I’m not sure exactly what it would look like if Sofia Coppola ever set out to make a horror film, but It Follows seems a fair approximation. Dreamy, hazy, and fascinated with the ennui of youth, it’s a fascinating—if flawed—entry into the genre.
The surprises start early in It Follows, so I’ll keep the synopsis short and generic. Jay (Maika Monroe) is a teen-something girl who finds herself pursued by a mysterious, supernatural force that can take various human forms and moves slowly but inexorably. She has the ability to throw it off onto a different target, but only temporarily, and not without…complications.
In her quest for survival, Jay is intermittently assisted by her sister (Lili Sepe) and their friends (Olivia Luccardi, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto). I’ve never seen another horror movie where characters who know they’re in mortal danger spend so much time sitting around looking bored. The niftiest trick that writer/director David Robert Mitchell pulls off is making the torpid passages work for him: they buy the film breathing space to let us get to know these characters, especially the developing relationship between Monroe and Gilchrist.
Of course, we always know a scare is coming, but while the film has its boo moments—and they’re effective—Mitchell’s bread and butter here is the long, slow build to a fright. At several points, Disasterpiece’s Wagnerian-synth score builds to a fever pitch while we wait for it, wait for it, wait for it…and when it arrives, it rarely disappoints. That’s not because it’s an original menace, but because it’s more or less precisely what you expect. We’ve seen enough “new twists” on horror (it’s a comedy! it’s political! it’s a metaphysical mindfuck!) that it’s refreshing to watch a movie that sticks to the genre’s staples, and pounds them well.
In fact, it must have taken a certain discipline to avoid the obvious temptations to turn this premise into a satire, a social commentary, an Inception-style puzzle with nested plot strands, or a sexploitation flick. Some will go ahead and say that it is a sexploitation flick—after all, the movie’s very first shot has a teenage girl running frantically down the street in high heels and silk lingerie—but one of the things that distinguishes It Follows from the 70s and 80s teen screamers to which it pays homage is the fact that in It Follows, sex is scary. Instead of tossing off their clothes and splashing gleefully into a lake that hides horrors, these teens lose their layers with trepidation, slowly and tortuously inching into the lake because they know what’s out there.
That sounds like a metaphor, and it is, but it’s not forced. It Follows isn’t a movie about ideas, it’s about atmosphere. Being chased by demons doesn’t invert Monroe’s mien, it accentuates it: even before the wheels of the plot start turning, Jay’s neighborhood is a hothouse of sad frustration: her mother Drinks, and she’s stalked by a pervy little neighbor boy whose surveillance presages that which she’ll be subjected to later.
If It Follows is a nightmare for Jay, it’s a dream for cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who shoots the film in flat, diffuse tones that suggest a fog rolling in without ever showing an actual fog. His camera loves the diffident Monroe, pouting with pink-rimmed eyes. Mitchell underscores the sense of detachment by using the technique of techno-anachronism that’s increasingly popular in the teen art-house scene (e.g. Palo Alto): though we seem to be in the present (Yara likes to recite passages from The Idiot using a clam-shell Kindle that was custom-designed for the movie), the characters all watch boxy old-school TVs (that are always showing horror classics, of course) and every cell phone is a flip phone.
If anything, Mitchell is too wedded to his patient aesthetic: while each individual scene is an impressive display of craft, and from moment to moment the film works brilliantly, when the credits rolled, I was left with a sense of disappointment that the movie had never built to anything beyond its basic premise. Mitchell just lights a fuse that burns, and burns, and burns—and then it’s over. Boom.