Someone who took a film course in college once told me the first shot in any movie is its most important. Seldom is that more evident than with It Follows, which opens with a doozy.
One setup, with a rotating camera tracking a terrified young woman shattering the normalcy of her neighborhood, running away from something unseen. Brushing off those trying to help, she climbs into a car and races away. It's a grabber, followed by a gagger when the woman's corpse is discovered. Welcome to the latest example of 21st century retro-terror, with writer-director David Robert Mitchell doing a nifty John Carpenter impersonation, circa Halloween.
It Follows has an impressively sustained sense of dread, less explicit gore than measured tension. Mitchell slyly inverts the conventions of dead-meat teenager flicks, although not with wink-wink comedy like the Scream series. This movie is serious about creeping out viewers, and Mitchell is just artistic enough about it to create a minor masterpiece.
As usual for '80s horror movies, the demonic force behind all this terror is sex, with an insidious twist. Not only are kids doomed by having sex, they can be saved by doing the dirty deed again. Rather than the scared-straight underpinnings of Jason's, Freddy's or Michael Myers' victims, It Follows taps into the inevitability of youthful sex, urging a better choice of partners. Also, it implies the potential ugliness of sex, with some of the stalking dead suggested as rape victims.
Jay (Maika Monroe) is an awkward virgin crushing on an older boy who talks her into a car's backseat. After finishing, he frantically spills the ground rules: By having sex, Jay is now cursed to be stalked — slowly and sinisterly — by a shape-shifting spirit out to kill her. She can pass it along to another sexual partner. If Jay or anyone after her in this carnal chain gets killed by the spirit, it starts killing in reverse order.
It Follows contains a bit of cost-cutting silliness in its scares, and at times the tension comes mainly from the storm cloud rumblings and synthesized strings of Rich Vreeland's derivative musical score. But Mitchell's respect for his audience is refreshing; no cheap grossouts here. Placed alongside recent, relatively bloodless throwbacks like James Wan's Insidious and The Conjuring, It Follows again proves horror is all in our heads.