Sexual anxiety, particularly female sexual anxiety, has been a horror mainstay since more or less always: Nosferatu (1920), Cat People (1942), Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and Halloween (1978) all fit into this in one way or another, and that’s just naming the ones I could think of in 10 seconds. It is as if a genre so frequently cheap, so frequently disreputable is the best way to process taboos. For more insight into this narrative trope, ask a Freudian theorist (or better yet, a woman). But it is into this legacy that It Follows (2014), a brilliantly fashioned horror flick and one of the strongest low-budget indies in memory, makes its bow.
It Follows is a little bit Repulsion, a lot Halloween, and some weird J-horror thrown in, and the synthesis of all of the above is remarkably cohesive, reviving the vibe of 80s VHS slumber parties while still being unmistakably of its own millennial moment. (If there’s a strange and earned tenderness to it, that’s in part because it is the rare horror film whose teenagers-in-peril actually look like teenagers).
It’s also a high-concept elevator pitch if there ever was one: a curse gets passed from person to person through sex, and the only way to get rid of it is to pass it on—a kind of supernatural coital hot potato that will threaten a permanent reckoning for anyone who touches it. Some have said is a metaphor for STDs, but I think there’s something shrewder and less puritanical going on. The film’s horror is less about the physical consequences of sex than the emotional ones. And it is less a screed against post-adolescent permissiveness than it is a coming-of-age piece about young people who stumble into sex, as everyone does, and try to figure out where it intersects with intimacy—or rather, where it doesn’t.
So after an intensely paranoid middle that can spook the hell out of you, it comes to the valuable realization that the logic and fate of its monster, and the marketing coup of a good elevator pitch, is less important than the emotional lives of its characters. It is outlandishly fantastical without being silly, serious-minded without being pretentious—here is a teen scream flick that takes time out to quote Dostoyevsky and actually gets away with it. The camera movements and haunted small town may evoke De Palma and Carpenter, but the most shocking thing about it is its sensitivity.
All that, and it would still make an excellent slumber party.
Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.