It Follows is pitched as a horror film. It is so only insofar as it is a stalking ground for a certain kind of dread. Beyond the trappings of the genre, which It Follows inhabits only as much as it needs in order to critique them, the film is about the sadness inherent in moving from adolescence to adulthood, and more specifically, from a teenager’s conception of sex to a fully informed, mature one. If it were only this, it would already be an unusual, and significant, addition to a genre that, especially in the last few decades, has been painfully devoid of intellectual and emotional significance. But it is more than that. It is not an elegy for a lost, idealized youth, but rather, a portrait of what it means to become an adult, if we take adulthood not as a fallen state, or a cynical inevitability, merely the grabbing ground of goodies denied to youth, but as a stage that must reckon with the endgame while trying to figure out how to play to the end ethically. What sets It Follows apart is not that it contains more insight than your average horror film (it indeed contains more insight than your average film, period), but that it provides an answer to the problems it poses. If it is a portrait, it is a picture of what it means to ethically interact with other people in full knowledge that the end is always already in view, that nothing lasts, and that true friendship, or even love, places demands on us that, if not heeded, result in the destruction of everyone in the game.
Let me be less abstract. It Follows concerns Jay, a girl on the far side of adolescence; she still lives at home with her mother, and attends a local college. She has a clutch of friends that are always hanging around at her house, watching movies, behaving like teens. Jay is not a teenager anymore, but she still has the trappings of a teenager’s life, and we sense, in one of the many quiet moments the film provides, as she floats around in her above ground pool in the family backyard, that she feels herself on the cusp of something she is not quite sure of. She goes on a date with Hugh, who seems a nice enough guy; at the movies (a revival of Charade, ho ho), Hugh becomes disquieted, as he sees a girl in the theater that Jay cannot. They depart, and eventually wind up in the back of his car, having sex. The sex is depicted like much in this low-key, non-exploitative film: as a bit of sweaty, heated connection, not overly profound for either partner. After the sex, Jay lounges in the back seat of Hugh’s car, and he approaches her from behind; he forces a rag over her face, and she passes out. When she wakes, she is in an abandoned building, tied to a wheelchair, and Hugh begins to tell her, and eventually shows her, what will happen to her. She will be stalked by an apparition, which can appear as any person – often it will look like someone she knows, but just as often it will be a stranger. This apparition is, basically, death. If it catches her, it will kill her. This specter is not fast moving; it is insidious, and threatening only in its relentlessness. The only way Jay can avoid this fate is to pass the curse on to someone else – if she has sex with another person, then that person will now be stalked. Jay will not be off the hook, though, just as Hugh is not now off the hook. If the apparition catches the person Jay has slept with, and kills him, then the apparition will return to hunting Jay, and if it catches and kills her, it will return to hunting Hugh. This infinite regress of death, this vertiginous space of slow-moving inevitable destruction, is her new reality, for good. This is the premise of the film, and the rest of the movie works to slowly clarify the realities of this new mode of being; it is really nothing but a description of what it means to live like this. We are not in doubt that this curse is real – the film does not toy with the usual “perhaps she’s crazy, and nobody believes her” cliches. Her friends are affected physically by this unseen force, which can cause collateral damage in its relentless movement toward Jay. Given that it is a real, if invisible, presence, the group tries to destroy it – and indeed, it appears that you can temporarily slow its advance, cause it to dissipate for a short period of time, but eventually it will reappear and resume its forward motion. This invisible force frequently appears to the afflicted with the hallmarks of its character – it often, even when resembling a friend or relative, has the pallor of a corpse, and just as often signifies a sickly sexuality (in this way the film pays homage to Kubrick’s The Shining, specifically the scene where Jack Torrance is seduced by a sexually voracious young woman who, when glimpsed in a mirror, he recognizes as a decomposing yet living body).
Now, this concept, strangely resembling a type of game, or perhaps a chain letter, might sound like a gimmick not much different from many others that guide horror films recently (such as the one that drives the Saw franchise). What places this film above its peers, and reveals the concept to be both a parody and a critique, is that it is not cynical. In fact, the structure of “the gift” forecloses cynicism, or rather, makes mindlessly passing along the curse the most losing strategy of all. Pass it on to some nameless somebody you have no connection to, and before long the specter of death will be back stalking you, as your nameless somebody was unprepared, unknowing of the danger, and thus quickly succumbed. Further, you are setting yourself up to be surprised, as you’ll have no idea when this nameless somebody died, and hence no idea when you will be next. No, “the gift,” for the sake of your own survival, comes with an ethics as well. The best way to ensure your own future is to do what Hugh does: inform the victim of what will befall them. But better yet, take it a step beyond Hugh – watch over your “victim.” Keep an eye on them. In fact, in the best of all possible worlds, you will help them stay safe by becoming a permanent fixture in their life (as everyone with “the gift,” no matter if they are the next intended or far down the list, having been so enlightened, can see the specter). Thus this predicament, undoubtedly a despairing and insolvable one, does have a solution: learn to live with it. And the best way to learn to live with it is to build a community around it. This is why Jay, after much delay and coming to grips with her new reality, gives her “gift” to another. The first intended is Greg, a fellow student at the local college who, we come to learn, she had a sexual relationship with in high school (which was “no big thing”). Greg is likable, and we trust that he has Jay’s best interest at heart, but we come to learn, sadly (for his sake) that he cannot handle the reality that Jay hands him. Taking on her burden as his own, he very quickly becomes distant, avows that he has not seen the specter, and begins to cast doubt on Jay and her burden. Jay’s friends, however, become suspicious of him because of this, as they have both seen material evidence of the specter and, more importantly, understand that something horrible is happening to Jay. Soon enough, Greg’s disavowal catches up with him (in the appearance of his own mother) and he succumbs to his inevitable demise. The second intended is a childhood friend of Jay’s, Paul. He and she shared their first kiss together, and he has obviously retained his crush on her. Near the end of the film, after their last, seemingly fruitless attempt to destroy the apparition, Jay relents to Paul’s desire to share her pain, and she passes “the gift” on to him. The film ends with the suggestion that this bond will take, and, consequently, they will both be better equipped to deal with the future, as they can look for, and fight against, the specter as a team. The last shot of the film shows them, walking hand in hand down the street, with a possible manifestation of the dread ghost slightly out of focus, walking behind them in the near distance.
