Sing hushaboo, sing hushaby.
The Wuggly Ump is drawing nigh.
–from Edward Gorey, “The Wuggly Ump“
Some of the best horror flicks explore social or psychological issues: “Night of the Living Dead” weaves racial mistrust and hatred into its zombie tale; “The Babadook” hits on grief, parents’ fear of their children and vice-versa, the pressures and stigma faced by single mothers, and emotional repression. I loved “The Babadook” but if it has a weakness, that weakness is the extent to which it’s a “message movie” about the need to somehow make peace with the horror in one’s own life.
“It Follows” name-checks “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Idiot (which one character is reading on an adorable e-reader shaped like a makeup clamshell). But its grim little heart is simple. “It Follows” wants to make you feel dread. This is an almost entirely successful chiller about the awful things we can’t escape.
The basic story is: There’s this thing, which you pick up by having sex with someone who’s got it. It follows you. It can look like anyone. Sometimes it looks like someone you love, “to hurt you more.” Whenever it appears it’s horrible—the moments we see “it” are incredibly disturbing and wrong. It doesn’t move very fast, but it will get to you eventually. Wherever you are it’s somewhere out there, walking toward you. It will kill you.
You can get rid of it if you have sex with somebody else: Pass it on. But when it kills that person—and it will—it returns to you.
There are a lot of heady ingredients in this cocktail: sex, of course, but also post-collapse Detroit, which gains resonance as a “character” as the film goes on; friendship vs “the friend-zone,” American can-do spirit vs. acceptance of fate. There are autumn leaves and pretty blondes. The soundtrack is a great, foreboding electronic thing, with allusions to harpsichords and bells. There are striking, unexpected scenes: a girl being interrogated by cops on her front lawn, for example, as the neighbors watch and gossip.
The acting is uneven, and there are sometimes weird pauses in the dialogue which drain tension, especially early on. There are some minor plot holes.
But overall this is a frightening and sad film. It’s got some humor (the kid who can’t get laid to save somebody else’s life) but it’s a real gem of feel-bad cinema. It’s about how it feels to feel awful. It’s about that pit-in-the-stomach feeling, the weeks between your arrest and your sentencing, the slow arrival of catastrophe.
The bit from The Idiot which the movie quotes asks why someone would remain inside a house which they knew would soon collapse. “It Follows” doesn’t have an answer to that question, or a way out of the problem—it doesn’t have a message. It just makes you sit in the swaying, shuddering house.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.