'It Follows' Disorients With Atmosphere – So It Can Set Up A Perfect Scare

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: It Follows uses wide angles and a disorienting setting to unsettle before delivering a one-two punch scare for the ages.)

Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell knows how to build a chilling atmosphere. With a minimalist approach to storytelling, the success of It Follows as a compelling horror film owes much to Mitchell's use of wide shots and distinct visual style and production design. Subtle shifts in seasons and time subconsciously unsettle as viewers cannot place when and where the narrative takes place. Lead characters wear bathing suits in one scene and chilly fall coats in the next. The set further disorients with decor from various eras- unconventional and made-up technology clashes with retro televisions that play '50s sci-fi features. Mitchell intentionally creates a contrast to give his feature a timeless quality. All of this, combined with carefully choreographed terror that can come from anywhere in the wide-open spaces, induces agoraphobic dread.

It works to set the mood for the film's biggest scare, a terrifying scene that delivers not one but two potent scares without a second to spare for the audience to catch their breath. Even more impressive is the way Mitchell layers in visual complexity that offers multiple reads upon repeat viewings.

The Setup

Maika Monroe stars as Jay Height, a carefree teen whose life is upended thanks to a bizarre sexual encounter with her new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary). Upon sleeping together, Hugh incapacitates Jay, takes her to an abandoned lot, and explains the rules of the deadly curse he's just inflicted upon her. She's doomed to keep one eye out for Death, who will consistently come for her in the form of friends and strangers alike unless she passes it on to another sexual partner. Worried that she's suffering a mental breakdown, Jay's sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto) rally around her.

The Story So Far

While explaining the death curse rules, Hugh points out a naked woman approaching in the distance, at a slow but steady clip. He then drives them away from the area, dropping a shaken and exposed Jay off in front of her house before fleeing. The police can find no trace of the naked woman or Hugh, as they discover it was a fake identity. In the aftermath of the traumatic event, Jay attempts to resume normalcy and attends class. Staring out of the classroom window, she spies an older woman in a hospital gown crossing the grounds, seemingly unseen by those around her.

Highly disturbed, Jay's friends agree to spend the night to keep her company. Jay, unable to sleep, heads downstairs to watch TV with Paul. Their quiet conversation gets interrupted by the sound of breaking glass. Paul reports a smashed window in the kitchen, then heads upstairs to wake Jay's sister.

The Scene

Alone, Jay cautiously makes her way to the kitchen to see the damage for herself. The music crescendos with a pulsing beat, signaling that a scare looms near. The camera slows down, and all music fades, save for the drumming beat, as Jay walks into the kitchen. She turns and is faced with a disheveled woman her age, her clothes torn and missing teeth. The woman edges closer as she urinates. Screaming, Jay fumbles her way upstairs and locks herself in her room. Paul and Kelly arrive, confused as they insist no one else is in the house. They try to calm Jay's nerves when there's a knock at the door. It's Yara, half-asleep and perplexed by the uproar. The moment of relief gets punctuated by a music sting and the startling appearance of a tall man from the darkened room just behind Yara. Jay leaves in abject terror.

Up until this point, the entity only appeared from a safe distance. Even from a far-off distance, the wide angles elicit an exposed vulnerability that builds dread. This scene marks the first time the eponymous "it" invades Jay's home and personal space. The concept of home invasion is inherently petrifying because it removes the one place meant to offer security and comfort, but the entity's appearance heightens that natural fear thanks to the form it chooses; a victim of sexual assault. Jay's still reeling from her own assault. Her inciting consensual experience was savagely undone by Hugh's chloroforming and binding of her before she could even dress. The way he carelessly dumps her on the street only further the assault metaphor. The entity didn't just enter her home to claim her, but it exploited her trauma, too.

It's the disheveled woman's visual that makes this scare so powerful, as Mitchell employs conventional tactics to induce goosebumps between the ominous music stings and slowed down focus on the intended victim. The entity's imagery as it edges towards Jay leaves a mark, but Mitchell doesn't give his heroine much of a reprieve.

Jay cowers in her room, and her loved ones arrive to protect her, either from herself or her unseen foe. It's the precise type of scene that would otherwise allow the viewer a moment to soothe their rapid pulse. Instead, Mitchell uses it to sneak in another unexpected scare. Yara stands relaxed and sleepily in the doorway of Jay's bedroom, inquiring about the commotion. Paul and Kelly immediately drop their guard, and the ominous score stops for a fleeting instant. It kicks in again as an almost unnaturally tall figure emerges from the dark behind Yara. The abruptness of its appearance delivers another potent scare, clocking in just two minutes after the previous encounter.

That it comes from a completely different and unlikely spot in Jay's house sends the clear message that Death can come from anywhere at any time. However, Jay spends the rest of the movie attempting to outrun and outsmart the entity. It Follows, and this critical double-scare scene demonstrates how not much else gets under our skin quite like visceral reminders of our fleeting mortality.