More than any other genre, horror films suffer from hype depreciation. If too many people tell you It Follows will scare the crap out of you, it won't. So, instead, I'll simply describe this second feature from David Robert Mitchell as an arty drama that might happen to creep up stealthily behind you and haunt your dreams.
The premise itself is as simple as a dream (and was based on one, the writer-director has said). A girl named Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex with a guy (Jake Weary) who seems like boyfriend material but isn't. Afterward, he informs her that he's just passed her a particularly brutal form of STD. From now on, something will follow Jay. It can take any human form, including those of her loved ones. It's zombie-slow, but it's not stupid. And if it catches her, she's in trouble.
The monster has a few more rules, which we learn as the film progresses and Jay finds that her survival may depend on making some unsavory choices. But It Follows isn't primarily about outwitting an inhuman supernatural force — like, say, the Final Destination franchise. Nor is it an elaborate anti-teen-sex metaphor.
Rather, the film is about the sensation that makes you glance obsessively over your shoulder — or, as a viewer, scan every wide shot for twitches of movement in the distance. While Rich Vreeland's dissonant score keeps us unnerved, Mitchell uses his camera to train us to interrogate every space, every crowd. At one point, that camera rotates 360, and though the image loses focus, we may still think we spot the follower. Manipulating space and point of view, the filmmaker reawakens the primal sensation of not occupying the top of the food chain. The predatory follower can symbolize whatever you want it to; the important thing is that it has the persistence of death.
Mitchell made his debut with The Myth of the American Sleepover, an acclaimed ensemble coming-of-age drama frequently compared to Dazed and Confused. That film prefigures It Follows in every way but the scares: Both are set in suburban Detroit in an undefined era, both feature naturalistic performances from non-glammed-up young people, and both showcase adolescent moodiness and obsession with water (watch for the pivotal swimming-pool scenes).
Like the characters in Myth, Jay and her friends — who team up to protect her — clearly have lives beyond this plot, and they bear only a vestigial resemblance to teen-flick stock roles like Hot Girl and Nerd. Viewed as a fright flick, It Follows benefits from ditching the studio slickness of modern horror in favor of Myth's indie roughness. Viewed as an indie film about the loss of innocence, it benefits from injecting that genre's aimlessness with a heavy dose of plot — and terror.
In short, the perfect viewer for It Follows is one who wants to see the unsettling things that happen when genres and their expectations collide. Hard-core horror fans may find the film too slow and too lacking in escalating violence, similar to The Blair Witch Project. By contrast, moviegoers who avoid horror for the gore, or who simply prefer the existential variety of terror to the visceral, may stay more attentive.
People often ask me why I like horror movies, a preference that apparently requires more explanation than, say, a fondness for movies about uptight young women with too many bridesmaid's dresses. All I can say is that, if my darkest fears are going to follow me through life anyway, I'd rather get a good look at them. It Follows captures the hyper-vigilance appropriate to the demon-haunted world where our lizard brains still live — and asks whether any evasion of our fears can be more than a postponement.