Sex is to horror movies what horses are to Westerns: not an essential ingredient per se, but an important one. The link between sex and horror has been theorized by Carol Clover and Linda Williams; by horror movies themselves (Scream, The Cabin in the Woods); and by me, in posts such as this one from 2012. So David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows—in which sexually active teens find themselves relentlessly pursued by murderous phantoms—feels slightly belated in its insistence on the relatedness of sex, fear and danger. It’s a slickly designed throwback to the horror films of the late ’70s and early ’80s, right down to its killer synth soundtrack, and it has much to recommend it. But it doesn’t exactly live up to the expectations that its premise sets up. It’s a film that’s better at being suggestive than direct, and while I respect its unwillingness to leave certain ideas unresolved it ends up feeling more than a little slack.
The film’s conceit inevitably begs interpretation. If those murderous zombies are a metaphor, what do they stand for? The fall into adulthood? Sexually transmitted disease? (Jay, our heroine, is told that one possible way of solving the problem is to “pass it on” to someone else.) Of course, none of these interpretations makes for a perfect fit. That may be because the film, much to its credit, understands that sex can give rise to a whole host of monsters, both real and imagined. It Follows is most perceptive in its acknowledgement that entering the world of sexuality can be as traumatic as it is pleasurable, and that its dangers are not always precisely identifiable. As in Charles Burns’ brilliant graphic novel Black Hole, sex itself—rather than STDs or pregnancy or rape—turns out to be the vast and terrifying thing that cannot be escaped.
At the same time, Mitchell doesn’t really know how to structure a convincing plot out of this material. One almost gets the sense that he’s holding back, or that perhaps he has set something up that he doesn’t know how to finish. The result is a film that fails to synthesize its ideas in the way that, say, last year’s The Babadook was better able to do. In short, I’m not convinced that It Follows is the best horror film of this century—for one thing, it’s not scary enough. (My votes would probably go to Black Swan, The Babadook, and The House of the Devil, or to David Lynch's Inland Empire, which may be as terrifying a film as any I've ever seen.) But a bigger problem is that it doesn’t surrender to the nightmare logic that governs this genre. In the end, it plays too safe a game, and if there’s something a horror film should never, ever leave us feeling, it’s safe.