“It’s been suggested that, when confronted with the inevitable – like a building collapsing on top of you to kill you – most people are strangely content to sit back…and just let it happen.”
Unlike other horror films dealing with the overt supernatural – and most seem to at least dabble in it anymore, whatever their pretenses to brutal reality might be otherwise – the lean, effective indie thriller It Follows has the good sense to stick strictly to the narrow parameters it has established rather than using them as a jumping off point for increasingly bizarre and frenetic action. The movie is piano wire taut, clinical, and devoid of filler, with an uncluttered story and uncomplicated twin character motivations: friendship and survival. There are also tinges of sexual lust present amongst the interpersonal relationships and the standard pleas for calm in the face of the terrifying unknown, but neither detracts whatsoever from the story’s straight line momentum, or even proves much of a speed bump. It Follows is notable above all else for its abiding, practically alien, sense of patience, which does not ever wink or wane, and is both absolute and utterly punishing in its way. Writer/ director David Robert Mitchell brings a precision of both method and purpose to his movie that distinguishes it from the vast majority of genre offerings this decade. Coloring outside the lines, after all, is what children do. This is a nightmare for adults.
In the weeks leading up to its impressively wide release, It Follows has been critically hailed almost without exception as something special, which is essentially the truth, regardless of your definition. The film contains the barest hint of the grungy hysterics and flashy, nonsensical psychodrama of today’s average PG-13 pseudo-horror releases, and is all the better for the approach, preferring instead to wait and to watch, to regard, and to follow. It unfolds at a measured, tactical, comparatively glacial pace, and rarely ever picks up appreciable steam. This is all by design. Mitchell’s curious, insinuating camera plums the geography of its heroine’s bedroom, home street, school, and miscellaneous hangout spots thoroughly, lingering on details instead of quick-cutting away. His lens is restless, deliberate, and all-encompassing, an engraved invitation to viewers to overanalyze every setting, every shot, and every background, on the fervid, perpetual lookout for a villain that, assuming he (or she) does appear, never looks the same, never changes targets, or directions, or moves faster than a mid-paced walk…and, most crucially, never, ever stops. I could imagine Sir Alfred Hitchcock, who wet his beak in the horror genre with high profile late-life releases, watching It Follows with approval, not because of its horrific elements but because of its heightened and sustained level of suspense, which so often is harder to endure than mere tricks of (or offenses to) the eye.
Though some of the mechanics necessary for its implementation are clunky, the basic premise of It Follows is simplicity itself. In a Detroit suburb, for wholly unexplained reasons, a death curse is passed among teenagers sexually from one host to another, in the course of a single act removing it from the former and inflicting it on the unsuspecting latter. This curse is not a traditional disease, or some plague of bad luck, but rather a malevolent entity made manifest in the guise of a human being. The titular “it”, once transmitted, focuses its attention solely on its new target and begins stalking, implacable, until it eventually reaches and murders the victim, at which point its attention returns to a similarly single-minded pursuit of the previous host until he or she is also dead, and so on, and so on. Rather than court certain death for the remainder of a rapidly dwindling lifespan, the sane alternative for one so marked quickly becomes to pass the entity forward to a new host. The being is invisible to the unafflicted, but wears many faces to the target, appearing randomly as children, or vagrants, suburban dads or college slacker types, members of either sex, the adults often in various, unsettling states of undress, always plodding forward. “Whatever helps it get close to you,” muses Hugh, the minor league scumbag who poses as new boyfriend to 19-year-old protagonist Jay in order to get sufficiently intimate with her. In horribly short order, Jay’s situation is not merely dire but hopeless.
