A pretty young woman, scantily clad but terrified beyond the point of titillation, storms from her house, running center framed towards the screen. The camera - and by extension, us - swirls a 360 degree pan around her as she desperately searches for a place to flee and neighbors ask if she needs help. As a combination of fear and hopelessness floods her face, she runs back in for the car keys and drives away. We move to her sitting in the dark night by a lake, no feeling of safety about her, as she calls her parents and bids one last weeping, "I love you." Hard cut to her corpse in the daytime, still at the lake, leg snapped open in the air.
Welcome to the world of "It Follows." You will not laugh with your friends after a jump-inducing scare. You will not feel that fun, goofy fear that comes with knowing it's only a movie. You will leave unsettled, disturbed, and wary of your surroundings.
Lets not be stingy with the praise, though. You will also experience the best American horror movie in ages.
Jay (Maika Monroe), college girl in a nondescript Detroit neighborhood where every house could use a remodeling, goes on a date with older boy Hugh (Jake Weary), who seems oddly twitchy and aloof. As horror tropes go, they still have sweaty, awkward sex in the back seat of his car, after which he informs her that in doing so, he's passed a curse along to her, a demonic spirit that can only be seen by those with the same curse.
If she wants to rid herself of it, she must pass it on by having sex with someone else, who then must have sex with someone else, and on down the line. Otherwise it will haunt you until it kills you. The spirit can take the form of any person, be it a stranger or someone you know. It seems more or less bound by physical laws, unable to disappear or walk through walls (while it seems forced to knock on doors, it holds no qualms about breaking windows - chalk that up to random rudeness). It does not hide in closets, nor does it wait to pounce. It never runs, but instead walks, always walking. You can try driving far away, but that will only buy you some time. It will chase you, and it will find you.
After only one previous feature, "The Myth Of The American Sleepover," writer/director David Robert Mitchell establishes himself with "It Follows" as an immensely clever journeyman, agile and capable of dominating whatever genre he chooses. One of his masterstrokes here is crafting a supernatural threat that feels highly specific but also universal, tapping into the fundamental nightmares that plague us from childhood to death. Running but not escaping, Trapped in a dark corner with no way out. Feeling safe nowhere, whether it's at home or out in the open daylight. We know just enough specificities of the curse to be terrified, while things are also vague enough to keep us even more terrified.
Mitchell takes things one step further, though. Instead of simply presenting us the horror, creating an audience of voyeurs whose fear exists only in the theater, he invites us to be willing participants. Early in the movie, Jay and Hugh play a game. Study everyone in the crowd around you and pick a person you'd like to trade places with. Your friend gets two guesses as to who you chose and why.
In context, this feels like a fun thing you can try in your own life. Later, when the full scope of the curse emerges, it carries an unmistakable dread. Imagine being out in a sea of people and not knowing who the spirit is, if it's even there at all. Now put yourself in the shoes of the characters doing the same thing. Most horror films flow on peaks and valleys - you can instinctively tell which scenes are set-up as scary setpieces and which will be peaceful. "It Follows" offers no such respites. As with Jay and her friends, every single scene reaches almost unbearable tension as we scan the frame, looking for hints of the spirit approaching.
Rocking the wide angle lens like nobody's business, allowing immense depth of field, Mitchell hones skills as a master widescreen craftsman. Characters are precisely framed to create negative space around them, triggering a jarring reaction when any figure happens to invade it. Deep focus forces us to study the foreground along with the background, where Mitchell sometimes drops the spirit with masterful, omnipresent subtlety. One sequence at a high school as Jay attempts to track down Hugh sports a fluid 360 degree swirl around her as she walks down a crowded hall. Everyone around her is suspect. Anyone could be the curse.
Ultimately, as said, what drives the terror of this movie is something innate and elementary and primal. A slasher jumping from behind a shower curtain inspires the popcorn to go flying, sure. But it's not universal. It's fear by way of brute force. When the curse of "It Follows" manifests itself on screen, it's often as something that would be commonplace otherwise, but chills us to the bone in context because of the unshakable fact that this person walking at this speed in this location is simply not right, especially with the John Carpenter-esque electronic score underneath, filling the theater's surround sound system. Mitchell invites us to keep that fear inside us. Enjoy your walk to the car after the movie ends. Have fun putting your garbage cans out late at night. That fear will be there. It won't leave you. It's in your head, in your bones.
Which raises the final question, what exactly is "It Follows" about? Mitchell wisely eschews obvious answers, although a parable about AIDS (or STDs in general) feels logical, if a bit too easy. Maybe an oddly conservative treatise against premarital sex? Or a "Cabin In The Woods"-style meta commentary on the trope of sex in horror movies? All possible, and certainly no one can say any of that is wrong. But ultimately it feels broader and more general.
By the movie's end, our teenage heroes are granted a feeling of more or less happiness, along with the maturity that comes with knowing there's darkness around the corner that you can face. But happiness doesn't bring peace. Maturity doesn't bring peace. What's out there is out there, and even if you temporarily overcome it, brace yourself for those long, sleepless nights, lying in bed on your back, wondering if you can handle what still looms on the horizon.
Sometimes you've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above. Because it will follow you.