The general concept of It Follows is clever for its absurd simplicity, which is then skilfully executed to ratchet up tension thanks to the deft visual sensibilities of the director and the DP. The basic idea is that if an infected person has sex with you than a slow-moving, shape-shifting supernatural creature will slowly but unceasingly pursue you until it kills you. The inexorable, slow-moving feel of a noose tightening on you which you can never escape is what gives the film its sense of terror and dread.
Of course, once you start thinking about it logically, it wouldn't be that hard to outfox this STD, and I found myself distracted by some of these common sense questions. Do condoms work to prevent it? Why not just drive 300 miles away every day and sleep in a new town? The creature can only move at a walking pace, so, like, how hard would it really be to constantly outrun it? Why don’t they just fly to Thailand and go to Nana Plaza - problem solved. Or fly anywhere for that matter? By the time it catches up to you, fly somewhere else. Can it cross oceans?
But, logic is often the death of a good time at the movies so we shall put that out of our minds for now because if we ignore these practical questions than the film is quite successful at what it sets out to do. And it achieves this almost entirely because it is a pure visual delight. Shot on a shoestring ($2 million), the movie is gorgeous and it uses these visuals very smartly, shooting to maximize depth of focus as often as possible, thereby making the background itself an active and potentially deadly character in the film.
Because you never really know if some innocuous background character is actually The Follower, shooting this way turns every extra milling around - who probably just showed up on the set that day for the free pizza - into a source of tension and potential doom. An excellent example of this is when the characters go to a school, and a slow 360 degree pan reveals there is a person slowly walking toward them, and unless you are paying attention you might not even realize it because at first it just looks like a girl walking across a yard. When the camera pans around a second time, though, you see she is closer than before and walking straight toward the main character. The characters themselves don’t realize it, but the camera and the blocking do all the heavy lifting so that a high degree of creepiness is achieved.
The film lets you know what you are in for from the beginning. It opens with a gorgeously lit and ambitious tracking shot, following a terrified young woman through a suburban setting. There are several scenes on a beach that are almost painterly in their impressionistic and arresting compositions. There is an intimacy to the way these scenes are filmed. This is probably because the production had no money and had to rely on good locations where they could make the most of natural lighting. Fortunately for them, they were shooting in a part of Detroit where the director grew up so he knew the best locations that would have the best light and how to shoot them. This is critical to the success of the film – the premise is pretty clever, but that alone probably wouldn’t be able to sustain this movie without the lush and striking visuals.
Even when the background is not being used to increase tension, the film is still just a beautiful thing to look at. It captures a sense of place using natural light and a knowledge of locations. This is one reason why local filmmakers who know the terrain will often make more beautiful, more intimate and more deeply textured visual cinema than the most high-priced Hollywood location scouts, camera technology, or CGI can. Nothing beats knowing how the light falls on a certain place at a certain time from your own experience, and then using that to craft the visual language of your film.
Another key to the movie’s popularity (AV Club named it the 2nd best horror film since 2000) is that it can be interpreted in many ways by people who like to over-analyse movies. Is it about the corruption of sexuality? Is the director secretly an abstinence-promoting Sarah Palin fan? Is it some deeper metaphorical examination about how becoming an adult means you shed your youthful naiveté and the inexorable forces of death and life begin to hound you with no possibility of escape? There are a lot of ways to slice this film, if you are so inclined, and while this gives it more depth and layers than just a rote horror film, I personally think it is a bit of a stretch to go looking for submerged morality tales or existential meaning in a story that at its heart is about a supernatural STD. Nevertheless, a no-budget horror film that is layered, complex and stunning to look at is worthy of our praise and box office dollars.
And I haven't even mentioned that the production design is subtly, and almost imperceptibly, creepy as fuck.