David Robert Mitchell promised to make a "beautiful horror movie" with his modestly budgeted, expertly controlled It Follows, and he has succeeded admirably. Less a conventional scary horror film than a fitful, disturbing dream, It Follows is all about atmosphere, with an unsettling soundscape and dislocating widescreen imagery.
Set in a world of teenagers living in an inexplicably underpopulated Detroit suburb, It Follows initially comes across as another girl-in-peril story. Jay (Maika Monroe), a 19-year-old blonde who resembles a young Reese Witherspoon, has a close circle of friends: her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe); friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi); the nerdy Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who has a long-time crush on Jay; and handsome slacker neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto). They're barely developed as individuals, but Mitchell does a nice job of showing their easy, casual togetherness in a world almost absent of adult characters.
One night, Jay goes on a date with a new guy she's met called Hugh (Jake Weary). But Hugh starts acting uncomfortable at the theatre, pointing to a woman that Jay can't see. They leave the movie, and end up in his car having sex. Lounging in her underclothes, she calls a friend on her phone.
A moment later, Jay is chloroformed and finds herself in her pink bra, tied to a wheelchair under a bridge. Is Hugh a serial killer? No, but he really wants a captive audience for the bad news he's about to deliver. He has just passed on to her a really nasty supernatural venereal disease – a kind of spirit syphilis or ghost-orrhea. From this moment on, Hugh explains, Jay will see strange people, some she knows and some she doesn't, following her at a zombie's pace, intending to do her harm. Only she will be able to see them. And the only way she can possibly get rid of them is to have sex with someone else and make that person the new victim.
As should be clear, It Follows does not follow, at least in a logical sense. It (or is it They?) does not always follow the rules. Does It look like someone the victim knows? Sometimes, It is a dishevelled cheerleader leaking urine as she lurches across a room; sometimes It is a naked old man on a roof or an old woman in a hospital gown. At one point, It is someone's randy mom. It does not appear to be able to walk through walls, and does not like to be shot or electrocuted. The math students who have modelled scenarios for the zombie apocalypse would have steam coming out of their ears trying to predict the future of this viral attack.
Instead, the film has the fabric of a dream journey, with the action unfolding in a series of scenes broken by blackouts: There's a lot of water involved, and repeated moments of paralysis and escape. Jay's behaviour often seems almost recklessly irrational: She hangs out on a swing in an abandoned playground, visits her friend Greg's beach house, and in one bizarre set piece (reminiscent of Jacques Tourneur's 1942 film classic, Cat People), she and her friends visit a public pool at night, with the plan of luring the thing into the water and electrocuting it.
Yet, as with most stories aimed to get inside you, the laws of cause and effect and normal behaviour are less important than the establishment of the atmosphere of dread. The major contributor to that mood is cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who favours beautifully lit long shots of figures against landscapes or the camera looking over a character's shoulder (like Gus Van Sant's school-massacre film, Elephant). Often, peripherally, we pick up on Jay's followers a moment before she does.
Apart from making a low-budget horror film that actually looks wonderful, Mitchell has flipped the script in a few other provocative ways, shedding the Victorian misogyny of the genre. Jay is not a virgin when she has sex with Hugh, but a young woman at ease with her sexuality. Typically, the whole "final girl" formula (a term coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book, Men, Women, and Chain Saws) is brutally Darwinian: the flawed characters dying first and the heroine learning survival lessons from them.
In It Follows, the friends really are friends, who try to protect Jay to the point of a somewhat mixed altruism – sleeping with her to help alleviate her alarming condition and risking their own lives.
The film is also a refreshing throwback to exposition-light classic horror tales that preferred to keep evil mysterious and inexplicable. Along the way, it restores some complexity to sex. "Doing it" marks the onset of adulthood and the grip of mortality, but it's also a sustaining source of comfort and escape.