★ ★ ★ ★
Whenever a teenager has sex in a horror movie, bad things are certain to follow. And that conclusion has never been truer than in director David Robert Mitchell’s slow-burn chiller It Follows, in which a deadly curse is passed on to victims via sexual intercourse. Mitchell’s film, which he also wrote, is a throwback to 1970s and ’80s horror classics that dripped with dread instead of being saturated with CGI tricks to produce scares. It looks, sounds, and feels like something that John Carpenter (Halloween) might have made at the apex of his career.
The story begins effectively with a panicked girl running from her suburban home. She dashes into the street as if some unseen predator is chasing her, then hops in a car and frantically drives to a beach, where she sits alone in the dark and shivers from fright. Cut to the next morning: The girl is dead, and one of her legs is broken in half. Who or what is responsible, and who might be next?
The second part isn’t hard to guess. We are quickly introduced to pretty blonde Jay (the excellent, fresh-faced Maika Monroe) as she sinks into her family’s above-ground backyard pool. The eerie electronic score, no doubt an homage to Carpenter’s hallowed Halloween soundtrack, lets us know that evil is nearby and will soon pay an unwelcome visit. Jay’s new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) takes her on a date, which culminates with them having sex in his car. But this isn’t just any sexual encounter, as pleasure is the last thing on Hugh’s mind. He explains to Jay that he has now passed on a curse to her, and that she will soon be followed by a mysterious, murderous figure that is able to change its appearance at will. It looks human, but is invisible to everyone else. It may resemble someone she knows, or it could take the guise of a complete stranger. The only things for certain are that it is now coming for her and the only way to get rid of it is to pass it along to someone else via sex. And if it kills her, then it will stalk him again. “It’s very slow, but it’s not dumb,” Hugh warns.
The drama unfolds in a Detroit suburban neighborhood that seems to be stuck in the past. Most of the vehicles are from the ’70s (although some are more modern), and the characters watch black-and-white TV on ancient sets and play the childhood card game Old Maid. No one has a cell phone, but one gal does read books on a cool, clamshell-shaped e-reader. The lamps, drapes, and furnishings would look right at home in any ’70s TV show or movie. And Mitchell’s deliberate pace and direction fit the perfectly appointed atmosphere. He and cinematographer Michael Gioulakis employ long takes and slow zooms, almost all of which are accompanied by Disasterpeace’s moody music, to build tension that pays off in real scares later on.
Some might dismiss the film’s premise as gimmicky, but in Mitchell’s sure hands it works to perfection. Jay’s dilemma amounts to more than being pursued by a silent, menacing demon that can’t be stopped (even by bullets). She is faced with a complex moral decision. Should she free herself by passing this plague to someone else, which could amount to a very real death sentence? And if she does, should that person be a stranger or a friend? An ex-boyfriend (Daniel Zovatto) and a sweet geek (Keir Gilchrist) with a crush on Jay are all too willing to sleep with her and face whatever consequences may follow. The same question is posed to the audience: Would you be willing to damn someone else to ensure your own safety?
Fans of gory scarefests may be disappointed by It Follows, as the violence is kept to a minimum. Mitchell is much more interested in creating an atmosphere of absolute dread that builds and builds, until your nerves are rattled and shattered. And that uneasy sense of foreboding will linger long after you’ve exited the theater.