Director: David Robert Mitchell
Stars: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist
4 (out of 5) Globes
“It Follows” knows you’ll think it’s equating sex with death, just like every other horror film. Nineteen-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) sleeps with the guy she’s been seeing. Afterwards he reveals what he’s done to her: He’s passed on a mysterious, unexplainable curse in which, every now and then, out of nowhere, she will be pursued by a zombie-like person who walks very, very slowly. This monster, which changes from person to person, including friends and relatives, is easy to evade but they will never stop, and if you’re caught you’re dead.
Cut-and-dry STD metaphor, right? Not so fast. The characters aren’t bedhopping horndogs of old slasher entries. And one of the rules complicates things further: the only way to shake the hex is to sleep with someone, but if that person dies it slides back to you. Just as writer-director David Robert Mitchell doesn’t get tied up in explanations — there’s never, ever a reason given for what’s happening — he also lets the curse stand as an open metaphor. The academic is better off seizing at little ideas — as a fear of sex, yes, but also as a metaphor for the transition from carefree youth into more responsible, scary adulthood. This supernatural way of dying represents one’s realization of a bigger, more dangerous world, nailing that period when aging forces us to realize death and cosmic insignificance not as an abstract concept but a cold, deadly reality.
Perhaps more importantly, “It Follows” is actually, truly terrifying — a relentless working of the nerves done with techniques cribbed from the avant-garde. Often times Mitchell just lets long takes play out, with placid, normal frames punctuated by one person slowly, calmly, freakily walking towards Jay. She might not even notice, but we do, and soon we’re trained to scan every inch of the frame like a “Where’s Waldo?” page, seeing which person suddenly sticks out, if anyone.
Other times Mitchell throws us even more off with circular pans — ones that sometimes pull full 360s, and other times start one way before retreating the other. Film theorists Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, in their 1977 feminist film “Riddles of the Sphinx,” experimented with the 360 pan as a way of destroying not only “the male gaze” but the gaze itself. Mitchell repurposes it so that the lack of viewer control is equal to the helplessness of the characters on screen — to put us in the middle of the terror. Everyone, character on-screen and viewer off-, is at the mercy of a sadistic filmmaker.
But there’s another layer here, one that works the nerves too, in its quiet way. Mitchell’s previous film, his debut, was “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” a straightforward teen picture in the vein of “American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused,” only with less rambunctious kids. Mitchell has described “It Follows” as a kind of spiritual “Myth” sequel, where nice, sensitive teens suddenly find themselves in a full-on horror picture. Indeed, “It Follows” has loads of quiet moments that feel like “Myth” — as though it had been slipped into a slasher. When they’re not on the run, the heroes have the same kind of loose hangout sessions — ones that feel far more accurate to how teens hang out than in any other movie. (That said, Mitchell refrains from commenting on millennials; no one’s constantly on their smart phones, giving the film an unstuck-in-time vibe.) He’ll let these scenes go on long enough that you may forget this is a horror movie at all — that the danger has passed if it was ever real. And then, soon as you’re relaxed, a zombie-like person will up and trod toward the camera, and the hairs on the back of the neck jump upright all over again.