It Follows is the first film in a long time to have me on the edge of my seat for almost 90 minutes, my stomach in knots. What makes It Follows successful is rather than going post-modern, meta or inverting tropes, it sticks with the basic horror movie formula: introduce an understandable threat, assemble a cast of likable characters, and turn the tension up to 11. The original Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween understood this.
If you haven’t seen the trailer (it’s embedded below), the premise is that there is a curse that is transmitted during sex. Whoever is afflicted will be stalked by some thing that wants to kill that person. This thing (that I will call “the demon,” though I don’t think it gets a moniker in the film) can take on the form of anyone, but only moves at a walking pace and only the afflicted person can see it. The only cure is to pass the curse on to someone else through sex. But, if the demon kills the afflicted person, it will then stalk and kill whoever was previously afflicted and so on down the line.
Our main character is Jay, a college student who has sex with her new boyfriend, Hugh, for the first time. But Hugh was being stalked by the demon and has now passed it to Jay, and then quickly disappears after explaining the rules and showing Jay something that Hugh insists proves the demon is real.
From here, Jay has to deal with what has happened. Was Hugh lying? Is the demon real? Slowly, she and her group of friends are stalked by this demon that only Jay can see, forcing them to first flee and then fight. All the while, Jay has to consider if she can temporarily save herself, but curse someone else, by sleeping with someone.
Because the concept is simple, we never know when the demon is going to appear nor in what form. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell uses this to great effect. In several scenes, we see someone in the background walking toward Jay, but the scene ends with this character still in the background. Is this the demon or just an extra? In other scenes, the demon appears in a startling but still human form. The demon’s plodding but unrelenting pace only adds to its menace. (Remember when a single, slow zombie was terrifying?) As a character explains, wherever you are it’s somewhere walking straight for you. But it’s walking.
The film also smartly leaves a number of things unexplored. How did the demon start? How does Hugh know about it? Can someone who was afflicted becoming afflicted again? Can the demon travel over water, making an island safe? While I worry these will be explored in an inevitable sequel, proving as satisfying as Freddy’s dream demons and the Curse of Thorn, in It Follows we only know what Jay knows, which is to try to survive and never knowing when the demon will reach her.
At the same time, it leaves some things up to the audience to decide. When you see the film, ask yourself what happened between Jay and the guys on the boat? Why the long, lingering shot of the girl in the cafeteria with Greg? What does the last shot at the pool mean? Did Paul sleep with a prostitute or couldn’t bring himself to do it?
As a film about sex, it treats it realistically. This isn’t some keep-it-zipped-or-die metaphor. Having sex isn’t treated as a magical moment between two people nor just a casual, meaningless act. The sex scenes are realistic, but not gratuitous.
The film isn’t perfect. The demon seems to quickly get to some distant places, but never arrives at all when the characters are only a short distance away. (I found myself wondering if the writer worked out the demon’s ground speed, plotted the different locations and then figured out when the demon would arrive… because I am such a geek I would have done that.) Some tracking shots seem to go on for too long. Near the end of the film, the demon appears in a place that doesn’t make sense. And there is some kind of voyeuristic subplot that is never fully developed.
But it works a lot more than it falters, and some of the tracking shots are damn eerie—why is the camera lingering on a location where there isn’t anything happening? (We learn why later.) Music and sound are used to wonderful, terrifying effect. And the set-up of mounting, inevitable dread is pitch-perfect. You can avoid Freddy if you stay awake and the shark by staying on land, but the demon is always coming.
It Follows doesn’t need expensive effects, big name actors or large set pieces to be effective. Just someone slowly walking and never, ever stopping.