‘It Follows’ lingers beautifully in your nightmares

By Nathan Frontiero

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“It Follows” taught me to fear everything onscreen. The film’s visual language elicits constant unease and feeds off our growing existential dread. The movie takes you in and traps you, leaving you addicted to its inescapable paranoia.

The film opens with an unassuming shot of a suburban street in early autumn. Birds chirp and all seems well. The camera stares down the road, then pans to a house. The front door opens and a booming synth drum shatters the peaceful moment as a teenage girl fearfully runs out. She rushes to her car and speeds away. She calls her parents from an empty beach and tells them she loves them. Another smash cut reveals her gruesome fate – her leg broken backwards at the knee, blood smeared down both thighs, her lifeless eyes staring just offscreen.

This three minute prologue establishes the film’s thematic balance between intimacy and devastating terror. When 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex with a boy named Hugh (Jake Weary), she contracts something much worse than anything ever discussed in health class. A demonic entity will follow her and kill her if it catches her – unless she decides to pass it on by sleeping with someone else.

Monroe captures the mix of fright and frustration of someone thrust into a dangerous new world. She elicits immense empathy as the safety of Jay’s small world crumbles around her. Her subtler expressions – sullen eyes, silent tears, the ghost of lost joy in her face – evoke tragedy amid the absurdity.

Keir Gilchrist provides a twisted kind of comic relief as Paul, Jay’s childhood friend and not-so-secret-admirer. Paul constantly offers to take on the curse, and Gilchrist effectively conveys the sad yearning beneath his character’s futile efforts. Jake Weary is equally compelling as the world-wary Hugh. He earned my sympathy despite the fact that his actions put Jay squarely in harm’s way. The cast enlivens the movie’s tortured headspace. They portray these panicked teens in a manner that always felt genuine to me. Through their performances the film earns real stakes; its fictional horrors become tangible possibilities.

“It Follows” wades into murky thematic territory as Jay and her friends grapple with the threat of the Follower. The film uses sex as a plot device, not a theme, even though the Follower seems like it could be a metaphor for STDs. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell makes allusions to other huge issues – stifling suburban classism, the uselessness of adult authority, parental abuse – but the movie, like a bad dream, is stuffed with big heavy things that don’t get explained.

The film’s taut script doesn’t go into the curse or Follower itself much beyond the aforementioned rules. Simplicity is Mitchell’s secret weapon. The story anchors itself in these sparse details and the film’s aesthetic wraps them in a dreamlike cocoon.

The sets look hollowed-out. Jay’s fall semester literature course meets in a stark brown and white room filled with empty seats and barely-covered whiteboards. An impenetrable blackness bleeds around the bare concrete of a sprawling empty parking garage. A swing set in a cricket-silent playground is lit so that only the glint off the metal is visible, the swings and chains mere shadows against an offscreen source of light. Unbreakable tree canopies float eerily over nearly all landscapes whenever the camera looks up at the sky. The sparse population and stillness in many of the shots are tremendously disturbing.

Anachronisms abound in these Detroit suburbs. Modern and vintage cars roam the neighborhood while people watch black and white horror flicks on 1950s tube TVs. Date nights include trips to an old-fashioned movie house, complete with a red curtain, an organ player and the Grant/Hepburn rom-com mystery, “Charade.” Jay’s friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) reads passages from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” on a clamshell e-reader Mitchell created specifically for the film. This hodgepodge of out-of-time artifacts makes this world seem imaginary, but the film’s power comes from convincing the audience that it’s not.

Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography bolsters this surreal visual palette. Filming with wide-angle lenses, he and Mitchell often stretch roads into nothingness, or carve larger voids out of already cavernous spaces. Gioulakis lights sets to match their narrative safety or danger – but he bathes the entire film in gooey, moody saturated colors. The attention paid to composition feels like a fitting joke on the part of the filmmakers – my eyes were stuck to the screen because I was scared of what was happening, but it’s hard to look away from such beautifully crafted images.

Nothing in this film is safe – every shot, cut, zoom and pan holds potential risk. The Follower could enter from anywhere in the frame – and it almost always appears by entering rather than through a cut. Regardless of how it manifests, it’s always staring and walking directly toward the camera, as if pursuing the viewer through the fourth wall. I never considered that such an ostensibly innocuous image could be so unnerving, but every new variation on it is just as paralyzing as the last.

The film owes much of its horrific bombast to composer Disasterpiece (Richard Vreeland). His fully electronic score is its own kind of frightening creature. It mixes chiptune-esque cues, haunting blips and screeches and swooping synths that melt into ethereal space. The music earns scares on its own merits, but works with the images to create a dominating sense of anxiety.

“It Follows” is an extended nightmare. It’s the spider creeping across your ceiling, the hairs standing straight on the back of your neck, the unshakeable fear of death. The movie stays with you. Like the Follower itself, you can’t get rid of it. You can’t stop thinking about it. You can only pass it on.

Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NathanFrontiero.