“It Follows,” the first great horror film of the year, mixes nightmare imagery with a poignant coming-of-age drama with a travelogue of economically depressed Detroit. The end result is something greater than the sum of its parts, and a film that invites subtext to be liberally applied.
Writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s film holds a viewer’s attention throughout, despite having a simple (and rather ridiculous, on the surface) horror premise: Hugh (Jake Weary) has sex with Jay (Maika Monroe), thus passing on a curse to her. She’ll be stalked and killed by an apparition unless she has sex with someone else, thus passing on the curse. And Hugh’s not off the hook, either, because if Jay is killed, the curse reverts back to him.
Most horror films feature young characters on a spectrum from forgettable to unlikeable. “It Follows” breaks that mold, particularly with fresh-faced Monroe – a surefire future star – as the sympathetic lead character. But because every actor is playing coming-of-age drama archetypes rather than horror-movie archetypes, they are all likeable for being believable. The group includes Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who has always had a thing for childhood pal Jay; Kelly (Lili Sepe), Jay’s sister; Yara (Olivia Luccardi), the arty one; and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the Jordan Catalano stand-in.
They are all recent high school graduates in their late teens or early 20s, but none has struck out on their own. Kelly and Paul work at an ice-cream parlor and Jay attends community college, but there’s a general sense of malaise – in terms of both motivation and economic prospects (and those two things are inextricably linked). Although Yara has a clamshell Kindle of some sort, their families’ houses have old appliances and we never see anyone on a computer or smart phone.
There’s only one line of dialog referencing the economic collapse of Detroit – they mention how their parents wouldn’t let them go south of 8 Mile Drive, even to the state fair, when they were younger – yet it is a palpable backdrop. The shots of Detroit are familiar from news stories of recent years. By now, the shots of block upon block of empty, ruined houses have a certain sad beauty to them. The youths explore one of the houses, ostensibly looking for Hugh. But it’s largely an excuse for Mitchell to engage in the documentary portion of his movie.
The horror stuff is solid. While there are a couple of jump scares, “It Follows” is built on a sturdier foundation. Rich Vreeland’s creepy, old-fashioned score would make “Psycho’s” Bernard Hermann proud. The apparitions are straight out of sexual-anxiety nightmares: Usually unattractive naked people, but sometimes the stalker takes the form of someone known to the target. And the film does a good job of spelling out the rules: The creature is “slow but not stupid,” Hugh says. It’s always out there walking after you, but it only walks at a steady pace, so by driving far away you can buy yourself time.
So what is the meaning of “It Follows?” That’s up to the individual viewer, and perhaps even Mitchell didn’t have anything specific in mind. Several images emphasize the almost-forced tightness of the group, from the girls sleeping next to each other to a couple holding hands after willingly trading the curse. But that unity is a temporary reprieve. “It Follows” is about the inability to escape one’s circumstances, past decisions, strong feelings – and most of all, the advancement from childhood to adulthood.