It’s not always that we get horror cinema centered around young adults that aim aggressively to shatter the tropes that haunt it. Horror-drama “It Follows” and directed by David Robert Mitchell (“The Myth of the American Sleepover,” 2011) and stars Maika Monroe (“The Guest,” 2014) as Jay, who “contracts” a curse during a night of intimacy. Betrayed by her date, she realizes she’ll need every resource on her if she’s looking for a fighting chance to defeat it. And it’s precisely the kind of horror that doesn’t follow (ba-dum-tss) the tried and true methods of teen horror.
And you see this right from the opening scene. “It Follows” opens with a long and spectacular parallax shot that circles ’round an unnamed, terrified woman, allowing viewers to be voyeurs to her dilemma. The seed for fear of the unknown is successfully sown in its discomforting quiet. And without their knowledge, viewers will have found themselves strapped into a rollercoaster of terror and paranoia.
Thanks to the stunning cinematography of Michael Gioulakis in his debut as a DoP and Richard “Disasterpeace” Vreeland’s incredible retro soundtrack, the film seems doggedly determined to commit to its own image system till the very end. The movie isn’t just throwback horror vibes; Mitchell’s written a firecracker of a screenplay that boasts a lot of confidence and focus. However, the writer-director isn’t simply satisfied with taking the death-by-sex trope in slashers to its extreme.
Using the narrative cliche—which might as well telegraph a very insidious form of slut-shaming, if you think about it—the film explores the psychological impacts associated with and around sex. Many of these aftermaths are woven deftly into the script, from the emotional dread associated with contracting STDs and STIs via dishonest partners to the subsequent trust issues that break afflicted people. As a result, the horror that viewers experience is mostly never external—although a few significant jumpscares come at just the right time.
The existentialist and psychological commentary of “It Follows” also trickles down to its characters. The teens aren’t just your dumb stereotypes of the jock, his girlfriend, the nerd, the skeptic, and the Final Girl. The makers have put a lot of thought into each principal character’s respective arcs. One of Jay’s friends is obsessed with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot,” quoting (really foreshadowing the rest of the movie) poignant lines from time to time.
Possibly the most archetypal character in the film is the protagonist herself. Essayed by Monroe with an emotional range to die for (pun unintended), Jay’s arc ticks most damsel-in-distress boxes you’d find in many horror films. Still, she’s cleverer than the makers want you to assume, with a keen sense of direction and natural reflexes you’d find in most people. Her strength and vulnerability combined make her feel like an actual human being.
If there are any issues I’d have with the movie, it would probably have a lot to do with the “final boss” climactic face-off between Jay and “It.” It’s a marked shift in tone that—on the one hand—might feel like a cathartic David versus Goliath battle (except with teamwork involved). On the other, however, I’d rather wish we were eased into the tone rather than pushed into it. Fortunately, as the film reaches its end, it makes up for that pivot with an ambiguous finish that’s one of the most emotionally dazzling parts of the movie, leaving viewers on a high note.
Filled to the brim with technical and narrative mastery, David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore feature “It Follows” screams success, both as a horror film and an art form with a voice. If there’s only one horror film you’re planning to watch this year, make sure it is this.