It Follows

Many a horror film has punished its randy teenage characters by killing them after they have sex, but “It Follows” takes the idea to a new level, using a metaphorical device to conjure all the fears that adolescents (and other people) have about sex. The result is one of the most original, most intelligently frightening movies to emerge in some time.

The tone is set in the first minutes, when a suburban teenage girl runs out of her house and into the street, telling bystanders she doesn’t need help, but clearly terrified of some unseen enemy. As hysterical as she is, the movie is correspondingly calm. The camera pans slowly across the scene, never quickening its pace, even when the girl runs out of the frame temporarily before we catch up to her again. Subconsciously, we get the point: whatever is pursuing this girl, she can’t get away from it.

“It,” it turns out, is hard to define. Our protagonist, a girl named Jay (Maika Monroe), learns about it from her new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), who, like the girl in the opening scene, is petrified of it. When it comes for you, you’re the only one who can see it. It takes the form of a human — any human — and walks slowly toward you, never hurrying but never stopping. You can run from it, but it will continue to follow you, and it will eventually catch and kill you.

How do you get on its bad side in the first place? By having sex with someone who’s already being followed by it. It is basically a supernatural STD. And the only way to get rid of it, it seems, is to pass it on to someone else. (Note: this does not work with literal STDs.)

More than one writer has described “It Follows” as John Carpenter meets John Hughes. I’m hard-pressed to come up with a more accurate or succinct summary, so I’ll use it too. The Carpenter connection is overt: the film uses his font (Albertus) in the credits, and has an ’80s-inspired synthesizer soundtrack (by Rich Vreeland) that would have been at home in any of Carpenter’s output from that decade.

The Hughes comparison comes from the film’s focus on suburban teenagers (the parents aren’t seen much), and on their angst over whom they should have sex with, and why, and what consequences — social, emotional, or physical — might ensue. Is it just casual sex that’s the problem here? Would it make any difference if you’re actually in love? Jay sees cool guy Greg (Daniel Zovatto), who lives across the street, as a potential partner, or at least someone she can pass the curse on to; Paul (Keir Gilchrist), the younger dork who’s part of Jay’s social circle and has a crush on her, seethes with jealousy. One serio-comic moment has Paul offering to sleep with Jay as a means of “curing” her — so selfless of him! These and other moral dilemmas pop up again and again, conveyed through the cast’s naturalistic acting and writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s light touch. Apart from the central metaphor, which is obviously, uh, obvious, nothing in the film is overstated or underlined.

This is crucial. What makes the film work so well is its nightmarish matter-of-factness, combined with its dream-like murkiness on certain details, all of which has a surreal, unsettling effect on the mind. There’s very little onscreen violence or gore — indeed, barely a hint of how, exactly, It kills its victims. The time period is likewise unclear: there’s a cell phone in one scene and a Kindle-like reading device in another, but other details suggest the ’80s or ’90s. Everything seems real yet not real, completely impossible yet strangely true-to-life. That includes some of the teens’ panicked ideas for escaping or defeating the wraith, logical in their way yet surely destined for failure.

And so the movie is tense, creepy, filled with dread. The “monster” is a universally held existential fear (how might sex screw me up?) made manifest in a haunting, unstoppable enemy that pursues its victims slowly but inevitably. What’s interesting to me is that unlike many horror movies, the fear this one produces isn’t specific. It’s not like a slasher flick, where afterward you check behind the door for knife-wielding maniacs, or “Psycho,” where you’re afraid to take shower. “It Follows” is scary in the bone-chilling way that great horror films are. We’re not afraid of what the characters are afraid of. We’re just AFRAID.

A- (1 hr., 40 min.; R, some harsh profanity, a lot of nonsexual nudity, some sexuality, some disturbing violence.)