The most terrifying thing is always something you’ll never see. It Follows, the incredible, genre-defying second feature from David Robert Mitchell, takes that ethos one step further; by bringing that something slowly into focus, ever inching its way closer to you, he has crafted an instant horror classic that crawls with dread.
In sleepy American suburbia, Jay (Maika Monroe) is a teen who passes her uneventful days by taking dips in her pool, hanging around the house with her friends, or going to the movies with a handsome new boyfriend. While sweet at the outset, one romantic evening, post-coitus, her outwardly gentlemanlike suitor bounds her hands, gags her mouth, and ties her to a chair. The next few things he says, he warns her, she needs to listen closely to: he has passed something onto her. It is something only she can see. It will follow her, in a straight line, ceaselessly and without remorse, until it finds her and kills her. The only way to stop it coming for her, is if Jay passes it onto someone else.
What follows is half-road trip, half-slumber party with the lights on, and all masterpiece, something we can draw immediately from the terrific opening scene, in which this movie’s entire DNA is laid out with a single shot from an impassive camera. The John Carpenter-esque score – designed to sound ‘80s-hokey, but fuelled by a seething menace – gives the movie its pulsing midnight-movie blood. But at no point does Mitchell want his movie to succumb to genre tropes, despite its beautiful sheen. Before she is ‘cursed’, Jay delivers an eloquent and honest monologue concerning her teen ideals of romance, giving the movie a heart as well as a brain, while herself and her group of loyal friends are never treated as slasher fodder. With every thud of your increasingly louder heartbeat, it gradually dawns on you that the enemy they face is primal, indescribable, and more unsettling than anything you can imagine. Why? Because despite Jay’s best efforts, she can’t imagine the beast that haunts her every waking hour, crawling ever closer to her no matter how far she runs, because the monster in particular takes the form of either someone you know, or a stranger in a crowd. It never shows its true form, and that is some incredible restraint for a horror flick.
And because it’s a horror flick, most important (after the delicate relationship work between these characters that we slowly come to care about) are the scares. After a couple of well-judged jump frights, the tension begins to grind, with incredible camera moves from cinematographer Mike Gioulakis upping the sense of dread thanks to wonderfully composed images. Monroe is also an inspired casting choice; following her ‘80s throwback hit The Guest, she gives the role of Jay an angelic presence, levelling up the horror convention of the innocent lead to new heights. But even more interesting is what the movie does with its own layout: it sets its own elegantly simple rules, and then breaks them frequently. But this is the birth-plight of these characters: teens will fool around when they can, whether or not that means an invisible force will hunt you down. On these grounds you could easily dismiss it as a failure of world-building, of not sticking to its own dramatic parameters – climbing out of its own maze, you could say. But how many times have we seen something transcend its own formula so well, and with such chilling, thematically resonant results?
At face value, you can take It Follows as a parable of the dangers of STDs, and on that level, it works perfectly fine. But the film goes much deeper than that: this is not a demon or a poltergeist at work, it is something within all of us, and It Follows is rich with the psychology and mythos that surrounds sex. And thanks to its bravery in trumping conventionality with originality, there will be walk-outs. There will be choruses of naysayers who like their genre pictures to stick to a certain formula. But that would be to disregard the fact that Mitchell’s film makes a simple shot of a family photograph more terrifying than most of the combined images of an entire year’s glut of cheap horror, and the feeling that when the credits roll and you walk back to your car, or your home, you will look over your shoulder more than once.