Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Writer: David Robert Mitchell
Producer: Rebecca Green, Laura D. Smith, David Robert Mitchell, David Kaplan, Erik Rommesmo
Stars: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe
A young woman is stalked by a paranormal presence whose curse can only be transferred through sex.
College girl Jay has contracted an STD more horrible than anything medical science can treat. After a consensual sexual encounter with Hugh, Jay ends up suddenly chloroformed and restrained to a wheelchair, regaining consciousness in time to hear Hugh spin an unusual story.
Jay is about to be followed. The thing following her has no known purpose, origin, or name. It can assume the appearance of anyone it wishes and is only visible to whomever it is stalking. There is no way to stop it and if it touches her, Jay dies. The only thing Jay can do is pass it to someone else through the same way she got it. Even then, if the person it is passed to dies, the paranormal presence returns to follow its previous owner. Jay is now signed up for a frightful game of supernatural tag where “you’re it” might mean being mangled into a bloody corpse.
“It Follows” can be considered a Slender Man movie that doesn’t actually include Slender Man. The premise is a deceptively simple mix of J-horror haunting with the now clichéd notion of an unstoppable stalker slowly striding with reserved calm towards a protagonist fleeing in exhilarated panic. Except instead of a weapon-wielding masked maniac, this stalker can be an elderly woman in pajamas or nondescript girl in a school’s courtyard. These are innocuous, everyday images that should be comical if used as symbols of terror. Yet the sinister danger that comes with the framing, music, and reaction of the actors immediately erases any pretense of triviality.
Writer/director David Robert Mitchell doesn’t hide the influence that “Halloween” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” have on his breakthrough horror hit “It Follows.” Lurking around almost every darkened corner is a hint of Carpenter or a shade of Craven, though not in a manner where Mitchell’s voice is out-shouted. This isn’t a director aping the masters or blindly copying formulas for cheap success. Mitchell demonstrates an understanding of why those filmmakers’ techniques worked the way they did, and he slots in those similarities only when it makes sense in telling the tale and weaving the world created here.
The first shot in “It Follows” is nearly identical to the one establishing Haddonfield in “Halloween” (review here), and it accomplishes the same purpose. “It Follows” casts a mesmeric spell out of the gate by enveloping the viewer in a relatable realm with a lived-in atmosphere. This is different than a camera-ready backlot or clean and streamlined soundstage. This is a comfortable suburban neighborhood with addresses painted on curbs, insects polluting pool water, and rust flecking chain-link fences. And yet, the literal and figurative dark filter slightly shrouding the serene setting makes the familiarity quietly frightening.
“It Follows” doesn’t build scares on jumps and visceral thrills. Its horror is a slow-crawling virus that subtly disturbs with under-the-skin eeriness.
Someone taking the story too literally may end up with too many questions regarding the rules for how the paranormal presence works, though it is no more of a disbelief-suspension logic leap than the timeline of the Terminator’s creation or mogwais eating after midnight. “It Follows” works as suspense-thriller entertainment, and as a cautionary fable about mortality and sexually-transmitted diseases.
An interesting aspect of the central “curse” is that there is culpability behind its ownership. One cannot simply pass along the paranormal plague, wipe the forehead with the back of a palm and be done. The person passing it on has a vested interest in the safety of the person it is passed to, otherwise the presence bounces back up the chain in the reverse direction. The warped morality motivating everyone makes this a bizarre brotherhood where willingly turning someone into a victim also makes that person a partner in survival.
Something else separating “It Follows” from screenplays taking easier routes is that time isn’t needlessly spent on “no one will listen to my crazy story” scenes. At least one character believes Jay’s claim of an invisible killer is loony, but he assists her anyway, without being placating and without trying to convince her, “you’re imagining all of this.”
Jay’s friends are supportive, coming up with what seem like sensible ways to stop or impede the presence based on what they know at the time. In keeping with the accessibility afforded by the Midwestern location, Jay and her friends read like ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, not come-to-life headshots preening for a slick CW pilot.
Maika Monroe of “The Guest” (review here) leads the cast as Jay. Uniquely intriguing about the presentation of Jay’s torment is that, thanks to a prelude scene, the audience has more knowledge than she about the horrors awaiting Jay if she is caught by the follower. All Jay initially knows is to not let it happen, which makes her perpetual paranoia more wrenching since she is instinctively terrified without fully understanding why. Because she feels it, and because Monroe conveys it, the audience feels it, too.
“It Follows” capitalizes so well on making Michigan seem like a dreamily dreary version of Anytown, USA that its artistic editing becomes an occasional distraction. While most are cleverly considered, not all of the camera shots amount to anything. Several cuts are probably inserted to truncate certain scenes, but their seeming randomness can pull apart the tone’s magnetism in places. Impatient audiences are already tapping feet at repeated travel montages bridging each beat. A little more leanness in the tempo and “It Follows” could be unassailably hypnotic.
Due to the scorching hot word of mouth accompanying its festival run the previous year, “It Follows” takes the title of most buzzed-about genre film of 2015 in the same way that “The Babadook” did in 2014. “It Follows” doesn’t have the emotional resonance of “The Babadook” (review here), though it does work on that same level of infectious horror still stirring in the imagination even after credits roll and eyelids close.
Review Score: 80