Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
How do I begin writing this review? There are three different ways I can think of in writing an introductory paragraph, so I think I’ll go with all of them. Here goes:
Intro Paragraph #1 (The Description of the “It”): It is a curse that can passed along from person to person through sexual intercourse. It is an entity visible only to those who possess the curse. It moves slowly. It will follow you. It can look like other people, even people you know. It will kill you and it will never stop until it does. If it does kill you, it moves back toward the previous holder of the curse. To be rid of it is to have sex with somebody else and pass it on.
Intro Paragraph #2 (The Daydream): Carefree college student Jay Height has just had sex in the car of her date. She can’t help but express herself by stating a daydream she used to have when she was younger and wishing she was old enough to go out on dates and have the perfect guy by her side. She feels like she’s finally an adult and still feels like her whole life is ahead of her. But her date interrupts her by chloroforming her, tying her to a wheelchair, and scaring her by telling the truth about a horrific curse that will follow her until she sleeps with someone else.
(Each of these two Intro Paragraphs would have continued with explanations of allegorical statement. For example, the “It” could obviously symbolize a sexually-transmitted disease, death, sexual anxieties, or all of the above. And Jay could be learning the hard way that with being an adult comes accepting responsibility, no matter how scary it might be.)
Intro Paragraph #3 (The Negatives): I like this film so much that I’ll get the negatives out of the way first (or in this case, third). There are times early into the film that fake us out too much—the music will build up in one shot and then cut off in the next shot, showing that everything is fine. The film risks losing the suspense by doing that. While the symbolism is mostly well-handled and fascinating, some of it can be a little too obvious. For example, one of the main character’s friends does nothing except quote “The Idiot” from her…compact Kindle case (what was that thing anyway?). I get it already—it’s about the imminence of death. And midway through the film, when the heroine and her friends find the guy responsible for the deadly curse that’s stalking her, they calmly sit down and talk. I should be glad that there are no shouting matches and he lets them know rationally what’s going on and what can be done, but wouldn’t acting accordingly be justified here? And the young characters make about three trips to the hospital—where the hell are their parents?!
OK, now that that’s all out of the way, let’s talk about “It Follows.”
Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell (whose previous film was the wonderful, underrated indie gem, “The Myth of the American Sleepover”), “It Follows” is the best horror film I’ve seen in a long time, recalling what truly makes an effective scary movie scary—slow buildup with suspense; a creepy, unknown monster; moody cinematography; likable characters you want to see live; and an eerie (dare I say, memorable) soundtrack. The film it reminds me of most, in terms of tone rather than narrative, is John Carpenter’s “Halloween.” There are echoes of Carpenter all through “It Follows,” and in this day and age with first-person/found-footage gimmicks and jump-scares and such, that’s welcome in my theater.
Mitchell slowly but surely eases us into something truly scary, as his lead character, carefree college student Jay Height (Maika Monroe), has sex with a seemingly nice guy and then is suddenly in possession of “It.” He lets her know how relentless (and invisible) it is while also explaining the rules of how to avoid it and get rid of it. Surely enough, there is a supernatural stalker following her, and though her friends, including a nice boy named Paul (Keir Gilchrist) who has a crush on her, don’t necessarily believe her at first, they can tell she’s freaked out about something and oblige her by helping fight off whatever’s coming her way.
Mitchell clearly remembers that sex in horror films doesn’t end well for anyone unless they’re fully aware of the danger outside. The film doesn’t dwell too much on that notion of sex equaling death, because it’s not that kind of movie. It’s a movie that wants to scare us and relies on scary imagery and building tension to take us on a rollercoaster ride, and thankfully, he remembers that he can allow to relax at times instead of trying to jump-scare us every couple minutes or less. Mitchell also remembers how unnerving it can be for an oncoming, relentless entity to move slowly. It can be very chilling when someone or something isn’t very fast but surely isn’t giving up. The sense of approaching terror is apparent all throughout this film.
Another smart move is not to explain the origins of “It.” The film establishes rules and takes it from there so that the most important thing for our characters is to survive it. That’s much more effective than knowing where this thing comes from or even what can kill it. And while we’re on the subject, readers who have seen this movie will wonder what I think of the climax involving a naïve plan to destroy “It.” People complain about how the characters should have known better, seeing as how they shoot it in the head at one point and it only mildly affects it. But I say this: at least they tried something, okay? Besides, the climax is fun.
Maika Monroe is wonderful as Jay. She creates a horror-movie heroine worthy of “following,” if you will. You can feel her fear and misery. Her friends are mostly unknowns, though I recognize Keir Gilchrist from “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” and that also works in the film’s favor. They portray likable characters we hope to see get through one situation after another. Even the character of Greg, played by Daniel Zovatto, would seem like an unlikable jackass in another horror movie, but even he feels likable and real. I won’t go as far as to say they’re all complex characters, but compared to the one-dimensional detestable pawns we see in most modern horror movies, they’re delightful to watch.
“It Follows” is not what I would call a standard horror film. There are far too many symbolic elements, hidden meanings, and even scenes that are quiet (remember those?) for it to be labeled as “standard.” I saw it as a fun, visceral thrill ride the first time I saw it. The second time, I started to notice something deeper within the subtext, whether that was what Mitchell was intentionally going for or not; of that I’m not sure, but his restrained tone would leave me to believe anything.
In fact, just as I’m writing this review and I’m thinking about my question about the kids’ parents, I have to wonder if Mitchell’s intention was to show how the world of youth is dangerous and facing it makes you more of an adult. I wonder…
The main thing to take from this movie is that death is around us and won’t stop. It can be slowed down for a while, but eventually, it will grab hold of us and won’t let go. That’s what I get from the film’s ambiguous ending, which is so low-key and downbeat that it managed to get under my skin and stay there, leading me to believe “It Follows” was something more than just a horror film. It scared me, delighted me in doing so, and even got me thinking, which is more than I can say for most modern horror films.