The beautifully simple hook of It Follows is right there in its title. It. Follows. What the “it” actually is we never find out, but it does follow, creeping in from the back of the frame, slowly stalking up on our protagonists like the villain of a slasher film. It’s a familiar image, one we’ve seen countless times before, but rarely do we get a smart, scary horror film that can wring so much mileage out of such a well worn trope.
Even casual genre fans know the stalk scene. Think of Halloween or Friday the 13th, with Jason or Michael Myers looming into frame from the distance, edging ever so closer to their oblivious victims as you scream for them to run. It Follows is almost nothing but scenes like that. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell successfully evokes the gulping tension of those moments at their most effective throughout It Follows, never allowing his film to lapse into repetitiveness. By eking out terror through the same technique, Mitchell trains us — to scan the frame, to look for a figure lurching into view, to spend every second of the film waiting and watching and searching his widescreen compositions, dreading the moment something pops into the screen.
It helps that the film surrounding the scares is remarkably effective in and of itself. Mitchell has a background in indie drama, not horror, having gained some credibility on the film circuit with a low budget coming of age drama called The Myth of the American Sleepover. He very much brings those beginnings to bear here, as It Follows feels less like your typical slick and polished teen horror film than a ragged and lyrical drama punctuated by eerie moments of gut-wrenching suspense. Strip away the horror elements, and this could be an engaging drama about the sexual anxiety of teens as they stumble into adulthood. With the horror elements, it becomes a freaky metaphor, smarter than most horror films and more watchable than most coming of age dramas.
The “it” in It Follows could easily be the spectre of irresponsible sexuality. Like many horror movies, the equation of sex=death is readily present, only here it lacks the facile, reductive conservatism of, say, an 80s slasher film; imagine this more as David Cronenberg making a kinder, gentler, ghost story version of his early films like Shivers or Rabid. It Follows can be summed up with the description “The Ring…with STDs”. The central menace is a supernatural…thing…that is transmuted sexually, passing from victim to victim like a curse, never letting go until you pass it along to someone else. If you catch it, it follows you. It can take the form of anybody — from a weirdly nude stranger to your own friends and family — and if it catches you, you’re dead. And if it kills the person you pass it on too before they can pass it on, guess what? The curse loops back to you. All you can do is keep your eyes open while you try to find someone, anyone, to pass it on too, as it can appear anywhere. And it will.
Thus sex becomes the precursor to your demise AND your only savior. It’s a potent metaphor for a teen-oriented, coming of age horror movie, alternately progressive and reactionary, punishing it’s youth for their sins and telling them it is, literally, the only way to live, a message that basically states “be careful whom you bed — you never know kind of disease, emotional disruption or supernatural monster they may pass on to you.”
Which makes It Follows much more intelligent than is the typical norm for the genre. Granted, intelligence would only count for so much in a horror movie; if it isn’t scary (and God knows it’s very hard to make a genuinely scary horror movie nowadays), then it likely will fall short of greatness at best, and fail to work entirely at worst. But It Follows is scary. The film is well acted and gives us realistic, empathetic characters, which only serves to make the fright more enveloping, and Mitchell shows a deft hand with building dread and suspense. It Follows is a slow burn, to be sure, but it builds in intensity before launching a full bore climactic assault (that is, admittedly, a bit of a nonsensical and under-explained cheat) and ending on a chillingly ambiguous note.
It Follows is a rarity nowadays: a truly chilling and effective original horror film. With its low budget, unknown cast and relatively unknown director, and the fact that it is being distributed by Radius-TWC, which mainly specializes in VOD releases, it will likely end going under the proverbially radar. If you’re a fear fan, whenever you get a chance to see it, don’t let it.
4 out of 5 stars