Have you ever been out walking and just became overwhelmed with the tense feeling that someone was behind you? Did you turn around and look? Or simply pick up your pace until you reached your destination? It’s a common thing most of us have experienced, and the central premise of It Follows takes this part of human paranoia and pushes it to the extreme. Yes, something is there, it’s following you specifically, and it will never stop. Throw in a clear love for the classic 70s and 80s era horror films, and a lot of allegory to sexual anxiety during your early adulthood, and it has a combination that could either hit it out of the park or fall flat.
The film follows Jay, a nineteen year old girl who seems pretty content with her normal life, spending time with her sister, and their tight-knit group of friends. On top of that, she’s enjoying a budding relationship with a new guy named Hugh. However, after their first sexual encounter, things turn dark quickly as Jay finds herself drugged and tied up in an abandoned building. There Hugh explains to her that he’s passed something on to her – not an STD, but a curse. It will follow you, he explains to her, it will pursue you relentlessly, and the only way you can survive it is to pass it on to someone else, and make sure they keep the chain moving forward.
This is one of those films with a premise that’s hard to explain out loud to people without feeling like you’re telling some kind of bad joke. The premise sounds ridiculous, even just writing it out, but to the film’s credit, it takes something so inherently silly sounding, and manages to make it actually scary. After some time, it starts to feel like it doesn’t even matter how Jay found herself cursed with this creature, the near constant tension and paranoia created by its single-minded pursuit is enough to keep the story driving forward.
The thing is, this is a much smarter film than it initially lets on with its monster story, and its distractingly uncertain time setting. In fact, the way that I could not discern for a large portion of the movie if it was supposed to be modern or not was clearly intentional, and in doing so, created an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere that carried on through the entire film. It feels like you are following Jay through a walking nightmare that can only end with her own death.
Thematically, there are a number of ways that the meaning of this film can be parsed. Of course, there is the most straightforward reading of it as a monster/survival horror story. But much like The Babadook did, the monster lends itself to mean much more when examined closely. It can be seen as the anxiety and fear that haunts Jay after a traumatizing sexual experience, something she simply cannot run away from. It can be the awakening of a young woman’s maturity and sexuality, and the anxiety that can bubble up from it.
The monster is never truly explained or understood. This is something that can divide opinion on whether or not it’s a good choice narratively – personally, I found its mysterious nature to be effective in this story. The only things you know about it are the things that make it the most frightening: it can change its form at will (with terrifying results at times), it will never stop until it reaches you, however long it will take them. It moves at a relatively slow pace, which occasionally lulls you into a false sense of security, but it never stops moving, and it is constantly walking towards you with the intent of killing you.
Jay herself is one of the best achievements of the film. I’ve found it increasingly hard to like the protagonists in more recent horror films, and sometimes spend the time they’re on screen counting down the moments until they’ll be murdered to my satisfaction. Jay is a genuinely well developed, likeable character – and despite having flaws, you genuinely root for her to survive this, to make it through, and find a way to be okay in the end. Her sexuality is explored without being judged or punished (any more than the other recipients of the curse), and she has close relationships with the other women in the film.
If you have a chance to see this while it’s still in theaters, I’d recommend you do so. It’s thoughtful in how it talks about relationships and sex, but not without some self awareness and a sense of humor about where all the horror tropes we know and love come from. It also isn’t afraid to throw caution to the wind and try to subvert as many of them as it feels like.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Scariness level: Good! Only a few jump scares, with more of a slow burn pace to build up tension and fear throughout the film. And some really horrific imagery with the creature itself.
Violence level: Mid-to-low. The opening scene has one of the more shocking bits of violence, but you do see some other shots with violence or grotesque imagery as well.
Bechdel test: Passes. Jay and her sister talk about a number of things, the monster itself, and telling their mother about what Jay experienced.
Mako Mori test: Jay’s survival is certainly the main story, and since she is the only target, her story is supported by the other characters.