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With its masterful combination of genres—teen coming of age, Romero zombie, 80s slasher and Japanese horror—all mashed into a simple concept, It Follows is an impressive new entry into the canon of scary stories. The story follows nineteen-year-old Jay, played by brilliant Maika Monroe, who sleeps with a guy she is dating and is given a sexually transmitted ghost/zombie/monster. The rules of this mystical entity are that only people who have been infected can see it. It is always changing appearance—sometimes it might look like a friend, and other times barely human. It moves by walking slowly, but always toward whoever is currently infected. You can pass it on by sleeping with someone else, but if it catches up to him or her, it will kill them, then start walking to toward you again. Once Jay figures all this out, she and her group of friends try to work out what to do next.
Director David Robert Mitchell uses this premise to full effect. Every extra in the background becomes a potential monster, while at any moment that Jay takes to relax she becomes intensely vulnerable. One of the film’s many strengths is its setting in Detroit. Large parts of the city have become run down ghost towns, perfect for a modern urban horror story. Also, the fact that the main characters are poor teenagers with family responsibilities in an economically depressed city limits their options. A wealthy person could avoid this slow-moving ghost with very little effort, whereas these poor kids can’t just jump on an airplane to the other side of the world. This is a horror about poverty and being trapped in a declining city as much as it is about being chased by a ghost.
Stylistically, this film is a wonder to behold. The soundtrack, a 80s style booming, creepy electronic masterpiece, is very much a lynchpin of what makes this film work. It does much of the heavy lifting of setting the tone. The music gives even the most benign shots a sense of unease. Then, when the film is at its most terrifying, the score becomes a sonic wave of tension. Relying so heavily on music cues is usually a sign of laziness or a filmmaker’s lack of confidence in their ability to convey emotion. However, in It Follows, the score is so perfectly in sync with the visuals it comes across as nothing but well-crafted. The visuals themselves are all very impressive. Slow pans and deeply out of focus backgrounds make it feel like the ghost could appear at any moment. When it actually does, it is usually framed in the centre of the shot, looking right at the camera. As anyone who is familiar with films like Ringu and Ju-on knows, if you have the creepy slow moving monster, this filming technique will massively increase the impending horror vibe. However, the film’s biggest weakness is that despite the ghost looking pretty disturbing when it is slowly walking, it loses that sense whenever it does anything more.
It is only natural to wonder what this film is trying to say with its sexually-transmitted ghost. Horror stories have often been thinly veiled metaphors for actual social anxieties. At various points in history, vampires have represented disease or fears of sexual desire, while zombies have become an articulation of the worries of the mind-numbing effect of consumer society on the population. Scary stories let us engage with our very real fears in a safe and controlled situation. The premise of It Follows could easily be used to tell a very moralistic anti-sex story. However, there is no trace of that type of conservatism at all. The sex is portrayed as simply a normal thing that people engage in. The moral of this story is that sex is, in one way or another, something we all have to navigate and there can be all sorts of consequences from it. Some of those consequences can be pretty scary for many different reasons and they can feel like there will follow you around for the rest of your life. It Follows is a powerful analogy that will keep you thinking long after it has finished. More importantly, the film doesn’t lose any of its fear-inducing creepiness for being an analogy. It is often said the best way to destroy our monsters is to deconstruct them. However, the complex themes around teenage sexual awakening combined with terrifying imagery make It Follows an instant classic.