Perfection is an elusive thing. Critics like to reduce films, good and bad, to a shortlist of buzzwords like “character” or “plot” or “cinematography,” but the truth is that the ideal movie is always changing. That special something that makes It Follows the perfect movie for right here, right now, didn’t just jump out and attack me. Throughout the film I thought I sensed it, but I wasn’t sure if it was real. It stalked me home from the theater. It kept me awake at night. It simply would not go away no matter how hard I tried to shrug it off. With every lurid, scintillating shock scare, every development in its modest teenage soap opera, I felt like I was experiencing something I had always wanted but never been able to put into words.
David Robert Mitchell’s 2011 microbudget indie Myth of the American Sleepover was the kind of movie I thought high school students might really connect with if high school students watched microbudget indies. It followed a group of teenagers on the last night of summer, as they wandered their suburban neighborhood from basements to parties to abandoned warehouses looking for that big “what” their libidos told them was out there somewhere. With so many high school films I get this weird feeling I’m watching kids from the point of view of a fat 45 year old screenwriter looking on from a distance with either nostalgia or derision. Mitchell’s script planted itself firmly in the shoes of its young protagonists, staring uncertainly forward.
Sleepover was always a bit too specific and experimental to be a breakaway hit. It played on the festival circuit and in arthouses, where adults well outside its target audience could nod and think fondly about what it was like way back when. That struck me as a shame. I felt like this was a rare movie that took the experience of being a teenager seriously — that didn’t reduce youth to stupidity and inexperience, or make broad proclamations about exactly what kids needed to do to get over themselves and grow up. Its point of view was totally unique. I felt like he really had something to say to both kids and adults about the surreal experience of growing older.
It Follows, on the other hand, is the kind of movie the kids in American Sleepover would actually watch. I’m not just saying that kids love the horror. In a way this movie presents a full-blooded fantasy as much as it does a ghost story. Its magical world is the American suburbs, where it always seems to be that duskiest hour just before sunset in the waning weeks of summer. The film’s heroes, Jay (Maika Monroe), her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and their friends Yara (Olivia Ducarde), Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and Greg (Daniel Sevatto) are a long-standing Scooby team that has been inseparable since early childhood. They sit together in school, they waste afternoons together, they explore and relate to life together and sometimes they sleep together (most of the time innocently, in sleeping bags with a lamp on). They’re on that last leg of innocence, before forces beyond their comprehension will draw them into uncharted territory.
Unfortunately Jay, described by her sister as “disgustingly pretty,” has felt the lure of adulthood a little earlier than her friends. While they sit inside watching old sci-fi movies and reading Dostoyevsky on their phones (they’re a hip bunch) she lies out in the pool and waits for her next date. Her latest, Hugh (Jake Weary), is twenty-one. If that’s not enough to scare her off, he’s also tight-lipped (which she reads as quiet confidence, but more mature observers might interpret as secrecy), eager to advance their sexual relationship, and, most eccentrically, seems to see and respond to things that aren’t really there.
As Jay discovers just a little too late, Hugh is cursed by an STD: that’s a sexually transmitted demon. Yes, this is a horror film. It stars a vindictive spirit that stalks its victims, slowly, with a menacing blank stare, sometimes taking the form of friends, sometimes taking the form of naked disgusting old people. If it catches you, well… our first glimpse is a dead body with a leg bent in a very, very wrong direction. The only way to get it to stop following you is to sleep with someone else, at which point the spirit will begin following that person instead — like The Ring with a bit of Larry Clark’s Kids thrown in for good measure. Hugh sleeps with Jay knowing this. At least he gives her a heads up afterwards.
In one sense the premise sounds incredibly silly, like a Reagan-era abstinence educational video that spiraled horribly out of control. If it was shot like a conventional horror film I’m not sure it would work. However, while the movie is plenty scary, it’s not exactly your typical genre faire.
For instance, in the inspired opening one-take a teenage girl runs back and forth across the street in front of her house. It’s still light out, and her neighbor and father are present to ask her if everything’s okay. She doesn’t notice. Horror movies love attacking suburbia, but usually it’s at night when the victim is alone. What makes this scene so scary is that the girl seems completely unaware she’s in a sanctuary of class and authority figures and paved roads and perfectly-trimmed lawns. There’s an invisible demon chasing her, but at the time we don’t know that. She is beset by some emotional trauma nobody else, including the audience, can see or comprehend. The next day she is found dead.
This scene doesn’t exist in any screenwriting guide. It’s not plucked from genre conventions that I’m aware of. It’s scary, but it’s also focused on the strange, human experience of being a teenager in the American suburbs. The point is clear enough — how real is any of the pragmatic world when your inner world is in trouble? Being young can feel like a horror film. There are numerous dangers and traps you don’t have the experience to predict, while your hormones act like a vindictive screenwriter drawing you to walk through every door and look over every ledge without knowing why.
Adulthood is a lot like watching that horror film, and there’s a temptation to shout at the screen in frustration with all the clarity that’s easy when you’re sitting in an air conditioned auditorium. Of course there’s a reason we go see horror films in the first place. Audiences long to commune with a younger vision of the world, where a forest is a dark, mysterious kingdom and not just a bunch of trees. As Jay and her friends run around their community escaping the spirit, they revisit old beach houses and pools that made up the mythology of their childhood. There’s a sense that they’re growing both forward and backward. They’re learning to be more mature, but they’re also remembering those fragile bonds that tied them to the world in the first place.
Despite its salacious premise, the movie is almost completely free of cynicism. At one point the teens wander into a poor neighborhood downtown and remark how strange it is that they weren’t allowed to go there when they were younger; a place other people have to live their lives. To a grown up this is just the way the things work. But when the world is younger, and every minor relational tiff feels like a life-changing experience, and urban legends still seem strangely plausible, questions like these begin to rise to the surface — and in a way they’re questions adults should be asking more often. With death literally following on their footsteps, the characters feel free to share more with each other and go deeper. It’s freeing, like a night spent camping where telling ghost stories and sharing dark personal secrets don’t feel like terribly distinct activities.
It Follows is not just that horror movie about sex. It’s about death and love and how strange and magical and ridiculous this world is when you really think about it. It’s about that weird process where everyone tells you what to ignore and forget so you can be a productive member of society. It’s about realizing that the confident and bold are often lying, while the vulnerable and innocent sometimes know what they’re talking about. It’s about rediscovering those painfully fragile connections that link friends and lovers, and learning to cope with the world without blocking out everything that matters. It’s about that specter that lies somewhere in all of our futures, and the strange, conflicting ways we learn to deal with that.
And yes, it’s an urban legend about a sex demon that kills teenagers, but it confronts life with more honesty and sincerity than just about everything nominated for Oscars last year. The fact that this is possible is one of the biggest reasons I love movies.
Photos courtesy of: Northern Lights Films