I don’t watch many horror films. Lifelong victim of an overactive and slightly morbid imagination, I regularly envisage disasters, natural or otherwise, that might befall me, without requiring the added stimulus of cinema. As a child, the very idea of Nightmare On Elm Street – the poster for which leered out from the window of every suburban video store – was enough to give me actual nightmares. So forgive me, horror aficionados, if I miss the genre references in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, a new and thoroughly creepy American horror film. I hear that It Follows has a lot in common with John Carpenter’s 1978 cult classic Halloween, but I wouldn’t know – I’m way too scared to watch Halloween.
I don’t cope well with violence onscreen, and especially not with the kind of stylised misogyny that seems (and perhaps, as a mere dabbler in the genre, I am being unfair) the natural province of the horror film. I was relieved, then, dare I say impressed, to discover that It Follows is unnerving without being bloody, and more than this, that it cleverly inverts the sexual politics on which so much popular culture, most especially the horror film, often depends.
The protagonist of It Follows is Jay (Maika Monroe), a teenage girl who is infected with a kind of supernatural curse after having sex with her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary). Punishment for the sexually active female is a tired (and tiresome) trope, but we are given to understand that the curse falls randomly, without moral judgement. In some ways, It Follows reminds me of Todd Haynes’ brilliant 1995 film Safe, with Julianne Moore, in which a woman is plagued by an illness she can neither explain nor overcome. It Follows and Safe are cinematic responses to a world in which HIV/AIDS is ever-present, though neither film is strictly reducible to an AIDS metaphor. It Follows is also a rare mainstream film in which sex itself is allowed its complexity. Sex is both pleasurable and frightening, and, by the mechanics of the plot, both a choice and an obligation.
If Jay is killed, the curse will move back down the line of infection, murdering everyone else; to rid herself of the curse Jay has to pass it on through an act of consensual sex with somebody else – or so she’s told by Hugh. (Here, the parallel with HIV/AIDS breaks down: the aim of safe sex in the age of AIDS isn’t circulation, but containment.) The shape-shifting demon that follows Jay moves like a zombie – dressed in white, it only exerts itself once it is within arm’s reach of a victim. It’s hard to explain how the sight of someone walking very slowly in a straight line could possibly be frightening, but context is everything when it comes to being scared, and It Follows wrings maximum chills out of a very simple visual idea.
Eager to help out with the consensual sex is Jay’s childhood friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist), a shy, skinny boy who works at the local ice cream parlour with Jay’s younger sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe). Completing the neighbourhood gang is bespectacled Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who reads Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on a pink e-reader shaped like a compact mirror. It Follows is set in the suburbs of Detroit, and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis has a wonderful eye for the eeriness of suburbia: the monotonous and nearly empty streets, the glow of halogen lamps through bedroom curtains. Effective use is also made of the contrast between the suburbs and the desolate, crumbling city: the film’s climactic scene is set within the city limits, at a public swimming pool, and a pointed conversation between the characters immediately beforehand made me wonder if the metaphor of contagion that underpins the film might be racial, rather than sexual. Detroit is a city brought undone, in part, by the phenomenon of “white flight” and the draining of public resources from the city’s majority black population to the wealthier, whiter suburbs. Just who are these white-skinned, white-clad demons stalking its outer boundaries?
The film’s failure to explain itself is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, you can argue with yourself and your friends for hours about what it all means; on the other, the ultimate meaning of It Follows might be that it is meaningless, even if meticulously well staged. Without a resolution, there’s plenty of scope for a sequel. It’s coming.