IT FOLLOWS Review - Exploring Female Sexuality and Its Societal Taboos
E.L. King says It Follows is a modern classic that subverts horror film tropes surrounding female sexuality with substantial influences from Stephen King.
It Follows (2014), written, produced, and directed by David Robert Mitchell, is a critically acclaimed supernatural horror film, and with good reason. The story follows Jay Height (Maika Monroe), a young woman, fighting to survive a sexually transmitted curse that appears to her as a sinister and faceless shape-shifting entity simply known as “It.” The premise in and of itself is reminiscent of the evil entity in Stephen King’s horror novel It (1986), which follows the experiences of seven pre-teens terrorized by an entity that exploits their fears to disguise itself while hunting its prey. While the novel undoubtedly influences this film—it almost directly borrows the plot—Mitchell adds a fresh twist to the nightmare.
Jay suffers and repeatedly overcomes the odds stacked against her throughout the film. In an acutely difficult scene to experience as a viewer, Jay is humiliated and traumatized following her first sexual encounter with Hugh (Jake Weary). He chloroforms and straps her half-naked to a wheelchair in an abandoned, remote, isolated location. From the moment she awakens, Jay's overwhelming fear is evident. It reflects the anxieties women experience navigating dating, sex, and merely interacting with men every day. A scenario like this is how our worst nightmares manifest themselves, particularly the horrors of sexual assault. The fallout of sexual assault trauma never goes away. It may fade, but it lingers, requiring significant energy to quiet, and often it returns to haunt those who have experienced it. The entity is an allegory for the lingering effects of that trauma, and for Jay, the torment is only just beginning.
“It doesn't think. It doesn't feel. It doesn't give up.”
Hugh vaguely explains that he’s passed a curse onto her that was passed onto him, saying, “It could look like someone you know, or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.” Sex equals death, and Death will follow her until she transfers the curse to some other unsuspecting partner of her choosing. Dumped in the street outside her house after the ordeal, Jay attempts to carry on with her life. It isn’t long before the shapeshifter arrives to stalk and terrorize her. The manifestation of “It” echoes like a metaphor for the shame and grief associated with the repercussions of a bad sexual experience, the loss of a romantic partner, and the fear of society labeling you a slut. A woman having a sex-positive and independent attitude towards sexuality and sexual expression is essentially a scarlet letter pinned to her bust.
Jay, her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), and their friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Greg (Daniel Zovatto), and Yara (Olivia Luccardi), band together to figure out what “It” is and how to stop it. They seek out Hugh, whose real name is Jeff Redmond, hiding out in a dilapidated house. He details being pursued by the creature after a one-night stand with a woman from a bar, explaining that the only way to prolong Jay’s life is to pass the curse to someone else. Once that person is dead, the entity will follow down the line to pursue the previously cursed until everyone is killed, drained of their vitality.
It Follows doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does subvert classic horror tropes. It explores sex, intimacy, and sexual promiscuity in unique ways. The creature represents the anxious enervation we experience with each new sexual partner. We give away a piece of ourselves for fleeting moments of pleasure, and with each dalliance, we put ourselves in danger; therefore, intimacy evokes primal anxieties. Mitchell has stated about the film, “We're all here for a limited amount of time, and we can't escape our mortality... but love and sex are two ways in which we can at least temporarily push death away.”
The film takes inspiration from several horror films and their tropes from the '60s to the '80s, especially from the slasher classic Halloween (1978). The chaotic and creepy cosmic synth score by Richard Vreeland, better known as Disasterpeace, takes influence and inspiration from John Carpenter, John Cage, and Krzysztof Penderecki. Vreeland said this about the score: “I think because synths can create sounds that are not always analogous to real-life sounds, they do a good job of being strange and harder to pinpoint. I think that tendency can ignite the imagination. It’s perfect fodder for writing scary music.” It Follows theme, “Title” evokes a sense of dread long before the unrelenting pursuit of Jay by “It” while also being otherworldly and engrossing.
Horror films posit that female sexuality needs to be punished, and the female enjoyment of sex is something requiring negative consequences. Once a woman acts sexually, she will be killed. As dictated by male-written and directed horror classics, those are the rules. It Follows subverts these tropes with Jay’s ability to conquer “It” and death by giving into Paul’s desire to possess her, thereby taking control of her fate and passing the curse to him. The two send the curse out into the night as Paul infects unsuspecting female sex workers, who unwittingly infect others, keeping the curse at bay and ridding society of its presumed undesirables.
On the one hand, Jay’s command of her sexuality might be viewed as empowering, but that’s debatable. However, sealing the fate of sex workers reaffirms societal desires to repress female sexuality, applaud patriarchal values, and the aggravating stigma that their lives are disposable. I don’t believe this conclusion is meant to condone the way society shuns sex workers, excuse the violence perpetrated against them, or the devaluation of women. It instead holds up a mirror to the horrors society is willing to accept. Regardless of Mitchell’s intent with this conclusion, it should upset you.
The film is stylish, hauntingly captivating, and forces us to examine harmful sexual politics. Mitchell explores countless themes: female sexuality, sexual repression, and the societal oppression of women. Like life itself, It Follows begins and ends with sex and all the baggage—good and bad—that comes with it.
It Follows is streaming on Netflix and available on digital on-demand on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and other streaming services.