The brilliant exploitation movie premise at the heart of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is this: Have sex with the wrong person, just once, and your life will end in horrific violence. No, not right away… well, probably not right away. As always in horror films like this one, there are rules, and you can bend them to your advantage if you’re crafty about it. The important thing to know here is that It (whatever “It” is) strikes first at the person who fell victim to the curse most recently. So if you sleep with let’s-call-her-Sabrina and get the curse, you’re next on Its list unless you move fast and pass the curse along yourself. We’ll name your victim Lindsay. If It makes short work of Lindsay, you’re right back on the menu, and in search of a new paramour. But if Lindsay passed the curse along before It could get her, now It has to make Its way through Lindsay’s victim and Lindsay before It comes to you…and that’s all before It finally gets Sabrina (remember Sabrina?). With all that in mind, it could be some time until It comes looking for you…
…But not forever.
The existential dilemma of the film is that the curse cannot — by any known means — be broken. Its final effect can only be staved off, postponed. How long could you last?
After a startling prologue that shows what happens when It finds a victim (it’s bad), the film introduces us to Jay (Maika Monroe), a commuter college student who is preparing for a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a rakish guy from another school. The first act of It Follows is without supernatural incident, but feels unsettling nonetheless; what it feels like is walking around a drugstore on Halloween night with a mild fever and a head full of NyQuil. Everything is mildly, not entirely unpleasantly, off. The universe of Jay and her friends is ostensibly suburban Detroit, but the decor, technology and entertainment options represent such a surreal mishmosh of time periods that it’s hardly recognizable to the viewer as real life at all. It’s an effect not dissimilar to the one David Lynch conjures in his Blue Velvet, in which the contemporary world of the film already seems to represent a vanished era, or perhaps one that never was, and in either case one sure to be in ruins by the end of the story.
That world is soon identified as childhood, innocence. Jay and Hugh, waiting in line to see a movie, play a little game: Of all the people within eyesight, which one would you most want to trade places with right now? Hugh’s selection is telling. He would trade places with a little boy, his whole life wide open in front of him. It seems like an odd answer, maybe, given that Hugh is a young man himself. But — unbeknownst to Jay — the end of Hugh’s life is a little more certain than one might think. When Hugh identifies a face in the crowd that he thinks Jay might envy, still playing the game, he becomes anxious when Jay can’t seem to see the woman. So much so that he insists they leave the theater. Immediately.
Sex between Jay and Hugh seems friendly and casual. There’s no sense that either partner is doing anything for the first time, or even has especially high expectations about where this step will take their relationship. But the consequences are sudden and shocking. As Jay sprawls out in the back of Hugh’s car, languidly reflecting on girlhood dreams, Hugh sneaks up on her and slaps a chloroform-soaked rag over her mouth. Jay struggles for a horribly long time, all too aware of what’s happening, betrayed and terrified. Then it all goes black.
It’s on waking that Jay learns of the curse, and encounters It for the first time. It is some kind of entity that may take on any human shape — one of Its own victims, someone you love, your mother, your father — and will use it to get you. (Only a person under the curse can see It — but by the time you see It, it’s probably too late.) In a very real way, Hugh is relying on Jay to avoid this fate, as her continued survival is key to his own. He callously, literally dumps her, and leaves her to it.
The film grows increasingly harrowing as Jay not only realizes that It is apparently indestructible, but that she cannot pass the curse along without hurting another person. The choices that she (and others) make as the story moves toward a frighteningly inevitable outcome become only more damning. But does damnation even matter?
It Follows is not a reassuring film, but it is also not a moral scold. The film doesn’t argue that Jay (or even Hugh) are bad people for having sex, or somehow brought It upon themselves via some personal failing. Its wrath is simply something that happens. The viewer accustomed to a horror film delivering an Old Testament-style judgment may be surprised at the godlessness of this film’s cosmos. But it would be a mistake to presume that grace is absent here. Grace — or at least the possibility of grace — is the prerogative of the film’s characters, and if God is missing from this picture, that may only mean there’s no one to say they aren’t worthy of it.
Mike McGee is best known as the co-creator/writer of the webcomic El Gorgo. More recently, he wrote the screenplay for Thespis Media‘s short feature, “King Bloodsucker.” He is currently working on a novel.