You think that you’ve seen this film. It’s the one where a pretty young woman becomes the target of a demonic force that stalks her and her friends before eventually being confronted and defeated once its secret origin is revealed. Sometimes this is supernatural, as it is in Nightmare on Elm Street, but more often it’s a serial killer (Valentine, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream, et al). Everyone knows the basic morality underpinning this heavily-troped genre: sex gets you killed. Their basic structure is politically problematic, enforcing an antiquated moral code in the most literal and brutal way. This film isn’t that film, and what it does can only be explained with spoilers.
The opening act shows us what we expect to see, a brutal murder to set the tone and establish the stakes, followed by a semi-creepy courtship culminating in our protagonist succumbing to the sexual charms of her boyfriend in the car-park of an abandoned building. He explains that something will now start following her, at a sedate walking pace, and when it reaches her it will kill her. He tells her this because he needs her to survive, as he will become the target again should she be killed. I wondered whether the girl murdered in the opening had suffered just this fate, reverting the curse back to him. The surface reading of this scenario renders explicitly the trope that sex equates to death, but this is not the ironic patter from Scream, it is a literal reality. What began as subtext in early slashers now explicitly becomes the text of the film. If a horror film normally treats a contemporary concern through the metaphor of its monster, then by rendering the metaphor literal, It Follows short-circuits our habitual analytic stances for the film and forces us to confront more directly the nature and origin of sexual relationships. In the earlier generations of slashers, sex is an assumed constant condition that must be unconditionally fought. Teenagers always want sex, and sex is always dangerous. In It Follows, sex is far more ambiguous, because characters are explicitly aware of the risks involved. Sex itself is no longer the metaphorical concern, as we refocus on the deeper question of the desire for sex.
Once our protagonist has contracted the curse, the only practical course of action available to ensure her survival is to pass it on. This is again rendered explicitly and early as text, when the curse is passed onto her. The result of this is that sex remains utterly fatal, but that really just adds to its power. In the typical slasher, once a victim falls, the rest of the characters almost turtle, hunkering down in a defensive posture, foregoing risky behaviour. This reinforces the ultimate moral of the film, as essentially only the pure and virginal make it out alive. In It Follows this dynamic is reversed, as not one but two different men explicitly take on the curse. The first may not truly believe the curse is real, but the second certainly has only optimism on that score. This was the central and beautiful moment in The Ring that tipped it into the realm of great cinema – the moment when the tape is deliberately replicated. Here, that dynamic is amplified by the requirement that the curse is passed effectively onto someone in your intimate circle, condemning someone well known to you to either death or a lifetime of fear.
The traditional slasher is structurally then one about imposing a morality upon the characters, and so always looks at them from the outside, and looks at relationships from the outside. The structure of the genre posits that intimacy is a kind of death, rendered through the metaphor of being brutally killed. Sex is a kind of surrender or suicide, and individuality is effectively rewarded by survival. The dynamic in It Follows is ambiguous and ambivalent, since sex means first danger, and then survival. Once innocence is lost, the only way to remain alive is to go further, to spread the corruption.
In the usual teen slasher, the total restriction of sexual activity can be read as a way of asserting a system of control over the characters, and a feminist could argue that this is a form of “patriarchy” as such. In the case of It Follows, the central female character effectively sacrifices two male characters as oblate armour to protect her against the curse. This is to say, she is using them, whereas in the traditional slasher her forced abstinence would be them controlling her. The wider logic of the monster’s construction means that there is no hierarchy of control as such. This is reinforced by the film’s unwillingness to explain its monster. Nightmare on Elm Street, The Ring or I Know What You Did Last Summer ultimately offer explanations for their slew of violence, connecting the deaths back to basic operational features of society, back to the system of control. It Follows is instead completely decentralised. It is a very personal network.
It wouldn’t pay to read too much into these lenses, but if horror films speak to the anxieties of their age, then It Follows represents a breakdown of the usual top-down mode of slasher horror. It challenges the basic assumptions of horror as a suppression of deviation from societal norms and practices, instead challenging us to think more directly and personally about the prescribed behaviours and what drives them.
I gave this 8/10 on IMDB because it was interesting, ambitious, well constructed and, most importantly, scary.