Horror movies have long borne an odd relationship to sex: get laid and you die. At some point this became prevalent enough to become a cliché, and the cliché became prevalent enough to become a convention. There are probably hundreds of examples, but one of the most famous is when Kevin Bacon gets a spike driven up through his bunk during the first Friday the 13th. Whether horror fans legitimately enjoy the mise-en-scène or they just enjoy seeing Kevin Bacon brutally impaled is up for debate, but it does exemplify the genre’s sex=death trope. The exception to this rule usually involves vampires, in which case, lose your virginity in a hurry so as to spoil your appeal to the eternal undead.
It Follows is a movie which plays on the sex conventions of horror movies by tweaking the convention to include STD’s. Everything is going well for Jay (Maika Monroe) until she has car date sex with Paul (Keir Gilchrist.) When he chloroforms her and she wakes up tied to a chair in a parking lot, it becomes apparent that Paul may not be Mr. Right. Alas, Paul has his reasons. Here’s the thing, Paul explains, when I put my wiener in you, something happened. Don’t flatter yourself, is what she might reply at this point if she weren’t so groggy. No, Paul explains, I’m being haunted by a deadly spectre that wants to kill me, and the only way to get rid of it is to pass it to someone else, through sex.
It turns out Paul is telling the truth, and the only way Jay can get rid of the deadly spectre now following her is to pass it on to someone else, through sex. Slight catch: if Jay passes it on to someone else, and that person dies without passing it on, the spectre passes back to Jay.
The premise may not sound substantial on paper, admittedly it could sound downright silly, but this is far from American Pie with ghosts. This is a richly atmospheric film, with smart dialogue and refreshingly nuanced characters; as much Stand By Me as it is Nightmare on Elm St; a horror film and an excellent one to be sure, but one that supersedes an exercise in pure genre. The obnoxiousness typical of horror-movie teens is reigned back in favour of the kind of vulnerability other movies try for but which is typically stolid. The ethical dilemma of whether to pass on the spectre borders on existential crises, although it never bludgeons you over the head with it, and there may be something unintentionally metaphorical about teenagers haunted by the lapsed spirits of brief encounters.
In other words, it works not because the plot is especially original; it bears a strong affinity with The Ring and Nightmare (aforementioned). It works because it is executed well and doesn’t dumb itself down, or underestimate its audience. There are shades of grey here, ambiguities, a resolution belied by tense menace, and no easy answers, which is really the most important make-or-break thing for this movie. Horror and fantasy films are prone to collapse under the weight of their own rationalisations. Try to explain the unexplainable and the audience is no longer invested, because they have been made self-aware of their own suspended disbelief. Fear, furthermore, being predicated on the unknown, is diminished by logic. So where It Follows excels is in not denouncing the imagination of its audience, but by allowing it to be an active participant in the realm of the macabre.
It is this same approach which lends the movie and its characters psychological dimensions, and the adroitness of the filmmakers at both exploring and manipulating those dimensions which make this not only one of the most rewarding of recent horror films, but a rewarding film, period.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10