When it comes to fiction, the line between horror and sex has always been paper-thin. Think of the animal magnetism of Dracula, which influenced an entire genre of sexually charged vampire stories. Think of the countless low-budget horror movies that hinge on the threat of sexual violence against women. Think of the murderous preferences of slasher killers from the 1980s, who tend to murder teenagers who have just finished hooking up.
On paper, David Robert Mitchell's brilliant new release It Follows sounds like yet another weirdly conservative horror movie that punishes a teen girl for the unforgivable crime of having consensual premarital sex. As It Follows begins, an unassuming teenaged girl named Jay (Maika Monroe) spends the night with her sort-of boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) — only to be chloroformed by Hugh in the afterglow of their first time together.
When Jay awakens, half-naked and terrified, Hugh has strapped her down to ensure that she'll listen to everything he plans to say. By having sex with him, Hugh says, Jay has become the unwitting recipient of a kind of sexually transmitted curse. After having sex with a strange woman, Hugh himself became the target of a malicious, apparently supernatural entity that can take the form of any person it chooses. By having sex with Jay, he passed it on to her. If she has sex with someone else, she'll pass it on to him; if it catches her, it will kill her and target Hugh again.
If you're willing to buy into this bizarre premise, you'll be richly rewarded. It Follows is more than just a terrifying horror movie — it's a heady and heartbreaking exploration of both sexually transmitted disease and sexual abuse, and an unexpectedly poignant riff on the classic coming-of-age narrative.
It Follows is the kind of exceptional movie that can only occur when all the right elements are in place. David Robert Mitchell's stunning direction, which tends to position the film's characters as small objects in sluggish, wide-angle pans, forces viewers to monitor every frame with unblinking focus. As the story progresses, the characters' paranoia becomes the audience's paranoia, as every person walking toward Jay becomes a potential threat. The sense of unease is buoyed by Rich Vreeland's terrific, pulsing score, which recalls John Carpenter's unforgettable work for Halloween. And as Jay, Maika Monroe's weary, withdrawn lead performance carries the full sting of a truly intimate betrayal. Both figuratively and literally, she can never trust another person again.
The curse in It Follows puts its victims in an uncomfortably dicey moral situation: all their horrors can end if they're willing to pass them on to someone else. It's the ending of The Ring, but cranked up to 11, because this betrayal isn't passing a stranger a videotape; it's having sex with another person while fully aware that you're dooming them. "You're a girl. It'll be easy for you," says Hugh as he encourages Jay to pass on the curse, and he's not wrong. In a canny riff on the short-sighted, sexually motivated minds of teenage boys, the movie features several young men who fully understand Jay's situation and volunteer to have sex with her anyway.
It Follows wisely avoids going into detail on the origins of its nightmarish creature. Even Hugh, the alleged expert on the subject, can only offer advice based on the "rules" he has pieced together from his own experience. But while the creature enters the frame after an act of sexual intimacy, it's the emotional intimacy that provides some of the movie's most gut-wrenching and stomach-churning moments. The creature's ability to take the form of any person allows it to play cruel mind games with its victims, manifesting itself in the forms whose betrayals would be most traumatic — and for no apparent purpose other than to make a horrific situation even more horrifying.
As camouflage, the creature's human vessels are flimsy at best; they never talk, they never smile, and they casually respond to barriers with the kind of force any real person would only save for an extreme situation. But as psychic warfare, the creature's human vessels are another, deeper kind of violation — the penetration of the victim's most private thoughts, reforged into a weapon against them.
In that way, It Follows is more than just a terrifying movie (though that, in itself, is no small feat). It's a nightmarish metaphor for the loss of innocence countless teenagers face as they open themselves up to true intimacy for the first time — and a painful but potent coming-of-age story that belongs in the mix with the genre's all-time greats.