You think laughs are cheap? Try scares. The best horror flicks are the cheapest (as are the worst, just to be fair) in part because simple things are the scariest. Heights. Bees. The open ocean. The dark. Scary, all, and free, abundant. Death, perhaps the scariest of all, is free to anyone who waits. Horror movies are like Chinese food. Too expensive, and you know it’s going to be a letdown.
“It Follows,” an indie darling of the film festival circuit last year, is dirty-cheap and ghost-story-by-campfire scary, crafted in a throwback mold reminiscent of the trashiest slasher flicks of the mid-’70s. Difference is, director David Robert Mitchell (“The Myth of the American Sleepover”) has made something oddly sleek, affecting, contemplative and just flat-out creepy as hell.
It will not sound particularly scary in the telling, but here goes.
There’s a group of teenagers in suburban Detroit. One, Jay (the tomboyishly sultry Maika Monroe), goes on a date with a dude who shags her in the backseat of his muscle car and then reveals something unnerving: He has passed something onto her, a sort of curse, whereby a supernatural stalker will find her and kill her, appearing perhaps as a stranger or as someone she knows, but always walking in her direction. She can divert it by having sex with another person, pass it along — yet once the thing has killed that person, it will come for her.
You could almost literally not have a simpler setup for a horror movie: something bad is coming toward you at walking speed. So why is “It Follows” so unnerving? For one, we learn early on that when the thing reaches you, truly gawdawful things happen. For another, the relentlessness stirs suspense: Almost anything gets scarier as you see it coming.
At a deeper level, though, “It Follows” practically begs you to impose meaning on its mechanism. The languid, late-summer feel of the film suggests the fade of adolescence into adulthood, and sex as a gateway into that transformation is a natural. Is the walker in fact the unavoidable onset of age (and concomitantly death)? Is it as simple as a fatal sexually transmitted disease come to life? Frankly the metaphor matters less than the fact that it’ll make you very dead, in very ugly ways.
Adults are oddly absent here and, aside from some police and perfunctory school figures, this is a world of children on the cusp of adulthood. When Jay starts freaking out about ever-advancing strangers no one else can see, her crew sticks by her and takes her seriously: her sister (Lili Sepe), her friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and her puppy-dog smitten childhood friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist). He gamely offers to do what he can to divert the curse, which of course would mean consummating the first kiss Jay and he shared as kids — Paul makes it clear that he would take that one for the team. The across-the-street neighbor dude, Greg (Daniel Zovatto), also offers to step into that breach, all of which gives “It Follows” a strange inner political intrigue.
In the same moment, it depicts savvy teenagers who are making reasonable choices (to its credit, it does not include any “what the hell is she doing?” moments) and yet clearly illustrates the idiot-fog that sex brings to the teenaged male mind. Yes, sex with Jay will lead to your horrible, fear-soaked death. But on the other hand, you did get to have sex with Jay.
Part of what makes “It Follows” such dark fun is the lizard brain is in full effect. Run. Hide. Try to sleep. Stay aware. Then, run some more. It’s campy enough to stay light on its feet, scary enough that any laughter you find will turn soon enough into cringing. It’s a simple premise executed almost flawlessly, to great effect — the best sort of horror movie, packed with the stuff money so rarely buys.