Though it’s standard for horror film to come out in the Fall, recent years have seen the tradition of the autumnal scary movie recede, both by release date (as plenty of horror hits have come out in January or Summer, among others) and by content (as plenty of horror hits have been found-footage and/or haunted-house movies that eschew an outdoor setting).
Among the many virtues of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is its use of outdoor locations to evoke a specific type of transition, from the lazy warm days of Summer to the chill of Fall. Jay (Maika Monroe, looking especially all-American via her resemblance to erstwhile Disney princess Hilary Duff), the movie’s heroine, still goes for afternoon swims and eats frozen yogurt, but she’s also enrolled in classes at a local college. The story’s beginning feels like it’s set during the first week of September.
Yet in its way, It Follows has no clearly specified season, just as it takes place in no particular, exact year, and just as most of its characters have no exact ages beyond their relative youth and their relationships to each other. (The setting comes closest to a concrete fact: most of the story takes place in the Michigan suburbs just outside of Detroit). The cars are not retro enough to indicate the past, while the technology looks less than current — except for an e-reader in a compact case that borders on futuristic. The film’s synth-y score brings to mind the likes of Halloween, and the characters watch even older movies on their CRT television sets.
Even more remarkably, the movie’s haziness of period coheres into a place that feels detailed and true. This vagueness-as-specificity has become a trademark for Mitchell in just two features; his debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, also drifted through the years in ways both eerie and dreamlike (I was certain it took place in the mid-to-late ’90s until I realized I was at least in part projecting my personal teenage experience onto the film). It Follows has dreamlike qualities, too, but this time Mitchell shifts them into nightmare territory. The synth score tells the tale: this is a horror movie.
That’s clear, really, from the first scene, wherein a girl in underwear and high heels emerges from a house in the suburbs, looking panicked. The camera pans around slowly as she makes a run for it, then doubles back to her home and takes off in a car, all captured in a single shot. She’s last seen on a beach: first scared, then broken.
When the story then switches focus to Jay, her sister, and their friends, the ominous tone lingers. But it takes a while before the movie reveals the source of its hidden horrors.
Eventually Jay has sex with her new boyfriend, who chloroforms her immediately after. She wakes up tied to a chair in an abandoned building, as the boy lays out the rules: there is a force that can take the form of anyone, and will approach its victims, slowly but surely, until it reaches them and kills them. The only way to divert its attention elsewhere is to have sex with someone and “pass” the curse along. But if the new recipient dies, the force returns to the previous victim, and so on.
As a set of horror schematics, these are both clear (borderline gimmicky!) and hazy: where did this force come from? How many passes will be enough to occupy it? What kinds of sex count? Mitchell renders these questions irrelevant; It Follows unfolds with the clarity of a dream in the moment, with its rules operating more like dreams that make far less sense upon waking.
The movie never wakes up, never breaks that spell. Instead, once Jay comes to believe the story of the curse, she sets on doing further research, with the help of her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), their friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who nurses an obvious crush on her, and their friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who spends a lot of time eating and sleeping. Their adventures combine the aimlessness of driving around the suburbs with the urgency of amateur detective work, and Mitchell orchestrates a few chilling shots where the characters aren’t even aware of the menace creeping toward them, growing less distant in the frame. One 360-degree pan slowly searches the hallways and grounds of a school while the characters look for records on Jay’s disappeared boyfriend, creating apprehension from the mere act of looking.
Some of Mitchell’s filmmaking is showy in that way, with plenty of unbroken takes and careful compositions. But those compositions can be more subtly evocative, too, as when he establishes continuity through overhead shots of plates with sandwiches and accompanying Doritos chips, or makes sunlight visible in shots of the world around the characters while rarely allowing them to be seen standing in it, leaving that brightness just out of reach. The movie is often creepy and unnerving, but it’s not unbearably terrifying, if only because Mitchell’s distinctive voice as a filmmaker is such a pleasure to behold.
Mitchell doesn’t lend that voice to the Blu-ray’s commentary track. Instead, film critic Scott Weinberg talks about the film, joined for various segments by other critics on the phone, discussing the film’s craft and its implications. Weinberg provides key context as a horror buff, noting its stylistic homages to other horror movies while explaining how it nonetheless stands apart from the genre. The critics’ commentary fits the movie’s suburban-legend vibe; it feels appropriate to hear critics talking about it second-hand, rather than having the filmmakers demystify it directly, even if the critical observations aren’t as exciting as just re-experiencing the film itself.
The obvious metaphor at work would have to do with sexually transmitted diseases, but as the commentators mention, It Follows seems to have deeper dread on its mind. The way that “passing” the evil force doesn’t entirely exonerate people who pass it, much like “sharing” an STD with a partner, but from a logistical standpoint, any makeshift solutions to the supernatural problem in It Follows involve more (and more reckless) sex, not less.
The sex winds up seeming like a distraction from the inevitability of death – an early grappling between youthful feelings of invincibility and a more adult sense of impermanence. “How cool would that be, to have your whole life ahead of you?” one character says while watching a nearby child, before another character points out that he’s only 21. It Follows gets at both sides of that exchange: nostalgia for teenage years and the dread of how they must come to an end.