Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language.
Running time: 94 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
Back in 2011, David Robert Mitchell wrote and directed a beautiful little indie called “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” which not nearly enough people saw. It was an intimate, lovingly observed and meticulously detailed coming-of-age drama. It could have taken place at nearly any point in time in nearly any place in the country, and it was an exciting debut from a promising filmmaker.
Mitchell makes good on that promise with “It Follows,” which once again reveals his mastery of creating a restrained tone. Yet the story itself couldn’t be more different. Mitchell’s skills in crafting mood and building tension result in one of the most mesmerizing and suspenseful horror movies to come along in a long time. It’s a film that, like “Myth,” is quiet and deliberate — almost dreamlike — with a refreshing lack of gimmicky jumps and screechy scares.
Yet the sense of dread is undeniable, and it’s palpable from the very start. Working with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, Mitchell uses some virtuoso camerawork to set the scene: one long, 360-degree take of a scared, young woman running out the front door of her suburban home, trying to flee some unknown, menacing force, then returning to her home, hopping in her car and driving away. It’s wordless, and we’re hooked.
Next, he focuses on another young woman: the pretty, blonde Jay (Maika Monroe, star of last year’s unsettling “The Guest”) as she enjoys an afternoon swim in the backyard of her suburban Detroit home. One thing that’s so cool about Mitchell’s films is the intentionally fuzzy time in which they’re set. Both could take place in the ’70s or they could take place now, from the wood-paneled interiors and outdated appliances to the plain cars and lack of pop-culture references. This aesthetic choice makes his stories feel universally relatable.
Jay has just started dating a new guy (Jake Weary) she thinks she really likes, and after a dinner date, she has sex with him for the first time in the backseat of his car in the parking lot of an abandoned warehouse. But as she’s basking in the afterglow in her bra and panties, he drugs her and drags her to a wheelchair, then ties her to it. Then he calmly explains what’s about to happen to her: She’s going to start seeing things. People, actually. And they’re going to come after her. They may take the form of strangers or people she knows and loves. They may move slowly, but they’re persistent. And the only way to get rid of them is to have sex with someone else. That’s how he got it, and that’s why he gave it to her.
Now, this may sound like an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases. Mitchell himself has said that wasn’t his intention — that you can interpret this tale however you’d like. While that may sound cryptic, one thing that’s clear is that he isn’t judging Jay for the sexual choices she makes. On the contrary: She’s a confident, decisive woman — she’s in control, and she’s never the target of shame. The few sexual scenarios that exist here are actually rather brief and perfunctory. They are a means to an end.
What follows in “It Follows” isn’t scary in the traditional horror sense, per se, but it is often graphic and definitely unsettling. We can’t always see what Jay sees, but when we do, the lumbering images are eerily disheveled — reminiscent of Romero-style zombies. But Mitchell balances his languid tone with an electronic, screechy score from Rich Vreeland that’s intentionally a little off-putting and constantly sets us on edge.
The feeling that we’re watching an urban legend come to life also contributes to the film’s recognizable feeling of unease. The rules may be arbitrary but they’re clearly defined and everyone adheres to them. That includes Jay and the people closest to her who surround and protect her: her younger sister (Lili Sepe), their longtime friend (Olivia Luccardi), the childhood pal who’s always had a crush on her (a heartbreaking Keir Gilchrist) and the cool kid across the street who’d previously kept his distance (Daniel Zovatto).
No one knows where this thing started or how it might end. The insularity of this clique, this town, makes the feeling of dread seem suffocating. There’s no apocalyptic news footage detailing the plight of Patient Zero; there are barely even parents. The outside world might not even exist as far as these people are concerned. It’s the narcissism of youth — and there’s no way out.