Genre fans know the drill. If you have sex, you’re going to die. It will usually be at the hands of a machete-wielding madman, but whatever the case you will be dead before the post-coital bliss is rinsed away from your bathing suit area. Relatively recent horror flicks have played around with the concept by allowing their final girl protagonists to do the dirty and still survive, but the tradition remains as some kind of subconscious puritanical judgement.
It Follows takes that conceit and gives it a freshly paranoid and frequently terrifying new twist. Jay (Maika Monroe) finds out the hard way after giving it up to her new boyfriend one warm summer night only to wake up in a condemned building tied to a wheelchair. Her boyfriend (well, her ex-boyfriend now probably) begins his explanation with an apology. Having sex is the only way to pass “it” to someone else. What is it exactly? Well, it takes the form of a human, one that can look like a stranger or someone you know and is only visible to you and others who’ve been infected, and it walks steadily toward you. They’re slow but persistent, and if they reach you they bend, batter and break your body until you’re dead.
The bright side – aside from the hopefully awesome sex you just had – is that you can pass it to someone else by the same means and tell them to follow suit. Sharing doesn’t mean you’re free and clear though because if the person you pass it to is killed the spiritual STD returns to stalk you again. So yes, it is the definition of a gift that keeps on giving.
Jay has a strong circle of support including her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), their friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and a neighborhood Lothario named Greg (Daniel Zovatto). None of them can see the phantoms, but they stick by Jay as she’s clearly distressed and even agree to undertake a road trip in an attempt to stay ahead of the shambling specters.
Writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore feature seems at first to be a major departure from his debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, but there are abundant similarities. First and foremost is the feel of the film – the lazy days of teenhood, the detachment from the adult world, the nagging concern that the life ahead will in no way be preferable to the one that’s already passed – and that mostly tranquil attitude carries into the performances. It risks feeling unnatural as the teens seem more settled and sedate than typical horror film characters do, but it actually adds to the film’s overall effect.
Like a less aggressively fantastical Nightmare on Elm Street, there’s a near dream-like haze over it all like they’re fending off demons but know in the back of their minds that summer is about to end and then it’s back to school and man that sucks but I guess we should deal with this ghostly STD now… they’re just not as hyped up as we expect. That all changes though once the bipedal, metaphorical herpes sores appear. It’s genuinely unnerving to see each time as Mitchell has fun with their arrivals by mixing them up in appearance – a naked woman, a giant man, a young boy – but also alternating how they appear. Some appear distantly in the background of a shot (demonstrating excellent use of framing) and slowly work their way forward, while others go the jump scare route and appear from the darkness. Both are equally effective at creating and maintaining a frequently creepy atmosphere.
Mitchell’s script puts the dangers of sex metaphor front and center, but there’s more to it than that. It’s not just our sexual experience that follows us through life, it’s all of our experiences. That past carries into an unknown future – a potentially terrifying future – and our inability to avoid that uncertainty is the nightmare that fuels the film. The point is driven home with an ending almost guaranteed to leave some viewers unsatisfied in its ambiguity, but Mitchell’s message – his warning – is clear.
The film’s biggest weakness is the unfortunate lack of quality visual effects. Some are better than others, but a couple scenes look sadly amateurish to the point of knocking you out of the moment. That budgetary issue extends slightly to some of the acting, but for the most part the cast sells their situation fine. Monroe in particular delivers here as she’s forced by the situation to be constantly on and aware. She has to decide if she should intentionally pass it on to someone else, and it’s not a possible reprieve she takes lightly. Gilchrist also does good work as the boy not so secretly pining for Jay’s affection and attention. There’s also the matter of a third-act set-piece that sees the kids trying to be proactive with an elaborate plan to “kill” the enemy – but it’s entirely nonsensical even by teenage standards.
It Follows does wonders with the well-worn genre trope of sex=death, and while there are some nice moments of practical gore effects the terror here is far more tangible and long-lasting than any a traditional slasher could deliver. The ending makes a choice that may push away some viewers, but it works within the mashed-up world of teenage dreams and metaphorical nightmares.
The Upside: Fresh story; several genuinely creepy scenes; score by Disasterpiece
The Downside: Some amateurish acting/cheap-looking effects; Jay and her friends make some odd choices; that pool scene
On the Side: Mitchell’s next film, Ella Walks the Beach, appears to be a return to the non-horror shambling and rambling he captured in The Myth of the American Sleepover.