Silver Screen: It Follows ***1/2
The terrors of teen sex have been a staple of horror movies long before the virginal babysitter played by Jamie Lee Curtis survived Michael Myers’s bloody rampage in Halloween, while her cavorting cohorts met the business end of a butcher knife. All the way back in 1957 Michael Landon was a teenage werewolf, and those hairy palms and midnight urges weren’t all the fault of a full moon. Maybe the only thing scarier to a teenager than sex is the idea of not having any at all.
Writer/director David Robert Mitchell further literalizes the sex-and-death connection in his high-concept horror flick It Follows, which, like teen sex, builds up great anticipation before ending abruptly with a bit of a mess. The uneven execution makes for some thrilling highs and truly dull lows, but it’s an unsettling low-budget gem.
Maika Monroe, most recently seen in Adam Wingard’s The Guest, another nifty contortion of horror tropes, leads a mostly unknown cast of teen actors including Keir Gilchrist (It’s Kind of a Funny Story), Lili Sepe, and intriguing newcomer Olivia Luccardi. They’re indolent kids on the cusp of adulthood, mostly left to their own devices by absentee parents who aren’t around to tell them to stop boozing, get off the couch, and go do something.
When Jay (Monroe), the conventional beauty of the crew, decides to sleep with her new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary), their night out takes a frightening turn. He presses a post-coital ether rag to her face, and she awakens tied to wheelchair in an abandoned building. Seems like the start to standard slasher fare, but it isn’t Hugh she has to be afraid of. He fitfully explains his bizarre actions: He slept with someone else, and now a shape-shifting being follows him everywhere he goes. If it catches up to him, he will die. Now that he’s slept with Jay, it will follow her until she sleeps with somebody else and passes it along. When the thing finds and kills its victim, it starts working backward down the list, so be sure to spread it to someone who can successfully pass it on themselves.
Hugh has tied Jay to the chair not to further terrorize her, but to force her to confront the monster, which she spots walking slowly towards them. The thing never moves quickly, Hugh tells her, but it’s smart and it never, ever stops. Now it’s up to Jay to pass the curse along or suffer the consequences.
It Follows has a crackerjack first act that begins slowly but generates impressive levels of paranoia and tension. The slow-walking pursuer is some unnerving combination of zombie and boogeyman. It’s visible only to the cursed and can take any form it chooses: the guise of a friend, parent, or lover, but most often some variation of naked, slobbering maniac.
Mitchell is well-versed in classic horror movies and lends his movie a retro vibe without stooping to an abundance of nostalgia-baiting, too-clever meta-references. The old-school synthesizer score channels the music from early John Carpenter fare, as well as the bevy of suburban slashers inspired by Halloween.
Alas, It Follows builds great momentum only to sputter in the back half. Here it fails on a fairly basic storytelling level. Trouble is, these indolent teens are a little too indolent. They never do anything, even when a supernatural beast disrupts their bored and boring existence.
Their big solution to the monster problem: Go up to a friend’s lake house and drink beers and wait for it to show up. Then go home. Then maybe go back to the lake again. They’re so frustratingly passive and unimaginative that it becomes nearly impossible to root for them, especially when some of the obvious solutions could lead to more interesting plot developments. You know, where something might happen other than the kids silently drinking beers and waiting for the monster to power walk to their latest locale.
Mitchell hints at more developed strategies— Jay’s not-so-secret admirer Paul (Gilchrist) eyes a pair of prostitutes, who might easily be used to put some space between our heroes and their pursuer— but he always reverts to sitting around instead. While this might serve his metaphor and overarching portrayal of teenage aimlessness, it stops the plot cold.
Yet in its best moments, It Follows is wonderfully creepy. That slow-stalking monster is a terrifically menacing presence on and off screen alike. Much like the perils of sex, the danger here is omnipresent even if you can’t see it. And like the most dire consequences of sex, It Follows sticks with you whether you want it to or not.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.