David Robert Mitchell’s creepshow has met with almost universal acclaim, which is sufficient reason to question how effective a horror film it actually is. The truth is that “It Follows” has a few genuinely scary moments and a consistently brooding (though only sporadically tense) atmosphere. It’s not an instant genre classic, but neither is it a dud. It falls resolutely in the middle, agreeably unsettling if not the terrifying experience some have claimed.
One thing is certain: it’s the work of someone who appreciates the two best stalker flicks of the late seventies and early eighties, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” The setting, in suburban Detroit, isn’t unlike Haddonfield, Illinois, and the electronic score by Disasterpeace reminds one of Carpenter’s without simply mimicking it. The death scene of one character follows, virtually beat for beat, that of the young Johnny Depp in “Nightmare.” And the overall subtext about sexual promiscuity as the catalyst of disaster—here the entire scenario is an obvious metaphor for the spread of venereal disease—hearkens back to both pictures.
But there are differences as well. Mitchell’s tone is quite different from Carpenter’s or Craven’s. He affects a moody, lapidary style that has a slacker-like feel to it, emphasizing its teen characters’ generally drab, generally enervated lifestyle, which is suddenly interrupted by the intrusion of an inexplicable destructive force. By contrast his models were far more energetic, even hysterical affairs. On the positive side, the change gives “It Follows” a dreamier, more hallucinatory quality, but at the same time robs it of the visceral power the earlier films possessed.
The picture begins with a prologue showing a teen named Annie (Bailey Spry) fleeing her house in apparent fear of some unseen force and winding up dead, her body cruelly deformed, on a lakeside. The focus then shifts to Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty blonde who’s hanging out with a guy calling himself Hugh (Jake Weary), who seems nervous about someone spying on him. After they have sex in the back of his car, he chloroforms her and ties her up, forcing her to listen to his explanation: a former partner had infected him with a curse—a shape-shifter invisible to everyone but him was pursuing him, and the only way he could get rid of the apparition was to pass on the affliction to somebody else, who would then be stalked by it. Now Jay would be its target, and she had to avoid being killed by it; because if she were, the curse would devolve to him again, and so on down the line to, presumably, the point of origin. With that explanation—accompanied of course by the first appearance of the mysterious entity—he disappears.
What follows is Jay’s effort to stay at least one step ahead of the stalker, which appears randomly in various forms—an old woman, a cheerleader dripping wet, a naked man on a roof, and so on—while her friends look on incredulously and try to help. The most important of them are Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a geeky fellow who’s obviously long cherished a crush on her, and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the stud from across the road; but Jay’s younger sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and their chum Yara (Olivia Luccardi) are also aboard. Suffice it to say that their efforts to flee far from danger—to the lake, for example—prove ineffectual, because while the entity is slow-moving, lumbering along at a typical zombie’s pace, it’s preternaturally persistent, inevitably showing up no matter where its prey might be. Eventually the crew—or what’s left of it—try to set a trap for the thing at a swimming pool. Whether they’re successful or not is left to the viewer’s imagination.
“It Follows” is neither a gorefest—the amount of blood spilled is modest, and artistically deployed—nor a special-effects extravaganza (the scenes in which the entity’s presence is discerned by those other than its intended target feature tricks as old as “The Invisible Man”). And it’s marked by acting that, to be charitable, is hardly of award caliber. Monroe’s sullen listlessness, in particular, can have a deadening effect. Yet there’s a purpose behind Mitchell’s method, which is to portray the lassitude that afflicts these kids’ empty lives (at one point they’re even shown watching a fifties-era Peter Graves sci-fi movie on TV, which can be taken as the ultimate proof of boredom), and while that’s hardly invigorating from the audience’s perspective, it does make a point about suburban existence. The physical production, designed by Michael T. Perry, makes good use of the Detroit-area locations while capturing an indeterminate period ambience, and cinematographer Michael Gioulakis, obviously working closely with the director, employs the widescreen images cleverly, working the fringes of the frame to provide glimpses of individuals who might be dangerous apparitions.
“It Follows” leaves room for a sequel, though one rather suspects that Mitchell would emulate Carpenter and Craven once again by handing over the director’s reins to somebody else and moving on. That would be a wise decision, since he seems more at home with the quiet interludes than the sporadic action scenes here (the two big ones are actually pretty chaotically choreographed), and as much as he might love modern horror pictures, his talent appears to lie elsewhere. For the moment, however, one can admire the way in which he’s fashioned a homage to two of the most memorable works in the genre with his own distinctive sensibility.