Director: David Robert Mitchell
Studios: Northern Lights Films, Animal Kingdom, Two Flints, RADiUS-TWC
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary
Tagline: It doesn’t think. It doesn’t feel. It doesn’t give up.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, psychological thriller, drama, teen
Scare score: A
Plot overview: After finding out her new boyfriend Hugh (Weary) isn’t who he claims to be, college student Jay (Monroe) learns she’s being followed by a murderous force that will track her down unless she “passes it on” by having sex with somebody new. Jay is skeptical at first but soon finds herself plagued by something horrendous taking the forms of loved ones and gruesome strangers. As she tracks down Hugh to learn more about the entity with the help of her sister (Sepe) and their friends, Jay must make the terrible decision: keep running, or pass it on.
I adore this movie. After seeing it in theaters a couple years back I was aware how important it felt; I’ve watched it countless times since and it’s frequently at the top of my list when recommending newer horror movies to others.
Of course I’m biased because It Follows has some of Horror Buff’s favorite components, namely a retro feel, a healthy monster-mystery ratio, and a stunning synth soundtrack giving me the ’80s vibe I crave in movies.
Let’s start with the worldbuilding because it’s the first thing that stood out to me upon seeing this film, and I feel it’s one of its strongest suits. At first we are handed a seemingly standard middle America filled with split-level houses and backyard pools— and that certainly is the reality that It Follows takes place inside of. There is a huge commentary on urban decay and division, specifically around the Detroit metro area (similar to Don’t Breathe, also with Daniel Zovatto), which I feel ties into the loss of innocence theme I will explore later. In many ways, writer and director David Robert Mitchell made his sophomore movie as a love story to his home state of Michigan, from the suburbs to Detroit to the Great Lakes, and I really appreciated that.
Where the reality we’re given starts to take a more interesting turn is in the mix of modern and retro, as well as futuristic. One of the most fantastic details in the movie is Yara’s (Luccardi) Polly Pocket-meets-Kindle tech, a savvy reimagining of modern E-readers (flashlight included!) that I couldn’t get enough of (and she uses it to read Dostoevsky, nonetheless). We also see a mix of retro cars, black and white TVs, movie theaters with organs, and old fashioned furniture that flood this film with Americana ranging roughly between the 1960s and the 2030s. This is complemented by the retro synth soundtrack and the very, very cool poster seen above.
This is truly some of the best horror I can recall seeing in recent years, even if the movie loses its way a little towards the end. I think one of the best things this film has going for it is that the horror here is twofold: both supernatural and very real and present. In terms of the latter, and like many horror movies set in suburbia, the concept of small neighborhoods and teenagers being terrorized means the home is no longer safe. In this case of this supernatural entity, even friends and family may not be who they seems, and so this curse of sorts—and the real or imagined stigma around it—isolates you. We see how Jay is still paranoid and locks herself in her room even after she knows she is temporarily “safe.”
Strong acting from this movie’s young cast makes things even more enjoyable, specifically thanks to the unassuming Maika Monroe (a budding scream queen in her own right, she also stars in the fun thriller The Guest) and the perfectly dorky Keir Gilchrist, who I’m sure we will continue to see more of. I also really liked Olivia Luccardi as the dry and precocious Yara; she added a fun dimension to the group.
The movie’s fantastic cinematography echoes this sense of paranoia and stays true to the film’s title: the camerawork constantly makes us feel like we are being followed. This voyeurism begins in innocent ways—the neighbors watching Jay in the pool at the beginning, Jay’s game of picking somebody in public to trade places with—but steadily grows more sinister when we feel like we’re watching or being watched from the back seat of the car or being spied upon during the initial sex scene. These creepier shots are complemented by the film’s use of beautiful widescreen and even 360 degree captures that show off both interior sets and the stunning Michigan landscape; either way they remind us that someone or something is always watching. I also loved the shots of Jay in (above and below) the pool towards the end, as well as the many shots of the kids throughout the movie, so often lounging around, whether in spite or unaware of the looming terror. To me, this also represented the sort of innocence experienced by Kelly, Yara, and Paul (Gilchrist) even after Jay has lost hers.
