IT FOLLOWS: Of Art and Monsters

It Follows is heralded as a film that can move horror forward, something incredible in an increasingly un-incredible genre. For certain, gone are the days of Castles, Carpenters, Cravens and Cronenbergs. Instead of Romero, today we have Roth. And instead of Powell, we have Peli. Visionaries like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Dario Argento, Alfred Hitchcock and Lucio Fulci seem so far in the past. At the same time, modern standouts, like James Wan, Neil Marshall and Adam Wingard, are drowned out by countless high-end horror remakes, which simply make glossy the last great moment in the genre, and low-end VOD movies, which can’t muster the courage to do anything as interesting as VHS-era titles.

It’s easy, when you step back, to see why It Follows, more so than even last year’s Australian art house horror show The Babadook, is seen as a film on the forefront of a genre renaissance. It’s an incredible movie until it’s not. And when it’s not, you see many the problems that contemporary horror has to contend with, be it post-modern fatigue, pulled punches or a simple lack of boldness.

There’s nothing terribly new going on in It Follows, after all. The film, about a sexually transmitted demon that is passed on from one person to the next after a little roll in the hay, moves and sounds like John Carpenter’s Halloween. Moreover, the light Freudian flickers of human sexuality at its best and worst, have a substantial dose of Cronenberg body horror in them.

Those comparisons, in themselves, aren’t detrimental to film. In fact, for the first two-thirds or so of the movie, they almost seem perfectly packaged as inspired by masters rather than passively borrowing their visions. It’s that last third of the movie, which is billed as “unconventional” for letting its characters fail, that undermines the whole thing. It shifts focus from the film’s themes to the film’s genre, underscoring the fact that it’s only horror, not The Graduate.

Why is it that when we are shown that the emperor has no clothes, that we insist on seeing a fashion icon? I don’t think that it says anything about director David Robert Mitchell, who in making his sophomore feature has performed admirably. But Mitchell, like so many other filmmakers today, doesn’t seem savvy enough to say what needs to be said—that in spite of our progressivism and protections, human sexuality remains inherently dangerous—when he has the opportunity to say it.

Had It Follows ended when the female protagonist decides to have sex with three random men on a boat, complete with an uncomfortable, borderline grotesque sex scene, Mitchell may have had something. Then he could have left it up to some hack director to ruin it by misunderstanding the point of it all in It Follows 2. Instead, we get a great movie and its terrible sequel all wrapped in a single feature.

It Follows isn’t really up to the task of reinvigorating a stagnating genre, any more so than so many lauded films today can help the medium itself. (Last year’s Nightcrawler, for example, plays out much the same way, swapping Lumet and Scorsese for Carpenter and Cronenberg.) If anything, it highlights the fact that audiences are desperately seeking something they are not getting: vision. And in place of that, they’ll accept masquerades.