The horror genre has always been fascinated by sex and the politics surrounding it. In the 1940s, men’s fear of a woman’s burgeoning sexuality became the underlying theme of films like 'Cat People' and 'She Wolf Of London'. The 1970s saw the streamlining of the slasher, which continued throughout the 1980s as 'Halloween' made way for 'Friday the 13th' and so on.
The subgenre came with its own complicated set of sexual politics: from the faceless man thrusting a phallic object into his nearest victim to a virgin always emerging as the 'Final Girl'. Detractors of the genre have often pointed to horror’s overt sexism as the main critique and it can’t be argued that there are some major problems.
From a lack of women behind the camera to the treatment of those in front of it, it’s 2017 and a film like 'Killing Ground' – where every woman on camera is either raped, gang raped, sexually assaulted, tortured, killed or all of the above – can be still be lauded by largely male critics as having “great aesthetic elegance”. However, that’s not to say the examination of sex in the horror genre can’t have a more equal and often feminist lens.
Enter stage left, 'It Follows'. Like many low-budget genre flicks from emerging filmmakers, much of the movie’s success can be attributed to word-of-mouth hype. The film festival circuit in 2014 was abuzz with excitement and praise for the slow-burning, highly-original horror movie that made a splash at Cannes. It seems apt given the movie’s subject matter that news of 'It Follows' eventually spread as it received a wider, global theatrical release.
Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, the idea for the movie first came to him as an anxiety dream during his parents' divorce. Over the years it developed until the end result followed a teenage girl, Jay, navigating her way through love, sex and relationships in a boring suburban town. It’s during this journey she meets a mysterious guy who – after boinking in the back of his car – informs her he has passed something on.
Up to this point 'It Follows' as an STD parable feels super literal, that is until the ‘thing’ he has passed on to Jay manifests itself physically. He shows her, desperate to make her believe, as the body of a naked woman inches its way towards them step-by-step. The rules are simple: It is walking in a straight line towards wherever you are, at regular pace, at all times. It will never stop pursuing you and it can take the form of anyone: a friend, a foe, a stranger. If It catches you, It will kill you horribly and then begin pursuing the next person down the line (that is to say, the person who passed It on to you via sexual intercourse).
The basic idea is an urban legend whispered at sleepovers. In the same way Creepypasta’s quickly go viral and embed themselves in the millennial pop cultural psyche, it feels like a story you’ve always known and that, in part, is its brilliance. It could have been told to you by a friend of a friend, but instead it’s told to you by a movie. While parallels have also been drawn to the AIDS/HIV crisis – winks to this can be found in the 1980s synth-heavy soundtrack and cinematography – the film is an overt commentary on safe sex.
From the young woman discovering herself and her identity through sex, to the reckless young man who is disbelieving in It and its power (which is ultimately his undoing), the idea of death coming slowly and methodically for you after an act of love is a visceral one.
Jay’s own cluster of friends are quick to believe her story, witnessing firsthand the mysterious power of the It from the title and quickly helping her as they attempt to first outsmart, then outsex the villain. Jay’s sexual identity is seemingly her downfall at first, as she tries desperately to stay alive. Yet as the film progresses, her sexuality also becomes her liberation as a strategy is developed to pass It down the line – for good.
'It Follows' was a critical and commercial smash, grossing over $20M at the international box-office on a $2M budget and by the end of 2014 it was popping up on peoples ‘best films of the year’ list as frequently as 'Birdman'.
Safe sex message aside, a large reason behind the film’s success was how it was embraced by female moviegoers who relished a horror film that featured, examined and celebrated a woman’s sexuality.
'It Follows' entered a small, exclusive club of horror flicks that have done this: The Howling, Teeth, Jennifer’s Body and Ginger Snaps among them. Yet it also helped usher what one hopes is a new wave of female-driven horror movies that go deeper than the penis-substitute of Michael Meyers’ knife.
Two other standouts were released the same year as 'It Follows', the first, 'A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night'. Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, it followed the evolving relationship between a female vampire and a man in a fictional Iranian town. The other was the Danish offering 'When Animals Dream', where burgeoning sexuality is the catalyst for a teenager as she transitions from girl to woman to werewolf.
'The Love Witch', 'Neon Demon', 'The Witch' and 'XX' – an anthology of horror shorts written, directed and starring women – all followed over the past three years and were all female-driven stories. With 'Tragedy Girls' next in the pipeline and picking up where It Follows’ 1980s aesthetic left off, it seems the horror film’s central message about female sexual liberation was just as contagious as its one about safe sex.
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Catch 'It Follows' on SBS Viceland, Wednesday 4 October at 8.30pm and then at SBS On Demand