“This thing… it’s going to follow you. It can be someone you know, or a stranger in a crowd. It can look like anyone… But there’s only one of it.”
Such is the simple premise of It Follows, an American horror film with more throwbacks than you could count on the fingers of both hands. On the one side it references slasher movies such as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and other B-movie style horror films from the 1980s-90s, while on the other hand, its set-up and pervading atmosphere is hauntingly reminiscent of Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998) and the distinctive Japanese horror films that followed it.
The former influence comes through not in excessive amounts of blood and gore (of which, aside from a nostalgic opening scene featuring a typical young female victim, there is surprisingly little here), but rather in the concurrent themes hinted at by rules established early on. Essentially this is a film about sex, but not quite in the flippant, gratuitous way that many other American movies handle the subject.
Plot-wise, It Follows centers on a mysterious entity that latches on to those who ‘catch’ it, almost like a disease, and then follows them at walking pace. It never stops to rest or sleep, and regularly changes its appearance. Cue a number of clever scenes and instances in which director David Robert Mitchell skilfully creates fear using the seemingly innocuous idea of people walking in various locations, from various camera angles.
There are few cheap jump scares, as the focus is more on the slow, foreboding atmosphere brought on by the knowledge that this thing, this entity or ghost or whatever it is, does not discriminate on who it follows. If you catch it, it will follow you without mercy or reason. The thing itself does not seem a particularly evil presence (at least not initially), merely an instinctual one, existing with one purpose in mind; to catch up with you, and to do so… slowly.
In that element, you can clearly see its Japanese influence. The methodical way in which the entity pursues its victims is reminiscent of the ghostly Sadako in Ring, who similarly pursued victims by slowly emerging from their television screens, having been spread to them via another seemingly innocuous device (in that case, a video tape).
Clever meanings could also be read into Ring, though the metaphor in this case is much more obvious to the casual viewer. Spreading the ‘virus’ in It Follows is, to put it bluntly, through casual sex, and no doubt one would think twice, if only briefly, before rushing into such encounters again having seen this film. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine the way in which this entity pursues its victims is representative of a sexually transmitted infection, while the fact that its main target is a young woman (played amiably by Maika Monroe), who easily attracts the attention of all her male peers, is a not-so-subtle wink back to the familiar tropes of those slasher movies the film knows so well.
Such a concept could easily have been played for laughs, and unintentionally would have been if this film had got its tone wrong. Thankfully, It Follows gets that part just right. For all its obvious homages and surface-level leitmotifs, the movie delivers its set pieces with such confidence that you’re forced to take its threat seriously. And I guarantee it will genuinely scare you at least twice, if not throughout.
Suffice to say I liked the film very much, from the moment its loud 1980s-style horror soundtrack kicked in during the opening scene. Its music, perhaps the film’s most accomplished element overall, is paced terrifically, piping up at the right moments and quieting at others. In fact the scariest parts of this experience would be much less effective without its help; the soundtrack seems, more often than not, to be the entity’s complicit sidekick in its mission to frighten you – they very much work in tandem when on screen together.
Yes, I liked it very much – but not entirely. Unfortunately as the movie approaches the final third it breaks one or two of its own established rules, and while this is occasionally to be encouraged, I felt it was a case of some of those American bad habits resurfacing.
Though for what this film does on the whole, it deserves to be praised. For all the past criticism I’ve generally given the Hollywood approach to horror, I’d love to see it continuing the trend that we see here; for it to focus more on prolonged atmosphere and the unknown, over relying on three-second shocks to make you jump or the in-your-face demonology that it frequently reverts to.
When American studios began remaking popular J-horror films into The Ring (2002) and The Grudge (2004), we saw they were at least intrigued by a different brand of terror. With a film like It Follows, I feel they may have found treasure at last. The movie doesn’t represent a masterpiece by any means, but it feels like an important transitional step towards something that one day could be.
9 / 10