The premise of David Robert Mitchell’s sublime creepshow It Follows is both devilishly simple and outlandish. In a suburb outside Detroit, teenage girl Jay (Maika Monroe) has started dating Hugh (Jake Weary), a dude prone to erratic behavior; at the movies one evening, he insists they leave the theater because a girl in a yellow dress — whom Jay can’t see — is following him. On their next date, Jay sleeps with Hugh for the first time, in the back of his car. They’ve barely finished before he knocks her out with chloroform.
Jay awakens to find herself in a vacant lot, bound to a wheelchair. She’s a literal captive audience as Hugh breaks the news that he’s just passed a curse on to her: she will be pursued, he says, by an unstoppable specter bent on killing her, until she has sex with someone else. At that point the nameless apparition — it can take the form of any person — will lose interest in her and stalk her unlucky sexual partner, unless he in turn can pass the curse on to someone else.
Concerned adults — cops, doctors, and her mother — treat Jay’s story as a traumatized girl’s crazy talk, but she gets the benefit of the doubt from her younger sisters. Also on board is local kid Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who’s harbored a crush on Jay since childhood. This de facto Scooby Gang is eventually joined by Greg (Daniel Zovatto), a cocky, slightly older greaser-stoner from down the street. Greg may just be indulging Jay for the chance to sleep with her, but his car and driver’s license are useful assets the other kids are in no position to turn down.
Writer-director Mitchell doesn’t treat his teen protagonists as pop-culture–referencing ironists. Even with his minimalist style, he’s sensitive to the nuances of unspoken feelings between these kids, not to mention the inevitable sexual tension and curiosity that arise among them, mortal peril or no. The threat hanging over Jay begs the question of whether she’ll have sex again to pass on the curse; Greg’s sexual swagger and lovelorn Paul’s insecurity here become matters of life and death. (Just as those traits are in the minds of teenage boys everywhere.)
Is It Follows groundbreaking, or reactionary? Have sex for the first time and be punished with a fatal curse — and the only way you can save yourself is to condemn someone else to likely death. Or is it more important to note that Jay can only save herself by having sex again, with a new partner?
In other words, does Mitchell’s provocative premise overthrow the lamentable slasher-movie convention that only the chaste good girl survives? A self-sacrificing vow of chastity on Jay’s part would do no good: once the nameless spirit kills her, it will simply go back to stalking Hugh, and so on back down the line. Adolescent sexual confusion is no doubt universal, but I wondered if the sexual anxiety that all but defines It Follows isn’t uniquely American. Would a French, or, I don’t know, Romanian take on this story play out any differently?
Given the movie’s loaded set-up, it’s possible to imagine a wildly lurid version of It Follows. Picture the poster for a 1970s grindhouse take on this scenario. But Mitchell gives his sensational material a coolly detached treatment, sidestepping exposition in his script and eschewing histrionics from his adept young cast. (For once the actors all look like kids, crucial to the movie’s success.)
The storytelling is literally detached in that Mitchell and his talented DP Mike Gioulakis have opted to shoot much of the movie in wide shots, thereby upending the standard horror flick visual grammar of tight, claustrophobic framing. Instead of what we can’t see, it’s what we can see that’s memorably unsettling.
Here the most mundane surroundings — a suburban living room, classrooms, a playground — become suffused with terror. No space is safe. The bag of tricks that has become a lazy shorthand in horror movies of the last 10 or 12 years gets no play here; no ominous shapes pass in front of the camera. Instead, it’s fascinating how the simple device of a single, far-off figure walking steadily toward the camera can inspire so much dread. It’s as if Mitchell and Gioulakis have built an entire movie around the ever-unnerving opening scene of George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Mitchell and Gioulakis’ use of space and composition are thrillingly cinematic; it’s an understatement to write that these guys know how to frame a shot. The filmmakers’ inspired use of the widescreen prompts the viewer into constant alertness: we have to peer at all corners of the image, perpetually on the lookout for that one lone figure — it could be anyone — advancing toward us. See this movie on the biggest screen you can.