The specter of Old Detroit haunts It Follows. In a dilapidating ice cream stand on 12 Mile, in the ’60s-style ranch homes of Ferndale or Berkley, in a game of Parcheesi played by pale teenagers with nasally, nothing accents—if you’ve never been, you’d never recognize the stale, gray nostalgia creeping into every corner of David Robert Mitchell’s terrifying film, but it’s there, and it feels like Metro Detroit.
In fact, only tangentially in It Follows is Detroit named; the closest our characters come to describing the urban sprawl of the Great Lakes State is in the ubiquitous claim of one teenager (Olivia Luccardi) that her parents never let her go past 8 Mile, lest she find her ruin amidst the detritus of urban decay. It’s a story every teenager who grew up in SE Michigan has told: how, in the late ’90s, the suburbs of Detroit (Oakland County in particular) contained some of the richest families in the country—rife with big car money—yet they lived only streets away from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. You want to see Rilo Kiley at the Shelter? You best lie to your parents about where you’re spending your evening and prepare for one of your friends to cower in the backseat of your Aerostar minivan, mumbling about the danger upon which you are all about to embark. Which isn’t necessarily unique to Michigan’s largest city, that kind of closeness of different economic situations. But it’s the starkness of its disparity that seems almost macabre—and so kind of perfect for Mitchell’s beautifully sad horror flick.
Mitchell introduces us to Jay (Maika Monroe), a woman of about 18 or so, somewhere on the perimeter of full-blown, boring adulthood. When first we see Jay, she’s swimming in the pool in her backyard, an image that will limn the film’s climax some hour and a half later. Mitchell, apparently, is obsessed with circles—even the first shot of the film is a meticulously orchestrated 360-degree pan, an effect he uses masterfully throughout the film, slyly crafting the illusion that we’re being given a full view of a scene or vignette, even though the camera is essentially ignoring any main action in favor of swiveling on autopilot. Cycles and circles concentrically fill out It Follows, from the particularly insular rules of the film’s horror plot (I’ll get to that in a bit), to the youthful, fleshy roundness of the faces and bodies of this small group of main characters, never letting the audience forget that, in so many ways, these people are still children. In other words, Mitchell is clear about his story: this has happened before, and it will happen again. Even the way in which the film treats time—using the bland, neglected timelessness of Metro Detroit’s suburbs, coupled with an odd use of technology, partnering landlines and old automobiles with an e-reader that looks stripped straight out of Her—excises It Follows from any definable decade. Time is a flat circle, y’all.
Jay is smitten with Hugh (Jake Weary), a handsome, bad-boy-ish type with particularly Midwestern facial hair and the kind of mile-long stare that is only really attractive to people under the age of 21. On the date in which Jay is convinced the two will finally consummate their burgeoning love, Hugh spazzes out at a movie theater, dragging Jay from her seat, obviously spooked by the appearance of a woman in a yellow dress whom only Hugh, apparently, can see. This doesn’t deter Jay, and so after a pleasant montage at a nondescript diner (Denny’s), bonking ensues in Hugh’s car outside of an abandoned parking garage, because why not? Post-coitus, Jay seems sincerely pleased with her accomplishment—until Hugh clamps a rag over her mouth and knocks her out.
When Jay wakes, she’s still in her skivvies but strapped to a wheelchair, this time inside the parking garage (or, perhaps, it’s an old automobile plant, the shells of which litter Detroit like used condoms). Hugh explains that he’s not trying to hurt Jay, he’s forcing her to confront the reality she now inhabits: he has passed to her, through sex, a sort of semen demon—and the one way for her to get rid of this haunting is to have sex with someone else, passing “It” down the line. Only those infected (including everyone preceding the latest victim) can see this phantasm, which will take the form of anyone—someone you know, someone you don’t, it doesn’t matter as long as It can get close to you. And when It does? We learned early on, with the very first sequence: a pretty teenager (Bailey Spry—doing some impressive sprinting in high heels, it’s worth noting), running away from something, is finally caught, her gruesomely mangled corpse littering a nearby beach the next day.
As Hugh forces Jay to stare at a naked, expressionless woman creeping toward them, he rapidly explains the rest of the film’s “rules”: It is slow, and you’ll usually be able to outrun It, but no matter how far you get, It will always find you. If It does, It will kill you, and then It will go after the person who came before you, working Its way backwards down the sexual food chain. So, she best find someone to have sex with, passing the curse on as quickly as possible. With that, he drives her home, and dumps her, in shock and in her underwear, in front of her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and Kelly’s two friends, flighty Yara (Luccardi) and sincere milquetoast Paul (Keir Gilchrist), the latter of course having an insatiable, life-long crush on Jay. This totally ruins their Parcheesi game.
Initially, Mitchell’s whole conceit seems to bury conservative sexual politics under typical horror movie tropes, proclaiming to be a progressive genre pic when it functionally does nothing to further our ideas of slasher fare. You fornicate, you find punishment for your flagrant, loveless sinning, right? (The film has more in common with a Judd Apatow joint than you’d expect.) Instead, Mitchell never once judges his characters for doing what practically every teenager wants to do; he simply lays bare, through a complex allegory, the realities of teenage sex. There is no principled implication behind Mitchell’s intent; the cold conclusion of sexual intercourse is that, in some manner, you are sharing a certain degree of your physicality with everyone with whom your partner has shared the same. That Mitchell accompanies this admission with genuine respect and empathy for the kinds of characters who, in any other horror movie, would be little more than visceral fodder for a sadistic spirit, elevates It Follows from the realm of disguised moral play into a sickly scary coming-of-age tale.
Yet, Mitchell never abandons his source material, tending rather to pay homage by coring to the heart of the filmmakers he adores most. None are so apparent as John Carpenter, whose jarring juxtaposition of moods and genres Mitchell seems to closely emulate—that, and the film’s soundtrack, composed by chiptune geniuses Disasterpeace (known for their brilliant video game scores), which oscillates so hard, and so unexpectedly, between meditative scree and pounding skronk it’s bound to force your intestines through your mouth. The music, the muted but strangely sumptuous color palette, the incessant anachronism: in style alone, Mitchell is an auteur seemingly emerged fully formed from the unhealthy womb of Metro Detroit.
All of which wouldn’t work were Mitchell less concerned with creating a genuinely unnerving film, but every aesthetic flourish, every fully circular pan is in thrall to breathing morbid life into a single image: someone, anyone slowly separating from the background, from one’s nightmares, and walking toward you, as if Death itself were to appear unannounced next to you in public, ready to steal your breath with little to no aplomb. Mitchell inherently understands that there is practically nothing more eerie than the slightly off-kilter ordinary, trusting the film’s true horror to the tricks our minds play when we forget to check our periphery.
Detroit, too, exists almost preternaturally on the fringes, a metropolis at the edge of its inhabitants’ sights, hiding unknown fears behind the skeletons of a thriving economic hub that, 50 years ago, had the promise to be so much more. It Follows is itself a film that thrives in the borders, not so much about the horror that leaps out in front of you, but the deeper anxiety that waits at the verge of consciousness—until, one day soon, it’s there, reminding you that your time is limited, and that you will never be safe. Forget the risks of teenage sex, It Follows is a penetrating metaphor for growing up.
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Writer: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Kili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto
Released: March 13, 2015
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.