It Follows, It Frightens, It RulesPosted: March 20, 2015
Last year saw a sharp increase in the amount of clever, independent horror films in my diet, with both Starry Eyes and Housebound particularly standing out and almost making the cut for my Favorite Films list. It Follows is a great continuation of this new trend, an exciting piece of work both in concept and execution. While Starry Eyes felt very much like a throwback piece of smart schlock, and Housebound was just a good ol’ fun romp, It Follows is a masterclass in tension and dread, and sets a high bar for intensity that few films could claim to match. My second-favorite film of this still-young year, and one of the better horror films I can recall in my narrow experience with genre, It Follows is one to watch, and now.
The story follows Jay (the still-underrated Maika Monroe) who is stalked by an unknown creature after she has sex with the monster’s previous target and it is “passed” to her. Jay is told that It can appear as any person, it will never stop following her until it kills her, and the only way to possibly save herself is to pass it along to another person, again via sex. Right away, one of the smartest things writer/director David Robert Mitchell does is completely avoid any attempt to explain the nature of the monster, or have the characters look for answers about it. The monster just IS, and the only mystery is how can Jay keep it from killing her. This only adds to the dread and anxiety of the situation; if the creature isn’t explained it only becomes more scary and intimidating, an anonymous and many-faced phantom that never stops.
While the concept and creature are unsettling enough, it is the execution of the idea that really makes It Follows stand out. The film takes place largely during the daytime, and there is never a definitive reprieve from the creature; It is always coming, and can appear anywhere at any time, which makes even the quiet moments absurdly tense. Furthermore, the story’s timeline is stretched over days as Jay & company travel all over trying to avoid the creature, and in doing away with the condensed timeline and setting of most horror films, the creature’s indefatigable nature is made more clear and more frightening. Mitchell is also very clever about the many ways that the creature appears and attacks: besides doing away with jump scares, he is able to take “person walks towards Jay” and depict it with all sorts of different twists and changes to keep the audience on their toes. You quickly learn to constantly scan the background looking for anyone advancing towards the camera, and even when there’s nothing there the anxiety such alertness fosters just adds to the intensity of the film.
All of this careful and often-gorgeous craft is grounded nicely by the naturalistic cast of characters and the likable performances that define them. Maika Monroe, between this and The Guest, is setting herself up to be a genre staple, able to play frightened and vulnerable without seeming dumb or helpless. The whole cast is very relaxed and comfortable with each other, and the suggested history amongst this group of friends feels very real without a ton of obvious expository dialogue. It’s also nice to see a group of horror movie protagonists who don’t seem like complete idiots, and who don’t immediately dismiss claims of the supernatural. The gang believes Jay’s fears enough to stand by her and help her right away, and the finale involves Jay and her friends becoming proactive in the smartest possible way.
The one downside I see in the film that keeps it from being a slam-dunk for me is a matter of theme. It certainly feels like there are some things on Mitchell’s mind involving sexual dynamics, or maybe sexual assault, or something, but it doesn’t ever feel particularly clear to me. Perhaps that sort of depth would become more clear on a second watch, or after reading a deep thinkpiece on the movie, but on first glance that side of the story felt ill-defined and murky. But since the characters’ emotional arcs have been replaced by this vague thematic arc, there doesn’t seem to be much catharsis or goal beyond the surface level “survive and kill the monster”. It’s really a mark of how well-made the film is, and how distinct the characters are even just on a surface level, that this doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it normally would.
Ultimately, even with that caveat in mind, I think It Follows is a flat-out great film, and one that deserves as much of an audience as possible. While it may not be as thematically resonant with me as I would have expected, it was more than enough of a thrill-ride to balance that out. Like many of my favorite films, it takes genre tropes and expands them in smart and fun ways, crafting an intense and visceral experience that I would certainly like to revisit soon, and potentially very often after that.