Dread is a better conduit for fear for movie audiences than gore will ever be. When gratuitous blood and glistening entrails become the point of a scene, audiences go into defensive mode. We immediately judge the scene — and the movie — by whether it looks fake or not.
The harder a horror thriller works to be shocking, the less successful it usually is. That's why the Freddy Krueger movies and the "Hostel" franchise feel so campy. Our brains won't allow those bloody narratives to become a threat in the real world we should be remotely worried about.
"It Follows" is the rare horror thriller that prefers to traffic in dread rather than in titillating gore. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, "It Follows" does its best to subvert the tropes we usually associate with horror movies featuring angsty, terrified teenagers in the leading roles.
From its opening 360-degree tracking shot of a teenager fleeing her suburban Detroit neighborhood from some unseen, but persistent terror to her unspeakable fate minutes later, "It Follows" establishes a mood of what it might feel like to experience an unshakable waking nightmare.
When we meet Jay (Maika Monroe), she's floating contentedly in the family pool, perhaps the last time we see her without a care in the world in this 100-minute movie. Jay's best friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi), sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and longtime neighbor and secret crush Paul (Keir Gilchrist) provide the supporting cast to a desultory life that, in accordance with the demands of the genre, is suspiciously devoid of parents.
As a first-year college student who lives at home, Jay struggles with the normal insecurities of people her age. After a few dates with Hugh (Jake Weary), a guy she barely knows, Jay has sex with him in his car in a remote place.
In a conventional horror romp, this would be the scene in which the music cues the appearance of the serial killer or some other perv hiding in the bushes. But as we quickly realize, "It Follows" is anything but a conventional teenage horror flick.
What begins as a relatively discreet scene of teenage sex and post-coital tenderness is soon filled with confusion and panicked exposition that neatly establishes the film's plot and moral trajectory.
To some extent, the teenage protagonists in every horror thriller are being punished by Freddy, Jason, Chucky or some other anthropomorphic monster for being sexual beings, which is why scripts usually dictate that they be systematically and ritualistically slaughtered. They are goofy, passive aggressive cautionary tales.
As in those horror films, sex is literally dangerous in "It Follows," but it takes that old conceit that dictates punishment for sex in a fresh direction. Instead of a metaphor-laden morality tale that could double as a pro-abstinence film shown in the world's creepiest church basement, "It Follows" transforms sex into a mysterious social disease while asking sharp questions about the morality of "passing it on" to free oneself of its terrifying burden.
Eventually, Jay must struggle with the morality of escaping her fate when she grows close to Greg (Daniel Zovatto), a moody, but gallant neighbor who believes there's a rational explanation for all the strange things he sees swirling around her.
What the film lacks in gore and even coherent plotting at key points, it more than makes up for with steadily mounting tension and quick, inexplicable images of naked people in odd places. I've seen far scarier movies in my time, but few have been as stylish and interesting as this one. Mitchell is no Hitchcock, but he's on his way. He's better than most of his contemporaries dabbling in the genre. But be warned: "It Follows" is not a proper "date movie." I guarantee you that nothing's going to kill that mood quite like this film once the lights come on.