"It Follows" opens with a classic horror scene: A teenage girl runs from her home and down her suburban street, desperately fleeing from ... something. The viewer can't see whatever presence is terrifying her so much, but she clearly can. She drives off into the night. We pick up to find her alone on the beach, where she sits and tearfully calls her parents to say that she loves them just before we jump cut to find her mangled corpse lying bent and broken in the sand. With its constantly roving camera, a deceptively peaceful suburban setting, and a memorably sinister synth score from musician Rich Vreeland (working under his artist name, "Disasterpeace"), this unsettling introduction sets the perfect tone for writer-director David Robert Mitchell's stylish little horror film in the mode of 1980's-era John Carpenter.
The film's premise makes it sound like cheesiest of exploitation: a sexually-transmitted, shapeshifting demon that can take the form of anyone — from a complete stranger or someone close to you — and can only be seen by its previous and current intended target. No matter where you are, the thing is somewhere, walking directly toward you, making its way closer at a relentlessly steady pace. You can outrun it, but it never stops coming; its persistence is the key to your eventual undoing. The only way to get rid of the entity is to sleep with someone else, thereby passing the problem on to them. Though if it succeeds in killing them, it will just work its way back down the line again. These rules are specific, but just nebulous enough to give them the feel of an urban legend you vaguely remember hearing as a kid. Mitchell demonstrates a remarkable control over the material, sidestepping the inherent ridiculous so that in the moment, the situation always feels deadly serious.
The films centers around 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe, already having proven herself to be quite at home with 80's throwbacks in last year's action-thriller, "The Guest"), who's passed this unique problem by Hugh (Jake Weary), the slightly older guy she's just started seeing. Once they consummate things, the film becomes a tense thrill ride as Jay's sister and friends come to her aid to help her survive, and keep one step ahead of the murderous entity.
Mitchell takes his time, mixing in realistic, low-key scenes of teen hangouts, utilizing the keen understanding of teenage behavior that served him well in his previous feature, the gentle coming-of-age tale "The Myth of the American Sleepover," to lull us into a false sense of security before ratcheting up the tension until the screen practically drips with dread.
At first, "It Follows" seems an obvious cautionary metaphor for STDs or AIDs, but Mitchell makes the film's themes a bit more ambiguous, tapping into the underlying fears and anxieties that come with the introduction of sex into adolescent lives. With little in the way of gore or schlocky jump-scares, Mitchell establishes a mood of nightmarish paranoia as he exploits the sense that nowhere is safe — some of the most terrifying moments happen in broad daylight.
The director is remarkable visual stylist, using the deep-focus, widescreen framing to its full potential, allowing us every opportunity to anxiously scan the background of every shot, hoping to catch a glimpse of impending doom before it's too late.