Horror as a genre of film is a bit of an oddity. After their resurgence in the 1970s, scary movies have etched a permanent fixture in popular culture. Audiences across the country have made it clear that they still love being scared out of their wits. That combined with the fact that the low budget nature of horror almost begs film studios to put them into production on a regular basis, all but guarantees that the genre won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
Of course, this increase in quantity can lead to a decrease in quality, and every now and again, scary movies fall into a bit of a lull. But when that happens, one can always expect horror to get an injection of life at just the right moment. The 90s had Scream, the early 2000s had Saw, and the late 2000s had Insidious. Things were starting to get dull again and for a while, in spite of some noteworthy fare like The Conjuring, I was getting the feeling that we were approaching that lull once more. But last year, we were treated with the sleeper hit, The Babadook, and this year we’re treated to yet another surprise in It Follows.
Before I press on further I should note that this review will have mild spoilers in regards to certain plot details, so if you want to walk into this film completely fresh, just know that you’ve been warned.
Set in Detroit, It Follows follows a young college aged girl named Jay, played by Maika Monroe. Jay enjoys swimming in her backyard pool, lounging around with her friends watching classic TV shows on an old tube television set, and swooning after her new boyfriend, Hugh, played by Jake Weary. Hugh seems like the man of Jay’s dreams and she finally decides to go all the way with him. However, shortly after their first sexual encounter, is finished Hugh drugs Jay and she finds herself tied to a wheelchair in an abandoned building. Hugh then explains that he’s done this so she’ll listen to the outlandish yet chilling truth: that by having sex with her, he has passed along to her the titular “it”, a shape-shifting creature only the infected can see that slowly but steadily pursues its victims until it kills them. He explains that while she cannot ever be rid of the thing, she can delay it by passing the curse along to someone else by having sex with them. It isn’t long before Jay starts to see the thing nearly everywhere she goes, and it’s up to her and her friends to find answers so they can save her from a grisly fate.
I’ll say this upfront, this movie is great. Director David Robert Mitchell follows up his first feature film, 2010’s The Myth of the American Sleepover (which I have yet to see but have heard good things about) with a film that is equal parts horror and a coming of age story. Maika Monroe delivers a solid performance, capturing both the wide-eyed hope that comes with her character’s age, and the deep, overwhelming despair that comes with knowing that death could be just around the corner. It would have been easy for a filmmaker to take the premise of the film – the idea of the killer in a horror film acting as a metaphor for the dangers of sexual promiscuity has never been this close to literal before now – and play it for laughs. Mitchell opts to play it completely straight, putting the emphasis on the dilemma Jay finds herself in. Anyone she chooses to have sex with is doomed to death at some point, regardless of whether they pass it on or not. The torment she feels knowing this is wonderfully carried across by Monroe. The film never shames Jay for being sexual, and gives its female protagonist agency over her own sexuality. Yes, the STD analogues are there, but the film never dwells on this. It’s almost like a more twisted version of The Ring.
The film is masterfully shot. Rather than relying on jump scares, Mitchell wisely puts the emphasis on building tension. The creature is described as slow-moving, but relentless, always walking in a straight line towards its target. To reflect this, Mitchell puts the focus on the background. The audience can never be sure if that school girl or random gentleman closing in on a character while their back is turned is just an extra or the thing. By the end of the second act, the audience is just as paranoid and unnerved as our cast is.
The creature itself is the stuff of nightmares. While we never see its true form, it does take some fairly unsettling shapes. An old woman in a hospital gown, a tall, hollow-eyed man, a disheveled teenage girl…the thing is described as changing to look like anything it feels would help it get close to its victim, but how anyone would let any of these sights get near them is beyond me. Made even more frightening is the fact that while it is invisible to those not cursed, those individuals can still see and even interact with the creature. The idea that your friend is being pursued by an enemy that could be anywhere that only they can see aids in ramping up the tension. At one point, it is said to take the shape of loved ones in an attempt to hurt its victims but we only ever see it do this once, and with a character that doesn’t really care about that particular person.
Mitchell clearly has a fondness for the ’80s, and this film borrows a lot from horror films from that period, (in particular A Nightmare on Elm Street). Everything from the aesthetic to even the soundtrack (it’s been a long time since a horror film solely utilized a synth score) is delightfully ’80s. While the movie is likely to take place in modern times, it is left somewhat vague as to whether or not this is true. Homes, television sets and shows, and even movies are all vintage. Were it not for a few cars and an e-reader, one could not blame the audience for thinking this movie was set a few decades back.
This is not to say that It Follows is not without faults. While it is only an hour and 40 minutes long, there are parts that might drag for some audiences. There are moments that are supposed to be taken seriously that turn out to be unintentionally humorous. One example, in particular, are the various scenes with Keir Gilchrist, (who plays Jay’s hopelessly friend-zoned childhood buddy). Anytime he’s seen pining after her – even after finding out having sex with her could kill him – the audience I was with started chuckling. There’s a scene near the end of the film where it seems like Mitchell is using his characters to input some social commentary on the hard times that Detroit has fallen on that feels somewhat out of place. There’s also the climax, which is sadly pretty weak. Supernatural horror films of this variety have always had lackluster finales regardless of how good they are.
But when all is said and done, It Follows is one hell of a ride. It isn’t exactly changing the game, but its inventive and chilling in a way few mainstream horror films are. If you can find a theater nearby that’s playing it, definitely check it out.
Images From: Goodreads.com, Metacritic, Cityweekly.net, Io9