If John Carpenter were to direct an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, it would probably look a lot like It Follows. David Robert Mitchell's evocative throwback has all the aesthetic trappings of an old-school chiller and the vague mythology of something Nickelodeon might have aired on a Saturday night back in the 90s. That might sound like an odd blend, but the result is the best horror movie in years.
The premise is brilliant in its simplicity: A girl named Jay sleeps with the guy she's been seeing for a while. After doing the deed, he knocks her out with chloroform. She wakes up tied to a wheelchair in an abandoned parking garage to a foreboding warning: "This thing, it's gonna follow you. Somebody gave it to me, and I passed it to you."
This sexually transmitted monster changes form every time it appears. On one occasion, it could be a total stranger you wouldn't notice in a crowd. The next time, it could take the shape of your dearest friend or even a parent. No one knows what it truly looks like. And though it lurches at the glacial pace of a zombie, it always catches up to you.
It gets worse. If and when this being kills its prey, it simply goes back to chasing the last one. In order to truly rid yourself of this thing, you have to put as many degrees of sexual separation between you and it as possible—sleeping with someone new does no good if they're unaware of the danger and end up getting killed a day later. This leads to a lot of impromptu sex ed, though Mitchell stops short of turning the film into a finger-wagging PSA.
It Follows has an urban-legend vibe to it, and as such we're meant to feel the mythos in our bones rather than fully understand it. Mitchell, who wrote and directed it, is highly attuned to what we'll call "cinematic kid" logic: the way parents seem to be absent whenever shit goes down and intrepid teens take it upon themselves to band together and turn problems like a supernatural entity into just another adventure. Jay is shouldering a life-threatening burden, but at no point is she ever really alone with it—her sister, her sister's friend, and the boy who's always had a crush on Jay are right there with her, as is the cool neighbor from across the street with a car.
Maika Monroe, who impressed in the similarly Carpenter-inflected The Guest last year, fulfills the promise she showed in that film and then some. She's the millennial scream queen we've been waiting for; her expressive qualities are the perfect match for Mitchell's moody, atmospheric approach to terrifying his audience. As Jay, she reckons with something we all must eventually: the disheartening knowledge that most aspects of real life aren't what you were led to believe, doubly so if you're a sheltered youth from the suburbs. That's scary even without an unstoppable creature chasing you day and night.
Horror movies have been punishing sexually active teenagers for decades. Mitchell is careful to avoid this trope, never giving the sense that he's disciplining these characters—he's more like a sympathetic guidance counselor who genuinely wants his students to make it through their ordeal unscathed.
Throwback horror flicks are often obnoxious in their reference-heavy worship of their genre forebears, but Mitchell, who's already made a thoughtful teen movie with The Myth of the American Sleepover, uses his influences as a starting point rather than something to blindly aspire to. Which isn't to say he doesn't adore the films and conventions he's riffing on—the wall-to-wall synth score and the old movies constantly playing in the background are evidence enough that he does. In mellowing out those sensibilities and fusing them with those of gentler, more young adult-oriented fare, Mitchell has made a film that's as kind to its audience as it is to its characters.
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