I first watched David Robert Mitchell‘s It Follows on the bed of my sweaty, cramped dorm during my freshman year of college. The room was pitch black, illuminated only by the dim screen of my 13-inch MacBook Air, and I was sick in bed with a fever. Even in these far from ideal viewing conditions (or perhaps because of them), I was immensely frightened by that initial watch of It Follows. All that night, I was plagued with vaguely uncomfortable twilight dreams of something stalking me through the alcohol-reeking halls of my dormitory.
It Follows is a flamboyantly artistic and nostalgic parable spelling out the sexual anxieties of coming into adulthood, but packaged as a horror film with predictable horror tropes. It’s a film about the frivolousness of running from adulthood, suggesting that perhaps the best we can do is slow our futile sprint from it to a leisurely stroll. The dreamy-voiced Maika Monroe plays college student Jay, a blonde teenage heartthrob-type living at home with conspicuously absent parents. After sleeping with her new boyfriend (Jake Weary), he chloroforms her and takes her to an abandoned building. He deliriously informs her, in a refreshingly cinematic exposition dump, about a supernatural curse that will now follow her. The only way she can get rid of it, according to him, is to sleep with someone else and pass it along.
Traumatized by this betrayal, Jay doesn’t comprehend what he told her until she finds herself daydreaming at school and emerges from her trance after seeing an elderly woman walking straight towards her outside the classroom window. With the help of her friends- sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), friendzoned childhood sweetheart Paul (Keir Gilchrist), cloudy-headed Velma-type Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and a young Johnny Depp reincarnation Greg (Daniel Zovatto)- Jay evades and eventually tries to fight the mysterious curse.
Against the pulsing dubstep intensity of Disasterpeace‘s score and the playfully suspenseful 360-degree camera movements of Mike Gioulakis‘ cinematography, It Follows establishes itself as a dreamlike purgatory of eternal suburbia and adolescent nostalgia. Placing its characters in a land where clam-shaped E-readers coexist with 80s decor, it’s clear the film doesn’t want you to stamp a time period on it. This isn’t the real world, and the daytime logic that some may apply to the film’s inexplicable occurrences are petty critiques that fly right past the entire point.
The thematic richness underscoring the film’s most frightening moments is the message of the film. At a glance, the titular It of the film can be easily construed as symbolism for HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases, death sentences that metaphorically follow you for the rest of your life. But even that seemingly sound reading of the film misses so much more of its depth. Indeed, attaching such a straightforward “answer” to It Follows is a woeful misreading of the film. About much more than the AIDS scare, It Follows speaks to the anxieties, sexual and otherwise, of leaving your adolescence behind forever.
Just one example of this message can be seen in the manner sex is presented throughout the film. For an R-rated horror flick, the three sex scenes are remarkably PG, and at a glance strike one as how an adolescent might picture sex: mostly clothed and under the shelter of a blanket. After Jay first sleeps with her boyfriend (before she’s knocked out) she lies on her stomach and toys with some flowers in the grass, lamenting how she always wanted to go on dates as a child because of the freedom the act signified. Her vision of adulthood given in this monologue is soaked with the same kind of childlike innocence entailed by wanting to “play grown-up”. It’s no surprise then, after Jay engages in the adult act of having sex, that she is endlessly pursued by an unwavering force of death. She will never be the same: she has bitten into the fruit of knowledge, left her childhood understanding of the world, and realized that all life has an ending.
Much later, after she sleeps with another boy to unburden herself with the curse, they ask each other if either feels any different. They’re talking of course about transferring a supernatural curse, but in another film the conversation could just as easily pass for one occurring immediately after losing their virginity. It’s moments like these, which deftly blur the line between the film’s artificial horror and the already present anxieties of intimacy, sex, and adolescence, where It Follows earns its scares. After all, what could be scarier as a teenager, than going on a first date, leaning in for your a first kiss, or losing your virginity?