In the great new American horror film “It Follows,” a lovely, charming teenage girl named Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex with her older boyfriend Hugh in his car. Postcoitus, Hugh drugs her. She wakes up in her underwear, tied to a wheelchair, in the rubble of abandoned building -- all horror movies should take place in Detroit. Hugh tells Jay that when they had sex, he passed on something, an implacable, unstoppable being that can take the form of anyone. Wherever Jay is, the “It” will always be walking (slowly) straight for her, and as soon as it reaches her, it will violently kill her.
No one else but Jay -- and whoever has contracted the STDemon before her -- can see the monster. If it kills Jay, it will start following Hugh again. If it kills Hugh, it will stalk the person who passed it to Hugh. And so on. The only way for Jay to get rid of it (at least temporarily) is to pass it to someone else.
That’s the premise. That’s the “It.” The origins of “It” are not revealed. “It” does not have a rich mythology. “It” is not the subject of long expositional dialogue. “It” is just “It,” a single-minded entity that wants to kill you in a horrible way. I’m not even sure “It” is evil any more than a shark or a tornado is evil. “It’s” just a force of pure purpose.
Once Hugh gives Jay the paranormal chlamidity, she starts to see people only she can see. Innocuous-looking elderly ladies. Putrid, disease-ravaged women. A 7-foot-tall man with no eyes. The creature even sometimes takes the form of people she knows and loves.
Her friends don’t believe her, but they support her. They take her to an isolated beach house, a good distance from which Jay last saw “It.” Soon certain unexplainable phenomena convince Jay’s friends that the monster’s not in her head.
The genius of “It Follows” is how simply writer/director David Robert Mitchell has created an entirely new way to freak out an audience. Wherever the teenagers are, day or night, they’re never safe. “It’s” always coming. This fact adds nearly unbearable tension to scenes where very little is happening, where Jay and her friends are just hanging out in basements and bedrooms. When the characters are outside, the frame becomes a ghastly game of “Where’s Waldo.” We’re always looking helplessly off into the distance for the monster. Every wide shot is ripe with potential menace. It’s stressful as (expletive).
Though the scares and dread “It Follows” wrings out of its story are wildly original and effective, what pushes it over the top, what puts it in a class with “The Blair Witch Project,” “The Exorcist” and “The Thing,” is how good all the other stuff is.
Mitchell made a heartbreaking coming-of-age movie trapped in a nerve-shredding horror movie. Monroe in particular, but the whole cast, is excellent. They look and act and feel like teenagers, inarticulate, hopeful and distrusting of adults who would never understand the things they’re going through -- things like being chased by a murderous sex ghost.
Visually, Mitchell goes for a 1980s, John Carpenter vibe. The setting, clothes, cars and (with one or two exceptions) technology keep the time period fairly vague, only adding to the feeling that this is a lost VHS classic you found in the basement of a thrift store. But unlike other films currently aping the retro horror model, “It Follows” never slides into kitsch or irony. It’s just a comfortingly familiar aesthetic that eases us into the film’s freshly terrifying ideas. (Though there’s nothing comforting about the film’s gloriously over-the-top score by electronic artist Disasterpiece. It relentlessly punctuates intense and quiet moments alike. In fact, it might be the most important element of the movie’s success. Without it, this all might have been … kind of boring?).
Of course, this would all just be a thrilling exercise in perfect competence if the movie ignored thematic concerns. It doesn’t. “It Follows” is a gangbusters scare machine, but the “resolution” of its final act (which might disappoint fans of fast-food horror) has much to say about that awkward transitional period between childhood and adulthood. About learning and accepting that death is always coming for you, however slowly. About dealing with what you can’t defeat.
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