You might want to buckle up. Because the opening sequence of the new horror film It Follows is a honey. The camera fades in on a tree-lined suburban street at twilight. There’s something unsettlingly peaceful and dreamy about this place. If you didn’t know any better, you might think you were watching the beginning of John Carpenter’s wide-screen masterpiece Halloween. Then a disoriented teenage girl bolts out of one of the cookie-cutter houses and frantically stumbles up and down the block, her head swiveling in every direction. She’s terrified—and clearly being chased by something, only we can’t see what it is. She jumps into a car and peels off, winding up at the beach at night, where she cowers on the sand and leaves a frantic phone message for her parents telling them that she’s sorry and that she loves them. She knows she doesn’t have much time. And she’s right. The next morning as the sun rises, we see her lying dead on the beach with her limbs twisted into queasy jackknife angles. At that moment, I whispered one word to myself: Sold.
Horror geeks are a notoriously jaded tribe. Which makes sense, because we tend to spend a lot of hours sifting through junk just to find a few nuggets of gruesome gold. We want to be pleasantly surprised and shocked by the unexpected, but we’re resigned to our fate that we probably won’t be. The first five minutes of It Follows should uncock a lot of skeptical horror-fanboy eyebrows. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, whose only previous film was 2010’s coming-of-age indie The Myth of the American Sleepover, It Follows sets us up for all of the tired teen-body-count-flick tropes, and then spends the next hour and a half subverting them with wit, style, and an almost suffocating sense of dread.
The Guest’s Maika Monroe stars as 19-year-old Jay, a slightly awkward long-limbed blonde still grappling with her own budding sexuality and the leering intentions of men. After going on a date to the movies with her twitchy, distracted boyfriend (Jake Weary), Jay surrenders her virginity in the backseat of his car. Afterward he’s relieved…and not for the obvious reasons. It turns out that by having had sex with Jay, he’s passed on a curse. There will be no spooning, no pillow talk. From this point forward, he tells her, she will be on the run from shape-shifting apparitions that won’t stop until they either kill her or she has sex with someone else and passes the plague on to him. Wherever she goes, it follows.
I know what you’re thinking: that old saw again? It’s true, horror movies have trafficked in paranoid sex-equals-death metaphors for what seems like ages—certainly long before the specter of AIDS piled on an extra frisson of terror. But what gives Mitchell’s conjugal nightmare a clever new wrinkle is that the cure in this case is actually more sex. His is a deadly carnal chain letter fueled by the deliverer’s dishonesty, guilt, and psychosexual fear. And there’s an additional twist: If the carrier is killed before he or she can pass along the death sentence to some other poor hormonal soul, then the curse works its way backward. It never goes away, and you’re never in the clear.
On paper, the premise of Mitchell’s film may sound like it has a lot of lawyerly Final Destination rules, but on screen its dream logic feels airtight. Much of the credit for that goes to Monroe’s moody teenage authenticity and a believably realistic circle of friends who help her battle something they can’t see but take on faith that she can. It must be said that some of these fighting-ghostly-threats sequences work better than others. In the moments when Mitchell shows us a stranger in the corner of the frame or the deep background lurching menacingly toward Jay, there’s a creeping sense of white-knuckle anxiety. But in others, when the audience can’t see the stalker as it paws at her or hurls things, it feels a bit silly, like we’re watching outtakes from Claude Rains’ creaky old black-and-white chiller The Invisible Man. Even with its flaws, though, It Follows is a dizzyingly tense and creepy workout. Oh, and I almost forgot… Hey kids, don’t have sex! A–