It Follows is a Skinner box for horror nostalgists of a certain vintage. It provokes an unconscious reaction in the genre pleasure centers of those of us pining for vintage John Carpenter craftsmanship, with a healthy respect for old school Val Lewton chills. Its set-up finds the margins of suburbia infected with paranormal stalking a la 80’s shockers. Its pay-off borrows from Cat People’s famous pool scene. This is like a handful of recent horror efforts that gather up strong dread with throwback appeal, eschewing modern shocks and CGI for something simpler and more elemental. Look at James Wan’s The Conjuring, Adam Wingard’s The Guest, and Ti West’s The Innkeepers for other recent movies that wouldn’t have been out of place on Blockbuster’s shelves with the (superior) likes of Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street.
Like those, there’s video-store classicism in writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s approach to It Follows, an art-house meets midnight movie genre effort. He brings a resourceful simplicity to the tension and concept. He makes frames full of ominous negative space, implying danger in even normal moments. He pins his characters unsteadily off-center in the shots, Rich Vreeland’s driving synth-soaked score adding to the unease. Long steady widescreen compositions from cinematographer Mike Gioulakis looking down ordinary sunny suburban streets allow the suspense to take its sweet time inevitably dredging up dread. As it unspooled, I could almost see a retro pulpy tagline: You can run, but you can’t hide, because…IT FOLLOWS.
But what is the “it” in question? It’s unclear, remaining vaguely defined throughout, but it is certainly plenty menacing anyway. Maika Monroe, who appears haunted even before she gets cursed, plays a teen who hooks up with her sketchy new boyfriend (Jake Weary). He promptly disappears, but not before holding her captive and telling her he’s cursed with something deadly. “I passed it to you,” he warns. “It” is a deadly paranormal stalker, able to take the form of anyone. Maybe it’s that old lady striding across the quad. Or is it the creepy kid next door? Or perhaps it’s the tall, dead-eyed man slowly moving down a dark hallway? The “It” is only visible to those with the curse, a ghostly presence at once familiar and fearful, walking forward unshakably. You can run, but it’ll find you, and it’ll kill you.
There’s some close association with Mitchell’s first film, 2011’s tender drama The Myth of the American Sleepover, which followed a group of teens in suburban Detroit as they fumbled through adolescent concerns over the course of one night. It Follows takes place in the same neighborhoods, amongst its lead’s tight group of friends (Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Keir Gilchrist) and the boy next door (Daniel Zovatto), as they struggle to help her. They see only her trauma, as she nervously looks around, cringing with the fear of the mysterious something stalking her. They don’t quite believe her, but are willing to help her. It’s a standard horror perspective, a group of young people slowly dragged into paranoid fears. Mitchell pays close attention to the worrying mood enveloping them, drawing suspense out of quotidian hangouts by the ways concern shifts their interactions.
Artfully slow and deliberately (perhaps frustratingly) unresolved, this is a horror picture refusing to be pinned down. The mutable, unknowable nature of the curse –a sort of supernatural STD – has an anesthetized inevitability. Like a slow-motion Freudian Final Destination, It follows a set of rules, passing danger down the line. You can put It off your trail by passing It on, but once It kills the next victim, It’ll return for you. There are a couple great scares involving a figure in the far background of a shot slowly creeping closer to our vulnerable victims in the foreground. Effective modulation of tone brings sudden apparitions just when you think it’s safe. Creepiness is maximized by the unresolved loose ends, mingling unfortunate retrograde slasher-style sex fears with the haunting feeling of regret over a mistake. It can’t be undone. It will follow forever.