In just about every horror movie worth watching, sex is involved somehow. Either an air of sexual desire or the act of sex itself brings about dread, disgust, horror and bloodshed. In some movies, it’s right there in the heart of the story. In others, it’s in the background, but still never completely out of sight. But the law is unbreakable: in horror movies, sex equals death. And while in slasher films it’s a handy excuse to show off nubile starlets moments before they get the axe, on a deeper level, there is something fundamentally unsettling about the sex/death connection. Sex is supposed to be our only real escape from mortality; through it, some part of us lives on. But in horror, you don’t get that escape. In horror, your effort to cheat death only ensures its swift arrival. And that is something explored with extraordinary skill and complexity in It Follows, a horror movie that suggests a renaissance of truly scary cinema might be underway. If so, it is as welcome as it is overdue.
It Follows happens in a strange, timeless version of Detroit where kids drive around in 1970s cars, watch 1950s TV, read modern (even postmodern) smartphones, and are accompanied by a 1980s soundtrack. The seasons seem to shift without explanation, even within a single scene. Within this Neverland, we meet Jaime “Jay” Height, a college student living at home with her older sister and parents who seem strangely absent in more ways than one. One night, Jay enjoys a nice date with her boyfriend Hugh that ends in the backseat of Hugh’s car. In post-coital afterglow, Hugh chloroforms Jay and brings her to an abandoned warehouse where she awakes, tied to a chair. Jay sees a naked woman approaching; Hugh explains that it is some kind of malevolent entity that will follow Jay at walking speed, without fail and without stopping, until it either catches up to her and kills her horribly, or until she has sex with somebody and passes along her curse. Sex is the only way in which the curse can be shed, but even then, not really. The Follower chases down the most recent carrier of the curse; once that person is dead, the Follower then stalks the second to last person, and so on, and so on, forever. So begins a relentless, slow-motion chase where in Jay tries to understand what is coming after her, why Hugh chose her to hang his curse upon, and how she is going to survive this thing. She knows there is only one way to shake the Follower. She is not about to just drop it on somebody like Hugh did to her. But she knows the Follower is walking toward her. Always, it is walking toward her.
This is one of the best and creepiest horror movies I’ve seen in quite a while. The constant anachronisms throw you off, as does the subtle bleakness of suburban Detroit, never shown in any kind of flattering light. The times when the Follower gets close to Jay are legitimately horrifying, as is the knowledge that no matter how far you run from this thing, it will never be far enough. You could go to an offshore oil platform and the thing would still eventually find you. And never does it run. It just walks. Slowly. Invisible to all but its victim, who can see their doom coming right for them, one step at a time.
Never has a recent horror movie been analyzed more than this one. What does the Follower and its curse represent? Is it the fear of death? STDs? The shame of premarital sex? It could be any of them. It could be all of them. It is, I think, what you read into it. I do think that whatever the curse is, it’s not simply a moral judgement on kids having sex, though. While the Follower can take the appearance of friend or stranger as it approaches, it often takes the form of somebody who has borne the curse. And a few of these people appear to have been unwilling recipients; in one scene the Follower appears to be a female rape victim. In the same scene, it appears to be a guy with his eyes gouged out, which beg the question, did both victims inflict those injuries on each other? When the Follower appears to be an elderly nursing home patient, you wonder exactly who had sex with her then, and the only answers are not good ones. When the follower appears as a young boy, you begin to wish it would stop showing you how many people it has claimed. Then, there is a particularly disturbing death scene late in the movie that drives home the point that those who fail to outdistance the Follower most definitely meet their maker. Where are the parents in this movie? Oh, they’re there. They’re just where you least expect them.
The moment of truth in this movie comes at a point where Jay is fast running out of options, and knows she is going to die horribly if she doesn’t do something about this curse. After fleeing her home one evening, she goes to the nearby beach and spies three guys on a boat. She undresses and enters the water, heading towards them. But then we see her driving home, her hair wet, a look of despondent gloom on her face. We know she doesn’t sleep with them to offload the curse, because the Follower still comes after her. But she thought about it…and thought better of it. But her look of resignation lays bare the real horror of the story: that the moment you have sex is the moment you understand that everybody lives on borrowed time. No exceptions. And the moment kids realize they’re going to die is the moment they are kids no longer.