen. This is probably at least partly due to the fact that most teenagers are played by actors over 30. They look like adults and so we hold them to a different standard. The teens in It Follows look like actual teenagers. It’s easier to forgive them for their poor decision making skills. The premise helps a bit with that too. You may want to yell at them for doing nothing more than hanging out in a beach house to get away from this thing but what else is there for them to do? There’s no expert in this movie to come in and tell them, “oh well you’ve got a such and such monster problem. Here’s how to kill it and here’s an ancient text on its history.” What I’ve told you about the creature is all we ever learn about it. The not knowing makes it all the more frightening.
The nameless, shape-shifting nature of the entity allows Mitchell to use it as an allegory for growing up. The movie is not so much about the dangers of sex as it is the fear of adulthood. Like the monster, it’s forever lurking around the edges of the frame, threatening the characters when they least expect it. They’ve all lived sheltered lives, tucked away in their perfect little suburban world. But the cracks are starting to show and reality is sinking in. Their parents can’t help them, a point Mitchell highlights by treating most of the adult characters like the teacher from the Peanuts cartoon. They’re either shot from behind or below and have very little to say. Mitchell also places the film in a timeless setting. A cell phone is seen just once, the TV’s are old and out of date, and the one character with a tablet uses it only to read literature. Placing the story out-of-time highlights how universal the themes are. Clothes change, gadgets get updated, and cars come with new accessories but growing up comes with the same set of fears for every generation.
None of this would matter if the movie weren’t a completely satisfying visceral experience. Don’t get me wrong; I love the themes and ideas Mitchell brings to the table but the flick works best as a purely scary movie. Mitchell knows how to stage tension, borrowing heavily from masters like John Carpenter and Wes Craven while providing his own spin on things. The soundtrack helps a great deal too. Mitchell, like so many other young directors today, is heavily influenced by 80’s horror flicks. The pulsing synth score recalls Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street and some of his shots echo both of those seminal horror films. But this isn’t a tribute or a throwback. It uses what worked about the best films of the 80’s and then does it’s own thing.
As a genre, horror goes through cycles. Periods of great creativity followed by periods of cynicism and cash-grabs. Halloween gave birth to the modern slasher genre, which eventually spiraled into knock-offs and copies until A Nightmare on Elm Street gave it a kick in the ass. Scream gave birth to the self-aware genre, Saw brought torture porn front and center, and Paranormal Activity shoved found footage down our throats. Right now though, there’s not much going on. They’re running out of movies to remake (though Poltergeist does come out this summer, joy) and found footage seems to finally be running out of steam. Horror needs a boost, needs a flick to remind people of what the genre is capable of. I think It Follows is that film. I can’t remember that last time the atmosphere in the movie theater was as tense as it was on the screen. You need to see it with a crowd, to feel the collective sense of dread reach out and grab you all by the throat. And as you walk out of the theater, be sure to check behind you. You never know what might be following you.
It Follows is currently playing in select theaters. It will be available to rent on VOD, Amazon, and iTunes March 27th.