Rarely does a slasher film manage to so defiantly throw off the trappings and constraints of the genre in order to actually be about something other than the machinations of its own plot. Scream came close; some might argue, convincingly, that it even succeeded. It did so by being a slasher film about slasher films. For arguably the first time, the characters and the audience had the shared experience of having seen the same films. Together, they anticipated how the narrative would develop, and the movie commented on that anticipation. It brought every bit of subtext, every cliché and trope, to the fore.
It Follows is not that kind of movie, or if it is, it only seems to be in the visual sense (as in, “hey, this scene looks exactly like a scene from a different movie!). In It Follows, the film casts it central monster as a villain that seems to unambiguously serve as metaphor. If you know anything about the film at all, you’ve probably heard people say, “it’s about STDs!” a thousand times. This might be true in some sense, but to let it stand in for actual thought is glib and unsatisfying. It’s an excellent pitch line, but it’s not analysis.
That said, as an explanation it seems to work at first. Jay, our heroine, has sex with a new guy she’s seeing, only to be chloroformed and taken to some desolate area where he explains the rules to her*. To wit: there’s now a monster following her; it can look like anyone; the only way to pass it on is through (apparently exclusively hetero) sexual intercourse; and if it kills her, it will immediately go back to the person who gave it to her, and so on down the line. It lingers always, somehow, for anyone who has had it. I guess this makes it a kind of mishmash of herpes/AIDS in the slasher world.
This is compelling, though not exactly novel. Sex = death has been part of slasher subtext from perhaps the genre’s very beginnings. If we agree that Scream brought that subtext to the fore, and thereby into the popular consciousness, then all It Follows really does is make the subtext into text. Again, it’s a great pitch line, but it sells the film so, so short.
It Follows feels as if it has quite a bit on its mind. I’d argue that part of the joy of the film is in tracking, at any given moment, what the monster is meant to represent, what it’s bringing out in the characters, and what it illuminates about their surroundings. All of these things seem to shift and morph as the film goes on.
While the film gets quite a bit of mileage out of the conceit of the sexually transmitted curse, the movie plants the seeds of its larger concerns early on. In a monologue before she’s chloroformed, Jay remembers some thoughts she’d had when she was younger, when she imagined what it’d be like to be older, to have a car and some freedom. Now that she has these things, she wonders where she’s actually supposed to go. In a scene before that, her date thinks about being a kid again, about having his whole life ahead of him.
What seems operative here is not a fear of sexually transmitted diseases or monsters, but a basic grappling with adulthood and mortality. In this way, sex acts as a sort of coming-of-age mechanism where the monster itself marks them as having come into adulthood. And being an adult, the film seems to say, is having an acute sense of the certainty of your own death. Jay sinks to all sorts of lows to get rid of her mark, but it never works. She runs away from the monster, but it always finds her. Indeed, by the film’s penultimate scene, a recitation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot that is literally about the certainty of death, the movie has solidly moved past the idea of STDs**.
But the movie lays out other possibilities elsewhere. It Follows is a film set and shot in Detroit, full of gorgeous, dreamlike imagery. A lot of the action happens in the suburbs. In the context of all of this imagery falls these also-beautiful shots of the city proper, rundown and deserted. In one scene, the buildings seem to become monstrous themselves, looming imposingly on either side of the characters. One character remembers how they almost weren’t able to go to the state fair because it was on the bad side of town, and how the idea that there’s a bad side, a side they should stay out of, seemed so wrong to them. Earlier, we learn that Jay’s suitor rented a place in the “bad” part as a kind of base of operations, presumably a place he lived while trying to pass on his curse.
Later in the movie, one of the characters goes to the city to attempt to pass on the curse to some prostitutes. It’s here that the two scenes I’ve just mentioned appear to come into sharp focus. The moment feels like a devastating critique of both the kids’ actions and the larger system of white privilege and liberalism in which they operate. They’re conscious enough to recognize a sense of inequality, but they’re also more than willing to prey on that inequality, to wield it to their own ends. In these moments the movie seems to acknowledge that there’s a parasitic relationship here — that, in some way, the apparent flourishing of the suburbs relies on, and even necessitates, the inequality that happens elsewhere.
None of this is to say that It Follows is a perfect movie. It has some serious pacing and structural issues. At some point, the film devolves into a bunch of near-misses and clumsily staged set pieces. The monster doesn’t come close to landing a hand on Jay until what feels like halfway through the film. The scene is briefly terrifying, but overall the film lacks a lot of scariness — part of it is just that being very slowly chased down by random, sometimes normal-looking people doesn’t feel all that scary. But the headiness of what the film accomplishes alleviates a lot of these concerns. To put a twist on one of the best moments of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, It Follows seems to suggest that the scariest thing about this world is simply living in it.
*The way this movie deals with what is, essentially, a kind of sexual assault, is a little weird. There’s a scene where Jay talks to the police and acknowledges that the sex was consensual, but it also exists in that grey area where the sex only happened through deceit. There’s a lot going on here that I’m not quite able to unpack.
**Gotta say, I love the horror trope of literature as stand-in for explication of the film’s ideas. It Follows has THREE of these scenes, and one is an almost direct recreation of a similar scene from Halloween. Everything about it makes me happy.