She wakes in an abandoned building shell, winds whistling around, as he circles with a torch, gibbering about being sorry for what's about to happen. He's given her a curse, the result can be seen approaching step by step in the overgrown grounds below and into the space with them; a naked woman expressionlessly walking toward Jay in the chair. The guy gets close to the figure who doesn't acknowledge him. He frees Jay and they escape in a panic. He deposits her, still only in her underwear, on the street outside her house and drives off forever. A few nights later, after rallying friends around her the kitchen window is smashed. She goes to investigate only to find another woman, far scarier than the first advancing on her while urinating.
All that without a word about the prologue. There is a good one but my purpose here is not to go over the plot but to air the premise. If you read the synopsis you might be dreading the return of the sex/death equation of the horrors of the seventies and eighties that this film so stylishly recalls. But even in those cases the mistake of taking allegory literally is one of missing the point.
If Jay wanted to evade the curse she'd just have sex again and flee safely. But there's something else going on here. The bearers of the curse, even when safe, can still see the identity-shifting entity that follows the accursed. If the entity catches up and kills the latter it goes after the last one all over again. Time to think of the title here. It, the thing follows the victim but the phrase also refers to a logical consequence.
The grassy autumnal footpaths of the suburbia of the setting will remind anyone who's seen it of John Carpenter's Halloween. A blackboard in an English class also reminds us that people in this setting refer to autumn as fall. You don't need to know your Book of Genesis that well to be aware that the fall of man in that mythology is the consequence of knowledge. It's not an orgasm that makes life so difficult (all the sex in this film is consensual and most of it looks natural and enjoyable) but the awareness of the place where any worldly act can put us. Contrast this with the peppering of voyeurism done by the younger boys of the neighbourhood. Their curiosity has a sinister taste, a kind of unformed sleaze, enacted before knowledge.
Sex is a well chosen trope here not just because it plugs us in to the tradition of teen horror but it means the Scooby team of teen siblings and local friends to be variously experienced. Only those who have come into contact with the curse can see the thing. This only partially changes but essentially remains the case.
There is also the repeated gestation, birth and growing imagery of floating (the backyard pool later is shown after its water has broken), urination, menstruation. Jay runs from the entity to take refuge on the swings of the nearby park but this proves as terrifying a place as anywhere else on earth, a planet she now knows much better than she did before. There are decisions to be made about how to exit the curse and they increasingly lean toward responsibility and ever deeper consideration.
Sounds kinda PC doesn't it? Well, happily it's not the only thing on show. The mechanism of terror in this film uses the deliberate certainty of the entity itself and keeps clear of sudden jolts. Some manifestations (the kitchen, the later scene of fulfilment which is truly ghastly) will leave you wide eyed and others (the figure in the school grounds; a scene involving a masterful mix of single take and focus shifting) are just as effective by their understatement. This horror movie is scary. If you've seen as many as I have and still celebrate the genre, you'll know that that statement is not tautologous. It's scary because it delivers its fresh ideas on teen horror in the costume of an era when something as bloodless as Halloween was scary (still is, by the way). And there's another reason and it's a good one.
Could it be that, after the bloated karaoke versions of Ringu, Dark Water or Pulse were remade for people who can't read subtitles, the lessons of J-horror have finally been absorbed by filmmakers in the West, not studied, copied and overwrought but absorbed? It Follows plays less like Nightmare on Elm Street or Final Destination than Ringu or Kairo. It doesn't play at all like the flattened approach of more recent fare like Insidious or Sinister because when it does use sudden scares it earns each one with genuine suspense and is prepared to go slowly so we can absorb its notions and questions enough to bring our own dread to the space between ourselves and the screen.
Also, if you've seen the Harry Potter version of The Woman in Black or Sinister or a host of other recent shallow efforts you'll remember the big scary endings with the nasty thing jolting out of the scenery as though Asian horror had never happened. It Follows recalls a tradition that allowed its audiences to do some thinking for themselves and adds a pinch of something of its own.
No review of this film can escape without a few plaudits chucked its way for the superb electronic score that goes from clear Carpenterian tributes to the noisier and darker parts of the oscillators and filters of the synthesiser. It augments the dread and never needs to inform us of what we should be feeling.
Also, this is the second horror-related film I've seen that has made use of its Detroit setting. Only Lovers Left Alive turned this into a kind of digetic editorial which was saved by Jarmsuch's goofy poetics and Tom Hiddleston's delivery of them. In It Follows America's industrial ghost town has whole ex neighbourhoods of surburban dream life rendered into crumbling gothic shells whose surrounding gardens grow into twisting strangulation around the foundations. The sense that dusty perdition is only streets away is palpable (and reinforced in the dialogue). The lake is Lake Michigan, once loud with commerce and affluent leisure now just huge, silent and unknowable.
Also, any film that features a partial reading of TS Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (in a very Halloweenish classroom scene) and a recited quote from Dostoyevsky that encapsulates the film's theme in accelerating prose can only get my vote.
Also, any film that has its origins in a real nightmare that the writer/director had, has already started in the right place.
There is buzz on the tail of this film sufficient that, even if it only attains a modest success, there will almost certainly be a sequel. If that happens could the filmmakers of that reach even further back into horror history? Val Lewton helped to save RKO Studio after the box office disaster of Citizen Kane with the first of his back seat driven features Cat People. It stormed the box office. It was only meant to be a copy of the kind of horror Universal had been churning out since Dracula but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur cast the cat monster suit aside and remembered that people above all feared what they didn't know and couldn't see. When its sequel, Curse of the Cat People, appeared it swerved sideways into an eerie tale which might have been a haunting or a troubled child's imagining. It wasn't a sequel in name only as there were solid links to the original but it wasn't just a replay either. So guys, if you do it again, surprise us all over again. Would juz?