Written and Directed by: Robert David Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, and Olivia Luccardi
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
It doesn't think. It doesn't feel. It doesn't give up.
The slasher genre’s tendency to conflate sex with death became so codified that it eventually became the target of parody, but there’s a reason the motif resonated, particularly in teen-oriented films. Watching young people die horribly just as they’ve passed an ostensibly adult threshold is horrifyingly cathartic, especially for teenagers. With sex comes maturity, at least presumably—and if you’re standing at the edge of quote-unquote adulthood, it’s a goddamned terrifying proposition. You might as well be staring death in the face once you emerge from that nebulous zone between being a teen and a full-blown adult.
It Follows preys on these very specific anxieties. Sure, David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore effort literalizes the link between sex and death, but it’s more preoccupied with capturing the existential dread of aging and death. It’s primarily unnerving not in its tainting of sex but in its melancholic insistence that you really can’t outrun either of these. Instead, life has a way of running you in circles until you die.
Set in an unnervingly sleepy suburb of Detroit, the film traces the inexplicable fallout of a sexual encounter between Jay (Maika Monroe) and her boyfriend (Jake Weary). After consummating their relationship in the back of a car, the boyfriend etherizes* Jay, abducts her, and ties her down to a wheelchair in an abandoned warehouse, where he explains that a supernatural entity will soon begin stalking her. Only she will see it, and it will take many forms as it inexplicably appears before her. The only way to rid herself of it is to pass the curse on to someone else—for once, someone might be able to fuck themselves out of dying in a horror movie.
Nothing quite sums up the human condition more adequately than that, does it? The only way to cheat death is to leave a legacy through procreation, yet that’s hardly on the mind of the characters in It Follows. They’re much more concerned with both literal self-preservation and with conserving whatever adolescence they have left. So many characters, including Jay’s sister (Lili Sepe) and her circle of friends, do little more than lounge about and reminisce about their youth—even as they’re outrunning death itself.
Sex becomes a paradox: it extends one’s life while it simultaneously courts death for the next person to bear the curse. And if that person dies before passing it on, it resumes its stalking of the previous victim and moves on down the line. As it terrorizes Jay and her friends, it feels like a very specific assault on a group of kids clinging to their adolescence, including their more innocent preoccupations with sex, like their first kisses or their childhood discovery of porno magazines.
While on her ill-fated date, Jay even plays a childhood game where participants pick out faces in a crowd they’d like to trade places with. Her boyfriend chooses a young kid, a moment that lays bare the film’s overarching theme: life only becomes more complicated and terrifying as one has to put aside childish things. It’s no coincidence that Jay and her friends eventually try to confront it in a rec center they frequented as children, and it’s even less of a coincidence that its full, womb-like pool contrasts starkly with the emptied, dilapidated pool in Jay’s backyard.
Simply making this trip becomes a rite of passage that requires the group to trespass into the forbidden, decaying wastelands of Detroit they were warned to avoid as children. Confronting adulthood from the comforts of familiarity becomes a nightmare as the group witnesses their childhood haunt become literally haunted and stained with blood. Sleepovers, playgrounds, and family vacation homes prove to be equally futile attempts to fight back against it by retreating into the coziness of adolescence. Cars—the most iconic status symbol of teenage freedom—are twisted into something horrible, as Jay contracts the curse in one, while another only provides a worthless feeling of meandering. She spends a lot of time in a car without really going anywhere.
The nostalgic yearning extends to Mitchell’s filmmaking, which evokes several noticeable genre touchstones: its opening frame borrows the Haddonfield establishing shots from Halloween, and an evocative, moody synth-driven score further recalls the likes of Carpenter and Goblin. Aesthetically, the film recalls the 70s with its sleek, wide scope photography, and Mitchell’s camera confidently prowls and slinks through a suburbia that seems perpetually bathed in dusk even during daylight hours. An enigmatic, atmospheric gloominess colors the film, which relies more on suggestion than it does constant, explicit violence (though two noteworthy scenes do pack quite a punch). Mitchell gets more out of slow tracking shots, unhurried camera movements, and ominous figures resting in the background than many slashers get out of their gory money shots.
