References in It Follows Set the Tone

03/25/2015 05:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

A film like It Follows grabs you by the lapels, and drags you out once it's done. It lingers with you, with its unsettling premise -- in which its vulnerable lead is slowly stalked in broad daylight by seemingly average people- an indictment of everyday life. Brandishing a dominant score from Disasterpeace (one of the most unique pieces of music in a film since The Social Network), It Follows takes blatant cues from horror masters like John Carpenter. However, its many references to other, less obvious works -- littered throughout the film -- are the key to its success, namely its ability to evoke terror from the mundane.

In the universe of It Follows, even the most ordinary aspects of modern living become torture.

Early in David Robert Mitchell's film, its main characters -- teenagers idly existing in suburban Michigan -- watch Killers From Space and The Giant Claw, two forgotten sci-fi flicks from the '50s.

Beyond their muted hipster tendencies, having the teens watch those specific films is a sneaky way of establishing tone. Even before Jay's curse is induced, she and her friends are already engulfed by suburban sprawl.

Take, for instance, the moment Jay walks in on her sister's friends watching TV. It's an odd scene, given that It Follows appears set in alternate universe, technologically speaking. One character reads The Idiot from a clamshell e-reader, but others watch old monster movies on pre-digital television sets. (In another scene, Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is called out -- the tonal mish mash of references enhances the film's sense of dissimulation.)

Everything about it feels askew. Particularly Killers From Space, both films embody the sorts of cheesy Cold War-era sci-fi films made during the Eisenhower administration. Killers From Space was produced and directed by W. Lee Wilder, brother of Billy, from an original script by his son Myles. The association with someone of Billy Wilder's caliber is powerful, as is its basic plot, which concerns a scientist (Peter Graves) fending off an alien invasion (metaphor alert).

Besides what's on TV, these early moments insinuate a terse paranoia tiptoeing around It Follow's periphery. '80s-era Spielberg is often lauded for his ability to convert the world of the middle-class into a claustrophobic nightmare. Mitchell does the same thing here. Whereas their world appears casual and boring, there's something always on the fringe. While taking a swim, Jay is watched by neighborhood kids, and appears oddly at peace with their voyeurism. Adults are either indifferent, or entirely absent, throughout the film.

Thus, the curse is symptomatic of a larger trauma within Jay. Tellingly, the movie Hugh takes Jay to before he infects her is Charade, in which Audrey Hepburn learns her husband, as well as Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), are not who they seem. Betrayal is central to what makes It Follows terrifying -- Jay is not safe anywhere and almost everyone she sees is a suspect.

Her interactions with even characters like Paul are stilted -- admittedly, the result of Mitchel's vaguely mumblecore/dreamlike approach to the story -- but also a hint that there's more at play in the film's subtext. Much has been written about the monster behind It representing the dangers of sex; more specifically, the horror Jay experiences demonstrates her crippled emotional state, even at the film's start. From her backyard, to the scene with the three men in the boat, to her final confrontation with a surprise assailant in the pool, Jay reveals a quiet arc grappling with scars deeper than the ones shown on screen.

Fittingly, I saw It Follows in a theatre where The Hunting Ground was being screened next door. It's common for horror films to be viewed as a sort of memento mori, meditations on death. Like a good horror film, It Follows is preoccupied with life's final destination -- but what separates it from its peers is a deeper agenda which has digested the mood and conventions of other films, and laced them with social commentary. At its heart, It Follows is the journey of a young woman coping with the fact she lives in a world where nearly all the men in her life -- including her dad -- can't ever fully be trusted.