As Woodsboro High’s Randy Meeks warned in Scream, the most important rule to surviving a horror movie is Don’t have sex: “The minute you get a little nookie you're as good as gone. Sex always equals death.” Tell that to the panicked post-millennials of It Follows, who do the deed only to find themselves pursued by an evil, tireless entity from the suburbs of Detroit across its inner city ruins.
In this STD horror flick there’s just one way to stave off certain death—pass it on.
One of the more original cinematic chillers of the year comes from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, a Michigan native whose first film, 2010’s coming-of-age drama The Myth of the American Sleepover, also quietly observed the longings of teens navigating their way through young adulthood in pursuit of love.
That’s all 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) wants as she starts dating Hugh (Jake Weary). But soon after he takes her V-card in the backseat of his car, she awakes to a terrifying new reality: Hugh’s passed along a curse that’s set a shape-shifting thing after her. Where she runs, it follows. If it catches her, she dies. To survive, she’ll have to bang some other poor target.
Horror’s heroines tend to be the virginal girls next door who survive because they don’t give it up, while promiscuity leads to bloody ends so often in slashers, Roger Ebert dubbed them Dead Teenager Movies. Mitchell, 40, grew up in the VHS generation watching and rewatching classics like Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Carpenter, and Cronenberg, “but I also love European art films and I idolized Truffaut.” It Follows melds the suburban paranoia of Carpenter’s Halloween with Mitchell's Euro-art house sensibility and gives its doomed teen a fuller emotional life, smarts, and the post-postmodern freedom of sexual agency.
“I think some people will read the film as having a puritanical method, which is not my intention,” Mitchell told The Daily Beast. “For me, it’s not just that the characters have sex and are then put in danger. In the film, sex is more symbolic of life itself—just the act of living opens ourselves up to danger.”
Once she’s caught The Curse, Jay starts feeling dread everywhere; somewhere, off in the distance, death is lumbering after her. It can take the form of a stranger. It might look like a loved one. It might be a random naked man eerily chilling on her rooftop, trying to get at her through the rafters. And she’s the only one who can see It coming.
And critics are salivating over this unique take on a well-worn genre. “My whole life I've been a horror-movie freak, and I've rarely been as scared as I was at It Follows. But it wasn't a fun kind of scare. It was the so-upset-I-feel-sick kind of amorphous dread,” wrote New York Magazine’s David Edelstein.
Still, the dangers of the film seem so far away from the languid, hazy ‘burbs existence Jay and her besties live, in nice homes with raised pools and seemingly absent parents. Mitchell deliberately chose the greater Detroit area of his youth—and wrote all the characters as privileged white teens—for a reason.
It Follows is STD horror for a generation of sheltered kids from tree-lined neighborhoods seemingly removed from the worries of their urban counterparts—AIDS, stranger danger, alienation, and death. And once “It” infects Jay, she and her pals have something more to worry about than secret crushes and more to do with their lazy afternoons than sunbathing and drinking from their parents’ stashes. Only then do they leave the safety of the suburbs to find answers in the dilapidated decay of Detroit.
“I wanted to hint at the separation between the city and the suburbs,” Mitchell said. “It always struck me when I was young as being very unfair and shitty and very strange, the separation in regards to race and wealth and all kinds of things.”
So what modern existential anxieties keep Mitchell up late at night? “The normal stuff—death and disease, the loss of control, the loss of humanity and consciousness,” he offered. “The thought of these things happening to myself and the people I love, that’s the most disturbing thing to me in our world.”