The best horror movies tend to trade on dread more than fright or disgust. It’s the knowledge that something bad will happen - more than those somethings actually happening - that puts audiences on the edge of their seats. That’s why editing is often slower in horror movies. It’s why monsters take their time stalking their victims. It’s why many people prefer shambling zombies to running ones.
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows puts dread and inevitability at the centre of its highly specific, almost overcomplicated premise. Here’s an overview: have sex with someone tainted by the movie’s unnamed affliction, and a silent, expressionless figure (that can take on the appearance of anyone, and that only you can see) will begin to follow you at walking pace until it catches and kills you. You can pass it on by sleeping with someone else, but if the figure catches them, it’ll come after you next, and then whoever gave it to you, following the line of sexual succession until presumably it ends up targeting ninety-year-olds who passed it on decades ago. On paper, it’s a complicated and goofy premise, but It Follows treats it with seriousness and urgency to create an original twist on the slasher-movie formula.
For a movie with such an in-your-face premise, It Follows is surprisingly humble in execution. There’s some outstanding, understated filmmaking going on. The film is shot with languid, almost passive shots that build dread even in “safe” situations. Maika Monroe, as the film’s protagonist Jay, is a genuine, sympathetic presence on screen, never once falling into slasher cliche. There’s even room for light character comedy, as Jay’s friends join together to help her out, despite not entirely buying or understanding what is happening to her. Even the production design - placing the movie vaguely in the present but outside of any specific decade - is just odd enough to give the movie a unique character without slapping you in the face with it.
Don’t let that fool you into thinking this isn’t a scary movie, though: It Follows is a lesson in dread. Its killer’s slow but relentless march has an air of inevitability that wears down the characters as much as the physical chase itself. Death lurks constantly at the edges of It Follows’ frames, a notion that’s supported by its great, divisive ending. And when death catches up and poses a physical threat, smart decisions in casting, makeup and blocking make the result scary indeed.
It Follows has copped flak for being yet another anti-sex horror movie that offers heavy-handed moralising over teenage sexuality. But it’s hard to take such accusations seriously when the movie paints its characters as sympathetically as it does. Even if they’re not given detailed backstories, everyone is still played three-dimensionally, and Mitchell understands that sex is just a part of young people’s lives. Rather than anything as uninspired as a sex scare movie, It Follows plays more upon the fears and insecurities that plague any teenager, sexually active or not.
There’s something lovely about a movie that can take a completely strange conceit and deliver as restrained a result as It Follows does. Like its monster, it’s a movie that sneaks up on you without you realising; unlike its monster’s victims, I’m really glad it did.