Sex will kill you. Anyone who watches enough teen horror movies knows that.
“It Follows” doesn’t reinvent the clichés wrought by “Halloween” and its zillions of imitators so much as infuse them with a new kind of dread — a slacker-y sense of shame and guilt that spreads like a bloodstain. Low-budget, sure of itself, and creepy as hell, the film actually scores quite low on the gore meter. Like the best nightmares, though, it proves nearly impossible to shake.
Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell (his sophomore effort after 2010’s “The Myth of the American Sleepover”), “It Follows” is set among a group of young friends who have graduated high school, go to local colleges, but still live at home; we hear about parents and other adults, but we never see them. (The message is clear: You’re on your own, kids.) Jay (Maika Monroe), a tall blonde with sleepy eyes and a sharp wit, has sex with new beau Hugh (Jake Weary) in the back of his car only to be informed that he has infected her not with a disease but a demon: a sort of walking succubus that only she can see and that won’t stop following her until it kills her — or until she passes it along to another.
Holy STD metaphor.
Yet “It Follows,” which looks like a cheap horror movie but is considerably smarter, doesn’t belabor the obvious. If anything, it’s an unexpected morality play. Jay’s obviously reluctant to “infect” someone she cares for, like the cocky neighborhood hunk Greg (Daniel Zovatto), or Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a childhood friend who has never stopped pining for her. But does that mean she’ll sleep with a stranger just to rid herself of her demonic shadow? Even the movie seems nervous about the implications; at one point in “It Follows,” we see Jay swimming out to a party boat, but we never see what happens there.
Mitchell knows a teen horror movie has to have rules, and he hands out the fact sheet early on: The demon can take the form of anyone, including loved ones; if it kills the person you’ve passed it to, it will come back to you and work its way back up the line; it moves slowly but it’s not stupid. The remarkable thing about “It Follows” isn’t that Jay absorbs this checklist and is off, terrified and running. It’s that she convinces her friends of what they can’t see. Where most teen horror movies revel in the peer group splintering and getting slaughtered, this one is more interested in how people gather around a loved one and shield her from harm. In this way, we also come to care for Greg, Paul, Jay’s levelheaded kid sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and the gang’s resident Velma, Yara (Olivia Luccardi) — she wears glasses and is reading Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” on a pink clamshell cellphone.
They don’t see the demon, but we do: Mitchell likes to slip it into a long shot, Jay fretting in the foreground while in the far rear we notice a shambling old lady or a pale young boy or a freaky naked man and then we start shredding our armrests. “It Follows” was shot in the suburbs of Detroit, which helps explain the film’s under-populated feel and atmosphere of disaster just over the horizon. (Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” was also filmed there; apparently, the city has become the preferred back lot for the apocalypse.) The movie avoids easy-queasy “boo” effects for a more lingering sense of distress; it’s the first post-millennial horror movie that feels rooted in real generational anxieties.
Mitchell knows his forebears well, though. Rich Vreeland’s eerie synth score nods to John Carpenter’s classic “Halloween” music, and there’s a climax in a nighttime public swimming pool that ripples with references to both the original 1942 “Cat People” and the more recent “Let the Right One In.” (The movie weaves water imagery throughout, including a backyard pool that serves as a barometer of the heroine’s shifting emotional state.)
Still, how many teen horror movies do you know of that end with a Dostoevsky quote? (“The most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within 10 minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant — your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person.”) Without overplaying its hand, “It Follows” manages to be clever, literate, and surprisingly generous to its characters. Best of all, it’s really, really scary.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.