Some horror films, like last year’s critically beloved “The Babadook,” derive their power by tapping into primal fears. Others, like the willfully novel “It Follows,” aim to unsettle us with new nightmares.
A shapeshifting specter — sometimes naked, but usually dressed in grungy white – pursues teen Jay (Maika Monroe), breaking her windows, pounding on her bedroom door and spying on her from the roof. It’s terrifying not because it might kill Jay, but because we have no idea why or how.
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s influences, on the other hand, are no secret at all. “It Follows” has David Lynch’s fingerprints all over it, from the dead blond girl found on the beach at the film’s outset to the fat, lingering synthesizer chords on the soundtrack, to the surreally still suburban setting to the mysterious “monster” that doesn’t make much sense.
And yet it’s an undeniable triumph of mood — perfect for anyone who wants to practice clenching their fists for nearly 100 straight minutes — as well as an ambitious effort at reinventing horror by eschewing the genre’s
Jay’s first sexual experience ends in pretty much the worst way possible — with her slightly older boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) knocking her out and tying her to a chair in an abandoned building. But he doesn’t want to hurt her — not anymore. He just needs to warn her about how he already has: by sleeping with her, he’s transferred the target on his back to her. Now she’s the one hounded by a supernatural creature that wants to kill her.
“Don’t let it touch you,” Hugh advises. “Just pass it along [through sex with someone else]. Get rid of it.” It shouldn’t be any problem for a gorgeous girl like her, he figures.
The film gives Jay nary a minute to deal with the emotional ramifications of being used sexually — and yet not even sexually — before the wraith begins its slow, silent stalking. Jay can outrun it as long as she’s outdoors or in a room with more than two doors, but she’s quickly reduced to a traumatized heap of exhaustion. The rest of the movie finds the seemingly friendless girl attempting to elude her pursuer with the help of her little sister (Lili Sepe) and her two pals.
And, of course, Jay considers transferring her curse to two potential knights-in-chivalrous-suffering: her adult male neighbor (Daniel Zovatto), who thinks he can handle the burden, and her younger sister’s easily exploitable friend (Keir Gilchrist), who’s nursed a puppy-dog crush on Jay for years.
“It Follows” isn’t a moral exercise, but rather a visceral ride that explores the psychological tolls of living with constant dread. To its enormous credit, the film abandons jump scares almost entirely in lieu of long shots that increase in stomach-dropping suspense with every second that goes by. And unlike most studio offerings, it’s very nearly bloodless, deriving its frights instead from the grotesque and the uncanny.
The suburbs where Jay drives around at night, bleary from lack of sleep, are smartly timeless and teeming with perils. Right before Jay is infected by her boyfriend, the trees, lit up in orange and red, seem to glow in protest.
Only at the very end, when the facts about the “monster” seem to contradict what we learned about it earlier, does the self-assured narrative ever falter. And even then, there’s no denying that “It Follows” is a coup for originality.