DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. There were reports last spring from the Cannes Film Festival that a low-budget American horror movie with no big-name stars was making audiences scream. The same report came out of the Toronto Film Festival in the fall. That movie was called "It Follows," and it opens in theaters today. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: There are many ways a filmmaker can try to scare an audience - fancy special effects, loud noises, things jumping up, splatter. Or he or she can go for something less concrete - vague outlines, shadows, weird camera angles that play on the fear of the unknown, hints that things aren't what they seem. But after seeing the indie horror film "It Follows," I'm suddenly convinced there's nothing more blood-freezing than a lone figure, clear as day, relatively normal-looking, walking at a moderate pace from way back in the frame towards the front. Forget about what it is and why it's doing what it's doing, what matters is that it follows.
OK, it would help to know why it's doing what it's doing. The lack of motive never stopped "Halloween's" Michael or "Friday The 13th's" Jason. We know that sex has a connection to whatever it is that follows. After a prologue too upsetting to relay and the movie's one hideously gory image, which I'd like to get out of my head somehow, we meet Jay, played by Maika Monroe, a teenage girl in suburban Detroit asking herself the usual teenage-girl questions. A cute guy named Hugh, played by Jake Weary, wants to sleep with her and she's not sure. In a movie theater, he's spooked by something - a girl in a yellow dress, who she doesn't see, and they hurry off. Then they're on a quiet lakefront beach talking. Then they're in his car having sex. Then Jay's world changes forever. Drugged, she wakes up tied to a chair as Hugh paces behind her.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT FOLLOWS")
JAKE WEARY: (As Hugh) This thing - it's going to follow you. Somebody gave it to me, and I passed it to you back in the car. It could look like someone you know, or it could be a stranger in a crowd, whatever helps it get close to you. It can look like anyone, but there's only one of it.
MAIKA MONROE: (As Jay) Help. Help.
EDELSTEIN: It's possible that the young writer-director, David Robert Mitchell, is serving up nothing more complex than a cautionary tale with a standard reactionary moral - you have casual sex, you die. The idea has certainly powered many a horror picture, some even good. And in this case, there's that added excruciating moral dilemma - that to keep from dying, Jay will have to seduce someone and pass along the curse or whatever it is, but also tell that person what he's in for because if he dies, she's on the hook again. So really, she's always on the hook.
I identified this as an indie horror movie. And its old-fashioned handmade quality and lack of computer-generated effects is a big part of its appeal. Compositions are simple but witty. The quick blur at the top or the side of the screen could be something or nothing. But what it is, it makes you flinch. There's a touch of "Blue Velvet" in how the camera prowls the bland suburban lawns. And a faint suggestion that the thing is linked to urban decay across 8 Mile Road, where Jay, her sister and two friends go to find that guy who passed it to her.
Rich Vreeland's synthesized organ music is just this side of cheesy but so melodic and perfectly calibrated that the cheesiness must be the point. It evokes both John Carpenter's "Halloween" score and the music to the classic micro-budget ghost story, "Carnival Of Souls," in the best possible way. The young actors are usually likable, especially Keir Gilchrist as the nerd who loves Jay so much he volunteers to sleep with her - many times. In fact, the way Jay's sister and friends stick around instead of bolting, makes this an unusually warm chiller. In dank rooms and on dark outdoor porches, the characters huddle in pools of color. But I couldn't help thinking that the thing would be drawn by that light, like an insect.
I'm a lifelong horror freak, and I've rarely been as scared as I was at "It Follows." But it wasn't a fun kind of scared. I felt sick with dread. What makes me recommend it is the ending, which manages to be both inconclusive and conclusive in a way that's unexpectedly moving - at least if you don't think about what follows.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On the next FRESH AIR, former Congressman Barney Frank talks with us about his life in politics, including the moment he came out to the press. It was something he was ready for.
BARNEY FRANK: And so my explicit answer was - Congressman Frank, are you gay? Answer - yeah, so what?
BIANCULLI: Frank has a new book. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.