’It Follows’ — destitute Detroit in the age of desperately lost youth

One thing is for sure — director David Robert Mitchell knows how to create an atmosphere.

His first film, “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” was a sweet and tender coming-of-age story set in the landscape of suburban Americana following one specific night in the lives of a dozen teenagers it wasn’t so much what happened throughout that night that was interesting, but how Mitchell created a very poignant feeling of uncertainty, insecurity and longing mixed with a tinge of that boundless hope distinct to adolescence. Not only did the film manage to present the semblance of a certain kind of middle-class youth, but it also managed to create a heartfelt nostalgia for an older audience.

Mitchell’s second film, “It Follows,” is an entirely different genre, namely horror, but yet again he succeeds in creating a piece of art whose atmosphere touches the soul in remarkably unexpected ways that affect not only a younger audience, but also those of us who still have unresolved issues with our own demons.

Set in the suburbs of decrepit Detroit — an abandoned piece of America stuck between declining industrialization and failed dreams — the film starts with one of the most uncanny sequences. A teenage girl storms out of her house, half clothed, into her calm and sunny street. She seems worried and is constantly looking around as if she senses someone is following her. Her neighbors ask if something’s wrong, and she doesn’t answer. She looks back at her own house, then runs to her car and heads out to the lake nearby. She sits on the lakeshore, alone, desperate and hopeless, almost suicidal, as if there is nothing she can do to make things better. The next day she is found horribly dismembered. What happened to her?

We meet Jay (Maika Monroe), a 19-year-old college student. Jay enjoys her life, and she has a good rapport with her younger sister and her friends. They hang about in her suburban house watching TV, reading books, occasionally making fun of one another in a harmless way. The house is decorated in a retro fashion, almost as if it’s popped out of a 1970s John Carpenter flick. There is nothing modern here — almost like a hipster’s daydream of nostalgia and retro pop culture. There’s a strange, loving atmosphere, but the presence of a sinister being can be felt in the air.

Jay hooks up with an older boy, Hugh (Jake Weary), after an odd incident at the local art-house cinema, which looks like it was the set of a Bela Lugosi film, and they head out in his car to an abandoned industrial zone. They make love. But then suddenly, everything turns around, because it turns out Hugh has been using Jay for his own selfish purposes. A supernatural shape-shifter has been following him, and the only way to get rid of it is by engaging in coitus, whereupon the being starts following the next person. Basically, through venereal disease, he has passed on the malignant being on to her. The catch is that the being constantly changes into different persons it can be someone you know or not, it only walks, it tries to follow you wherever you go, and the minute it tries to touch you, you’re dead. The worst part is no one can see it except the person being followed.

Jay’s life turns upside down she turns to her sister and friends for help. It’s important to say at this point that Mitchell obstinately refuses to involve any adults in the story. What is so touching here is that Jay’s friends believe in her and try to help her as much as they can. We cringe and shudder in every sequence that the being suddenly pops out of each indistinct corner, in the form of any person and frightens the living daylights out of the poor girl who is on the edge of paranoia. It seems there is no way to get rid of it, apart from trying to pass it on to another through fornication. But is Jay selfish enough to do this, and are the two boys who have a crush on her willing to take on the risk? Or maybe there’s another solution?

“It Follows” might seem on the surface like a cautionary tale of the dangers of venereal disease, and with a hint of moral questioning regarding the laissez-faire attitude of youth culture when it comes to physical intimacy. But like all good horror films there’s more than just the surface story, and the film’s inquiry about the very personal experience of being a teenager is its forte. It is all about the fear of uncertainty of the future and the fact that stepping into adulthood means stepping out of one’s comfort zone into a place where there are no parental safeguards or a controlled environment, and where one is left to her/his own devices, which is the biggest fear of all. And yes, whatever uncertainty, unidentified being or variant there is out there, it “follows” us wherever we go.

This surreal, visually mesmerizing film has nothing to do with cheap scares, although the director knows very well how to utilize horror genre tropes. There is something in Mitchell’s work that deeply affects us, for he knows how to tap our deepest fear of being left alone and helpless, and push us to face the ultimate dread that we won’t know how to deal with it. “It Follows” could just be that new modern classic horror piece that will raise the hair on our arms every time we dare to reflect on it. One such film was Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness,” and Mitchell knows exactly how to trail that great director’s footsteps.