In a time of horror hits and misses, here’s why It Follows has the potential to stand tall as a modern horror classic.
A mere four years ago, David Robert Mitchell debuted his sophomore feature film It Follows at the Cannes Film Festival. In the years following, it received a theatrical release, high critical acclaim, and even cult status. I only discovered the film earlier this year, but I was immediately enamored with everything about it. The impact it has left on viewers suggests it will be a film re-visited for years to come, and it might just go the distance as a new horror classic.
For those who are perhaps less familiar with the film, it follows 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe), a college student who has a sexual encounter with a boy she’s seeing. She discovers soon after that the encounter passed something on to her — a curse of sorts — that now finds her being pursued by a supernatural entity who follows her everywhere in various body forms. No one else can see it, though, and the only way to rid herself of the curse is to pass it along to someone else through sexual intercourse. The entity is slow-moving, but if it catches up to her it means her death at which point the thing moves on down the line.
The film promotes an interesting message co-opted in part from slasher films — sex can have potentially terrible consequences — but it approaches the idea in an incredibly chilling way that broadens the scope of this premise beyond its most obvious metaphor. The entity could be said to represent an STD of sorts, and the grotesqueness of such a disease is physically actualized through the various bodies it takes the form of, often appearing partly naked, disheveled, or sickly-looking. It goes much deeper than simply acting as a PSA about the dangers of sex, though, and becomes a horror film about regret and consequences. Jay is constantly followed by her bad decision, unable to attend class or even sleep without being haunted by the fallout of her choice. She’s plagued with guilt, regret, and fear, but the film takes that one step further by giving those feelings a physical embodiment—they are always going to be there, and you never know just when they will strike. By having such a jarring visual embodiment for the entity, the message leaves a frightening and lasting impression on the viewer.
It Follows is also a relative rarity with its combination of the teen slasher and supernatural sub-genres of horror. The film’s protagonists, and in fact, nearly all the characters in the film, are teenagers. While remaining inside this immersive suburban world of youth and rebellion, they must consistently and creatively evade the supernatural presence that is stalking Jay. Having a supernatural stalker isn’t a half-bad idea, and the execution proves it even better. The sub-genres work quite well when combined, and while not the first to do this, the film’s innovative use of them gives It Follows a distinctive edge.
The film also pays its dues to its predecessors. There are subtle references to the concept of invisible assailants as depicted in the films Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Entity (1982). Other small references to previous horror films include the swimming-pool scene that serves as the film’s climax, which holds many shots extremely reminiscent of the swimming-pool scene in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977).
Not only was Mitchell’s direction crucial to the film’s success, but two massive contributions that heavily influence the film’s overall impact are the stunning cinematography by Mike Gioulakis and the synth-heavy score by Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace). The cinematography in It Follows is filled with wide pans that follow the movements of the characters, heightening the sensation of fear in the audience, as the movements of the camera are reminiscent of the entity that follows them. The shots encompass the scenery in such a way that it evokes an increasing tone of eeriness to the film.
This is elevated by the score, which is strategically timed throughout the film to channel the rising sense of urgency at various points. The electronic-synth sound at the forefront of the music recalls an impending feeling of doom and death. The accuracy achieved in tone was phenomenal specifically due to the cinematography and score, elevating the film as a whole.
While It Follows clearly stands apart from most of the horror being released this decade thanks to its themes and execution, it pairs those ideas with traditional horror traits evident in other recent genre hits including Hereditary, It, and Get Out. The film draws upon the elements that make all of these recent horrors great in addition to elements of past ones, while also keeping things original enough to keep the audience entertained and fascinated.
The film’s ending is a bit unexpected in its ambivalence which also sets it apart from the route many other horrors take. After a final climactic battle with the “monster” at the community pool the teens hope it’s over but ultimately know that’s not the case. Jay and her sister’s friend Paul choose to move forward with romantic possibilities that were never previously a reality, and the two inevitably have sex. We soon see Paul driving down a dingy street where he passes by prostitutes who we know will be adding a buffer between them and the return of the supernatural follower. The film closes with the young lovers walking hand-in-hand down the street with a figure that may or may not be the entity following closely behind. Their actions have consequences, and they’ll be with them forever.
Jay has come to terms with the fact that she will never be able to fully outrun her demons, but must go on living her life and trying her best to make smart choices and stay ahead of them. Rather than being chock-full of gimmicky and empty scares for mindless entertainment — although it does feature at least one fantastic jump scare — the film reminds us to be mindful of the true terrors present in our own reality, and that alone sets it apart from most other horrors being released today. With its unique insight and sleek sensory experience, It Follows makes for a stinging and memorable horror film that, without a doubt, will be with us for years to come.