I really can’t stress how much I enjoy this movie and all the questions it raises, especially in terms of what the evil entity is. The film strikes a great balance between showing us the various manifestations of ‘it’ and leaving us searching for something onscreen that may or may not really be there. Few things are scarier to me than something in the distance steadily getting closer, and this movie has that in spades. How terrifying are the actors/makeup chosen for the scenes where we do see ‘it’? I think for this reason alone it’s some of the best horror we’ve seen in years. This movie uses nudity so, so well (similar to 2018’s Hereditary, both with cinematography by Mike Gioulakis). It makes sense here given the sexual themes of the film (are some of these deformed bodies former victims?), but it also terrifies and disgusts us, even in taboo ways (incarnations of naked and/or wounded parents, the big naked man on the roof, and my favorite, the woman peeing in the kitchen— few things are more horrifying than a wet sock). It’s almost a shame that these manifestations sometimes come and go too quickly or before we meet certain characters, because ultimately we see ‘it’ appear as both Hugh and Greg’s moms as well as Jay’s dad. In terms of casting, the scariest part of this movie to me is when the coast seems clear until the ‘Giant’ enters Jay’s bedroom looking like some version of Lurch straight out of hell. This was also a lovely nod to Michigan since that actor is the late Mike Lanier, former basketball player and Michigan’s tallest man, who passed away in 2018.
Speaking of theories and themes, we have the obvious statement about STIs, which I think is the most accepted form of what the entity in the film represents. There is something to be said about risk taking behavior, especially in adolescence, being constantly reminded or educated about the danger of something and still not taking precaution. The younger kids are even seen playing Old Maid while Jay is out on her nightmare date, an innocent childhood game where the loser is left with the card of the unmarried woman. Then there is the big loss of innocence theme, starting early in the film from the neighbors innocently spying on Jay in her bathing suit, to her being too cool or mature to hang out with her sisters and friends (who discuss crushes and laugh at their farts), to Jay’s virginal pink dress and modest, retro bra/underwear on her dates with Hugh. Even after sleeping with Hugh, Jay comments on how she “used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates and drive around in cars,” and in the follow moments that innocence is stripped away. The idea of sex (Jay’s first time?) becomes something dangerous and suddenly represents violence as it becomes quickly weaponized. “Just sleep with someone as soon as you can,” Hugh warns her, later commenting that it should be easy for her because she’s a pretty girl. This careless and dangerous sexism continues both with skeptical player Greg (Zovatto) and even the dorky and innocent Paul— is he really trying to protect Jay, or is this all a chance for him to finally sleep with her after years of pining? In the movie’s most quietly defeating scene, Jay strips down a swims out to a boat filled with three men, implying that she will have sex with all of them to buy herself more time.
In many ways, this movie is also about duplicity, from Jay and Hugh going to see Charade on their movie date to Hugh lying about his identity to Greg, Paul, and Jay’s equally questionable behavior throughout the movie in regards to sex and self-preservation. Does Paul really sleep with those sex workers or is he just scouting out potential victims to help himself?
On the other hand, the movie may not be about sexually transmitted infections so much as the general existential view that death is inevitable and constantly getting closer. Sex (or love) is but one thing we can do to give our time meaning or make life feel like it’s lasting longer; still, nothing changes our ultimate fate. This theme is paralleled by Yara’s reading of The Idiot—ripe with messages about morality, fate, and losing your personhood—as well as when Jay’s teacher reads from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”— a poem filled with beautiful and haunting lines like “Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?/ In a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”
Finally, we have the idea of water as purifying, from Jay floating in her backyard pool to the group escaping to the lake to finally fighting ‘it’ in a pool. Ultimately, I’m not sure what gives the kids the idea that this force, which we haven’t seen anyone but Jay and a half-assed Paul show any real reaction to, can be killed via electrocution. I thought this scene became a bit of a cop-out—in general any of the scenes where the kids try blindly to shoot ‘it’ but are actually shooting towards their friends became a little wild and annoying—but I did love that the man at the pool is implied to be their absent father, which is why Jay is hesitant to tell her friends too much. Like all good ghost movies, I love when ‘it’ materializes under the sheet they throw on top of him and suddenly open air has a frightening human shape. One final thing that bugged me that I can’t really get over is when Jay sleeps on the hood of her car in the middle of a forested road, which seemed out of character and frankly asinine for somebody who has fought so hard to stay safe the entire movie.
Final critique: All in all, the film does have a few small holes and overly dramatic moments, and it loses its way a bit towards the end. In spite of these weak points, this movie is fantastic and one of the strongest examples the horror genre has had in years. I would recommend this movie to anybody, but I think it really is quite scary, both in its lingering moral and supernatural questions. How great would this movie be to watch in a drive-in somewhere? Can’t beat that retro feel with modern techniques, plots, and special effects. Be safe out there!