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It Follows is the scariest American horror movie in years

Maika Monroe plays Jay, a young woman stalked by a terrible, sexually transmitted curse, in It Follows. Jake Weary plays the man who passes the curse on to her.
Maika Monroe plays Jay, a young woman stalked by a terrible, sexually transmitted curse, in It Follows. Jake Weary plays the man who passes the curse on to her.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

A girl, a teenager, screaming in the dim light, races from a quiet house on a quiet street in a quiet suburb. Though she's scantily clad, it's not meant to titillate. She's in gasping, gaping terror, running from something no one else can see.



She races past her father, into her home. She gets car keys. She takes the car and drives to some massive body of water. The headlights frame her shivering form as she sits on the shore, night settling around her.

A few seconds later, it's dawn, and her brutally mutilated corpse — one leg snapped and bent backward — rests on that sandy shore.

This is the world and primal terror of It Follows. This is a movie you need to see right now.

Read: 9 real life horror stories of people who disappeared and were never found.

It Follows has a terrific, novel monster

The central conceit of It Follows, the excellent new horror film from director David Robert Mitchell, sounds eerie the first time you hear it, but it only gets more frightening every time you think about it. And the movie goes out of its way to give you reasons to think about just how horrifying it would be for this to play out in real life.

It Follows is a movie about a curse. While you're cursed, you will be stalked, mercilessly, by an entity that can take any form — including that of someone you love — and will stop at nothing to grab you and violently murder you. You can walk or run away from it easily. You can even drive away at top speed. But all that will do is buy you time. It will keep walking and keep walking. And it will catch you.

That is, it will catch you unless you sleep with somebody and pass the curse along. But if they can't pass it along in turn, then the beast will be back after you once it's killed your new lover, all the way down the line back to wherever it started.

Mitchell leaves some of the "rules" of this novel monster unexplained. It can't seem to open doors, for instance, but it knows enough to knock, and it can easily break windows. And there's a bit of murky business toward the end about what, precisely, its weak points might be.

But that's really no matter, because this monster wouldn't work if it made too much sense. It Follows is a dreamy, languorous film when the creature isn't around, a tone that befits the slow, shambling gait of the follower. But then, in seemingly every scene, it jolts awake with blinding terror. The monster is here. It's always been here.

It's also a standard indie teen romance — except for all the death

It Follows

It Follows features a terrific young cast. (Radius-TWC)

Mitchell's cast ultimately boils down to five kids in their late adolescence, all staring at the uncertainty of adulthood. This means the film lacks the taut tension of, say, a well-done slasher film, but it makes up for that in characters you genuinely want to see survive the film.

The film's heroine is Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman dating an older guy and trying to decipher the hazy contours of her life. In the early going, Jay could be any hero of any indie romantic drama, musing about the places she's always longed to go and eventually giving in to her boyfriend's wish to sleep with her.

Yet Mitchell keeps the tension humming in the deep background. There's that corpse from the opening sequence, for instance, but there's also the way Jay's boyfriend sees people who aren't really there, the way he seems jumpy and easily unnerved, or the way he won't let her really know anything about him.

He, of course, is haunted by the monster, and he soon passes it on to Jay. Fortunately for her, Jay has four loyal friends in the form of her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe); oddball friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi); former fling Greg (Daniel Zovatto); and earnestly dorky Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who nurtures a crush on Jay — and maybe Kelly, too. If this cast seems perfectly calibrated to make sure everybody has sexual tension with everybody else (and therefore allow constant possibilities for the curse to be passed on), your assumption is correct.

But Mitchell skillfully turns these characters into ones that can serve as both archetypes and more specific figures. Yara, for instance, seems aware she's in a horror movie but also doesn't particularly care, while Paul's evident and endless frustration with the situation becomes mildly endearing. Mitchell has given these kids the first real test of adulthood — simply outlasting something that seemingly can't be outlasted. In that way, the film works very well as a metaphor for confronting mortality.

It Follows puts the viewer in the movie

It Follows also does something I'm not precisely sure I've seen a horror movie do quite like this before. It essentially invites the monster to start stalking you, too, even though it's up on screen.

Since the camera is almost always following Jay, it leaves viewers to scan the negative space of every frame, waiting to find flickers of movement somewhere that might end up being a passerby or one of her friends — but might just as readily be the monster coming for her.

Mitchell exploits this brilliantly in long shots that isolate Jay against landscapes that already naturally glimmer with faint movement (a treeline with rustling leaves, say), creating a jumpy, heightened paranoia that makes the creature a presence even in scenes where it's not there. In one scene, in particular, the camera comes to a four-way intersection at a local high school where Jay has gone to get information, then stops to pan 360 degrees around that point, checking and checking, ever watchful, for the monster.

Similarly, Mitchell features several shots where someone with the curse eyes an unsuspecting victim, someone who might be easily seduced so that the curse might leave, if only for a little while. In that sense, he invites the audience to weigh the moral implications. What would you do, faced with such an impossible situation? It's the central question of all great horror, and It Follows asks it over and over again.

This is not anti-sex paranoia

It would be tempting to read It Follows as premarital sex paranoia, but that misses the point, as well as the bits where previous sexual encounters Jay has had didn't result in ancient curses stalking her through the streets of her hometown. No, that read is too simplistic.

It Follows

Despite the premise, It Follows doesn't have anti-premarital sex paranoia. (Radius-TWC)

Throughout the film, Yara reads from Dostoyevsky's The Idiot at length, and that book gives some hints as to what Mitchell is getting at here. In it, Dostoyevsky argues that the world itself is no place for purity. The world inherently corrupts, no matter what you do.

And as the film's final passages make clear, the monster of It Follows is the thing you cannot avoid. It's just over the horizon, waiting for you. It's corruption, impurity. It's regret, or growing up, or taking on responsibility, or even death.

It's the feeling you get when 19 ticks over to 20, and you realize you have a whole life to live and no real notion of how to do that. It's the tingle at the back of your neck, late at night, that you might never know what you're doing, the creeping sensation that follows you home.

It Follows is currently playing in select cities. Find showtimes here. It will continue to add more cities throughout the spring, and it comes to video on-demand on Friday, March 27.

Read more: 13 classic scenes that explain how horror movies work