It Follows smartly explores sex, dread
It Follows is a horror film that, while filled with classic themes of the genre, interprets them in a contemporary way, unhindered by the trappings of reverence and dependence on the styles of previous decades — particularly the 1970s and '80s, which has become so repellently prevailent these days — and its ability to go its own way in excellent fashion is what really makes it a fresh and vital film.
Jay (Maika Monroe), a young college-aged woman, seems to have found a perfect new boyfriend in Hugh (Jake Weary) — that is, until they've had sex. He drugs her and abducts her afterward, and she wakes up to find herself in a remote location tied to a wheelchair as he explains the method behind his madness.
He's passed on some sort of curse by having sex with her. She will be stalked — followed — by a nameless creature only she and those who've had the curse before her can see. It doesn't speak, and, while it always appears human, it always comes in different guises, sometimes appearing as people close to the intended victim to gain access. This creature is deadly and will always eventually find her wherever she is, but it never moves faster than walking pace, so, if it's recognized in time, she should have plenty of time to get away before it tracks her down again.
He tells her that if it kills her it will come for him, and urges her to continue passing it on to other people.
After that he unceremoniously dumps her in the street in front of her house, and what first seems to have been a sex crime of some sort takes on a new air of horror as his story proves to be true.
Punishment for sexual promiscuity is one of the oldest pages in the horror playbook. Generation after generation have heard the tale of the amorous teenage couple who decide to drive home instead of making out only to find an escaped lunatic's prosthetic hook on the handle of the car. Film bogeymen such as Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Pinhead have whole careers based around killing those unable to resist the call of their carnal desires.
But, most of the time, those are based around characters with some sort of sadistic, homicidal bent, and, particularly with the Friday the 13th franchise, the sexual element was more exploitative in use than thematically explorative.
It Follows has no interest in such exploitative elements. What little nudity there is in the film could hardly be considered erotic by any healthy psyche, there's hardly any body count to speak of let alone gory kills, and the never named "It" from the title that "Follows" so relentlessly is given no backstory or personality, though its utter relentlessness lends it a familiar air to the vengeful revenants so common of the J-Horror craze of the late nineties through the early aughts. The film evolves into an examination of the nature of adolescent and young adult sexuality, exploring existing relationships between the group of friends and various mores and taboos in regards to the overall subject.
In a late scene where Jay and her friends find and confront "Hugh," he once again advises her to just pass it on. "It'll be easy for you," he says almost snidely, "you're a girl." The viewer feels his or her rancor build up at such a statement coming from a character who essentially used the poor girl as a means to save himself, and these are the sorts of hot buttons writer and director David Robert Mitchell is looking to push.
Mitchell favors wide shots and slow movement, always supplying the viewer with large panoramas in which he or she can scan the background to look for something — anything — approaching slowly. Combined with a mostly low-key, deliberate pace, and a synth score by Disasterpeace heavily reminiscent of something John Carpenter might have turned out 30 years ago, the whole becomes an acutely effective exercise in the crafting of cinematic dread more than outright horror, a film that wants you to be tense because something might happen, not because something is happening.
The film's biggest weakness may be that it suffers a few narrative hiccups along the way. Particularly odd was the choice late in to not show Jay confront Hugh when she's tracked him down, instead crossfading into a scene of the whole group sitting in a circle discussing the situation.
Such a transition is unnatural and anticathartic to the audience — was she angry? Did she yell? Was he sorry? What was his reaction?
A few little issues like this aren't enough to come anywhere close to spoiling the entirety of the experience, though. It Follows is the sort of film the horror genre desperately needs right now — a smart, thought-provoking, well-crafted masterpiece of dread that shies away from being a retro homage of tired old properties with heavy nostalgic value in order to get its story told.
When it works, the horror film isn't supposed to make you feel cozy and at home. It's supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. And It Follows is a horror film that works.