Rarely, at least in contemporary cinema, has there been as thoroughgoing and unsexy a portrayal of what it means to be an adult, and to live in the grown-up world of knowledge of inevitable death and decay and the responsibility toward others that such knowledge entails. It is not a conservative worldview, predicated on fear of sexuality, despite the coupling of sex and decay throughout the film. Rather, it is a deeply more ambivalent portrayal of sex than we are used to. On the one hand, sex is the release from the world, a means of escaping inevitable death – passing on “the gift” stands in for what the French call “the little death,” the paradoxical forgetting of oneself that another body and, ultimately, the orgasm that body elicits, provides. In mirroring the permanent forgetting of self promised by one’s demise, sexual coupling allows a subject to, temporarily at least, escape their knowledge of mortality. At the same time, passing on “the gift” also binds the two parties together in a permanent relationship, just as sex does in a properly adult world – not as an obligation, but as a profound sharing, profound because of the consequences that can result from the act: not only pregnancy, or the transmission of disease, but of heartbreak or emotional damage. Of course, anyone can ignore such consequences, or pretend they don’t exist, but such a disavowal marks hedonism with a requisite moral decay in our own world, and in the world of the film, the disavowal marks one as weak, an easier target for the creeping inevitable. Thus the depth of the metaphor within the film – of course anyone can pretend sex has no consequences, but doing so is tantamount to believing you will live forever, or that you are self-sufficient and cannot be touched. It marks you as singular, and forever alone; truly alone in your flight from the realities of life (and death). Acceptance of the fact of mortality, and the burden of the responsibilities that it entails, is, really, no burden at all. The film shows this in its resolution – in forming a couple, in partnering, in accepting the consequences of sex, Jay and Paul strengthen each other. This relating as adults, “adult sex,” if you would, is not a buzzkill, but indeed the seedbed of love (as we see them holding hands as they walk away into their future). This real love is not narcissism and denial of reality masquerading as care for another, but actual acceptance of fragility, decay, and the death that awaits us all, with or without “the gift” (indeed, the gift is simply a metaphor for the mature recognition of the facts of life). What is brilliant about the film, and again marks it as not conservative in nature (that is, as espousing that the answer to all life’s problems is to couple up), is that it provides a picture of relating that is fundamentally humane: no matter if within a coupling that is monogamous, or within a polymorphously perverse community, the answer to the problem at hand is to watch over one another, watch out for one another, and to know when to flee, or fight, together.
What is doubly impressive about It Follows is that it provides not only this mature picture of what true love is, but that it does so within the framework of a genre that usually does the exact opposite. As the film begins, before we even encounter Jay for the first time, we are met with the image of a victim of the stalking specter. She flees her house in the early morning hours, perhaps unaware of what is happening to her and the nature of the knowledge she has acquired. She is dressed in a way that is completely ridiculous, even more so for someone running for her life: she wears close-fitting girl “booty short” boxers, a loose tank top, and high heels. This image, so incongruous that it caused me almost instantly to lose faith in the film I was embarking on, is indeed a parodic picture of most films of this type. Sexualized children, set loose in a world of deadly consequence that they cannot comprehend, try their best to play at being adult. Such play is what most films of this type engage in – not actual play, but playing-with, where humans stand in for dolls, and are pressed together, thrown about, and pulled apart with cynical abandon by makers who either possess the minds of adolescents, or believe that we do. There are myriad other, more specific ways that It Follows, image for image, is a revelation, and a significant critique of our culture (I have not even touched on its use of Detroit as a setting, or of its portrayal of fatherless families, or the other filmic quotations, from Breaking the Waves to The Exorcist, that it contains). Its prime contribution, however, is to play fair with its toys, as the “game” that the film proposes is indeed the game of life. Winners will need to strategize, and to realize that such “play” is nothing if not deadly serious; but only by taking it seriously can it also be exciting, beautiful, and fun.