'It Follows' Review: A Nearly Perfect Horror Allegory that Stumbles in the Last Act
'It Follows' is a beautifully shot, socially conscious, emotionally intelligent, and genuinely scary horror movie. In other words, it's a rare find. It manages to serves as a canny metaphor for STDs, societal anxieties about sex, and the daunting prospect of coming of age, all while making the viewers jump out of their seats and fill with a real sense of dread.
The first half of the film is filled with confidence, as the elegant premise makes itself known in subtle and effectively creepy ways. The main character, wonderfully played by Maika Monroe, who was also a standout in The Guest, sleeps with her boyfriend for the first time, and he promptly drugs her, kidnaps her, and tells her that he's passed on a sexually transmitted haunting. "It" will follow her- at a very slow pace- until it eventually catches and kills her, unless she sleeps with someone else and passes it on. If it kills her, it will go back to her boyfriend and keep going down the line until it finds patient zero.
The idea that a nebulous "something" is following you plays on very primal fears, as all the best horror films do, and the atmospheric dread is pitch-perfect for the first half. "It" walks at a leisurely pace, which makes it all the creepier, and the direction makes liberal use of wide shots that just barely show it silently lumbering towards us in the corner. The film does a thoughtful job of establishing the tension of "looking over one's shoulder," rather than resorting to usual horror movie scare tactics.
And the sexual aspect of the premise gives the film ample opportunity for social commentary. The notion of teen sex having terrible consequences, particularly when it comes to young women, is of course nothing new, and the STD metaphor is a little too straightforward to be anything impressive. But the film excels when it emphasizes the ways in which our culture both makes sex ubiquitous and places an enormous amount of anxiety around it. The specter appears in various states of undress, with the human body turned into both a sexualized and grotesque object. It appears as battered rape victims, peeping Tom neighborhood boys, and even the victims' parents, representing various fears and fantasies about sexuality and how they all get conflated with each other. The scene in which (spoiler!) one character is killed through sex with a half-dressed version of his mother was particularly telling, not to mention Freudian.
The film also does a lot of interesting work with gender and the male gaze. Monroe's character is a beautiful girl, but rather than objectifying her, the film subtly illustrates the ways in which all of her interactions with others are defined by that fact. Both of the boys in her group of friends want to sleep with her, both the girls are jealous of her, and neighborhood boys are constantly spying on her, trying to catch a glimpse of her body without her permission. It might be trite to place more anxiety around a young woman having sex than a young man, but it's unfortunately true to life. Society's relationship with women's bodies is far more problematic, and there are simply heavier consequences for women than for men when it comes to sex. As Stella Gibson said on "The Fall," another genre work that might seem like it's objectifying women, but is actually quite feminist, "Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them." Sad but true, and this movie illustrates that dynamic with aplomb.
And as a result of this fear surrounding sex, it's the perfect way to illustrate the fraught process of declaring independence as an adolescent. Monroe's character gives a monologue at the beginning of the film in which she says that as a child, she would dream of freedom, of leaving, going wherever she wanted. But now that she was technically old enough to do that, "where the hell do we go?" Sex is one of the ways that teenagers try to establish a private life outside of their relationship with their parents, but as this movie demonstrates in the most horrifying way possible, the heavy consequences sometimes coldly slap down burgeoning attempts to become an adult. The film reinforces this theme near the end, when the kids leave suburban Detroit for the big city that their parents literally warned them about. This is their very painful, ugly way of growing up.
Now let's talk about that last act, which is significantly less successful:
Like many horror movie villains, part of the reason "it" was so scary was its elusive, spiritual quality. The movie stubbornly resisted any cheesiness by keeping the villain at arm's length, making it look like monstrous people rather than a monster, and by not allowing it to be touched. But then it ruined all of that hard work by making it much more tangible; it interacts with the kids in increasingly violent, typical ways. It was a frightening moment when the specter held up Maika Monroe's hair, but why didn't it just kill her? And if it could be shot, wouldn't someone have tried that already? Are we seriously supposed to believe that the solution is electrocuting it? Do we have any reason to believe that? If killing this thing were as easy as putting a sheet over it (a tired cliche in itself), wouldn't it have been killed a long time ago?
The climactic pool scene in general could have been cut without losing anything. This is not the type of movie that needs a "showdown," and their strategies for killing a spirit were ill-advised bordering on silly. The beauty of this film was its exploration of fears surrounding the unknown, the scary things that don't necessarily go bump in the night, but that you're looking over your shoulder for anyway. This entire sequence, and the increased accessibility of the villain, threatened to ruin all of that nuance.