It Follows is a simple horror film that is also quite remarkable, because it commits so well to using its singular concept as an extrinsic totem for fears about sexuality. Using the same overpowering synth soundtrack and languid moments that made Drive so appealing, the film constructs horror around the specter of consequences rather than dismemberment. It Follows is able to do this by remaining uncomplicated as it explores its simple yet ingenious conceit: the monster in It Follows is a sexually transmitted stalker. After having sex with someone who is infected, a shapeshifting creature will walk directly towards the victim until it can lay hands on. It never moves faster than a walk, it can’t move through walls, but it can take the form of friends and we’re told early that “Where ever you are, it is somewhere walking straight towards you.” The only hope for survival is eternal vigilance or to pass it on to someone else. It Follows works with the terror of fatalism, the fear of a death summoned by our own choices once we reach maturity.
It Follows does have some traditional horror DNA, such as the cold open. We are introduced to a malevolent stalker we can’t see and a girl is torn apart. The film then holds off on informing this early scene, spending copious time introducing the high school kids lazing away a Detroit summer. Nubile teens are a popular target, but usually the reasons for their inclusion are subconscious. Sure sex sells, but why specifically do writers and directors have so much venom for the jocks and cheerleaders of suburban America? There is an undercurrent of rage in films like Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Scream, and even intentional schlock like Piranha. Beyond just genre tropes and teen slashers, it seems like sometimes horror films are morality plays, which dispense justice to the vapid vindictive idiots who fill our lives. The preoccupation with teenagers in horror may be based in the sexual frustration of that time for most people. It Follows uses teenagers as well, but it does so specifically to talk about sexuality rather than to relieve buried unhappiness. The conceit is fear, but the choices in the film generally come down to trust and copulation. In fact, It Follows may be a rare horror film where the action onscreen can work without the monster.
Jay is a recent high school graduate whiling away her last summer vacation. She spends time around her younger sister and attached friends who watch cult movies and bullshit the day away, but Jay herself stands on the precipice of adulthood. One of the first shots of Jay is of her swimming around languidly in a pool, neither quite relaxing nor exercising, while the young neighbor kids spy on her with perverted fascination. Later, after a hookup, she muses on how her youthful idea of adulthood is fading into reality. This ends up being a rather nasty moment; she’s just been infected and the thing is already coming for her. The director, first timer David Mitchell, succeeds in making this malevolent force very creepy. It often closes in with myopic focus, disorienting body shapes and odd clothing choices. The infected and audience must constantly scan the periphery for anyone heading straight towards them. The monster’s choice in forms seem to be communicating something about sexuality, in its most bold appearances it is sometimes naked. It also seems to have a personality, even though it never speaks and is never deterred from its single-minded pursuit. This complexity gives the monster a quotient of fascinating believability. Even though its origins and its mission are unknowns, you are compelled to wonder what the hell it is. A monster that hunts us down to punish us for sexuality is compellingly believable in America.
Jay and those willing to help her figure out the rules of the game pretty fast. Pass it on by infecting others to buy time, or live in paranoid torment trying to deal with it yourself. This extrinsic problem is used by the film to comment on the many sexual decisions made by young inexperienced people in particular. Is casual sex something that represents maturity? If someone is acting “wild,” what kind of baggage are they carrying around? The idea of coupling for a feeling of “security” takes on an extra dimension. As with the monster, these ideas are presented organically within the context of the film, rather than as direct provocations. There is an exception; one particular murder is a direct slimy nudge by the director to make sure you’re in on it. However, It Follows is a fascinating divergence from normal horror, spending more time on the level-headed characters and their choices than on dismemberments or mental breakdowns. One of the best scenes is a love scene in a hospital bed. The guy is enjoying himself but it is completely unsexy; the girl is buried under him, almost hidden in the darkness, but her eyes are wide and locked on the door. It is cleanly juxtaposed with another scene later, in another hospital bed. A friend has been hurt in the commotion, but this particular girl, who has not been an object of romance in the film at all, is completely relaxed and safe on the bed, in the bright sunlight.
Horror has gotten more effective in the last decade, but It Follows is an example of how it pays to be cerebral. By disregarding the need for body count and acute fear sequences, the film creates palpable dread even with reasonable characters making believable choices. Another layer that could be discussed in greater detail is the way Detroit is treated as a character and how nicely it dovetails with the rest of the piece. It is nicely understated, but the suburbs are treated as a youthful haven while the infection forces Jay out into the dereliction past Eight Mile. David Mitchell has really struck out into the genre with a bold and confident film. It Follows is hard to look away from in the best way.