The evaluative index for scary movies is rarely their ability to be re-watched. Even the scariest disintegrates under a second viewing — neither makeup nor special effect nor narrative arc can launch itself very far without the element of surprise propelling it. “It Follows” is different. Traditional scares still abound in the film, mechanized by the now famous score and figures that loom into central focus. But just as “It Follows” raids the toolbox for formal techniques, its real sticking power is less synthetic.
“Sticks” is a fitting word. After all, the fear “It Follows” generates isn’t of the atomized variety, like in a movie like “The Conjuring” where the monster can be categorized, and therefore predicted, by its phenomenon. The monster of “It Follows” is formless: With no backstory or recognizable figure, the monster is a flytrap for the characters’ various psychic configurations. Fathers and mothers take on the nude form of “it,” a trick which exploits our visceral disgust to anything Oedipal.
The movie harnesses yet another Freudian principal, the uncanny. On one hand, unheimlich, its German term, connotes the familiar and at-home; on the other hand, its second meaning refers to the concealed and secret. So the word itself holds a dialectic set of meanings at its pole and antipode: the domestic and the strange. Under the uncanny, the entire landscape becomes fair game for this ambivalent hold. “It Follows” plasters pulpy references across the screen — female protagonist Jay’s lurid blonde hair and lingerie glisten in the moonlight while she makes seamy love in an old sedan’s backseat. But the film’s most potent chemical for the uncanny is nostalgia. Teen crushes are imbued with life-or-death stakes; childhood friends band together to ambush the monster like the gang in Scooby Doo. Though Michigan natives will recognize some locations, the suburbs are indistinguishable from Anywhere, USA. Most importantly, parental figures are reduced to generic peripheral blurs that hover in the background.
And instead of thrusting the teens into the realities of adulthood and responsibility, the monster is an extension of adolescence. After all, the purely physical aspect of sex is not the ground that the monster preys on. Rather, it’s teenage sex’s clearinghouse of lore — its urban myths, its allures, negotiations and anxieties — that produces the monster. Even the name “it,” which is all one can call the monster, turns a condition into a taboo. If a 30-year-old contracted “it,” she would go to a doctor covered by ObamaCare or take the morning after pill. But for the adolescent sequestered from the adult world’s decisive rationality, the monster festers.
This dark side that dims adolescence’s halcyon glow marks “It Follows” ’s turn into the uncanny, because there is something off about the world. Unlatched from temporal referents, the film derives its nostalgia from cans of soda with brands that don’t exist and a strange e-reader nestled in a clamshell compact, all cast under a Polaroid hue. The result is a familiarity that is hollow, a nostalgia that rings false. Even the camera lacks a grip on identity. In one shot, Jay, tied down to a wheelchair, shudders. And almost imperceptibly, the camera shudders as well, as if it forgets who it is. It forgets what its job is too. During moments of suspense, the camera discards its role to telescope details with a hyper-aesthete’s eye, lingering on vivid green grass à la “Blue Velvet” or a shock of shimmering hair. In another much talked about shot, Jay and company talks to a school administrator as the camera scans the office in a slow, 360-degree circle of paranoia, trying to apprehend if “it” is among the strangers in the room.
The evaluative index for a scary movie comes down to “does it scare you?” “It Follows” doesn’t just scare, it crawls under your skin and casts the film’s aesthetic glaze on everything you see. I saw “It Follows” twice. The first time I jumped more, the second time I was no less engaged. The adrenaline spikes are exhaustible, but what pervades is the sense of dread — not an accelerating anxiety, but a deadening gloom.