HORROR MOVIES can often be such a perfunctory, slapdash affair—make offscreen noise, throw cat at actress, repeat—that fans are understandably quick to crank the hype to 11 whenever something promising surfaces. When a film comes along that actually delivers, it's hard to hold back the hosannas. It Follows is one of those rare scary machines where everything just clicks together, with a ferociously single-minded rightness that keeps the nerves in a state of high, perpetual thrum. Displaying an exceptional amount of control and an awe-inspiring use of negative space, the film takes a premise that should by all rights be ludicrous, and makes it seem shudderingly plausible.
Beginning with a bravura single-take prelude, the story narrows in on a Michigan teen (Maika Monroe) with a boyfriend who seems to be experiencing more than his usual amount of early relationship jitters. After a date goes horrendously wrong, she discovers that she has attracted the attention of... something. It wants to get her. It could look like anyone. Nobody can see it but her. It never stops.
Writer/director David Robert Mitchell's first film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, displayed an unusually lived-in empathy for its teenaged characters, which persists here to lift them far above the usual scary movie fare. Led by the wonderfully levelheaded Monroe (who, after this and The Guest, is making a strong bid for the Jamie Lee Curtis scream queen crown), these are all good kids, by and large, even when their horndog tendencies get the better of them and things go wrong.
And, boy, do things ever go wrong. It's easy to spot the Asian horror influences—the daisy-chain urban legend of The Ring here, the doomy relentlessness of The Grudge there—but It Follows owes its largest debt to John Carpenter, whose presence can be spotted in every slow pan across a leaf-blown street or uncomfortably lengthy shot of a dark hallway. (The brilliant keyboard score is by Rich Vreeland, who finds a Velveeta sweet spot somewhere between Carpenter and Tangerine Dream.) Most notably, though, Mitchell assimilates that director's trademark deep-focus menace, then takes it to some beautifully distressing extremes. Virtually every frame has room for something to shamble out of the distant background and move slowly toward the unsuspecting heroine. (Those few moments when you can't see anything are, somehow, even worse.)
If It Follows stumbles at all, it may be in its otherwise admirable refusal to reveal as little as possible about the motivations of its supernatural presence. On a first viewing, at least, the sex = death subtext seems rather puzzlingly reductive, especially coming from a filmmaker who so clearly identifies with, and feels for, his teenaged protagonists. But even if the metaphoric through-line feels a bit muddled, there's no denying the sheer craft on display here, where the sympathy shown toward the characters only serves to amp up the tension to buzzsaw levels. Eschewing all but a handful of jump scares (the ones that do remain are admittedly pretty sweet), It Follows quickly moves beyond pleasant heebie-jeebies and into that more rarified air of movies that are genuinely frightening, even after the credits roll. It never stops. It wants to get you.