It Follows is a new indie horror movie that’s got something new to say in a very engaging and eerie way. It came out in limited release on March 13th and spread to more theaters on the 20th. Usually a small movie like this ($2 million budget) will go to Video On Demand pretty quickly but this one is doing so well and has such overwhelming critical support (94% approval on Rotten Tomatoes based on 101 reviews as of the time of this review) that the distributor plans to give it a wide release soon. My advice? See it. In fact, see it at night and see it alone, if you can. It can only add to the experience. So what makes it so special? Read our spoiler-free review below to find out.
The movie follows Jay (actress Maika Monroe, upcoming indie actress with some serious chops) who agrees to have sex with her new boyfriend, Hugh. Except right after, he chloroforms her and ties her to a wheelchair in an abandoned and graffiti’d warehouse somewhere in Detroit. He does this to explain what’s going on: someone passed this curse on to him and now he’s passed it on to her. There’s a thing that will now come for her. It will only go at a slow walking pace, but it’s not stupid. It can look like someone she knows or a total stranger but only she will see it. No matter where she goes, it will always be walking towards her. If it gets to her, it will kill her and then go for the previous person.
Basically, it feels like an urban legend against the dangers of sex but we see that it’s very real early on. I won’t say anymore about the plot, but Jay’s younger sister, Kelly, and their friends Paul, Yara and Greg do everything they can to learn about, avoid or stop the thing that’s always following Jay. The whole movie is a slow burn where you’re constantly scanning the background of every scene to see if anything is moving in a straight line. The thing always appears human but can take some very disturbing forms, whether it’s family or someone who has been abused, or is naked or old. It’s always creepy, but the movie actually isn’t very gory. It’s more about the fear of never being safe for long and always wanting to make sure you have more than one exit no matter where you go.
The movie made me think of the original Nightmare on Elm Street in that you are never really safe. It also brought to mind the early Paranormal Activity films where you have mostly still, intensely quiet scenes where you’re staring at the frame, looking for something out of place, knowing something sudden could happen any moment. I love horror movies and this one definitely had me on edge the entire time.
The movie is scary and I told you the plot, but it’s also ABOUT something. It’s totally a coming of age story. Jay’s immediate concern may be finding a way to stay alive but what she truly wants is the freedom of being an adult. She seems to be 18 or 19, lives at home with her mother and sister. She talks to Hugh early on about how she used to dream of driving off into the mountains for a date with a nice boy, not to really go anywhere, but to have the freedom to do so. Sex is a big step into adulthood. Maika Monroe plays this cusp of adulthood teen in a very believable way, and manages to make Jay likable too, despite frequently having to be absolutely terrified.
The friends are similarly really likable people. They’re a bit nerdy but have been friends since they were kids and hang out all the time. They genuinely care for one another and don’t ignore or discount Jay just because they can’t see what she sees. It doesn’t matter if she’s right or wrong, they want to make her feel safe. To actually have a cast of teens that you don’t find annoying? That’s a pretty key part to making a GOOD horror movie. True horror isn’t really jump scares or extreme violence (though the release they offer can be fun). It’s in caring about what happens to someone. And for whatever it’s worth, I cared about these kids. I don’t agree with all of their choices but I always understood why they were motivated to do the things they did. It made sense. I was particularly impressed with Keir Gilchrist’s Paul, a vulnerable guy who clearly has feelings for Jay but was also respectful of her decisions to date other guys (even though you could tell it hurt). I liked seeing teenagers work to figure out solutions with what they had available to them.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about Maika Monroe and she’s really impressive.
There are a lot of really interesting choices made by writer and director David Robert Mitchell. Water is clearly a recurring motif, used to show life. He also chose to film this in Detroit and the movie takes multiple opportunities to show the urban decay and the divide between the suburbs and the husk of the city. It’s a setting that hasn’t really been used a lot in movies, at least none that come to mind aside from 8 Mile. The movie is also completely ambiguous about the time it takes place. Yara is constantly fiddling with her tiny phone/tablet thing, but the characters also watch TVs with rabbit ear antenna. And everyone dresses in early 80s denim. It’s cool because it feels timeless.
Mitchell also frames his shots so that we are allowed to catch glimpses of the background whenever people are in a wide open area. There’s one shot that keeps going in a slow 360 pan where a character gets closer and closer with no one really noticing except us because we’re looking for something out of place. Creepy.
One highlight is the music and sound editing. Sometimes when things are getting stressful, a white noise or ocean wave sound slowly grows until it’s nearly deafening. It’s not a sound the characters are hearing. It’s purely to make us, the audience, feel off balance. David Lynch has used sound design like that to make his movies, like Eraserhead or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, unsettling. And the soundtrack by Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace) is a synth-heavy piece that will remind horror fans of John Carpenter’s soundtracks to his horror films like The Thing and Halloween. It definitely makes the film feel a bit 80s. Which I’m sure is intentionally trying to make us think nostalgically of a more innocent time, as that ties in thematically with the story.
As far as complaints, I don’t have many. I may have thought there should be more violence to show us the danger? But that could wreck the very deliberate tone this movie has. It’s hard to say. It also passes through several story twists (that are great) to rush to a conclusion. Or maybe it only seems rushed because there are ambiguities. But those same ambiguities are why I’m still thinking a lot about this movie two days later.
How Many Thumbs?
I obviously loved this movie but before I give my final thumbs, I’ll let you know what my fiancee thought since she went with me. She said she liked the movie a lot but wasn’t scared. I was surprised because she was very scared by the invisible or creeping horror found in the first few Paranormal Activities. But that’s her take. Me? I give it a solid three out of three thumbs.