Like so many of its predecessors, It Follows is a contradictory mix of the alluring and the macabre, a gorgeous film about trauma, anxiety, and death—it’s equally intoxicating as it is revolting, much like adulthood and sex. Uncertainty and hesitation guide the film’s verve, as it unfolds with a nervous energy that keeps it from indulging in fun, and it’s never intense so much as it’s consistently funereal and morbid. It Follows is always creeping up from behind, with each uneasy camera movement exuding a Kubrick-esque menace and each ominous frame providing audiences with the opportunity to play a screwy version of Where’s Waldo as it lurks somewhere in the distance.
Somehow, It Follows is always a step ahead and behind you, much like the entity itself continues to outwit its victims. With the film, Mitchell marries a 70s aesthetic with the character sensibilities of the best 80s slashers. More than once, I was reminded of the teens from A Nightmare on Elm Street: left to fend for themselves thanks to perpetually absent and oblivious parents, they huddle with each other in the bowels of suburbia to relay their own awful urban legend much in the same way Springwood’s teens whispered about Freddy Krueger.
Monroe—who is quickly becoming for Millennials what Jamie Lee Curtis was for Gen X—anchors the group (and the film) with a cool, striking presence that becomes more demure as it’s subjected to the life-sucking horrors of this curse. Mitchell’s musings on the perils of adulthood are arguably best realized in Monroe’s transformation from bubbly, energetic ingénue to a frightened, dead-eyed nervous wreck for whom sex becomes less of an escape and more of an awful obligation. In the end, it seems as though she’s stuck with a guy she never seems quite sure about, and the film’s final image suggests romantic involvement with childhood friends is more depressing than it is romantic.
In light of Mitchell’s Myth of the American Sleepover, it’s no surprise that the ensemble surrounding Monroe is equally authentic and affecting. Each is marked by a distinctive ennui as they lounge about in the suburbs with nothing to do besides watching old monster movies and reminiscing on the past that’s slipping away from them. With the exception of Jay and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), a hunky, cool across-the-street neighbor in the Johnny Depp mold, they’re right at the edge of adolescence and slowly creeping up to the angst shared by their older friends. None of them—especially nerdy, sweet Paul (Keir Gilchrist)—seem truly ready to confront the curse, no matter how much they try to convince themselves otherwise.
So much of the film’s effectiveness rests in their bewildered reaction to something they never understand: despite the “rules” guiding the curse, it ironically never quite follows them in a straight line. Much like death itself, it is an unpredictably cruel motherfucker that takes many forms and shapes. Initially, Jay is appropriately haunted by visions of older women (her future selves, perhaps), but it eventually reveals itself as a variety of ages and genders, a motif reinforcing its omnipotence. No one gets out of life alive, including some young neighborhood boys that spy on Jay as she swims in her pool. They may be spared within the context of this film, but their preoccupation with sex even at an early age has already marked them for death.
It Follows feels destined to follow in the footsteps of The Fly, another film whose text easily yields a reductive STD metaphor that overshadows its more primal terrors of aging and death. Just as Cronenberg was more intrigued by the existential dread beneath his body horror, so too is Mitchell more troubled by the anxieties of the teenage soul lurking beneath the surface here. A logical extension of Myth of the American Sleepover, its characters cling to whatever is left of their adolescence in a weirdly timeless suburban wasteland of modern and retro décor. Mitchell doesn’t appear to be coy about his fixations, especially when one of his characters quotes Dostoevsky’s musings on the certainty of death.
Even this, however, doesn’t tell the entire story, as It Follows is as much about uncertainty as it is certainty. Everything about it suggests an in-between, from its purgatorial suburbs to its listless, directionless teenagers. The real horror isn’t the inevitability of death—it’s in not knowing what in the hell you’re supposed to do as it constantly lurks behind you. You don’t want to peek over your shoulder, but you don’t know if you have anything to look forward to, either.
*Jay is like “a patient etherized upon a table,” as it were, an ironic fate considering her college lit class features a reading of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one of the great, melancholy howls about the fearful tedium of growing older.
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