I first caught It Follows at Fantastic Fest, and it’s opening today in limited release (here’s a list of theaters where you can see it). It was and remains my favorite horror film in years, The Babadook included. Here’s my original review.
The idea that sex and sexuality play an important role in horror movies, which so frequently involve a jiggling ingenue fleeing some supernatural dread, has long been acknowledged. A lot of horror movies use sex, or talk about sex, or even talk about how other horror movies use sex, but very few get to the root of what’s actually scary about sex. It Follows goes after sex head on, and not so it can deconstruct the genre, but to improve it. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell seems to understand intuitively that the danger of examining sex is a lot like the danger of explaining a joke. You want to understand it, to go deeper, but still with the goal of actually being turned on. The beauty of It Follows is that it’s a smart movie about sex that acknowledges that sex is something you do with your crotch, not something you read about in the New Yorker.
It Follows is about a supernatural STD, a sexually transmitted demon if you will, that has begun to infect the bored teens of suburban Michigan. It follows its victims around, slowly but relentlessly, taking different, terrifying, often bleeding and bare-titted human forms, that only those infected can see. It plays by African witch doctor rules, where the only way to get rid of it is to f*ck it into someone else. It’s one of those concepts that’s genius, dopey, and hilarious all at once, with clearly-articulated rules peculiar to itself. It Follows uses this delightfully odd vision of the fantastic to explore the terrifying sexual subtext of suburban adolescence. It’s sort of like if The Virgin Suicides (the Jeffrey Eugenides book, anyway, I never saw the Sofia Coppola movie) was a straight-up horror movie.
The Virgin Suicides functions as a sort of oral history of the suburbs at the peak of sexually-charged adolescence. A subject that countless works deal with, but almost never in a real way. The mean-cheerleader-as-queen-bee surrounded by her sycophantic dweebs has spawned a million tropes, but the reality of burgeoning sexuality is much darker. Every guy I know remembers that first girl in his social sphere to mature, the first to look like a woman, the one who made you think about sex in a real way for the first time when you weren’t prepared for it. We’re probably saying her name in our heads right now even if adolescence was 50 years ago. And while we talk about sifting through that fog of hormonal boner memory in wistful, nostalgic tones, it’s not the fun, cute story it’s usually made out to be. It was dark. It was dangerous, where all that collective desire focused so acutely on someone completely unprepared to deal with it truly had the power to ruin a person. And for those of us desirous, it truly did feel like an outside force we couldn’t quite control. That’s why the Virgin Suicides being narrated from the perspective of this collective adolescent male consciousness works so well. When we weren’t old enough to have developed entirely distinct personalities, that collective consciousness, and especially the sexual component of it, truly did feel like an infection. That infection takes physical (or at least supernatural) form in It Follows.
Where The Virgin Suicides is the sort of intellectualized, literary articulation of that infection, It Follows channels those ideas about dangerous sexuality, predatorial collective attractions, and the inherent eeriness of summer in the suburbs into horror movie form. It’s the perfect kind of genre movie, that lays the collective id of that genre bare while still managing to exist wholly within it. And on top of that it’s just a straight-up well-executed movie. There are no jump scares. The menace creeps up slowly, coming into focus within well-lit wide shots, shot matter-of-factly in a way that isn’t just scary, but suspenseful. It stimulates the imagination rather than impedes it, because you have time to imagine what that threat might do when it gets to you. It’s the kind of film where the malevolence can be represented in the form of a half-naked, menstruating hobo zombie who pisses herself on linoleum and have it not feel cheap. I’m re-reading that sentence and becoming even more struck by how amazing that is.
The acting is solid all the way through, which is impressive considering the cast are all in their late teens or early 20s. Maika Monroe, and her sisters, played by Lili Sepe and Olivia Luccardi, all have that suburban, girl-next-door appeal that’s appealing, but also feels real, rare in a genre that so often either casts hysterical porn stars or turns its actors into them. Even better is It’s Kind of a Funny Story‘s Keir Gilchrist, perfect as the awkward, horny Paul, who knows Monroe’s character is infected with a sex demon, but is still so desperate to screw her that he thinks he might risk death. Er, um, I might, uh, you know, be persuaded to take on that sex demon of yours, you know, if you, er, you know, wanted me to.
It Follows is the kind of movie that almost certainly won’t get any recognition from the Academy or any of the big awards entities, but it’s the kind of movie that makes people love movies. It feels easy. You see a movie like It Follows that’s smart and entertaining as hell that feels like it isn’t trying too hard and you wonder why there aren’t more of them (the obvious answer being that looking like you’re not trying too hard is the hardest of all).
I’ve never been able to fully understand a lot of what Manny Farber was talking about it in his famous “White Elephant Vs. Termite Art” essay, that pitted traditional “acclaimed films” (white elephants) which already existed in 1962 when it was written, against superior, unsung genre pictures (termite art). The essay’s prose itself feels very White Elephanty, but the idea of a work of “termite art,” that has “no ambitions toward gilt culture,” that chews its way into a topic eating its own artistic boundaries, seems to fit It Follows perfectly.
Or, to put it into my own terms, it’s a smart movie about sex that wants to f*ck you more than it wants to talk. Which is just great, especially if you like f*cking.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here, subscribe to the FilmDrunk Frotcast.