"It Follows" Adequately In John Carpenter's Footsteps

Filmmaker John Carpenter didn’t invent teen horror with “Halloween” – he just perfected it.

In the fall of 1978, Michael Myers’ slow, Steadicam stalking of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) through the dimly lit suburbs of fictional Haddonfield, Illinois changed horror irrevocably. The slasher arms race that followed didn’t measure up to Carpenter’s work because it couldn’t – Wes Craven’s original “A Nightmare On Elm Street” came the closest – but it was Craven himself who finally laid the genre to rest with an eternally underappreciated slice of satire known as “Scream.”

The eighteen years since have been a wasteland for horror as a viable art form, with every marginally entertaining fright flick – slasher or otherwise – inevitably hailed as the heir to a long-vacant throne.

Thus, the meteoric rise of David Robert Mitchell’s buzzy “It Follows” should surprise no one. Like Jennifer Kent’s recent “The Babadook,” it’s a work that will never live up to its own pre-release hype. But where Kent’s film brought a unique wrinkle to haunted house horror, Mitchell’s film is little more than a love note to John Carpenter, forgoing invention in favor of full-on homage.

From its truckload of tracking shots to its synth-ed up score to its fixation on atmosphere over narrative, “It Follows” is more tribute album than original LP, its story low-concept by way of high-concept. It features an evil force – the eponymous “it” – that writhes its way between victims through sexual intercourse. As a kind of supernatural STD, “it” manifests itself in the form of slow-moving wraiths invisible to all except its current host – one that won’t be freed until it passes the curse on or is slaughtered, gruesomely.

But there’s a catch. If a victim is killed, “it” returns to its previous target.

Maika Monroe – who starred in last year’s superior Carpenter-aping “The Guest” – leads here as Jay, a glum nineteen year-old who unwittingly gets it on with the accursed (Jake Weary). Jay spends the rest of the film trying to outrun creeping death with the help of some friends (Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Daniel Zovatto) and her younger sister (Lili Sepe).

Despite the set-up, the movie is less sexual metaphor than exercise in existential dread, with Jay’s visions providing for a handful of exceptionally nightmarish moments. The pic’s art film aesthetic pays a handsome return on its admittedly modest production values, and the streamlined story maintains as much forward momentum as can be expected.

But the move isn’t exactly a game changer. Evocative to the end, it’s still wholly indebted to Carpenter and his ilk.

“It Follows” is good shorthand for horror’s brightest bright spots, but it’s still shorthand. David Robert Mitchell deserves heaps of praise for getting so much out of so little, but the film’s limitations are much more real – and much easier to spot – than its shape-shifting antagonist.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: March 13, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: RADiUS-TWC
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Screenwriter: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe
MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language)