Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe and Daniel Zovatto in "It Follows." Photo Credit: RADiUS-TWC.

Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe and Daniel Zovatto in “It Follows.” Photo Credit: RADiUS-TWC.

Horror films have always largely been about two things — fear and sex. The larger statement to be made, surely, is that the act of getting scared is a similar sensation to that of pleasure, much the same way that the prerequisite to pleasure is often to be a little scared. Yet most contemporary horror films have functioned with the addition of a vantage point, which has made modern horror primarily about the act of watching. In this way, sex and fear have come to be understood as a single common sensation; to watch is to be titillated; to be watched is to be hunted.

David Robert Mitchell designs much of It Follows with this in mind, and the result is something surprisingly immersive, if still fundamentally uneven. Mitchell, who made a splash on the indie festival circuit in 2010 with his debut feature The Myth of the American Sleepover, is interested in much of the same textures here: suburban angst; teenage nihilism; the hefty fog of joyful aimlessness. Yet there is a crucial difference. Something strange is happening to the teens in this seemingly normal Michigan suburb. We see it from the film’s jarring opening scene, a young girl running from an unseen force before circling back into her house, the camera following her in an uninterrupted 360 degree shot. There is something following her, chasing her, and by the time we see her again, her body snapped cleanly in half after a tense phone call to her family (in which she assures them that she loves them and that everything is fine), we’ve come to recognize It Follows as a film about abject fear of the worst kind.

Many of the best horror films have largely been fascinated by the idea of facelessness. From Michael Myers’ featureless face stalking the babysitters of an Illinois suburb in Halloween, to fragmenting unease in the faces of the familiar in The Thing (another Carpenter classic), the anxieties that It Follows is most interested in referencing are ones in which terror has both a definitive form and a largely intangible one. This emphasis on what you do see, as much as what you don’t, has been the genre’s point-counterpoint for decades. Here, It Follows is most interesting when it delves fully into the latter, and often comes apart when it feels the need to appease a desire for the former.

Maika Monroe is our blonde heroine, Jay Height, who finds herself plagued by a strange sensation after sleeping with a boy who mysteriously skips town — though not before setting the stage for the film’s nightmare. You see, he’s given Jay something. What it is, he can’t quite explain, but once passed on, “It” (a faceless terror, which, in this genre, is often the scariest kind) is everywhere. It shapeshifts into someone you recognize, and yet no one else can see it. “It” watches you, “It” follows you, and if “It” captures you, then it goes backward in line, and starts to follow the person who gave it to you, and then the person who gave it to them, and so on. The only way to get rid of “It” is by passing it on through sex, an interesting spin on the virginal trope of mid-century horror, or the AIDS panic of the late ’80s.

The key seems at first to write it off; then to endure it. Soon, Jay has assembled a ragtag group of friends to track down the boy who gave it to her; eventually, it seems to be about waiting it out. None prove to be more effective methods than the last, which is in some way perhaps the point. If the film is to be read as an abstract metaphor, possibly the most potent one would be that there is no outrunning a world that ceases to let you be invisible once you come into your body. Once sex enters the consciousness, it reforms reality. In a sense, the film captures that most quiet moment of female adulthood, when one leaves the world of an interested observer and enters one where they are constantly being “seen.”

Monroe has a certain amount of bite to her. She follows in the footsteps of teen protagonists that have come before, but there is a strange stoniness to the performance that takes a bit to land. The stoic exterior matches the subversion of the film’s central terror: where most of horror’s “Women in Danger” find themselves running from a killer, Jay has already been captured, in a sense — the deed has been done. She is the conduit for the film’s menace, not the target. Monroe’s performance finds a unique balance between steely and vulnerable; she buoys the film’s tone, and is largely the connective tissue between the various genres at play here. The film’s function is something close to science fiction, yet its form is more interested in the slasher films of yesteryear, and Monroe is game: she has a blend of Ellen Ripley’s steely conviction from Alien, along with the wide-eyed terror of Neve Campbell in Scream.

The force at the center of It Follows is one we’ve dipped into before. Peeping Tom, Psycho, even moments in Halloween and Friday the 13th soon after — all made the act of being watched something beyond an aesthetic choice. It Follows touches on a lot of the same nerves, utilizing POV shots with more than a passing resemblance to the horror films of yesteryear. There is a distinct sense that a certain lo-fi sensibility has been gutted for parts here, and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (also attached to the much-buzzed Camp X-Ray) knows how to tap into the artifacts of another era. The film’s use of lingering shots and slow pans help create unease in the most mundane of frames. In one of the film’s most stealthily devised takes, the camera continues a constant repeating 360 rotation around a wide-windowed hallway, gradually unveiling the movements of people in every corridor. With each rotation, certain people fray from the shot while others keep moving toward the camera’s pernicious lens, the viewer left to identify which is human and which is a threat.

The film lurches toward something more formally unsettling when we take on this third person, shifting from watching Jay as she scans a room, to becoming an independent set of eyes analyzing the approaching stream of bodies. It’s when the film abandons this framework that the more uneven elements of the movie — such as having a threat that simply must be escaped as opposed to destroyed — come to light. The picture’s third act, which features a rather fumbling series of plans devised by Jay and her friends, never seems to coalesce. We can’t tell what they’ve newly figured out, even when it’s happening on screen.

In this way, the film works best when it focuses on serving as more of a mood piece. The atmosphere around It Follows is most effective when it allows you to immerse rather than interrogate. A general air of lo-fi dilapidation hovers in the air — the film goes so far as to create a cryptic line between Detroit and the rest of Michigan without ever really having to say so — but It Follows takes its camp seriously as art. Rich Vreeland’s electronic score owes more than a little to John Carpenter’s musical beats, but when placed atop Gioulakis’ stirring cinematography, the film becomes less vintage and more desolate.

At its best, It Follows becomes a genre movie inherently uninterested in genre. The post-modern mentality has come to establish a type of cheeky self-awareness that the film almost comes to represent as macro-metaphor: the eerie threat of the uncanny. Yet most films seem obsessed with their own self-reflexivity, and many since have made an active point of subverting anything resembling expectations. It Follows manages to not be a movie about movies. For a film about watching, it seems remarkably uninterested in the act of watching it.

This kind of simplicity works better in the film’s first half than it does in the second. What gives It Follows its most enticing bit of flair is its use of juxtaposing the mundane and the horror in a way that doesn’t undo the feelings of either. It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers by way of Sofia Coppola. Thus, the gradual build in mood proves to be more effective than the supernatural elements that appear by the second act. Films of this nature — psychosexual pieces with women desperately searching their bodies for some semblance of understanding — always prove most effective when they could exist either in reality or in the subconscious. In Rosemary’s Baby, paranoia proves more chilling than any actual threat that awaits; and 2014’s The Babadook created a chasm between the real and imagined that was more frightening than anything the film did or didn’t show us.

It Follows isn’t nearly as interested in delving into psychosis as a possible catalyst — heady notions of reality are far from its grasp. Instead, the film is most focused on atmosphere, deconstructing tropes that are meant to give us something akin to ease. Daytime is no longer a reprieve from horror. Crowds of people prove to be anything but safe spaces. Instead, sparse rooms with boarded windows become desirable. Sitting alone in the dark somehow becomes an act of defeat. Sex becomes both offensive and defensive at once. When no one is safe, no one is safe. Here, in a sleepy suburb in the days after a recession and before the haze of teendom dissipates, hell truly is other people.

Rating: B+

Video courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

“It Follows” is currently playing in select theaters nationwide. || Featured image: Photo Credit: RADiUS-TWC.