I finally saw It Follows (2014), my delay the result of a foolish reticence to watch horror films. It takes me a while to build up the courage to sit through the suffering of others. I am delighted to report that it was worth the wait, although I am not at all convinced It Follows is a horror film at all. Instead, it is the most incisive film about adolescence I have seen in quite a while, putting the overrated and shallow Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) to shame.
Director David Robert Mitchell’s film concerns Jay (Maika Monroe), a teenager just making the transition from her suburban home in the suburbs to college in Detroit, MI. One night, she goes on a date with Hugh, who upon seeing someone at a movie theater leaves immediately. After having sex with Jay in the car, Hugh chloroforms her and ties her to a wheelchair in an abandoned lot. Hugh explains that he has infected her with a curse whereby a mysterious stranger will begin pursuing her. She is not to let the creature touch her, or she will die. Hugh apologizes, but explains that the only way to remove the curse is to pass it on to someone else via sexual intercourse.
While built upon a seemingly simple metaphor of sexual contagion, the film subtly but incessantly suggests that the “it” that follows the victims is not a monster at all, but merely adulthood. In the film’s opening sequence, a girl with the disease sits at the beach. She calls her father tearfully, to apologize for having treated him so badly over the years. The next morning, she lies dead in the sand. When Jay is first attacked, she sits in her college classroom, pursued by an elderly hag. In fleeing, Jay gets on her childhood bike and hides at a playground. In increasing metaphoric intensity, the victims revert to childhood, while the attackers take the form of grotesque authority figures.
After resisting Hugh’s solution for well over half of the film, Jay finally agrees to have sex with her neighbor, Greg to see if they can fight the creature together. Afterward, when the monster attacks Greg at his home across the street from Jay, she rushes to help him. However, she is too late. By the time she makes it to the top of the stairs, Greg has just opened his bedroom door to the monster, now in the form of his naked mother. When he screams, like a disgruntled teenager, that his mother is bothering him, the succubus straddles him on the floor of his bedroom, draining him of life.
It Follows takes the basic adolescent/adult conflict of American slasher films to its logic limit. In A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984), the teenagers who are being attacked in their dreams by Freddie Krueger (Robert Englund) come to learn that their parents are responsible, having taken justice into their own hands and burned Freddie alive, after the justice system failed to put the child molester behind bars. However, whereas Craven’s film merely positions the teenager’s parents as morally bankrupt, It Follows evacuates parental authority altogether, invoking it, as in the case of Greg’s mother, as the most vile, incestuous presence in the children’s lives.
At the end of the film, this metaphor comes to its full fruition. Jay and her friends plan one final showdown with the pursuing monster. Driving away from her house, Jay sees the monster on her roof, now having taken the form of her naked father. The kids drive to an abandoned swimming pool, where they first learned how to swim as kids. Their plan is to electrocute the monster with a number of household appliances they have arranged poolside. However, like all of the film’s other attempted solutions, this plan fails.
Jay goes home, and finally has sex with her life-long boyfriend, Paul. In the film’s last image, the two of them walk down their suburban street, holding hands. The film has withheld this pairing, suggesting that Paul and Jay have finally formed the relationship that will last into the future. In a shot-reverse shot, we first see Paul and Jay walking alone on the street. However, a cut to a reverse angle reveals a newly arrived mysterious figure in the background following them.
The film abandons any hope of a resolution to the supernatural crisis, instead ending with an image that suggests these young lovers will be followed forever more, by the responsibilities—children, mortgages, old age—of the missing adults whom they have now, without even seeming to have tried to, joined. It is an exquisite ending, one that captures the transition from childhood to adulthood in a way precious few films ever had with such emotional force. It follows that children will see the process of maturation as horrifying, but it is as inevitable the death the film so deftly allegorizes.