The world in which any of us comes of age is a fantasy. Our house is our house, school is school, our hangouts our hangouts, etc. But well into our teenage years these places retain a certain sense of wonder. They are our entire universe, and even when we grow too old to believe in bogeymen certain places retain their shadows and their mystery. As we grow older we're initiated into the mysteries of the adult world, a more grown-up place, we're told, but it exists within the world we already know. And its ways can be just as mysterious, as we question our feelings while we watch a beautiful/handsome neighbor swimming in her/his backyard pool. A stash of pornography found, without warning, in the woods or in a back alley offers clues to still deeper mysteries. That sense of mystery still clings into puberty, remaining even as our bodies change, our voices crack, as sexuality becomes more familiar.
Hell, that mystery lingers even when we learn we're going to die.
The indie horror movie It Follows is set in this liminal teenage world (specifically, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan). Like most teen fantasies (both on screen and in real life) adults are mainly peripheral and background figures, and don't figure into the movie's story of a young woman who finds, after a sexual tryst, that she's targeted for death by a shapeshifting but slow-moving entity that only she and her sexual partners can see. Like all movie monsters, it adheres to a set of rules: it walks after her slowly but implacably, and though she can run ahead of it, it will always catch up to her. And unless she passes it on to someone else via sexual congress, catch up to her it surely, horribly will.
Among the movie's many virtues is its setting, masterfully realized by writer/director David Robert Mitchell. It's hard to place the movie in a specific era; the kids wile away an afternoon watching Killers From Space on television, with no apparent irony, yet one of them remains engrossed in Dostoyevsky on a compact tablet. It seems a composite of multiple eras, lending the movie universality without sacrificing enough specifity to lend it realism. Mitchell is aided immensely by his talented, largely unknown cast, teenagers playing their characters as teenagers: awkward, vulnerable, and ultimately resolute in the face of the movie's growing menace. (Special mention should be made of Maika Monroe, whose lead performance as Jay is one of the most compellingly understated and believable performances I've ever seen in a horror movie.)
To ascribe to It Follows the conservative morality often attributed to slasher movies (mainly the notion that young characters are to be colorfully slain soon after having sex, leaving a virginal Final Girl alone to face the killer) is a dead end. Preoccupied as it is with teenage sexuality there's nothing leering about its approach. It never fetishizes the nubility of its teenage leads, or lingers on their nudity (indeed, the nudity is reserved mainly for the ghostly forms of the title characters, giving them a clinical otherworldliness not unlike the single nude zombie seen in Romero's Night of the Living Dead). The movie's commingling of sexuality and violence speaks more to the union of Eros and Thanatos than to any deliberate efforts to titillate and scare us.
Though make no mistake: It Follows wants to scare us (and it often does). Any good horror movie scares us, creeps us out, but the finer horror movies are about more than simple thrills. It Follows artfully captures a universal teenage world that never drills its period realism into us, but it's less about representing/tweaking the world of its target demographic than depicting the moment when we realize that we, too, are going to die. It depicts our mortality in gruesomely physical and terrifying terms. And in its final moments it reminds us that all we can do is advance into the world, moving forward and going about our lives, even with Death, quite literally, behind us.