We all know what happens to the sexually promiscuous (or even just the sexually active) in horror films. Once the clothes come off, a grisly death usually isn’t far behind. The teen chiller It Follows, from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, magnifies this trope to movie size: after teenage Jay (Maika Monroe) sleeps with the older boy (Jake Weary) she’s been dating, she’s haunted by spectral visions taking the form of various people, often creepy-looking and disturbingly mutilated strangers. Jay’s lover has the courtesy to explain, post-coitus, that it’s a condition passed down a long line of sex partners and that his only motive in courting her was to rid himself of the curse, as the visions will relentlessly hunt down and kill the most recent link in the chain.
It wouldn’t take much to push this premise into exploitation territory, but Mitchell takes it in a more introspective direction, trying to examine the impact Jay’s situation has on her relationship with her friends: younger sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), schoolmate Yara (Olivia Luccardi), bad-boy neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto), and childhood crush Paul (Keir Gilchrist). Only the afflicted can see the visions, so they spend much of their time consoling Jay without knowing exactly why. Jay herself is a fascinating character, contemplating the morality of her limited options in relieving herself of the curse. Together, they all perform the duties of friendship in a sensitive interplay that would feel very realistic for a conventional coming-of-age drama, much less a horror film
The premise lends itself to an obvious metaphor for teen sex, one that Mitchell complicates with the ever-changing form of Jay’s tormentors and the detail that they will only pursue their victims slowly, on foot. They’re never a powerfully overwhelming force but a consistent creeping dread in the back of Jay’s mind. What she is interpreting, Mitchell cannot truly say. His script mines a motherlode of mental triggers, from post-pubescent confusion and anxiety about sex to a recalling of the emotional scars left by our earliest intimate relationships, even suggesting a component based on the repression of sexual trauma.
The last thing this movie needs is a moral, but it seems to be grasping at a larger purpose that is not made fully clear. Granted, that’s Mitchell’s likely intention, but his lyrical approach short-sells the potential of the conceit. He delights in constructing a formal mystery house of atmospheric slow zooms, pans that lead to nowhere, and nerve-fraying sound design. It’s top-notch horror movie affect. It’s also pretty frustrating without the right amount of payoff. It Follows becomes a slow-speed chase film for almost its entire second half, a repetitive exercise no matter how many times the nightmare changes its disguise. Mitchell’s gift for wan understatement also doesn’t do many favors for a young cast struggling to communicate the film’s intensely psychological conflict. It Follows is ultimately a great idea resting upon a wobbly framework, trying mightily to strike its own balance between the codification and deconstruction of horror tropes.