It Follows conforms to the three storytelling tenets all horror movie nerds crave: establish the threat, introduce the prey main character and (most importantly) explain the rules within the first third of the runtime. In addition to these top-three-horror-movie-nerd-needs, It Follows plays as part pastiche of ‘70’s and ‘80’s low-budget horror — another geeky pleasure greatly enhanced by the bloop-and-bleep note-perfect soundtrack by Disasterpeace — with a more modern take on cultural and sexual mores. The trifecta is in how screenwriter and director David Robert Mitchell mates expectation to the unfamiliar to achieve a level a terror that stays with, ahem … follows, the viewer and makes s/he think.
About twenty minutes, give or take, into It Follows, Mitchell introduces his supporting players: the sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe) of the movie’s protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe), the wan greasy-haired neighbor boy, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and their friend, Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who goes the full Steinham or Velma (depending on your cultural reference) with her choice in eyewear. A black-and-white movie plays on a television, the kind with dials and a rabbit-ear antenna. This tableau of teenage torpor is low lit by the cinematographer, Mike Gioulakis, to bring out its intractable, predictable, and dull pastiche-y conventionality.
Yara looks up from a pink scallop-shaped e-Reader — she’s reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, she jokes, “it’s about Paul!” — and announces to the group she has an idea.
And then she farts.
It’s played for a laugh and that’s it, moving on. Yara’s fart matters about as much as … well, a fart in the wind. Except it doesn’t, because girls, on film or otherwise, don’t fart, right? It’s a little thing, this fart. First, it demonstrates how comfortable, how at home Yara is among her friends and how self-possessed Mitchell is in this milieu (a teenage horror movie). Second, it shows his flair for upending social (and genre) norms. Horror movies are about misrule and defying customs. In a movie as thick with metaphors and (possible) meanings as It Follows, this kind of detail — a joke, a throwaway moment — speaks as loud and proud about capital ‘H’ horror’s core anarchic values as any of the images on the screen.
After the introduction of ‘the gang,’ Jay gets ready for a date with Hugh (Jake Weary). Mitchell gives Jay a slow push-in dolly shot so slow and deliberate it would make Carrie White weep. She combs her hair and stares into her vanity mirror with all the portent of a virgin or a human sacrifice. The date starts at a movie theater (natch) and ends before the lights go down when Hugh thinks he sees a woman in a yellow dress. Jay cannot see said woman (or said dress). Hugh suddenly says he feels sick and bolts with Jay in tow. Hugh papers over his dating faux pas with a convivial dinner before he and Jay wind up their evening having sex in the backseat of Hugh’s car, as one does in these sorts of movies.
Hugh’s car is parked in an empty lot aside a derelict building reminiscent of the suburban high-rise (and hive of disease) in David Cronenberg’s Shivers. It’s not Montréal, but Michigan, the suburbs of Detroit to be exact where Mitchell taps into the same urban blight and bankrupt glory that made Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive look and feel like a piece art pulled from a junk pile. Amidst this reverie of rot, Hugh gets out of the car while a post-coital Jay lounges face down on the backseat and moons about driving, being grown-up or some other goofiness. Hugh returns and gags Jay with a rag of post-coital chloroform and we’re off.
When Jay comes to she’s strapped to a wheelchair in an underground parking garage of the nearby abandoned building. In this sequence Mitchell goes from horror movie geek to image maker. The wheel chair gives Gioulakis and Mitchell a way to play with P.O.V on the cheap by locking the camera in place. The viewer is forced, like Jay, to follow along (wink wink) as Hugh explains her predicament and to see it through Jay’s eyes as she becomes more and more aware how fucking fucked her. From this scene on the audience becomes implicit in all of Jay’s actions. Simply from the use of the camera Mitchell pulls off the trick of aligning observer and observed as each begins to follow the other.
The default setting for an indie filmmaker is always Occam’s razor, in the simplest terms, less is more and that the least complicated solution is always the best answer. George Romero and Sam Raimi long ago proved cheap is another word for innovative. Mitchell knows this and gets more suspense and terror from slow 360o pans or a camera strapped to a wheelchair than if he had more money to spend on better gear. This kind of under-the-fingernails knowledge confirms Mitchell as student and master.
This (not-so) elaborate sequence gives Jay all she needs (the aforementioned rules) going forward (heh-heh): by having sex with Hugh, Jay will now be stalked by a malevolent shape-changing spirit (?) that walks slow and steady but never wavers in its path as it follows her. Hugh tells her he got “it” from some woman he met at a bar (a likely story) and the only way to get rid of it (sort of) is to pass it on. Hugh’s only other advice (?) is “Make sure there are always two exits, it’s not stupid, and don’t let it touch you, because it will kill you and if it kills you, it comes back for me.”
Mitchell twists the teenage horror movie conceit, “sex equals death,” and makes it more lasting and more sinister than any allegorical STD or unwanted pregnancy. Instead of a character being punished i.e. killed for having sex, a victim so to speak, Jay serves as the latest link in the chain of both victim and (possible) victimizer. Her choice is be killed by a shapeshifting phantom by not having sex or have sex, pass her doom on to another (or others) and hope it gets them before it gets her. Discuss.
What follows is a paranoiac’s hellish reality as Jay and her friends follow from one bad idea to the next until Paul devises a plan straight out of either the Scooby-Doo school of ‘kid logic’ or Quint’s advice, in Jaws, to lure the ‘problem’ into shallow waters and drown it. Either way someone’s going to get shot and, oh yes, there is blood and toasters and old typewriters. How Mitchell resolves Jay’s problem doesn’t staunch the story’s momentum as much as bring it to a logical slightly conventional conclusion.
A movie in which pacing (both literal and figurative) is as much a part of the plot as it is in It Follows has to come to a rest because, to borrow from Blake in Glengarry Glenn Ross, “it’s fuck or walk.’