It Follows is the best horror film of the decade. It’s certainly the best new horror film I’ve seen in years, at least since Paranormal Activity gave me a heart attack back in 2009. But unlike Paranormal Activity, my recommendation of It Follows comes with no reservations. It’s terrifying, taking full advantage of an ingenious horror premise. But it’s not just great because it’s scary. It’s also an intriguing exploration of adolescent sexual awakening and mortality at even its most banal moments. And none of this is to mention its formal prowess, which is astounding. It Follows is impeccably shot and acted. It features some of the most effective use of on and off-screen space since, well, The Blair Witch Project back in 1999. It’s the only film since then to sustain such an unrelenting atmosphere of dread during its every frame.
It Follows starts in stunning fashion. We see a suburban Detroit neighbourhood at dusk. The street is empty. Nothing is happening. All of a sudden, Disasterpeace’s score kicks in with its synthesizer sirens and a half-dressed girl bursts out of her house. She looks behind her and runs down the street in a panic. She looks like she’s being followed, but we can’t see anything trailing her. She keeps running. The camera dollies and pans to follow her. She stops, gauges her distance from her invisible assailant, and crosses the street. She runs back in the direction she came from and into her house. She comes back outside, gets into the car, and burns off down the road. Only then does the camera cut.
We then move to a beach at dusk where the girl tearfully phones her father and tells him goodbye. The camera pushes in on her face. She’s terrified and resigned to her fate. We know whatever it is that’s following her has arrived, but we still cannot see it. Nevertheless, the dread pulsates from off the screen, like the film’s aggressive score. We cut to the morning. The girl lies dead on the beach, her leg contorted and snapped hideously in half. This is how we’re introduced to the central spectre of It Follows. We don’t see it, but we see what it can do and we witness the terror that it fills people with.
From there, we’re introduced to Jay (the terrific Maika Monroe from The Guest), a college student living with her alcoholic mom and little sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), in those same Detroit suburbs from the opening scene. One night Jay goes out to abandoned neighbourhood to have sex with her boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary). Hugh drugs her right after, and she wakes up tied to a wheelchair in an abandoned car park. Hugh explains to her that he’s passed on a monster to her, a spectral force that’ll appear in the form of a person, either a random stranger or someone she knows, and relentlessly follow her until it kills her. The monster cannot be stopped. It cannot be killed. It will slowly follow her wherever she goes, and when it finds her, it will kill her. Hugh says that if it kills her, it’ll return to following him. The only way to avoid it is to pass it on to another person through sex.
Jay doesn’t believe Hugh, thinking that he’s tied her to the chair for other purposes—the moment that he smothers her with chloroform in the car as she blissfully recounts a childhood experience, her hand clutching at some flowers on a weed, is traumatizing to the audience for its similarity to the date rape cases that plague our colleges. However, when a naked woman appears in the car park, eyes glassy black, walking straight for Jay, she believes him. They flee and Jay enlists the help of her sister and childhood friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi), in order to escape the monster.
It Follows progresses from there with a series of set pieces of the monster trying to kill Jay, and Jay desperately escaping and trying to convince her friends of its existence. The movie’s many scares are as inventive and frightening as horror movies get. There’s only one jump-scare in the entire film and it’s a fake-out involving a basketball. Instead of relying on such horror genre tricks, director David Robert Mitchell expertly manipulates on-screen space to mine it for maximum dread. In one scene, Jay hears a window break in the kitchen. Paul goes to investigate, but because he cannot see the monster he reports there’s nothing there. Plagued by morbid curiosity, Jay investigates herself and finds a half-naked woman with vampire teeth, urine dripping down her leg, inching towards her. She flees to her bedroom and locks the door. Her friends rush to her aid but she won’t let them in. Finally, when she’s convinced that it’s Paul’s voice on the other side of the door, she opens it, but as her friend enters the room, the monster seamlessly slips in behind him, making for Jay.
In another scene, Jay and her friend Greg (Daniel Zovatto) investigate Hugh’s history at a local high school, thinking that if they can find Hugh, they’ll find the answer to defeating the monster. The camera shows them at the front office, inquiring with a secretary, and then starts to pan in a circle around the room, showing the front door to the school, the hallway, and a window to the schoolyard, where a student in white slowly makes her way towards the camera from the far background. On each subsequent pan, the student is closer, but Jay and Greg are unawares. These two scenes are terrifying, but they’re also formally clever in a way that most horror films, even very good ones like The Conjuring, never manage.
The film’s use of sound is as clever as its camera movements. Disasterpeace’s score, with its wailing synthesizer and 8-bit interludes (Disasterpeace is best known for providing the music to the indie video game, Fez), is the most effective and moody horror film score since Jeff Grace’s work on The House of the Devil. Not only does it provide the film with much of its dread, amplifying the already considerable terror present on screen, but it contributes to the film’s dreamy tone, blending nightmare and mundane reality together to create a fever state. The sound design goes even further than the score to sustain the film’s dread. As we’re always aware of the monster’s presence, endlessly pursuing Jay even if it’s off screen, we pay special attention to every mundane sound effect for what it may signal. Every creak of a floorboard or footstep is amplified audibly and emotionally. Sound mixer Clayton Perry pumps up these ambient noises just enough to make them pop in our imaginations.
Like all good horror movies, It Follows taps into basic human fears. Not only does Mitchell understand that a monster walking slowly straight at the camera is a terrifying sight, placing the viewer in the position of the protagonist. He also understands that by linking his monster to sex, he’s tapping into to basic human fears about growing up and impending mortality. This exploration of adolescence and sexual maturation makes the film greater than just a scary picture as it taps into a potent thematic element.
Beyond the obvious novelty of the central monster, It Follows is fascinating for how it explores Jay’s sexual awakening, and the ways that sex awakens her to the reality of death, personified by the monster that will never stop following her. Death never stops following any of us. By tapping into this unavoidable truth, It Follows provides existential terror in addition to visceral frights. The cultural link between sex and death is an old one and exploited in many horror films. For this reason, the film’s exploration of sex and death, coming-of-age and mortality, is not nuanced in the way, say, a coming-of-age drama from France would likely be. But It Follows explores this common theme in a more effective way than most any horror film, and the theme always feels naturally integrated into the moment through the excellent acting and the subtle writing.
It Follows is brilliant filmmaking, employing virtuoso camerawork and sound design to deliver on its ingenious premise. It’s scary, but more importantly, it’s wise—a movie that understands what scares audiences as much as it understands its sympathetic characters and the existential anguish of their predicament.
9 out of 10
It Follows (2015, USA)
Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell; starring Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto, Olivia Luccardi and Lili Sepe.