Sustaining an extreme level of tension the whole way through, Mitchell's teen horror opus is one of the best of its kind.
The ultimate sign of a great movie, to me, is when it follows you home. Like a heated argument with a friend or a flirty chance encounter with a pretty girl, you just can’t stop thinking about it. A great movie occupies your head for days, creeping up on you when you’re doing the dishes, driving to work, or even having sex. David Robert Mitchell‘s It Follows is such a movie, and what makes it even more precious a gem is that it’s a horror movie, and a downright terrifying one at that. I can’t remember the last movie that freaked me out so thoroughly. Great movies stick to the back of your mind; It Follows breathes down the back of your neck.
What is It exactly? Well, it’s a shapeshifting monster that stalks its victims until A) it kills them or B) the hunted has sex with someone, passing the “infection” along. While on paper it seems a clear metaphor for STDs or AIDS (were it made 25 years ago), it’s actually more complex than that. If the monster manages to kill its target, it shifts its focus to the previous one. It’s invisible to everyone but its current and former prey, and the closer it gets, the more fucked up it looks (from afar it could appear to be a normal-looking granny; up close, it could be a rape victim pissing down her own leg). It doesn’t run (thank goodness—I’d have a heart attack) and it doesn’t talk. It just walks toward you perpetually, its destiny to dine on your flesh.
Maika Monroe (The Guest) plays Jay, a pretty girl from the suburbs of Detroit who, after having sex with her new boyfriend in the back of his car, becomes the paranormal stalker’s new mark. Unless she can find someone new to have sex with (it wouldn’t be hard considering she has plenty of admirers to choose from, but she’s got too much self-respect for that), she’ll have to live the rest of her days on the run. Thankfully, she’s got a tight contingent of friends to protect her and help save her from the monster: her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe); her nerdy best friend, Yara (Olivia Luccardi); and her childhood playmate, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a puny fellow who’s always had a crush on Jay. Joining them later in the story is Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the hunky guy from across the street. How will they get rid of the demonic lurker? Will Jay sleep with a stranger, Greg, or Paul (with his nerdy-virgin aura, you can’t help but root for him)?
One of the coolest things about the movie is how insular it is, focusing the story squarely on the young leads and their immediate surroundings, letting the rest of the world fall away into nothingness. The kids’ parents are essentially non-entities (except when the monster takes their form), giving the film a nostalgic, urban legend flavor that brought me back to when Are You Afraid of the Dark haunted my dreams on Saturday nights in the ’90s. The nostalgia factor runs even deeper than that: the film seems to exist in a time period that’s a scattered conflation of the past 60 years. The kids watch TV on an old boob tube in a wood-paneled room, and yet Yara runs around with a pink, seashell-shaped smartphone or e-reader of some sort. Mitchell doesn’t seem to want us to be concerned with the story’s time period, leaving it largely ambiguous, which at the same time affords him the liberty to pick and choose props and design aesthetics from any decade he wants, authenticity be damned. As a result the film has a look and feel you can’t really put your finger on, which is a very, very good thing.
It’s hard to pin down the mood Mitchell is able to create, but I wouldn’t say the film is necessarily enigmatic or elusive. What’s going on here is that Mitchell is aiming to evoke and trigger abstract feelings, fears and emotions rather than let plot define the experience. There are several dark themes at play (primarily the dangers of sexual awakening), but they emerge organically. It’s as if we discover them rather than have them fed to us by a heavy-handed screenwriter. The film’s generated so much talk and critical momentum because it bucks convention in so many ways. Trashy jump-scares are nonexistent because the movie doesn’t need them; it’s extremely tense and unsettling all the way through. Most teen horror movies manufacture drama via dissent within the core group, but It Follows‘ characters stay (mostly) supportive and loyal.
The most atypical element of all, though, is the film’s villain, ingenious in its simplicity. It awakens common social and sexual fears on a primal level, acting as a blank canvas for us to project our darkest fears onto. I can remember thinking when I first heard the infectious guitar riff from The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” back in 2003, “How the hell did no one write this until now?” It felt so immediately classic and iconic, and yet it was also brand new. That’s exactly how I feel about the titular “It.” Unique. Terrifying. Elemental. Innovative. It’s the best, most nightmarish horror creation in recent memory.
That’s not taking anything away from Monroe, though, who’s critically instrumental in making the monster so frightening. Some of the film’s scariest moments aren’t when we see the monster itself, but when we see Monroe seeing the monster. She knows how to tell a story with her eyes, the sure sign of a skilled actor. It’s all but undeniable at this point that she’s destined for big things. Sepe plays a great confidant and is a generous on-screen partner for Monroe, never trying to outshine her. (Unfortunately, she won’t get the credit she deserves because her role is so understated.) Gilchrist is incredibly sympathetic and surprisingly winds up becoming the heart of the film.
Like Jim Mickle did in Cold in July, Mitchell uses eerie, ’80s-style synths to emulate the classic soundscape John Carpenter perfected in Halloween. He’s a bit too aggressive with the score at times, though, sometimes bumping up the siren-like synth wails so loud it distracts from rather than supports the imagery. He more effectively ratchets up the film’s overwhelming sense of dread with his camera, occasionally using sweeping 360 degree pans as an opportunity for us to scour the environment for “It” and exacerbate our paranoia. He’s letting us scratch our itch: it makes us feel good momentarily, but he knows it’ll only make things worse in the long run. Though early in his career, Mitchell already seems to be approaching “Master of Horror” status alongside Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and Guillermo del Toro.