David Robert Mitchell’s breakout chiller It Follows ultimately makes good on it’s unnerving premise, but not without stumbles along the way. While its shortcomings prevent this low-budget flick from “masterpiece” status, it’s high concept-freakiness may yet establish it as a cult horror classic.
Its a testament to the unique virtues of the horror genre that it’s most effective entries are generally low in budget but high in concept. This long tradition of stripping away the bells and whistles to create something truly frightening continues in the intense and overwhelmingly creepy It Follows. The set up is simple: after a sexual encounter with her new boyfriend, a young woman discovers that her tryst has marked her to be killed by a seemingly unstoppable being. It will continue walking slowly toward her at all times without stopping until it catches her and kills her. It can take the form of anybody, a friend, a relative, a stranger, whatever it takes to get close to and claim it’s victim. Her only way to survive is by fleeing from it or sleeping with somebody else, thereby passing it along to them. It’s a simple but strong conceit, a foundation which affords the film ample room to play with and explore its potential.
Where It Follows falters is largely when it fails to match the ingenuity of its premise and falls back on tired cliches, which in turn feel all the more tired when contrasted with the central concept. Maika Monroe, playing our heroine, Jay, though a solid pick for a horror lead, is given too little to do for too much of the movie. She plays her role well, but the role asks little more of her than screaming, running, sobbing and staring listlessly out of windows. The character’s apparent inability to behave rationally in the scenarios she finds herself in, puts an emotional wedge between her and the audience’s ability to empathize with her in the moment. When she should be running, she generally opts to sit and scream/sob.
When she should be strategizing she prefers to sit and pout. We find her slowly crawling when she should be alert and on her feet. Her behavior is best described as “jump-scare convenient” (set ups which the film never fails to deliver on), but it’s just so consistently illogical that it’s hard not to find her generalized incompetence frustrating.
Thankfully, the scares of It Follows don’t rest on the audience’s empathy with Jay, but rather with the bone-chillingly senseless horror of the titular “It”. Though the actor playing the character changes on a consistent basis, It’s demeanor, and the camera’s behavior toward it, remains terrifyingly consistent throughout. What makes the creature so potent is how undefined Mitchell’s screenplay allows it to be. It has no motive, no origin, it just is. The lack of anything approaching an explanation makes It’s potential to frighten endless. It’s as irrational and inhuman as an antagonist can be while still taking on human form, and it’s this very simple irrationality that serves as the root from which It Follows derives its panic-inducing suspense.
Despite taking on some overtly grotesque and disturbing physical forms throughout, “It” tends to be most effective at it’s most subtle. Sure, when it takes on a bloody or deformed appearance, as it often does in close-quarters environments, the effect is off-putting. But the moments that make the strongest, and most lasting impression are the long takes of a relatively “normal” looking person slowly shuffling toward the camera in a manner that feels just off enough to trigger warning alarms in the viewer’s brain. The threat is left under the surface yet still tangibly present; a constant, nagging feeling of discomfort and paranoia.
Though effective as a horror film, It Follows works comparably well as a drama of sexual politics. What it ultimately means, or what Mitchell’s screenplay is attempting to communicate, if anything, is left up largely to the viewers interpretation. It takes the “sex = death” cliche so often found in horror film and cements it as an overt plot mechanic, but never in a way that feels smug or as if the film is winking toward it’s audience. It’s simply a literalized version of an unspoken horror trope, and the results present a host of fascinating conundrums and disturbingly gray sexual ethics.
It Follows never attempts to answer the questions it raises in any overt manner, but it raises them with enough nuance and objectivity to cement itself as a successful exercise in genre subversion where less tactful films, such as The Cabin in the Woods, never quite did. It’s clever without acting clever. It’s sharp without being smug. And though the film takes itself a smidge too seriously from time to time, it’s slip ups never prove fatal.