Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Starring Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe
It’s a hell of a conceit: a sexually transmitted supernatural curse that is guaranteed to kill you unless you pass it along to another victim. Jay (Maika Monroe) learns after her date, Hugh (Jake Weary) chloroforms her after sex. When she awakes, tied to a chair, he explains the nature of the hoodoo he’s laid on her, then shows her the sharp end of the curse: a malevolent entity, invisible to everyone but the cursed, which will follow her at a steady walking pace until it reaches her and kills her, at which point it will start tracking down previous infectees. Jay’s only chance is to either pass along to curse to some unwitting lover or find a way to stop the thing that stalks her.
The brilliance of writer and director David Robert Mitchell’s film stems from the way it takes sex, often the harbinger of doom in horror cinema, particularly back in the halcyon B-grade video boom of the ‘80s, and explicitly makes it the vector of supernatural retribution, rather than subcontracting it out to some hockey-masked misanthrope. Mitchell only gives us the information we need to understand the mechanics of the curse and nothing else: we know there is one creature, we know that it can only be seen by the victim and it can appear like anyone to them, we know that it follows them at a steady walking pace and that it will never stop. By paring everything down to the essentials, the film never gets bogged down in mythology or justifications: it simply is, like a good urban legend or internet-age ghost story.
Much has been written about the how the film works on a subtextual level, particularly how the curse is a metaphor for sexually transmitted disease, but it makes more sense as take on post-rape PTSD: the victims of the curse are forever hanged by their experience, their perceptions of the world radically altered. Jay is driven to paranoia, seeing threats that aren’t there when she mistakes normal people and regular phenomena for the creature, but also able to see an actual threat that is present but is invisible to everyone else. She’s in a constant flight-or-fight threat response state, a condition regularly reported by victims of sexual assault: normal, innocuous events or situations can be triggering, but they’re also incredibly tuned in to dangers that non-victims just will never notice.
Mitchell lays his story out carefully and deliberately, building up an atmosphere of tension and growing menace that is nigh-on unbearable at times. Unfortunately we never really get the catharsis that kind of build-up demands; It Follows fails to stick the landing, rolling to a conclusion that refuses to answer any questions – a third act choice that, while consistent with the minimalist approach, is still very frustrating. It’s hard to talk about the film’s conclusion without blowing it for those who’ve yet to view it; let’s just say that what works as metaphor does not necessarily work on a dramatic level.
It’s a shame, because up until then, It Follows is a bravura indie horror that both pays homage to its genre roots – note its neverwhen “is it the ‘80s?” suburban setting – while rearranging the old tropes of the form into something that feels fresh and unique. Even with its flaws, discerning horror fans will find it worth checking out.