A young woman lazes in her backyard pool somewhere in the suburbs of Detroit, enjoying the waning days of a midwestern summer. The camera cuts to her arm, floating on the surface, and a tiny ant crawling down its length. She pushes her arm down and the ant is stranded on the water, drowning in an ocean beyond its comprehension. The lives of small things are fragile, and just the slightest action can upset them forever.
You don’t need to be a devoted observer of the indie movie circuit to notice a revival in art-house horror. Films like House of the Devil, Cabin in the Woods, The Guest, and The Babadook have formed a new wave of scare-em-ups with the critical imprimatur that was lacking in the endless Saw and Paranormal Activity sequels. Often these films either toy with well-worn horror conventions or introduce allegorical elements into the slaughter—an approach that usually inspires affection towards the genre rather than embarrassment. David Robert Mitchell makes his contribution to this new terror movement with his second film, It Follows.
In the film’s first scene a young women in a negligee bolts from her house and backs slowly away from some terrifying unseen entity. Panicked, she gets in her car and drives to the beach to make an apologetic last phone call to her family, and by morning she’s been gruesomely mangled at the hands of an unseen force. We find out shortly that she was the victim of a mysterious curse being transmitted sexually among the young suburbanites of Detroit (think The Ring meets Charles Burns’ Black Hole) that takes the form of a malevolent shape-shifter walking toward its singular victim slowly but relentlessly until close enough to strike. Jay Height (Maika Monroe of the aforementioned film The Guest) is the latest to catch the bug.
With the aid of her friends, Jay aims to outrun the thing for as long as possible. Over the course of the film she comes to terms with her condition, tries to fight back, weighs the moral costs of passing the curse on to save herself, and gets caught up in a love triangle between gawky childhood friend Paul and shaggy-haired ne’er-do-well Greg. But despite how much she tries, the curse can’t be shaken, and it changes things in ways she never could have expected.
It Follows walks an allegorical route, but does so thoughtfully, spacing out its plot deliberately without making its central metaphor too explicit. As a horror experience, it’s somewhat less effective. There are moments of genuine terror in the movie, but, just like in a zombie movie, watching the monster walk towards Jay is never as scary as waiting for it to show up next, and it's sometimes too easy to anticipate when those moments are coming for a sustained sense of dread.
But It Follows still manages to succeed. Monroe, who was also excellent in The Guest, has an inner ennui that gives her moments of brief joy and more lasting fear greater resonance—a reprieve from an immediate death does nothing to alleviate her existential troubles. Mitchell, too, has a few clever tricks in his bag, like shooting his subjects from a distant point of view, and closing in through long, dynamically composed tracking shots. Sometimes this puts the viewer in the eyes of the follower, and sometimes it’s just a fabulous psych out. He also shows a fascination with the empty streets and deserted parks where the invisible dangers of suburbia emerge, often filming 360-degree tableaus that reshape swathes of space from innocent to sinister.
It Follows is far more rewarding as a broad parable about the slow, painful transition into adulthood along an untraceable path, rather than a pinned-down metaphor for whatever sexual bugaboo one prefers. Near the end of the film, Jay asks a sexual partner if he feels different in any way, post-coitus. He says he doesn’t, but the couple knows something has changed, and they’ll now face the consequences, as mysterious as they are terrible. Becoming an adult is scary and beautiful. So is It Follows.