It didn’t take long for It Follows to jump from the arthouse circuit to a nationwide theatrical release here in the US, and it’s not hard to see why. With a style that evokes the best of vintage John Carpenter and a gimmick that turns a classic horror trope on its ear, It Follows sets the bar pretty damn high for the rest of the year’s slate of horror. This is a film that’s as thoughtful as it is genuinely frightening, which is by no means the easiest combination.
The film takes place in a crummy suburban landscape that exists somewhere out of time. (It’s later revealed to be present day Detroit, though you can hardly tell.) Here, we meet Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty college student like any other, out on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), who is more disturbed than he lets on. After their second date ends in sex, Hugh kidnaps Jay to an abandoned lot and explains her predicament: He’s just passed to her a curse. It can take the form of anyone, even a loved one, but only she can see it. It will follow her slowly, relentlessly, until it kills her. “All you can do,” he says, “Is pass it along to someone else.” As Jay deals with the initial shock of this encounter, her sister (Lili Sepe) and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Greg (Daniel Zovatto) form a support group to help her cope. Quickly, they realize how woefully unprepared they are for what’s coming after them.
Sex has long been a death sentence in horror movies, to the point where films like Cabin in the Woods play it up as a joke. This film reclaims that trope by making that death sentence hauntingly literal. Instead of heads rolling at the thought of two horny teens getting it on in the woods, It Follows lets our anticipation build as the dread of a slow, silent killer inches ever closer to our heroine. The sex in this film is more a setup for what’s to come than a punchline. It only occurs sparingly, but when it does the consequences weigh heavily on Jay and her partners.
One would not be wrong for seeing this as a film about AIDS or STI paranoia, though there is certainly more at work here. It makes a point to illustrate how sexual politics extend far beyond the act itself. At various points the two men in Jay’s orbit, Paul and Greg, offer to “take her curse,” if you catch my drift. We have to question which one is genuinely trying to help and which one is just trying to get in Jay’s pants, even as people are getting mangled and having their life force drained by an invisible sex demon. Of course, the answer to even that conundrum isn’t as cut and dry as it appears, leaving us with questions to ponder as the credits begin to roll.
It helps that It Follows is immaculately produced. Mike Gioulakis’s cinematography captures the sights and sounds of a decaying suburbia in all of its rusted out, neon glory. Along with a musical score from Disasterpeace (that just might be one for the ages), the film’s look calls back to the heyday of the slasher genre while at the same time feeling utterly trapped by that aesthetic. But make no mistake, It Follows is a thoroughly modern invention. This film only works because we’ve thoroughly digested forty years of slasher film tricks, and at times the characters’ modern sensibility clashes with the setting’s oppressive 80s-ness. We surround ourselves with memories of the past, and eventually our past comes back to haunt us. Actually, that’s the entire film in a nutshell.
Beyond commenting on sexual politics or the state of horror cinema, It Follows just plain fucking works. The first time we see an extra in the background walking towards the camera, it’s an oddity. The second time, it’s spooky. After the third time it’s downright terrifying, and writer/director David Robert Mitchell uses every trick in the book to continue upping that ante. Camera tricks, intricate staging, jarring orchestral stings; nothing seems off limits here, and it’s a thrill just to see where the next scare will manifest. It Follows is a beautifully textured, yet thoroughly haunting experience, and one you’ll not soon forget.
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