Really good horror films go home with you. Great zombie films transform the way we look at crowds clumping down city streets, and ghost stories make it tricky to pass by windows and mirrors late at night. David Robert Mitchell’s film is great. It may not be this year’s scariest film, but it sure alters consciousness. It’s a feat that’s especially notable because Mitchell’s movie is a very personal vision (he’s said it was based on his own nightmares) set in a strange environment — namely, the edge of the ruined city of Detroit in an all-white suburb nearly free of any kind of parental guidance. The most visible grown-ups present are more like walking corpses than wise counselors, and the young protagonists (of course) don’t take much stock in adult advice.
We enter their world as puzzled voyeurs who first have to make sense of the kids: a group of teens lolling away high school in backyard pools, watching 1950s monster movies on TV, and reading Dostoyevsky. Jay (Santa Barbara’s own Maika Monroe) breaks away from the teenage torpor and goes out on a date that begins with consensual sex but ends in a violent rape that leaves her with a curse. Wherever Jay goes, she is eventually found by a terrifying force bent only on her violent destruction. If she has sex with someone else, Jay learns, the force will move on. Turns out there are boys who don’t mind consequences.
Detroit is rapidly edging out New Orleans as America’s most frightening town. Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive gave us the abandoned city by night, but Mitchell’s film presents it as a beautiful forbidden zone; a downtown indoor-swimming-pool scene is the movie’s most gorgeous and harrowing. But it isn’t just the decadent locale that distinguishes this film. There is a constant sense we are in the middle of a charged text — it has literary depths, and it ends with a moving invocation. With It Follows, Mitchell has made an untidy allegory of innocence’s opposite, and it won’t leave you alone.