We open on a calm, deserted Suburban Street in Michigan. Suddenly, a teenage girl runs into the frame, looking distraught and panicked, like she’s running away from someone in her own house. A random neighbor standing nearby asks if she needs help. The girl says “no” and the neighbor goes back to unpacking her car, as if nothing’s happened. The teen’s father comes out confused, asking her what’s wrong. The girl, still looking distraught, walks back into her house.
A few beats later. The girl drives a car out of the garage in a hurry, constantly looking in her rearview mirror. She finally ends up on a beach at night, starring off into the distance. Someone or something is following her but the viewer sees nothing. She calls her dad saying she loves him. Saying goodbye? A split second later the scene transitions to morning where the girl lies dead--leg mangled, standing stiffly in the air above the rest of her lifeless corpse.
So begins David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows,” a superb horror film that creates an atmosphere fraught with paranoia and looming dread. Terror is around every corner, inescapable. Like the best serious horror films, “It Follows” relies on subtlety; tension quietly rumbles beneath the surface, flaring up every so often in a scene of sheer horror, before dying down to recharge. Mitchell lets most of the individual shots linger, allowing the viewer to soak in the anxiety and ominousness even longer. On the whole, Mitchell takes his time, letting each scene unfold gradually. He’s not in a hurry to tell his story, which makes the proceedings more frightening.
A majority of horror films go to great lengths to try and scare the audience. They employ “jump scares”-- cheap, empty thrills that wear off immediately. It’s like filmmakers are afraid of boring the audience. “It Follows” is free of such scares and even the most shocking moments never go too far over the top. In the opening sequence, for example, the transition between poor teenage girl sitting helplessly on the beach and getting mysteriously contorted, is abrupt yet handled without any bells and whistles because the transition is so jarring on its own he doesn’t need to call any more attention to it. Mitchell lets his scary images speak for themselves and uses blood and gore ever so sparingly--in fact I believe there are only two scenes that include blood and gore in a major way—and therefore effectively. We aren’t bombarded with a dozen moments of gore.
As far as plot is concerned, the less said the better, but “It Follows” is essentially an STD horror movie. The nineteen-year-old protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe from “The Guest”) contracts a deadly disease—a ghost? A virus? We’re not exactly sure and Mitchell is wisely scant on details regarding the origin and its exact mechanics—after a one-night stand with a man. He reveals that it will always follow her, take the shapes of different people—either strangers or people she knows-- to try and get close to her. And no matter what, don’t let it touch you.
From the suburban setting and teenage antics, to the pulsing eerie electronic score by the band Disasterpiece, “It Follows” evokes the style and mood of an old school slasher film. However, the situation feels much scarier than the ones in films like “Friday the Thirteenth” and “Halloween.” The antagonist is slow moving like Jason and Michael Meyers but it can only be seen by Jay and no matter how far she goes—at one point she and her friends take refuge in a beach house a good distance away—it always finds her and its shape shifting abilities make it difficult to anticipate and prepare for. Basically, Jay is being terrorized by a slasher movie villain only she can see. Also, unlike most teenage slasher movies, Mitchell’s script never verges into stupidity, whether unintentionally or intentionally. While there will always be a place for intentional, self-aware horror movies there’s something immensely impressive about pulling off serious horror in this day and age.
Jay is a composite of numerous horror movie character types. She’s extremely attractive--the object of numerous male gazes, like her friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and two random neighbor boys who view her in her back yard pool-- yet she also comes off as shy and innocent, as well as intelligent and strong. While showing moments of vulnerability, she’s the furthest from a helpless weakling. Jay is a wholly three-dimensional character and Monroe gives an authentic, understated performance.
The supporting characters like Paul, her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) while not as fleshed out as Jay, are at least likable. They’re not revolting one-note characters waiting around to be killed. In fact there are a number of pleasant, comforting moments between the scary ones in which the characters talk to one another as normal teenagers about normal teenage things. There’s a nice balance of terrifying moments and pleasant moments.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is flawless. The score is used at just the right times, accentuating the horror on screen without being too overbearing. And often times Mitchell leaves the most important moments silent. Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography is smooth and graceful--as opposed to being grainy like most low budget horror films—giving the movie an almost dreamy look. In addition, a majority of the scenes are filmed in long shot, emphasizing both the impending doom that plagues every frame, as well as the overwhelming isolation and claustrophobia Jay feels. She’s the only one experiencing this terror and no matter how far she goes, the entity’s inescapability constricts her. Overall, “It Follows” might be one of the more aesthetically pleasing low budget horror movies to come along in recent years.
In the end, “It Follows” isn’t profound or groundbreaking; it contains a number of hallmarks associated with the horror genre, yet the execution is nearly flawless. It’s clear Mitchell knows the ins and outs of the genre and knows what’s effective horror and what’s not effective horror.