Early in the atmospheric, film festival-horror favorite It Follows, cursed heroine Jay (Maika Monroe) is sitting in a college classroom when she notices an elderly lady across the courtyard outside the classroom window, walking toward the building. When this woman reaches Jay, Jay will die. The notable thing for this type of film is that the old woman is, for the type of entity which would kill a person, not particularly scary looking. Her face isn’t twisted into some demonic visage; she doesn’t look like a ghost or a monster. She just looks like a normal person. A normal person, just a little off, who is in actuality a specter arriving to kill Jay.
There are many pulse-pounding scenes in It Follows like this one, and though they sound unthreatening (and rather look that way as well), in the context of the film they’re quite rattlingly effective. The plot of the film is simple, if skeezy: during a backseat sexual encounter Jay’s former beau infected her with a type of communicable curse which dooms her to endless pursuit by slow-walking figures only seen by the infected, figures which follow her night and day and can appear in different human forms. Jay’s only recourse to free herself from these malevolent ghosts is to have sex with someone else and pass it along to him. Of course, if said ghosts kill the new owner, the curse goes back to Jay.
That’s really it. It’s an undoubtedly creative concept for a horror movie — if also a ham-handed and in-your-face allegory for sexually transmitted disease — but the remaining hour and twenty minutes of It Follows offer an unshakeable sense of dread as poor, scared Jay runs, drives and swims away from a steady stream of stone-faced demons coming for her. Along the way, her friends offer up help (though they can’t help much since they can’t see the apparitions themselves) and the gang tries method after method to rid Jay of her sexytime-consigned doom.
It Follows, as a horror movie, isn’t particularly terrifying — it’s like watching Halloween if Halloween was only Michael Myers standing outside in the yard or slowly climbing the stairs for two hours — but it’s very, very off-putting, likely because director David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover) uses his time to ratchet up a constant, intense sense of the creeps instead of employing grotesque special effects or gory murders. Jay’s silent, dead-eyed pursuers don’t look like Walking Dead-style zombies; they look like actual people. They can come from any direction at any time and can look like any age of human being. Though we’re dying to know where this STD/curse came from, or what actually happens when the apparitions reach the infected, Mitchell isn’t as concerned with these questions. He just wants to give you the willies. And he does.
It all begs the question, then, that if a horror movie isn’t particularly, viscerally scary can it still be a good horror movie? After all, some of the most frightening movies of the past fifty years didn’t deliver buckets of gore or intense visual scares; it could be argued that The Blair Witch Project was just a bunch of people running around in the forest, or that Silence of the Lambs was just an intense FBI procedural, or that Misery is just about the world’s frumpiest lady. Mitchell has created, in It Follows, a villainy that’s nothing more than simply “regular-looking persons walking in your direction.”
Oddly, that’s enough. Paired with an eighties-style synthesizer score that offers more than a nod to the music of John Carpenter’s films (in fact, much of the movie feels like a subversive Carpenter homage itself), Jay’s tribulations create a frightening series of increasingly intense encounters. The aforementioned dread latches onto the audience fifteen minutes in and coils around it like a python, slowly squeezing — and Mitchell delivers a tremendously innovative, stylistic horror film which likely will be long remembered despite the fact that it’s inevitably going to spawn at least five terrible direct-to-video sequels. With more outside-the-box horror offerings like It Follows and 2014’s excellent The Babadook making waves in the horror pool, the bar is slowly being raised — and for horror fans that’s something long awaited.