Is there anything scarier than having sex for the first time? The world is filled with fear-mongering messaging of what might happen when you have sex. The devout claim sex before marriage will forever taint your purity, damning you to hell. Social advice says introducing sex too soon into a relationship can irreversibly change the dynamic, altering how your partner thinks of you. Even after you escape the peer-pressure trials of virginity, there persists a worry throughout adult life of the consequences of sex. In the post-AIDs world we’re aware of the possibility of transmittable STDs and things that can hang over you for the rest of your life. If you’re one of the unlucky ones to contract a disease it might feel like a force of nature is following you, bringing imminent doom along with it.
It Follows is about a force of imminent doom literally following a girl named Jay, after she has sex with a guy named Hugh. After their sexual encounter, Hugh knocks Jay out with chloroform, ties her to a wheelchair, and explains the rules of the curse: It will always follow her, it only moves at a walking pace, but it’s “not dumb.” It can take any form, but only people who have the curse can see it. If she has sex with someone else it will follow them instead of her, but if they die it will follow her again, and if Jay dies the curse will start to follow Hugh again. Hugh drops Jay off at her house and vanishes from town. Jay’s left to deal with the consequence of this curse with the help of her sister and their friends Paul and Dara.
It Follows has been summarized as being about “a walking STD,” which even director David Robert Mitchell has said “when you say it out loud, it sounds like the worst thing ever,” and I would agree that any synopsis of It Follows makes it sound dubious at best. In reality, It Follows has to be one of the cleverer horror films in recent memory. Slasher films, which are characterized as some menacing creature or person going around killing teenagers, have been criticized for tropes such as slow walking villains, useless companions, and sex-eager teenagers. It Follows embraces these tropes and wraps them around a concept that justifies them.
For example, law enforcement is typically useless in horror films and It Follows embodies this trope through Jay’s friends, helpless to assist her, despite their willingness to. This is because only people who have the curse can see the curse, which is an extension of the “supernatural STD” concept where no one really understands what it’s like unless you have it. On that note, a common joke for slasher films is teenagers’ insistence to take their clothes off, but for It Follows it’s actually a plot point, since the only way for the curse to be passed on is through sex. They’ve actually managed to write-in gratuitous nudity (although there isn’t any among the teen protagonists). Most impressive of all is their handling of the “slow walking villain trope.” I’ve always thought it was silly when a villain like Jason Voorhees casually strolls his way over to his victims who are sprinting away at breakneck speeds. However, the curse of It Follows is more terrifying specifically because it is so slow. The decreased tempo contributes to the impression that it will never stop, and indeed it never does. It’s a curse that haunts Jay ceaselessly, and a horror concept that’s just as effective in the daytime as it is at night.
In fact, It Follows doesn’t rely on cheap horror tricks that would only work in a dark theater with booming audio. The film doesn’t have jump scares, or horrifying gore imagery (outside of one death at the beginning). It’s just a concept that eats at you. A persistent being that follows you, forever. You get to see the supernatural force multiple times in the film, and it’s always just a regular person. An old woman, a tall man, a naked woman, or a naked man. It’s never anything unusual, outside of knowing what will happen if it actually touches you. This made the movie easy to watch, but I noticed immediately after finishing the film that it royally messed with my head. I began to associate people walking in my direction with life-ending doom. Walking to work in the middle of the day, I’d be wary of people making direct eye contact, walking toward me. I’d remind myself it was just a movie, but the fact that the movie stuck with me during the daylight was impressive. It takes a fair bit of cinematic craft to accomplish that.
Of which there is an abundance of in It Follows. From the opening sequence alone, when the destruction of the curse’s force is established, you can tell there is some real talent both behind the camera and in the audio booth. Director David Robert Mitchell reportedly used a lot of wide angle shots to give the film an “expansive look,” but that doubles as making the audience peer to the edge of the frame, constantly looking for the next slow-moving pedestrian that could be the next bringer of doom. Frequently the terror of the scene is introduced with no real grandeur. It unceremoniously shows up far in the background and slowly creeps in as the scene plays out. These moments are gut-wrenching, to say the least. This is all assisted by the memorable soundtrack done by Disasterpiece, who mixed up a unique combination of 80s chiptunes with screeching horror synths. The blend of 1980s style with new horror made it feel like the film was constantly paying homage to the horror films the filmmakers watched when they were younger.
And that’s where I really marvel at It Follows’ execution. The Slasher film genre became hugely popular for a lot of reasons, but one thing that stayed consistent was young teenagers who had sex always died. There’s a theory that the reason for this was because the conservative filmmakers who made those films were trying to convince young teens not to be so promiscuous and that was their way of sending messages to the youth they couldn’t connect with. It sounds insane, but there’s actually a lot of film theory articles written about that topic, and an even more insane amount of evidence supporting the theory. Which makes It Follows’ sex-focused plot even more ingenious. It’s another layer of folding all of the genre’s past into one film. Across the board It Follows encompasses everything the genre is about, takes every flaw, and turns it into a positive, even the bizarre ulterior motive of encouraging abstinence (or at the very least, being prude).
There are certainly things scarier than having sex for the first time. A murderer chasing you in the woods, or an alien hunting you on a spaceship, or being lost in the jungle while a predator stalks you, or having a mischievous Englishman haunt your dreams. Hollywood has spent decades thinking of scary concepts, and some are more terrifying than others. What all of those concepts have in common is that none of them are very likely to ever happen to you. It Follows is unique because it preys upon a fear that many people actually have: trusting people enough to have sex with them, and worrying about what will happen afterwards. I’m sure the filmmakers weren’t intending to send ulterior messaging like their forefathers before them, but It Follows’ creativity ascends over its predecessors, and the filmmakers’ ability to reanimate a decades-decaying genre riddled with criticisms is astounding. With that in mind, It Follows is arguably the quintessential horror film.