With a terrifying premise, terrific acting and a mind-bending score, It Follows is a low-budget gem of an indie horror film. It has a few shocks and a bit of gore, but writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s take on the genre is a fresh, literate and even charming one. He cares about his teenage characters and they care about each other: you’d be hard-pressed to find a nicer bunch of kids.
It Follows starts with a scene that brings to mind John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween. We are on an identical leafy Midwestern suburban street at dusk; a frightened teenage girl runs out her house in her underwear as if pursued by the bogeyman. But there’s nobody chasing her, or nobody we can see. ‘What’s the matter?’ asks her dad, but she is dumb with fear, later phoning him at night from the side of a lake to tell him that she loves him. It doesn’t end well for her.
This is a grisly prelude for what might be in store for the film’s main character Jay (Maika Monroe) after she has sex with Hugh (Jake Weary), a boy from High School. He tells her she’s ‘it’ in a deadly game of tag: ‘this thing, it’s going to follow you. Someone gave it to me and I passed it to you … It can look like anyone but there’s only one of it.’ Hugh points to a naked woman who is walking slowly towards them: ‘I see it.’ They flee, and before Hugh dumps Jay back home, he gives her two pieces of advice: on no account must she let the ‘thing’ touch her – she will die and then the curse will revert back to him. ‘Get rid of it,’ he says, ‘sleep with someone as soon as you can.’
Freaked out and terrified, Jay enlists the help of her sister and friends, as they attempt to escape. Wherever they go, ‘it’ eventually follows, walking into the frame like a well-balanced zombie. As Jay, Maika Monroe is entirely convincing and natural. She has eyes like Reece Witherspoon, but there’s no whiff of Hollywood glitz to her or any of the film’s other actors. The teenagers relate to each other with an affecting sweetness – very different from the macho or bitchy groups in many horror movies.
What also sets the film apart is the slightly off-kilter world that Mitchell creates. The disturbing soundtrack does much to disorientate us. Rich Vreeland, better known as Disasterpeace, has composed electronic riffs that recall John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, or Vangelis’s synth washes in Blade Runner. But it is his pounding sonic booms that get you in the gut and and ratchet up the dread.
Although we assume that It Follows is set in the present day, its characters use old tech – 60s TVs which show black and white science fiction films, old landline phones – and drive cars without radios. One of the characters reads Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on her shell-shaped e-reader, but there are no mobiles, laptops or internet. Rather quaintly, the teenagers play the card game Happy Families on the porch.
Adults barely feature in this stylised adolescent world beyond being carriers for the ‘thing’. Jay’s mother makes a brief appearance early on. A teacher reads T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock aloud in an English class: ‘in short, I was afraid …’
But the fear in It Follows is tempered by its literary quotes and smartly-observed detail which includes squirrels, blades of grass and birdsong.
It’s nowhere near as scary as Halloween.