It Follows is an intelligent horror film that understands the embattled nature of the well-worn genre and twists its own compelling narrative. Like other recent excellent horror entries, the film capitalizes on old-fashioned scares and a chillingly thrilling atmosphere. The music is haunting, relentless, and gripping, and the cinematography slowly builds tension and gives an unnerving feel to every scene. While there are some exceptional plot holes and narrative misjudgments in the second half of the film, it is impossible to not love the ingenuity of the film’s central premise. Quite simply, it has been coined as a “sexually transmitted haunting.” It’s so much more than that, though, particularly as director David Robert Mitchell opts for using his calm, composed direction developed from his feature debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover. He tells a similarly unique tale here regarding teenagers dealing with the ramifications of sexual promiscuity. The story is an absolute blast and the scares are frightening, so it’s a shame that it strays from greatness in favor of clichéd tropes in its final half hour.

The film opens with a hauntingly Nightmare on Elm Street-esque scare, as a girl runs from her home and down the street away from her familial life, being chased by some malevolence. She drives away from an invisible presence, at least to the audience’s eyes. The next thing we know, she’s dead on the shores around the Michigan town. Something is going horribly wrong. We then pick up with Jay (Maika Monroe, best known from last year’s genre-mash The Guest), a young woman recently graduated from high school who meets a young man named Hugh (Jake Weary). They attend a film together and he grows familiarly uncomfortable when he sees someone that she does not, leading to him escorting her away and not discussing the moment again. After Jay and Hugh consummate their affection in his car, he knocks her out and ties her up in an abandoned building. When it feels sexually uncomfortable and exploitative, that’s because it probably is. Regardless, Hugh introduces her to what was haunting him: a naked, bloody woman (that can take many different human forms) that comes after Jay and wants to murder her. Why? Because the spirit that has haunted him is passed sexually, and is now her burden to carry.

It’s a genius premise for a genre soaked in sex and blood. Perhaps it’s most surprising, then, that the film employs familiar scares and atmosphere and creates its own truly unsettling and impressive vision. Mitchell’s direction is backed by fantastically methodical cinematography from Mike Gioulakis (who did impressive work on last year’s unconvincing but beautifully photographed Camp X-Ray). The performances at the heart of the film are the standard horror fare, but the script is acutely aware of teenager’s perceptions about the world around them. There are calm, affecting scenes where Jay talks with her old crush, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and the chemistry between the two leads and the words coming from them are palpable and kinetic. The scares are abundant but also not incredibly reliant on jumping; atmosphere scares just as much as quick moments. And here, a stairwell has never proven to be lit so perfectly and terrifyingly. I lost interest in a pool scene that feels derivative and wholly stupid considering the intelligence (or lack thereof) the characters exhibit, and a few themes regarding the “transmission” feel like missed opportunities that need more exploration. As a whole, though, It Follows is an original and incredibly vibrant film, one fueled by the impressive vision of its director.

Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)

Written by Eric Forthun