Ever since It Follows debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, horror fans haven’t been able to stop talking about it. Maybe you were lucky enough to catch the movie at last fall’s Lone Star Film Festival, but if you weren’t, this innovative, complex, and truly scary film comes to a theater near you this weekend, and you won’t find a better horror movie right now and possibly for the rest of the year.
The heroine is Jay (Maika Monroe), a Detroit college student who starts seeing a handsome newcomer named Hugh (Jake Weary). They have sex in his car on their second date, and it’s great until he smothers her with chloroform, drives her to an abandoned building, and straps her to a wheelchair. When she comes to, he lays down the ground rules: The supernatural entity that has been stalking him will now switch over to her. It only moves at a walking pace, but It can take the form of any person. Only she can see It. She can pass It on by having sex with someone else. Hugh would like Jay to do so quickly, because It will kill her if It catches her, and then It will revert back to him. Jay, her sister (Lili Sepe), and a cadre of devoted friends must figure out how to handle this situation.
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell shoots this like a 1980s horror film. Most of the action takes place in quiet, pristine, leafy suburbs like in the Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street movies, though the movie nods to the run-down part of Detroit when Jay and her friends venture below 8 Mile Road. The phones, the cars, the TVs, and even the porn all look vintage. (Mitchell did something similar with his one previous film, the Linklater-esque 2011 teen comedy The Myth of the American Sleepover.) The only clue to this movie’s modernity is Jay’s friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) using an e-reader to quote pertinently from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. A synthesizer-heavy score by the video game composer Disasterpeace completes the retro vibe.
Yet this isn’t a John Carpenter-style horror film, with objects jumping into frame accompanied by a musical “stinger.” Instead, Mitchell takes his cue from Brian De Palma’s stately pace, though his only ostentatious shot comes when he mounts the camera to Jay’s wheelchair during her captivity. He consistently directs our gaze to the background of the picture, encouraging us to look for anyone who’s walking slowly toward Jay. Yet Mitchell doesn’t just confine It to the far distance, as Jay is horrified to see It casually duck into her bedroom on the heels of one of her friends. Gratifyingly, the teen characters act with a degree of intelligence in the face of danger, whether it’s Hugh’s decision to leave Jay strapped in the wheelchair until she can see It or the way her friends gradually become convinced of It’s reality. Eventually, their ingenious plan to trap It leads to a memorable showdown scene at a swimming pool.
The movie also works as a psychological portrait of the effects of sexual assault; Jay’s encounter with Hugh doesn’t fit the legal definition of rape, but its violence carries similarly psychic consequences for her, starting when he deposits her unceremoniously on the street nearly naked in front of her house. She loses her appetite and refuses to tell her unseen mother about her assault or leave home for a time. As she recovers in a hospital, Mitchell catches her numbly staring at the red polish on her fingernails, the last thing she was looking at before her attack. Niftily, her friends initially think she’s experiencing a post-traumatic reaction when she tells them about the mute old woman in a nightgown pursuing her across the campus. Even It’s shape-shifting nature seems to mirror Jay’s fearful state of mind, as she perceives danger from little girls, old men, naked people, clothed people, strangers, and loved ones, only some of whom are threats. The athletic blonde Monroe (whom you may have seen starring in last fall’s thriller The Guest) registers all of this and makes Jay into a far more layered creation than the typical final girl in the slasher flick.
I love the last shot, which can be interpreted a number of ways, but which I read as Jay making peace with her trauma and determinedly seeking happiness despite the demon on her trail. As Yara makes clear with her Dostoyevsky quotes, we all have It coming for us, slowly but relentlessly. We might as well have our share of love, friendship, and hope before It reaches us. This sort of depth helps make It Follows that rare thing, a horror film that improves on a second viewing.
Starring Maika Monroe. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell.