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Sex Before the Internet Was Scary Enough to Be a Horror Film

Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media

It Follows, the indie horror flick graduating to a 1,200-theater release today, inspires all varieties of metaphorical interpretations: sexually transmitted infection, pregnancy, guilt, aging. But slow that roll a sec and begin instead with our heroine, Jay, played with an affable world-weariness by Maika Monroe. She's out of high school but not by much, still living at home in suburban Detroit, unspooling most days in summery fashion: watching black-and-white movies with her friends and her sister, gently batting away advances from her old friend Paul and shooing the neighbor kids who peep at her bobbing in her above-ground pool. 

Hers is a calm, ambitionless existence until she starts seeing a dude who seems occasionally jumpy but otherwise like a decent sort. That is until the night when they screw quietly in the back of his parked car. He then knocks her out, ties her to a wheelchair and breaks some rotten news—she's going to be pursued by a monster, a sort of peripatetic boogeyman, until it kills her or she passes it to someone else the same way he gave it to her. The catch is, if that person dies, the thing will then keep coming for her, and then for him, and so on. (Even by the standards of third-date post-sex pep talks, it's magnificently awkward.) On cue, It appears, as a nude woman wandering toward them. Satisfied that he's made his point, and scared witless, the dude throws Jay back in the car and drives her home, dumping her in the street before racing off.

Now, ask yourself, in 2015, if informed that you were going to die from a supernatural sex curse, what your first move would be. Calling the cops—fair enough, that's what Jay does. What would you do next? Absolutely, you would Google that sumbitch.

But It Follows never makes clear that any of these adult teens have heard of the worldwide web. None of them has so much as a flip phone—it's hard lines or nothing. No one texts. If there's a camera anywhere in the movie, embedded in a phone or otherwise, I don’t remember seeing it. Even their cars are lo-fi, hand-me-downs that could have been driven as extras in The French Connection. There are no tweets, no IMs. Television is black-and-white, on decidedly non-flat screens. Maybe the only gadget to place their experience post-1987 is a handheld e-reader that one of Jay's friends carries. Even that is disguised as a seashell-shaped compact mirror.

This timelessness is a deliberate choice by writer/director David Robert Mitchell, one that flies in the face of virtually every horror movie made this century. Horror flicks are natural draws for teenagers, and teens speak tech. Horror plots tend to be predicated either on the abundance of technology (as in the Paranormal Activity series, in which characters complain to one another about how much filming they're doing) or on the sudden deprivation of technology (to cite but one example among many, the extreme difficulty of using cell phones in World War Z). Perhaps the smartest, most inventive horror movie of the 2000s, in fact, was Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods, a quasi-satirical flick premised on the entire horror genre being staged on a latticework of technology, through which micromanaging government drones controlled the movements of Cenobites and evil trees and werewolves and blobs.

The Luddite minimalism of It Follows might be partly financial: Made for $2 million, the film is hitting wide release this week only after slogging through festivals and a limited theatrical run. (Were it a two-minute short, it might be said to have gone, er, viral.) Even the gore is spare, jarring us mainly in an early shot of a corpse kinked at janky, origamied angles. The overall effect evokes a classic, pre-big-budget John Carpenter feel—just listen for the alternately flowing and bombastic synth score by Disasterpeace, or check out its retro, grindhouse-styled poster. The pared-down tactile essence fits a thematic simplicity that, rather than an allegory of romance or disease, Mitchell has said is mostly a vehicle for scares. "For me, it’s not just that the characters have sex and are then put in danger," he explains. "In the film, sex is more symbolic of life itself—just the act of living opens ourselves up to danger." The walking monster, in fact, came out of a childhood nightmare of his. The power of It Follows is in this simplicity, actually. Read it as an allegory of love and disease, if you like. But consider that this Rorschach Test might best be interpreted as just an ink blot.

Vitally, though, Mitchell's unflashy aesthetic disarms his characters' sexuality. Jay's not a virgin to begin the movie, but learning about the curse of the follower is necessarily a loss of innocence, and it helps in that regard to have characters who are unsophisticated in matters of sex. In that context, it makes perfect sense to create a milieu in which 19-year-olds don't consult any authorities, be they parents, doctors, clergy, or Wikipedia. After her date infects her, and Jay's trying to decide whether any of it was real, she stands in front of the bathroom mirror in her white bra and white cotton drawers, and pauses. Then she looks down and slowly pulls the elastic forward to look down for—what, even she doesn't know. A rash? Bumps? It's a quiet and very teenaged moment of desperation, of curiosity and worry without an outlet. And it's old-school, just as when Jay and Paul reminisce about having found a bunch of discarded skin mags in an alley when they were kids. That, for them, was the rite of passage into this muddle, not furtively Binging "boobs" or whatever it is sex-curious kids do these days when their parents don't supervise the iPad.

You'll often hear over-30 adults look back and praise the fact that they came of age before Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. Thank goodness, the line goes, that our most embarrassing thoughts and impulses didn’t go on some sort of digital permanent record. But we forget what it was like to stumble through the dark, quite figuratively, in wondering after not just the mechanics of sex but the politics, beyond what Cosmo covers intimated about driving one another wild. Finding a copy of The Joy of Sex tucked on a high shelf has long been an intro-level class into the basics of bonking. The older-sisterly MTV documentary series "Sex in the '90s" served as an implicit encouragement for those of us born in the '80s, that we, too, might have sex sometime that decade.

Setting such a simple story as It Follows—textured as an urban folklore—against that sexual milieu, a grab-bag of guesswork and best intentions, subtly makes Mitchell's running teens all the more vulnerable, all the more frightened. The plot simply wouldn't be as freaky in a connected world. WebMD would have a page about the walking It; Twitter would hashtag it; Jezebel would explain how to have that conversation with a sexual partner, that they're going to be stalked and killed even though you used a condom; Buzzfeed would illustrate it with a series of reaction-shot gifs that describe each phase of this sexual encounter, from the tender highs to the waking-up-tied-to-a-wheelchair lows; and everyone would be expected to update their online dating profiles with upfront honesty: "Are you being followed by It? Y/N."

For whatever other complications the web has wrought in the realm of romance and procreation, it has served to assure us that we're all navigating this sex-mess together. Technology has united us, we mammals who couple, with more comforts than we give phones and web forums and blogs credit for. It follows that It Follows, for maximum scares, would build a world in which we're stripped of all these gadgets, left naked and alone, without so much as a GPS to get us home at night.