The premise of It Follows seems simple enough: Our young heroine contracts a supernatural STD that makes her the target of an unnameable monster. Her choices, such as they are, are to let the monster kill her, or to sleep with someone else and put them in the crosshairs instead. With luck, the chain of promiscuity will continue and move way past her. But if the monster works back down the list, she's next.
Visually, its pared-down cinematography makes the most of the camera as a tool of suspense. We as audiences are used to reading a lingering take in a horror movie differently than a lingering take in, say, a historical drama. In the latter, a lingering take suggests psychology; in the former, a lingering take is nothing but dread. The slow-moving monster is effectively a zombie, as pure of purpose and as unstoppable as anybody dragged from the grave; making every pedestrian an enemy creates an exhausting paranoia that makes the suburban landscape as hellish for us to examine as for the characters. Of course, since only victims can see the monster in the first place, the visual works best from a distance rather than when we're seeing the monster work from the outside like a particularly demonic Casper. Some of those visual compromises are, well, goofy; the climax involves teenagers trying to thwart an immortal, invisible specter by electrocuting it in a municipal swimming pool—with the heroine in it as bait. (To help subdue the demon, someone throws a blanket over it to make it visible, a tongue-in-cheek moment right out of Scooby-Doo.) But this is a movie that makes no real attempts to be literal; it's an exploration of rape culture that wastes no time dissembling, and it's pointed—and tangled—enough to succeed handily at that without worrying about much else.
Horror is, depending on who you ask, a transgressive genre or a deeply conservative one. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King makes cases for both as equally valid, separating them into the rigid Apollonian and the chaotic Dionysian. But it's hard to ignore that no matter the revels onscreen, there is a pervasive and punitive message about women and sex that runs thick through the genre. The virginal final girl is nearly ubiquitous, and sex as a gateway to danger is well known. In fact, it's so well known that merely flipping the script is enough to create a sense of the surreal. The vampire heroine of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night stalks her victims with the usual vampiric charm; visually, she's much more akin to the silent, leisurely, and unstoppable pursuer in It Follows. But her presence as a figure out to punish men who prey on women is powerful enough to constitute the entire plot of the movie; it's enacted repeatedly, but each time still reads as a reveal.
On the surface, It Follows can easily read as an example of horror's more conservative sexual mores. In some sense, its setup is a darkest-timeline parallel of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, since the inevitability of death after sexually contracting the curse is the recurring scenario that forms the plot. (Ill-advised pool entrapment aside, the setup is simple: you see it, and you run, and it never helps.) And the fact that our terror-stricken protagonist Jay is a young woman means that by sheer logistics, she must bear the primary weight of the movie's moral judgment.
But again, that would be taking the movie too literally. On paper, Jay is less a character than a vessel for subtext; she's surrounded by stand-ins and cutouts with no personalities except what the larger theme requires. (Her younger sister and best friend are interchangeable in their support for her; her Nice Guy neighbor Paul is framed as obnoxious or noble on a scene-by-scene basis.) The film benefits greatly from Maika Munroe in the lead role. Coming off a lead role in The Guest, a film that blended '80s psychological-thriller tropes and postwar ennui to accidentally paint a portrait of the online masculinity that collapses the moment it's questioned, Munroe was right at home with a nice ninety-minute allegory. And the allegory of It Follows is masterfully constructed: It's an indictment of rape culture that makes its audience complicit rather than voyeurs.
The sexually transmitted curse as vehicle for allegory isn't just an easy stand-in for rape. (That hardly needs a stand-in, given the circumstances: unless you explain your curse situation to your partner before sex, you don't have their full and informed consent. Jay informs two of her partners, but otherwise every sex act in the movie is rape.) When Jay is first informed of the curse she's just contracted, her partner Jeff explains the rules of passing it on, but—as important—tells her only those with the curse can see the monster, and the monster can take the form of anyone at all. It makes an unwilling community from those victimized, united in something no one else can see and afraid that anyone might be a monster in disguise, which is perhaps as concise a sketch of rape culture as horror movies have managed since The Stepford Wives.
The other half of the curse is the suggestion that to be free of the torment, one must pass on the curse, and become complicit in the cycle of violence. And Jay gives in—a submission the movie seems to understand. Munroe's increasingly-wrecked performance works on two levels; in-film it suggests a woman empathetic enough to know she's committing murder by proxy but driven by sheer instinct to survive, and subtextually it nails the hyperawareness often described by rape victims—that sense of dread with no immediate object. But of course, just as in rape culture, there's no way out of the curse once it's happened; no amount of complicity will ever be enough to save you. To sleep with someone and leave them unaware means they won't last long against the monster anyway, and it's all been for naught; to stand a chance you have to warn them, and admit you're a monster, too.
There's some less-self-aware rape culture in action via Paul, Jay's long-pining friend, whose Nice Guy mien is one of the few things in It Follows presented without a knowing remove. Jeff, the shithead disease-vector lothario who returns to a happy suburban life with the film's only visible parent, is utterly without remorse and confident that Jay has enough self-preservation to pass on the curse and leave him in the clear. (His nervousness is the only time in the movie the curse is played for laughs; the movie knows he has nothing to worry about.) Hunky Greg doesn't quite take the curse seriously, despite being informed beforehand; for his cavalier attitude toward this manifestation of rape culture, he's swiftly punished—raped to death by the specter of his mother (yikes). But Paul's sense of entitlement about Jay goes so far that he gets petulant that Jay slept with Greg to pass on the curse instead of choosing him. And despite the satisfaction of knowing that, by film's end, he's next in line to be gruesomely murdered, his narrative is still the sort of last-man-standing girl-as-reward that seems aching to be undermined and never is. It makes a grim sort of sense that not even a movie so aware of the insidiousness of rape culture can get away clean.
All horror hinges on its ability to make us question ourselves. The impossible situation It Follows presents to its characters is as recognizable as it is inescapable. Zombies, that evergreen metaphor for something that never gives up, are often subversive in their tenaciousness, representing the disfranchised, the ultimate mindless consumer, the walking just desert. Critics and audiences have praised It Follows for how deeply unsettling it is; many have pointed to that visual paranoia and the sense of inevitability (another hallmark of the zombie movie) as reasons why. But even as it presents a mindless pursuer and a series of feints to draw out the chase for ninety minutes, the movie knows what it's really doing: Having presented this deliberately queasy circumstance of sexual punishment, it's forcing us to question whether we ourselves would consider what these characters have done, are doing, will do. It forces us out of passive viewership; judging Jay's choices goes beyond merely the old "don't go in the abandoned barn" chestnuts. It makes us complicit; whether we root for Jay to pass the curse along or for Jay to take her murder like a good girl, the reflection of rape culture is influencing our decision. Eventually, we recognize either decision is wrong, and there's no way out. That's what follows; that's the horror.