Death stalks the sexually active in 'It Follows'

Low-budget thriller masterfully evokes bygone horror films

The scary movies of your formative years can really sink their hooks in. The violent chillers of the late 1970s and early 1980s clearly haunt a young generation of filmmakers. A new wave of low-budget horror films revel in camera angles that represent an emotionless killer’s point of view, while synthesizers throb on soundtracks reminiscent of John Carpenter in his prime.

After the stylistic horror homages of The House of the Devil and The Guest, now comes It Follows, a relentlessly effective supernatural thriller. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell explores an unnervingly simple, disturbing premise with a narrative command that can truly get under a viewer’s skin.

The Guest’s Maika Monroe plays Jay, a 19-year-old college student with a new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), who seems nice and perfectly normal, apart from vague bouts of paranoia in public places. After they finally consummate their relationship in the back of his car, Hugh chloroforms her, ties her to a wheelchair and warns that she’ll now be stalked by an inhuman entity: “It can look like someone you know, or it can be a stranger in a crowd,” he explains. It’ll kill her if it ever catches up to her, but if she has sex with someone else, it’ll shift focus to that person.

Not surprisingly, Jay finds the experience entirely traumatic, and the police can’t find Hugh, suspecting that he used an alias. She only believes Hugh’s story when she returns to school, and finds herself stalked by a malevolent old woman who goes unseen by other people. The guises assumed by the thing prove comparable to the assailants in a zombie movie: in different contexts, the cheerleaders, elderly folks or guys in long johns might appear harmless, but their alien demeanor and unceasing approach makes them figures of menace. Mitchell frequently keeps the followers in the middle of the frame, whether in the distance or within arm’s reach, and Jay, like the viewer, can’t always tell if they’re human beings or not.

Fortunately, Jay has a group of friends, a kind of Scooby Gang, willing to help her find Hugh and think of a means to prevent the attacks, even though they can’t see the creature. A weird dynamic develops with her male friends who offer to have sex with Jay — you know, to “save” her — which gets as awkward as you’d imagine.

It Follows’ concept echoes The Ring’s cursed videocassette, while supporting multiple interpretations that reflect sexuality’s most dangerous aspects. It could be a metaphor for AIDS, rape, sex addiction, or the more general inevitability of death itself. Monroe’s performance does justice to such a fraught predicament. While most female horror leads can stay in two modes — watchful suspicion and then desperate terror — Monroe incorporates a welter of emotions, such as shame, guilt, depression, and a final determination to resist her fate.

Mitchell gives It Follows a timeless quality, shooting Detroit suburban homes and station wagons that could go unchanged over 40 decades. An e-reader in the shape of a compact mirror is one of the film’s only pieces of contemporary technology. It’s as if Jay, like the audience, keeps lapsing back into a recurring nightmare with no reassuring modern points of reference. It’s like being trapped in a movie helmed by an old-school master of terror. (4 out of 5 stars)

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