In horror films, sex and violence go hand-in-hand. Those made the late 70s and 80s seem to most exemplify our need to mix titillation with death—hapless teens wandering into vaguely dangerous locals to carouse and fornicate, unaware of the killer lurking in the forest ready to deliver a stabbing. “It Follows” revisits this filmic milieu of sexual anxiety meets penetration paranoia. It is disturbing and revelatory in a genre so often overgrown with cheap scares and thin premises.
Jay (Maika Monroe) is the usual horror movie protagonist– willowy, blonde, absurdly doe-eyed. She exists in the suburban sprawl of Detroit, a quaint space somewhere beyond the post-recession decay slowly converting whole neighborhoods into apocalyptic ghost towns. The juxtaposition is not accidental, as “It Follows” rolls heavy duty on dualistic metaphor—the seemingly safe confines of suburbia edging up against urban homes that rot in place like the corpses of progress.
After a seemingly consensual sexual encounter with Hugh (Jake Weary), Jay leans out of his Buick, musing on how she imagined being a sexually active teenager would feel like. “It’s never about going anywhere; it’s about feeling some sort of freedom, I guess.”
Moments later she accepts the chloroform rag over her mouth without much struggle. When she wakes, tied to a wheelchair, Hugh explains he passed something on to her during their coupling, and that something will lead “It” to her—an inexplicable supernatural force manifested by grotesque forms that will unceasingly follow her until she is dead or passes the marker on by sleeping with someone else. The premise is a grab bag of metaphor from sexual anxiety to reputation-shaming.
Director David Robert Mitchell’s work feels like a complete set of thoughts met with nuance. The eye of the camera reaches in towards Jay, dreadfully slow zooms mimicking the force stalking her. The set dressing is acutely 1980s complete with rabbit-eared televisions and leg warmers, but also includes odd world-building that make the atmosphere of the film feel purposefully distorted. A prior victim of “It” makes a final call on a cell phone, the only one seen in the film. Jay’s aloof friend Yara quotes Dostoyevsky from her futuristic clamshell micro-e-reader, a design unlike anything past or modern. Rich Vreeland’s synth-drone score perfectly caps off these proceedings with a layer of aural dread that recalls John Carpenter in his prime. The ambiance is an unsettled middle ground between retro and futuristic chic.
Currently there is a glut of media that uses pop-cultural references without restraint. It is a lazy shortcut in creating new art—filmmakers attempt to reach audiences by offering something that is familiar, and thus unchallenging. The cast of “It Follows” speak to one another without quoting their favorite movies. Aspects of the film recall others in the genre without drawing attention to the inference. Jay and friends wisely make no connections between their situation and the plot of other benchmark setting slasher films. Because when faced with a relentless supernatural force fixed on murdering sexually active teens, stopping to quote “Halloween (1978)” seems unlikely at best, and downright stupid at worst. What follows is a pleasantly unsettling work of sexual paranoia and gruesome consequence. Would audiences have it any other way?