It Follows, the indie horror sensation from writer/director David Robert Mitchell, is the kind of film where the less you know about it going in, the better. The very first scene alone emphasizes this point, revealing little, if any, clear details of what will follow (no pun intended) in the ensuing 90 minutes, but what it does do is establish the stakes at the onset and take you on a thrilling roller coaster ride—one that won’t easily let go even upon its climax. In that sense the film is almost immediately working on you, and it seems to be working on audiences too, as the film’s distributor, RADiUS-TWC, has expanded its theatrical release before what will likely be a successful run on VOD.
The “less you know, the better” caveat goes for the film’s premise as well because it could easily dissuade a number of viewers if taken at face value. The titular “It” is a specter of sorts, assuming different forms and never ceasing to—you guessed it—follow its current target. The target for most of It Follows is Jay (Maika Monroe), our heroine, who comes under the aim of the monster after what could be the most unfortunate teenage sexual encounter with an older guy she started seeing named Hugh (Jake Weary). Here’s the kicker: the curse is passed on from one person to the next by having sex, but should the monster catch its prey and kill him/her, it returns to the previous target. Jay, with the help of her friends and sister, spends much of It Follows running from this supernatural stalker while concurrently determining if and how it can be stopped.
Rules such as these—perhaps not as outwardly goofy as the rules above—accompany many stalwarts of the horror genre, but this sort of delineation serves to better define and authenticate the world of It Follows. As a result, the possibilities become much more real, and in turn, immensely more terrifying. The kind of horror here isn’t the type aimed for shock value or grotesquerie that has become more and more prevalent in the last ten to fifteen years. Rather it is an omnipresent, unrelenting sense of dread that permeates throughout It Follows. Mitchell clearly has a deep knowledge of the genre’s tropes and hallmarks, but the film never devolves into pastiche or homage. Mitchell acknowledges and respects the great horror films without evoking them, much to his film’s benefit.
When some of the inherent and unavoidable pain-points of the genre do arise—namely Jay not being able to tell hardly anyone, including her mom, about her plight—they actually fit in with the backdrop of the film. The ambiguous portrayal of adults, including their manifestations as the stalker, further imbues the worldview of Jay and her friends. Adults—and adulthood—are just plain weird in the eyes of these teenagers, who are going through a host of physical and emotional changes. When Jay does decide to have sex with Hugh, it does not play out as excessively awkward, but it does remain anticlimactic. And so what It Follows really boils down to is not simply a cautionary tale about sexually transmitted diseases, but instead the film is an exploration of self-realization—an awakening to the delights of late-adolescence and a reluctance to embrace the ambiguity that being a grown-up entails. There is inevitably a certain amount of trauma that coincides with these experiences, and they’re not all sexual. The way this trauma manifests in It Follows is perhaps what makes the film so unforgettable.
The world Mitchell creates, taking place in suburban Detroit, is both of a time and timeless. The clothes, the cars, and even the synth-infused, but no less haunting, score all reek of the 1980s and the teen sex comedies that largely defined the era. High school PA systems announce the after-school events scheduled for the day; one of Jay’s friends works at an ice cream shop, where they meet to discuss how to stop the monster; and Jay’s closest guy-friend, Paul (a standout performance by Keir Gilchrist), is so enamored with her that he would surrender his life just for the chance to sleep with her. All of these seemingly minor details further ground the film in a place and time, but other details—the use of an e-reader being the most obvious—suggest a different time period all together. When Jay checks herself out in the mirror, the signature teen comedy shot we remember from films like Sixteen Candles and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it connects to an era while also pointing to themes that remain relevant today.
Death, love, and sex intertwine throughout It Follows, and the focus on each shifts throughout the film, much like how Mitchell continuously shifts perspective. In some shots the monster is invisible to us while other shots could possibly be from the point of view of the monster. But the most effective are a number of wide pans where the monster might be in the frame, but Mitchell deliberately does not acknowledge it. The choice proves successful thematically, instilling a feeling of restlessness—even to the very end of the film. It also serves as a reminder that death, as well as the essence of life, will never stop following us.