At the heart of It Follows, a low-budget horror film by David Robert Mitchell, lies a tantalizing open-ended metaphor—a deadly curse passed from one person to another through sexual intercourse. Once cursed, the victim is pursued by a creeping, shape-shifting demon that kills anyone it touches; the demon moves so slowly, however, that you can easily avoid it if you keep moving. Nonetheless, the cursed must remain vigilant because the demon can blend into any environment and almost always takes the form of an ordinary-looking person.
Just as the demon never reveals its true appearance (if any), so too does Mitchell evade any clear theme. The movie takes place in some middle- and lower-middle-class Detroit suburbs whose populations are almost entirely white, and the main characters are all naive teenagers. Does the demon symbolize suburban fears of crime-ridden Detroit? (One teen admits that her parents never let her visit the city.) Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the unforeseen consequences of underage sex—pregnancy, AIDS, or the public shaming of high school gossip. Or maybe, instead of sex or class, It Follows is about adolescents’ dread of adulthood as a time of suffocating conformity. The movie is disarmingly sensitive and free of cynicism in its depiction of middle-class teens; sometimes the horror seems to provide ballast for a story full of sweet-tempered observations.
That’s not to say that Mitchell has trouble directing horror. He demonstrates an impressive control over tone, generating a creepy vibe from his use of Steadicam photography and negative space. He also elicits casually intimate performances from his young actors; the characters seem like real teens—not walking targets, as in most horror movies—which, in turn, makes them seem especially vulnerable. Mitchell must have studied Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and the films of John Carpenter, which It Follows recalls in its wide-screen compositions, minimalist score, and sincere treatment of all-American settings.
In fact Carpenter has become a touchstone for American independent filmmakers, his style and themes celebrated in such recent releases as Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, Jim Mickle’s Cold in July, and Adam Wingard’s The Guest. Both Blue Ruin and It Follows invoke Carpenter the way Woody Allen used to invoke Ingmar Bergman, re-creating his aesthetic to conjure the impression of artistic commitment. Carpenter’s reevaluation as a serious artist is long overdue in this country, so It Follows should be applauded for contributing to the paradigm shift. Yet Carpenter rarely wore his artistry on his sleeve as Mitchell does here. Follows is an effective pastiche but a studied one; by the end, even its ambiguities feel overdetermined.