This is a pretty severe setup, and, as the movie advances, it proves a license for both viewer and participant to start seeing things and behaving irrationally. “It” is not always on screen, but Jay is gripped by the knowledge it is always coming. Hugh was not a monster per se, merely the unwitting custodian of one, and, once confronted, he exhibits a level of remorse at his actions equivalent, more or less, to that of a baseline human being. Even then, his death sentence effectively lifted, his guilt only lingers so far, and he abandons his misbegotten flame to horrible fate and her own devices. Jay’s protective inner circle consists of her younger sister and two mutual friends, one who incessantly reads Dostoevsky’s The Idiot from an e-reader shaped like a pink seashell and pauses occasionally to make grand, mortal pronouncements at inopportune times, and another a childhood friend who was Jay’s first kiss and still clearly pines for the good old days. They are joined by the cute older boy from across the street, because only he has a car, and the five engage in increasingly desperate measures to keep Jay alive as the evil whatever it is relentlessly walks her down. The acting here is unmannered and as naturalistic as I can imagine, consisting of kids in their late teens simply hanging out and not saying much, and, even when otherwise inspired, still not saying anything to much of a plot-advancing end. Maika Monroe as Jay is fresh-faced, appealing, and defiantly normal, neither a social queen nor an outcast nor a stereotypical sex bomb, just a smart, capable girl who unwittingly makes a grievous mistake and pays for it dearly.
Though hardly one itself, It Follows has deep, affectionate roots in the slasher movie glut of the early-mid 1980s, in which mad killers stalked – and, one-by-one, picked off – assortments of fun-loving, nubile teenagers in the very places where they lived or played. The slashers themselves rarely, if ever, ran, of course. They merely advanced, counting on their victims to panic, corner themselves, drop their guards, or otherwise make fatal mistakes. Each film invariably ended with a climactic, extended chase sequence, wherein, having finally met his match in the so-called “final girl”, the killer engages her in a life or death game of cat and mouse. Superior examples of this form include the nerve-rattling denouement of John Carpenter’s original Halloween, a movie I found myself referencing often during my own viewing, and to which It Follows both owes and cheerfully acknowledges* an obvious inspirational debt. I think of the long tracking shots the films have in common, of teenaged girls talking idly as they walk down a road flanked on both sides by overhanging trees, or of the sinister point of view camera alternately watching Jay from the near distance and following her overtly. Michael Myers was known in some quarters as “The Shape”. Detroit to Haddonfield is, at best, probably a day trip. Perhaps there’s a kinship of sorts demonstrated here, albeit between inexorable bogeymen.
*Of course there’s also the ubiquitous beaten up station wagon, the black & white ‘50s sci-fi movies inexplicably being watched on tube televisions in 2015, the daydreamer in English class distracted by an ominous figure lurking outside her window, plus any number of things I might notice on a rewatch. Normally this kind of excessive visual quotation would wear on me, but the film comes from such a place of clear reverence – and applied excellence – that I can’t help but be charmed. Even the music has an appealing, off-kilter, Carpenterian vibe to it, alternately understated and way over the top.
Above all, I found myself absorbed by Mitchell’s dread-filled and delightful visual pastiches of isolated, empty, seemingly unconnected locations presented in succession with a hard beat between them. Carpenter deployed the same technique to exquisite effect in Halloween. It’s not here anymore, goes the implication, this thing you fear…but it has been…and the next place you see is where next it’ll be. It Follows falls short on some levels (the sexual element and politics of infection is overemphasized but downplayed, and the kids’ final plan falls apart under the most basic scrutiny) but it crafts suspense as well as just about any film of the millennium so far, and critics, cross-eyed and browbeaten from/by an endless parade of ineffectual PG-13 multiplex schlock, have therefore piled atop one another to sing its praises. By comparison, it is, indeed, a fairly superior modern horror movie, one that follows ably in the tradition of Halloween (and Jaws, and Alien) and betters a good many of the slashers with whom it shares infernal DNA. The novelty of It Follows lies in the fact that it is, for all intents and purposes, a “final girl” sequence played out to feature length, albeit one where the girl, and not her friends, is the only target. Its scattered moments of genius lie in how thoroughly and expertly it plays with the emotions and expectations of its audience, rather than insulting or overwhelming them. You know, like a horror movie is supposed to.
“It Follows” (2015) 3/4 stars