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IT FOLLOWS slyly juxtaposes the familiar with the alien as it tells its exceptionally effective tale of terror. The clichéd tropes of low-budget
horror — the remote lake house, the eager and nubile kids having sex in the back seat of a car, a terrified girl in high heels and lingerie running in terror down an otherwise picturesque suburban street — these are mere window-dressing that lull us into a sense of security that what unfolds will have the comforting nature of the well-known as it seeks to make us jump and scream.
Working with a low budget, and only a basic, though well executed, set of special effects, writer/director David Robert Mitchell has done a superb job of scaring the bejeezus out of us with such subversive filmmaking. And it’s his brand of masterful filmmaking that takes into account the nuance of what it means to be truly, deeply frightened with observations of a single tear, or a jealous grimace, that are as unhurried as the monster of the piece.
That would be the titular It, an entity that is passed along through sex, but that once passed along, never forgets whence it came. It can change its appearance to suit the situation, or, as the young man who passes it along to our heroine, Jay (Maika Monroe), to torture its victim. The young man is kind enough to warn Jay after the deed(s) is (are) done, showing her exactly what to expect. He also gifts her with the helpful advice that It can only walk with a telltale, but not unnatural gait, and that it never gives up, hence that it would be wise to always be in places where there are more than one exit. Jay, the usual comely blonde of horror flicks immemorial, is also the only one of her friends who can see It.
The worst part of It is never knowing when it will show up. Is that person strolling along in the background It or just a pedestrian out for a walk and innocently getting Jay’s adrenalin, and ours, pumping? Jay’s sister and friends, including the nerdy and lovesick Paul (Keir Gilchrist) rally around her, at first convinced she is coming unhinged, but finally accepting the truth of the situation when inanimate objects begin flying around.
The It is a scathingly terrifying and original creation. Without a comforting mythos for us to cling to, including the solution to the problem as in a silver bullet or an exorcism ritual, or a reason for It’s implacable determination to kill It’s target, the impotence of the friends’ attempts to save Jay are all the more desperate. The entity, though invisible to those who haven’t been infected, can still act upon them. It has mass, it has intention, and as the young man who started all of Jay’s troubles puts it, It’s slow, but It’s not stupid. And there is a delicious irony in something that only walks, but can never be outrun. A point underscored with quotes from Dostoyevsky ingeniously sprinkled through the film courtesy of the smart friend reading from her clam-shaped e-reader. For fans of literary quotes informing the action, a scene in Jay’s college English class gifts us with T. S. Eliot’s musings on the regret and stasis human condition just as Jay sees It for the first time on her own.
Metaphors, of course, abound. A sexually transmitted haunting that will, eventually, kill you, as a commentary on AIDS is obvious, but there are more subtle elements at work, too. The young man who infects Jay is more affluent than Jay and her friends. The economic decay of their lives is a palpable undercurrent of the plot, set in middle class homes that have seen better days, and the curious uninvolvement of parents, even given that the kids are in college, they are still living at home. Sex itself undergoes several incarnations, too, from a way to, ahem, kill time, to an act of selflessness that transcends the physical. Well, almost. While the eroticism that drives the film has parallel unwholesome tracks, in the natural world, with Paul’s obsession with Jay, as seen through his disquietly lingering looks, and the aggressive focus on the nude form, gives such an insidious intent that an exposed breast or a wagging bit of male genitalia becomes ominous rather than tantalizing, disconcerting the deepest part of the viewer’s id.
Set in a limbo that is not quite the present, but recognizably now, IT FOLLOWS offers a rich panoply of ethical dilemmas and shows infinite wisdom in refusing to portray any choices made by any of its characters unimpeachably right or wrong. But make no mistake, it’s also the stuff of nightmares such that the next knock on a door, or the sound of breaking glass, or even a pedestrian such as the one mentioned above, will no doubt raise the hair on the back of your neck.