Filmmakers have many tools at their disposal for trying to scare an audience silly. Fancy special effects. LOUD NOISES. Things jumping out!!! Blood, pus, slime. Or else he or she can go for something less concrete: Vague outlines. Shadows. Weird camera angles that play on our fear that what we see can hurt us. Hints that things aren’t how they appear. But after seeing the indie horror film It Follows, I’m suddenly convinced that there’s nothing more blood-freezing than a lone figure, clear as day, relatively normal-looking, walking at a moderate pace from way back in the frame toward the front. Forget about what that figure is and why it’s doing what it’s doing. The only thing that matters is that it follows.
Okay, it would help to know why it’s doing what it’s doing — though a lack of motive never stopped Halloween’s Michael Myers or Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees from royally wasting a lot of people. You can guess at a motive. After a prologue too upsetting to recount and the movie’s one hideously gory image — which I’d like to get the hell out of my head, though I doubt I’ll be able to — we meet Jay (Maika Monroe), a blonde teenage girl in suburban Detroit asking herself the usual teenage girl questions. A cute guy named Hugh (Jake Weary) wants to sleep with her, and she’s not sure. When they go to a movie theater, he gets spooked by something — he says it’s a girl in a yellow dress — and the couple hurries off. Then they’re on a quiet lakefront beach, talking. Then they’re in his car, having sex. Then Jay’s world changes forever. Something has been passed to her, deliberately. If she doesn’t want to die, she’ll have to pass it on.
My whole life I’ve been a horror-movie freak, and I’ve rarely been as scared as I was at It Follows. But it wasn’t a fun kind of scare. It was the so-upset-I-feel-sick kind of amorphous dread. I felt sure that there was no way the young director, David Robert Mitchell, could get his heroine out of the situation she was in, and that this would be another of those horror movies that ends on a note of defeat and utter nihilism — or utter cynicism, if you figure that most modern horror films that end with the monster still up and about will turn into “franchises.” (I’ll never not use that word without quotation marks,because when I grew up, a franchise was a 7-Eleven store or a Mobil station.) I didn’t trust him, which actually might be a sign of his skill.
The question hangs: Is It Follows nothing more than a simple cautionary tale with a standard moral, “You have casual sex, you die”? Possibly. Many horror pictures and even some good ones have been powered by that reactionary idea. (Horror is essentially a reactionary genre, though a lot of progressive filmmakers have worked to counter that.) In this case, Mitchell has complicated the tale with an excruciating moral dilemma. To keep from dying, Jay will have to seduce someone and pass along the thing — curse — plague — whatever it is — but also tell that person what he’s in for. Because if he dies, she’s on the hook again. So, really, she’s always on the hook.
The young actors that surround Monroe are hugely likable, and the way Jay’s sister (Lili Sepe) and friends (Olivia Luccardi, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto) stick by the distraught teen instead of bolting makes this chiller unusually warm. Gilchrist is very touching as the nerd who volunteers (many times) to sleep with Jay; the poor sap is so lovelorn that he sees this as his one and only in. In dank rooms and on dark porches, the characters huddle in pools of color — you can’t help thinking that the thing will be drawn by that light, like an insect.
The old-fashioned, handmade quality (not much in the way of computer-generated effects) is a big part of the movie’s appeal. Compositions look simple but have wit and elegance. People at the top or the side of the screen could represent something or nothing, but whatever it is, it makes you flinch, and there’s at least one great visual gag involving a person in the water drifting into the frame. There’s a touch of Blue Velvet in the way the camera prowls the bland suburban, manicured lawns — and a faint suggestion that the “thing” is linked to urban decay across 8 Mile Road, where her Jay’s posses go to find that guy who passed it to her. Rich Vreeland’s synthesized organ is just this side of cheesy, but it’s so melodic and perfectly modulated that the cheesiness must be the point. The music evokes both John Carpenter’s Halloween score and the music to the classic microbudget ghost story Carnival of Souls in the nicest possible way. Mitchell knows It Follows follows in big footsteps, and lets us know he knows without campy winks and nudges.
About that ending: He turns out to be trustworthy. No spoilers, but it manages to be inconclusive and conclusive, bone-chilling but romantic: a beautiful balancing act.