The modern horror movie was born in the darkness of the 1970s, and no matter how many incarnations it goes through — sincere and ironic, restrained and gore-addled — it keeps circling back to the same places, tropes, images, and haunts. When the car stalls out and the dirt road beckons, it’s always some version of Leatherface at the end of it. When there’s something wrong with your child, your house, your neighbors, you never call the doctor; it’s probably the devil, and only the exorcist can help. And when the implacable killer comes to call, his hunting ground is always some variation on Michael Myers’s Halloween hometown — the empty, eerie suburban streets of Haddonfield.
The latest Haddonfield is an out-of-time Michigan suburb, just a little ways into autumn, in the retro, unhurried, and taut It Follows. The movie’s setting is sort of the present — one girl has a clamshell e-reader, at least — but other details place the story in a kind of eternal ’70s. The cars are wide, the TVs still look as if they need rabbit ears, and nobody’s tapping or texting or yakking on his iPhone. In fine Me Decade style, there’s also no adult supervision. The grown-ups have their own problems, and the kids are on their own.
This means, at first, doing ordinary teenage things: We watch our protagonist, a 19-year-old girl named Jay (Maika Monroe), swimming in her backyard pool and hanging out lazily with her younger sister and two neighborhood friends — one the girl with the e-reader, who’s reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the other the skinny Paul (Keir Gilchrist), whose crush on Jay is palpable. But she’s into somebody else, a handsome if slightly on-edge guy from a different part of town, who takes her to the movies, shares six-packs with her by the river, makes love to her in the backseat of a car — and then chloroforms her and ties her to a wheelchair in the lower level of an abandoned building, where she awakes, groggily, to find him ranting at her and apologizing to her all at once.
As the genre requires, their sex was a terrible, life-altering mistake, but not because her partner is actually an axe murderer. Instead, he’s tied her up as a kind of favor, in order to explain to her — and show her — what she’s in for now. By having sex with Jay, he’s passed on a kind of supernatural curse of which she can rid herself only by having sex with someone else in turn. Until she does, she’ll be followed by a specter, a monster — one that can take on various human forms, some strange and some very familiar; one that nobody but you can see; one that only walks and never runs, but also never stops until it reaches you; and one that will find a way to kill you when it does. At which point, it will return to stalking its previous target, so even sex itself provides only a temporary escape.
As horror-movie conceits go, this is a pretty rich one, metaphorically potent on multiple levels — evoking venereal disease, pregnancy, emotional damage, and ultimately death. It’s also scary in a creatively unsettling way, since the monster isn’t a creature in the closet waiting to jump out; sometimes it appears unexpectedly, but the real menace is in its mix of implacability and anonymity, the dread its potential presence injects into any human context.
In one of the movie’s most effective scenes, for instance, Jay and her friends head to a high school to do some amateur detective work in the yearbook office. The camera wheels around a campus scene, and you see a lone figure with a backpack crossing the quad toward them; with each 360-degree turn the figure is closer, and closer, and closer . . . and there’s no way to know until the end (and maybe not even then) whether it’s the monster or just someone taking an innocent stroll in the camera’s direction.
A great idea does not a great movie make, and the strengths of It Follows are closely connected to its weaknesses. Its stripped-down simplicity can feel ragged, its gestures at Dostoevsky are a little lame, and its script and cast walk the line between “plausible teenage anomie” and “weak dialogue delivered by middling actors.” Monroe, as Jay, is vividly distinct; the rest of the cast just play their archetypes. The last shot lingers, but the confrontation preceding it doesn’t make a lot of sense. And the rules governing the monster don’t necessarily bear too much examination.
But this is a horror flick, not high art, and when it’s judged by the genre’s standards, its strengths easily outweigh its weaknesses. The director, David Robert Mitchell, uses both his score and his setting (the empty suburb, the emptier ruins of Detroit) expertly, and they work together with the film’s conceit to create a kind of geography of dread: a landscape in which there’s neither a clear threat nor any permanent safety, and the appearance of an ordinary-looking human figure, usually a relief in monster movies, is the most fear-inducing thing of all.