It Follows is the latest of many recent indie horror flicks to take a smarter look at those good old tropes of sex and death and growing up to come up with something that's both scary and smart. It's a thinky throwback to Halloween and other suburban classics, complete with a synth-heavy soundtrack and an intelligent young woman at the center of the action.
Maika Monroe (The Guest) stars as Jay, a teen who is looking forward to fooling around with her new beau. After what seems like a fun hook-up, Jay finds herself tied to a chair in a creepy abandoned lot, and the guy she just banged is apologizing to her but, like, she just really needs to listen to what he has to say! Apparently, the hottest STD around town has a tremendously awful symptom — a shambling, icky horror that follows you around until it catches you and kills you. No one else can see it, and it appears in different guises, and it just won't stop until it catches you and kills you. The only solution is to sleep with someone else, and make sure they sleep with someone else, because if they die, It comes back to you. The eerie town Jay and her friends live in is practically devoid of adults; there aren't cell phones or fancy new cars or anything that would tip you off to the 21st century, except a weird-looking clamshell e-reader. It's a nuanced, beautifully shot, and deeply creepy movie with a fabulous female character at the center.
Although some genre fans will bristle at the idea that the recent spate of horror movies have been better than usual simply because critics and film festivals have been paying them more attention, well, it does seem like they've been improving since the days we had to scramble for copies of The Evil Dead on VHS. Although we're far from seeing equal representation onscreen when it comes to white dudes versus everyone else, there are an increasing number of standout films that have straight-up cool and complex female protagonists.
The U.S. horror films of the '60s and '70s played around with class anxiety, the horrors of war, the sexual revolution and its increasing empowerment, then shifted toward a more reactionary "sluts 'n' slashers" vibe in the '80s and '90s. While we can always count on endless cash grabs from the folks who just won't leave Freddy and Jason alone, an increasing number of filmmakers are interested in more socially conscious, nuanced examinations of horror, especially in terms of our sexual roles and fears. It's not that every filmmaker is purposefully trying to subvert or reinterpret Carol Clover's Final Girl theory, but that all of these ideas are floating around in our collective unconscious, for us to pluck out and play with and riff on at will.
Horror is at its best and most effective as a genre when it's cathartic and when it plays on whatever's lurking around in our shadow selves. And, sometimes? Our shadow selves can be real bitches.