What is it? Why is it following a group of interconnected teenagers in the Detroit suburbs? How can it bend the laws of space and time as it pursues you?
These are a few of the many questions left unanswered by It Follows—the second feature from David Robert Mitchell, and easily the best horror film of the past year (sorry Babadook). As the tension builds and it grows more frightening, you’ll find that you’ll easily forgive this masterful, beautifully filmed story of teenage peril for its elision of pure logic.
In fact, you’ll be too scared to think about much of anything, though I believe Mitchell, who also wrote the film, had a great deal on his mind when conceiving of his unknowable but prominent threat. It’s true: the film stands on its own as a fantastical, intense nightmare, and a superb piece of filmmaking. But one can also conceive of It Follows as a parable, a warning about teenage loneliness in a world filled to the brim with the judgment of adults.
The film opens with a harrowing and befuddling set piece: a girl in lingerie and heels runs out of her suburban home as if she is being followed. A neighbor asks if she is alright and she says she is. Her dad then comes out of the house, apparently concerned, and the girl runs back in before reappearing with her car keys and purse. She drives away and finally ends up on a beach at nighttime where she calls her dad. “I just want you to know that I love you, dad,” she says tearily. Cut to the next morning and we see her horribly disfigured body on the beach.
Unlike most horror films, It Follows relies less on “rules” and more on sheer terror, so you may not fully grasp what happened to this mystery girl until halfway through the movie. What matters most about the opening scene is that this unsuspecting young woman was killed, awfully, and she couldn’t even attempt to explain her predicament to her bewildered neighbor and father. Something is wrong in suburbia.
We soon gain a somewhat more satisfying understanding of the situation through our protagonist, Jay (Maika Monroe, who dishes out some seriously fantastic scream queen tears), a high school grad living at home with little sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and a virtually unseen, alcoholic mother. Their childhood friends Yara (Oliva Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist, who was the best part of United States of Tara aside from Toni Collette) are also chilling at their house a lot, while neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto) looks on from across the street.
Jay goes on a couple of dates with Hugh (Jake Weary), a slightly older guy, though he cuts one outing short after supposedly spotting someone. Ominous. The next time they see each other, the two strip down and have sex in Hugh’s car. Afterward, Jay reflects poetically on her childhood thoughts about adult things: dating, driving, having sex. Hugh significantly dampens the mood, knocking Jay out cold with ammonia and strapping her to a chair in an abandoned parking garage.
He explains that he does not want to hurt her, but that he did what he had to to pass it on to her. By having sex, Hugh says, Jay has replaced him at the top of the list for annihilation by an unknown force. Others will not be able to see it, but Jay will start to notice random people following her, walking toward her slowly and steadily. If she lets it touch her, she’s done for. And if Jay dies, Hugh will be killed next, and on down the sexually-transmitted line it will travel.
There is an immediate claustrophobia to Jay’s horrific situation: she must live with the constant terror of being followed or decide to assist in the death of someone else. The gravity of the terror is omnipresent, all the more so for the group of loving friends and family around Jay. Her sister and her friends—Paul especially, as he’s had a crush on her since they were children—care deeply about Jay’s well-being, and as they strive to protect her from the increasingly nearby threat, her fear takes its toll.
A close-knit, honest bunch of friends who think through their actions would be groundbreaking enough for a genre filled with duplicitous and stupid archetypes, but Mitchell’s creative license with horror extends beyond the characters. Because we are constantly aware of who is first on the death list, he has to employ forms of tension and terror beyond “who is gonna get the ax next?” Chief among these are the creepy walkers, often spotted by the audience before Jay becomes aware of them.
These visions are as individualized as the characters we come to care for, appearing in vastly different physical forms and bringing with them any number of backstories. Some are missing limbs, several are missing all of their clothes, and others have black pits where their eyes should be. Their unknown representations and often sudden appearance provide enough tension to fill several films. The gloriously lensed wide frames of the film, and long, slowly circling shots only add to the possibility for disturbance from an unwanted follower.
Mitchell smartly intersperses moments of visceral terror with elegiac observations on the condition of American teens. Other than the adults embodying it, the young cast are virtually on their own, unencumbered by nagging parents but carrying the baggage of societal expectation. They steal swigs of liquor and the script hints at themes of sibling rivalry, jealousy, and unrequited love. Basically, they are like any other group of bored teenagers lost in the rambling suburbs and sick of the restrictions arbitrarily placed on their youth. This emotional truth pervades It Follows and suggests a real sensitivity and weight behind the horror.
Likewise Mitchell’s handling of sex. Though the transmission of a deadly presence could suggest a sex-negative outlook, Mitchell’s writing and direction seem to suggest that sex is natural and, in the case of these teenage characters, planned and thought through. There is nothing to suggest that these teens are unsafe in their sexual practices, only that the constant weight of that sexuality’s psychological and social outcomes could overwhelm their lives. It is not farfetched, then, to suggest that it is, in fact, reputation, a physical and deadly embodiment of society’s judgment, and in particular the conflicted parent. Our country is fond, after all, of simultaneously sexualizing its media output and shaming the pursuit of pleasure and gratification—but that’s a point for another post.
For now, I will take pleasure in the knowledge that It Follows is not just another well-made horror film with gratuitous sex and violence. The measured and meaningful dosage of each in this evocative, deeply frightening movie will make any viewer rethink the way sex and violence are tied to each other. And the treatment of its young characters as smart, well-meaning human beings will make you fear for them all the more.
Now, I will leave you with the coolest title card ever, along with an atmospheric, representative clip from this truly fantastic film. Go see it, and let me know what you think in the comments below!