Hard to believe that what could have been known forever as “the STD horror movie” has exploded with critics the way it has, evaporating the juvenile impulse to chuckle at its logline with its cold, pale demeanor and steady sensitivity toward its teenage subjects. The commingling of horror and coming-of-age usually pitches camp in the blackly comic land of sex begetting murder, bullies getting their comeuppance, final girls, and unstoppable killing machines. Squint hard enough and you’ll see that David Robert Mitchell works each of these slasher tropes into It Follows, but only after they’ve soaked in tepid dishwater caustic enough to strip porcelain of its shine. Looking for more than a bloody killing spree, Mitchell pictures a realistically devastating horror that can’t be overcome more than it can be steadily outpaced and endured, ripping away the safety net of home for characters on the cusp of adulthood.
Maika Monroe’s Jay is living quite prosaically when dishonest lover Hugh passes a curse onto her through sex, one that makes her a target for some sort of shape-shifting demonic racewalker, and being so comfortably apathetic, her first recourse to what she thinks is a sick date-rapey prank, chloroform, bondage, and all, is to hole up at home in the company of her small clique of friends. Mitchell establishes them early on as a group stuck in time, not necessarily going anywhere as they watch old movies and read Dostoevsky in their spare time. Jay is so laid back she doesn’t even seem to mind the neighboring peeping toms who watch her swim and who foreshadow the malevolent stalker that’s been unleashed on her. Mitchell sets a very meditative pace, masterfully elongating many shots while the teenagers daydream out loud, safe from any sort of outside threat. He makes it especially hard to pinpoint the exact era, his teens having a predilection for old sci-fi movies viewed on a black and white cathode ray tube television while one reads The Idiot on a Tamagotchi-inspired clamshell e-reader that many viewers will wonder if and when it was ever made.
It all sounds so very silly, but if you can buy into Mitchell’s slow-moving monster, he really lets the concept breath, placing the characters in a limbo in which they are forced to ponder the consequences of every past and future choice. This just might be the first movie in which the heroine takes some R&R at a beach house to escape her stalking monster, a scenario that reflects her, or really any average person’s, unwillingness to face hard facts. Other characters suffering the same curse react in completely different ways, and while some may find Hugh’s passing of the demon-baton too contrived, it’s more interesting to imagine what he endured before deciding to condemn the innocent Jay to her new fate.
It does lapse into slasher territory with some plot-forwarding set pieces, ramping up the tension in a story that aims to be more disturbing than shocking, and doing some harm towards its lackadaisical pace. It wouldn’t be such an issue were it not for these scenes nearly contradicting the mythology the movie is trying to invent, showing its relentless monster pausing for dramatic effect when its modus operandi is to keep on keepin’ on, no matter what. These scenes do at least force the characters to act for a change, and all do amazingly well at playing the reluctant combatant, Monroe impressing yet again while playing younger than she did in The Guest. Male co-leads Jake Weary and Keir Gilchrist also do amazing work to avoid looking like assholes by bringing a tremendous amount of sympathy to their roles. Passing on the curse to Jay and volunteering to sex it away from her, respectively, the two things somehow manage to be much more than vile opportunists taking advantage of the naive Jay.
Mitchell proudly wears his influences on his sleeve, and rightly so, shooting the eerie stillness of Detroit suburbs with a patient gaze, letting Rich Vreeland’s newly classic, spine-tingling score represent the spiking heart rates of the accursed teens running from a demon only they can see. He comes out of the gate strong with a bravura tracking shot and hideous introduction to his monster with the earned smugness of an old veteran who grins at his charges and tells them simply to “watch and learn.” Both Mitchell and Vreeland will be moving on to bigger things, and one can only hope It Follows gives them the clout to retain as much control as they have here.