Everything we need to know about It Follows is established in the opening sequence of this masterful horror film from writer/director David Robert Mitchell. A haunting score sets an uneasy tone as the camera rotates 270 degrees to reveal a perfectly normal suburban street. A young woman emerges from a house and starts running. No one seems to understand why she is fleeing, but she assures her father over the phone that everything is okay. After a quick cut to later that evening, we find the same girl seated in a field, sobbing through the phone expressing her resignation. By morning she is laying dead, limbs broken and misshapen.
While we have now seen the remarkable style of It Follows, we lack a basic understanding of what it all means. Early on in the movie, this lack of knowledge creates an uneasy feeling within us, as nothing is scarier than not knowing what is out there coming for you. The film takes a little time for exposition, but weaves it into the narrative fairly organically. The main character, Jay (Maika Monroe), is a young woman lingering through the dog-days of summer with her friends and sister. She is excited about her date with Hugh (Jake Weary), which results in a backseat sexual encounter, but is unaware that he plans to take advantage of her post-coital daze by kidnapping Jay and taking her to an abandoned warehouse. This is horrifying, but is nothing compared to what Hugh reveals when Jay wakes up.
Eventually, Hugh sees It. Outside the warehouse a creature is slowly walking towards them. It can look like anyone – a stranger or someone you know, whatever it takes to get closer to you. The only way to get it to follow someone else is by having sex with another person. If it reaches you, it will kill you and then start following the previous holder of the curse. Hugh explains to Jay that the creature will always follow her now that he has “passed on” the curse.
Now we know the rules of this world, but Jay refuses to believe it until she sees an old woman in a hospital gown stalking her at school – a woman no one else can see. Convinced that Hugh has told her the truth, she focuses on hiding from It. Her friends think she is stressed out from the messy encounter with Hugh, so they agree to take a trip with her to look for him.
Throughout the remainder of the film, It Follows stays true to the style that it has employed since the opening sequence, and we reap the benefits during the second and third acts. Most effectively, the movement of the camera establishes the viewer among the other characters. By panning around a central point, sometimes more than 360 degrees, we feel immersed in the scene, unsure of whether the creature is in there with us. Sometimes, when we know where Jay is in relation to the camera, we can figure out the direction the creature should be walking, but that is the best we can do. This technique keeps the tension high, as we are never quite sure when the creature might be right next to us or Jay.
This all creates opportunities for great dramatic irony. Even better, the camera swiftly switches perspectives during attacks from the creature – sometimes we can see it, and sometimes we see from the point-of-view of Jay’s friends, who cannot see it. This particular technique is surprisingly scary, as we can’t quite tell exactly what it is doing to her. The camera is used to amazing effect throughout It Follows, always keeping us tense and on edge.
Finally, the score of the film is worth noting for developing an eerie tone, and cashing in on the scares by dialing up percussive elements during attacks from the creature. Composed by Rich Vreeland (AKA Disasterpeace), a veteran of video game soundtracks, the score is incredibly haunting. It has a metallic or synthetic feel, and Mitchell knows exactly when to brood quietly and when to ramp up the excitement for the greatest effects.
It is easy to categorize It Follows as an allegory of the dangers of casual sexual encounters, sexually transmitted diseases, or the societal reaction to the sexual awakening of a younger generation, but at its core it is the perfect dramatization of a nightmare. When struggling against a bad dream in our bed, there are rarely easy answers or proven means of escape – and so it is with the creature from this story. Unflinching, it follows us, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Such an idea is frightening on a primal level, and the success of It Follows is its ability to instill these feelings within us from beginning to end.