With a distinct absence of the bloodletting, boobs and beasts that typically populate a horror film narrative, It Follows is a simple yet scary story that draws upon typical genre conventions, but does so in new and interesting ways. Director David Robert Mitchell has somehow managed to bring some fresh ideas to a genre that has been churning out endless remakes and sequels for what seems like forever. Yes, having sex is what puts our teen protagonist in danger, but not in the way you might expect. In fact, even though most people will be aware of the basic premise of the film prior to seeing it, there are still plenty of fun/frights to be had as our victim struggles to come to terms with the consequences of her liaison with her boyfriend.
Maika Monroe plays Jay, a typically disaffected teenager whose daily existence is as unremarkable as one might expect for somebody growing up in the suburbs. She hangs with her friends, swims in the pool (much to the delight of the young boys next door who spy from over the fence) and is in a relationship with Hugh (Jake Weary), whose presence proves the catalyst for the events that follow. Tension builds in conventional ways, such as when Jay is lying in the back seat of the car in post-coital bliss, late at night with both doors wide open, completely oblivious to any danger that might be lurking while Hugh has been conveniently removed from the frame under the premise of retrieving something from the boot. Completely vulnerable, we know that something is going to happen but, when it does, it is not what we expect. As it turns out, Jay has been infected with a sexually-transmitted hex (when you say that it out loud, it seems ridiculous and it is to Mitchell’s credit that he makes it work). By sleeping with her, Hugh has knowingly transferred to Jay a shape-shifting phantom presence that appears in human form but can only be seen by those who are afflicted. It is a threat that always knows where you are and never stops pursuing you – but never at anything more than a walking pace – until it has achieved its objective. Much of the suspense comes from never knowing whether a person walking down the street is something altogether more sinister.
Needless to say, Jay’s friends believe her story and set out to help her break the curse, the only possible solution to which seems to be having sex with somebody else and passing it on. Of course, even though they know what awaits them if they do the deed, both Jay’s nerdy best friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto) are more than willing to take on the task; they are teenage boys after all. Interestingly, despite the fact that sex plays such a pivotal role in the narrative, there is nothing salacious about this film at all. No sex on screen, no girls in skimpy bikinis (even when they hide out at the obligatory house by the lake) and, with the exception of a woman who appears as one of the apparitions, there is no nudity, which makes a refreshing change. There’s a deep and constant sense of unease that pervades every moment as Jay tries to stay one step ahead of the threat. Much of the tension is due to the fact that everything is so normal. These kids are a far cry from the wealthy, hyper-sexualised, irresponsible teens that often serve as the victims in such scenarios and whose demise we generally celebrate. Jay and her friends are typical and the suburban landscape in which they live is very recognisable, which enables us to connect with the characters and actually care about whether they survive or not.
With It Follows, Mitchell has created an intelligent horror that relies on atmosphere to build tension. Monroe is solid in the lead role and the rest of the young cast, which includes Olivia Luccardi and Lili Sepe (the only real teenager of the group), are sufficiently serviceable as her loyal companions. Whilst the ending leaves the story open to a sequel, one can only hope that the originality and overall effectiveness of It Follows is not diluted by the endless succession of follow-ups that seem to invariably emerge in the aftermath of any successful new addition to the genre.