Though on the surface it might look like any other teen slasher flick, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is a haunting and intelligent horror film that knows the genre inside out but isn’t a slave to it, taking some seemingly obvious tropes and using them to examine the fears and anxieties of adolescence, particularly around sex and death.
The film opens with a startling scene of a young woman frantically trying to escape an invisible stalker. It’s an immediately gripping opening that doesn’t let you find your bearings: who is this girl and what is chasing her? The former question turns out to be irrelevant; the opening scene serves to introduce us to the titular ‘It’ and what it’s capable of, without revealing what it is.
The main thrust of the story focuses on Jay (Maika Monroe, The Guest), a 19-year-old girl who lives with her family in the suburbs. After a date with her nervy boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) gets hot and heavy, Jay finds herself chloroformed and tied to a wheelchair in an abandoned building. Hugh explains that by sleeping with her, he has passed on a curse that will follow her until she sleeps with someone else and passes it on. What ‘It’ is is never made entirely clear but it takes the form of people – could be a stranger, could be someone you love – and while it’s slow, it’s also relentless, trudging purposefully onward until it gets its prey.
The sense of menace permeates the film and no matter where Jay is, we’re always scanning the frame for someone in the distance, traipsing towards her. Mitchell’s camera is always on the look-out too, slowly panning 360 degrees to take in Jay’s environment, looking for her stalker. Sometimes its appearance is obvious – it has a tendency to appear as naked and/or messed up people – but it’s at its creepiest when it appears as a seemingly normal person who blends into the scenery. That is until you realise it’s making a direct path towards Jay.
The parallel between this curse (or demon or alien or whatever it might be) and STDs is obvious but the film’s exploration of sex and how it is used is far more subtle and interesting than that metaphor might initially seem. Since the characters are teenagers, sex is forefront in their mind at all times. Among Jay’s group of friends, there’s Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a skinny, sensitive kid who has a thing for Jay; Kelly (Lili Sepe), Jay’s sister, who has a crush on Greg (Daniel Zovatto) the older boy across the street; while Greg seems to want Jay. The curse doesn’t stop these characters wanting each other; in fact, some capitalise on it as a way of getting sex.
The world that Mitchell has created is almost impossible to pin down and that adds to the sense of unease. There are virtually no adults in this film, other than the occasional appearance by Jay’s troubled mother. There’s a sense of isolation around these kids and a real feeling of boredom as they meander through their mundane suburban life, with the city just out of their reach. There’s an oddly timeless feel too. There are mobile phones and clamshell e-readers but the cars and the décor could easily be from the 70’s or 80’s, not to mention the old, black-and-white monster movies that seem to be a fixture on Jay’s television.
Like Jonathan Glazer’s enigmatic Under the Skin, It Follows never doles out any easy explanations or resolutions. Where most films with this kind of plot fall apart with masses of third act reveals and exposition; not so here. The origin of ‘It’ is wisely never revealed, it just remains a silent, relentless stalker, one that can’t be reasoned with or even killed, like a shapeshifting Terminator.
Mitchell has successfully blended the anxieties and nuances of teenage life and teenage friendships with a brooding, unsettling atmosphere surrounding the believable characters and the unnamed aggressor that haunts them. It Follows is that rare and impressive thing: a smart and original horror film that’s impossible to shake off.