In the heyday of slasher films, the fastest way for characters to get themselves killed was by having sex. For a few bloodthirsty years following the release of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” in 1978, audiences delighted in watching homicidal maniacs dispatch casts of copulating teens, before finally being vanquished by the one girl — and it was always a girl — whose virginal purity remained intact.
This dubious genre trope is given an ingenious spin in “It Follows,” the sophomore feature by writer-director David Robert Mitchell. It turns adolescent sexuality into a sort of Ponzi scheme, where fornicating can mark you for death — unless you pass the curse on to someone else.
Young, blonde and beautiful, Jay (Maika Monroe) is ready to go past second base with her new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary), even though he has been acting a little weirdly recently. When he cuts short a date at the movies after apparently seeing a ghost in the theater, they finally get it on in the backseat of his car. But as Jay is enjoying some post-coital bliss, Hugh promptly drugs her unconscious, takes her to an abandoned building and straps her to a wheelchair in nothing but her undies.
If this sounds like a prelude to some Eli Roth-style torture porn, Mitchell has something quite different in store. Hugh hurriedly explains that he’s infected Jay with a sort of supernatural STD: From now on, she’ll be pursued by a slow-moving but implacable force — a shape-shifting “it” that assumes multiple human forms, both strangers and people she knows. If she lets it touch her, she’s dead, and the only way of avoiding this fate is by transferring it to another person — via intercourse. Oh, and if she gets killed, the curse will revert to its previous target: him.
It’s a brilliant concept, tapping the same primitive fears — body horror, burgeoning sexuality — that underpinned the slasher genre, while reining in the wanton misogyny. Here, the victim must become an accomplice in order to survive, and the threat is essentially gender-neutral. Then again, as Hugh explains to Jay, it should be easier for her to find a willing sucker to sleep with: after all, she’s a girl.
With its suburban setting, synthesizer-heavy soundtrack and expertly marshalled sense of foreboding, “It Follows” feels like an obvious heir to the original “Halloween,” while its communicable curse premise also reminded me of Hideo Nakata’s “Ring.” At the same time, the film’s brand of horror is rooted in more contemporary trepidations: not just fears of STDs and stalkers, but also the pervasive dread that has been inculcated in American society by a steady diet of mass shootings and terrorist threats.
“Never go into a place that doesn’t have more than one exit,” cautions Hugh, in a statement that could have been plucked from the wikiHow article on “How to Survive a School or Workplace Shooting.” Once Jay’s malevolent pursuer starts to make its presence felt, she becomes neurotically watchful, forever peeping out of windows or scanning her surroundings for potential danger. It’s a kind of paranoia that will be familiar to many modern viewers.
For all its allegorical interest, the film is also genuinely scary, in a way that few modern horror movies seem to manage. Though Mitchell resorts to some familiar tricks to elicit shocks — there are plenty of ominous crescendos and menacing figures creeping out of the shadows — he appreciates that an unfamiliar figure appearing in the background of a shot can be just as squirm-inducing. And when Jay’s shape-shifting adversary finally takes the form of someone she recognizes, the effect is devastating.
As horror films go, “It Follows” is a humdinger, and unlike last year’s other indie hit, “The Babadook,” which went straight to DVD in Japan, it’s actually getting a proper cinema release here. Just think twice before taking your date to watch it. The evening might not end as well as you’d hoped.