There's a lot of buzz about the retro vibe of a new horror film, It Follows, but its variations are inversions on the classic themes of the slasher movies of the '70s and '80s.
I don't think I'll be seeing it, and so can't say whether it succeeds on its own terms. I'm more interested in how people, especially so-called film buffs, perceive the past and how it compares with the present. With all the talk about it being a radically fresh incarnation of the '80s slasher flick, it looks like they've totally missed the message.
Here is the movie's trailer, and a full plot synopsis from Wikipedia. Let's look at just how opposite its treatment is of the major themes of the slasher / horror genre during its heyday in the '80s.
Who or what is the danger? Ultimately, it's some supernatural stalker that kills you once it slowly reaches you. But the stalker has no direction of its own, unlike Freddie Krueger who wanted to get revenge on the children of the adults who fire-bombed his house after the justice system failed to lock up the serial child rapist-murderer. Or unlike a psycho who picks victims on a whim, where it's still his choice, however lacking in motivation the choice may strike us.
Instead, the stalker is passed along from one victim to the next like a curse. After the current victim has sex with someone, the stalker drops the current target like a hot potato and turns single-mindedly toward the person they had sex with. In order to escape the stalker, your only hope is to pass it along to someone else after the most intimate kind of encounter. Since even hinting at your ulterior motives would make it impossible to make it with the next victim, your goal is to dupe them.
Thus, the true danger is not a supernatural entity, but anybody who might possibly be interested in you sexually, including all of your opposite-sex peers. You can never know which ones are just trying to dupe you into becoming the next victim in order to save their own skin.
With time being of the essence, you'll choose the quickest and easiest victim to dupe. Since that means somebody who already trusts you, you will naturally go after one of your own friends and acquaintances to pass it along to, rather than a stranger. A stranger would be wary of a random horndog guy trying to get into her pants, or a too-good-to-be-true case of a cute girl you don't even know throwing herself at you.
The real enemy, with a real motive, is therefore a close insider rather than an outsider. In the '80s slasher movies, it was someone within the neighborhood or community, but not within your most narrow and intimate social circle. That made it possible to band together with your peers against a common enemy. That left a fairly large social circle that could be trusted as a sanctuary from evil.
In the world of It Follows, there is no minimal social circle that you can trust. You are utterly on your own, and if you find yourself stalked by the entity, you are only going to look out for Number One by cynically and deceitfully passing it on to someone else.
According to the movie's rules, you cannot even sacrifice yourself to spare others, as the stalker will continue backward along the chain of transmission once it claims its first victim. Trying to take one for the team by allowing it to kill you would spare potential future targets, but would not protect those who came before you in the chain.
In the movie's logic, cooperation and altruism are pointless.
These are not minor, nitpick-y differences. They get at the fundamental themes of the horror genre -- what is the source of danger, how can we prepare for it before it finds us, how can we deal with it when it does show up, and how can we cope with its aftermath? In the classic slasher movies, these themes all led to pro-social solutions. In the Millennial version, they are anti-social.
Taking a broader objective view of the history of horror, is this really such a new inversion anyway? Not really: the classic '90s anti-slasher movie Scream had already placed the source of danger from within one's most intimate social circle.
However, It Follows has turned up the dial. In Scream, the idea that evil was so close that you couldn't trust your closest friends and partners was only revealed in a shock ending. Throughout most of the movie, you felt as though it were another case of a psycho killer coming from outside the circle of friends. It Follows lays out the anti-social paranoia from the get-go. Also, in Scream the killer's motive was revenge for his mother, which is at least somewhat pro-social. Mindless, cynical self-preservation is the only motive in It Follows.
During the bridge of the early '90s, Twin Peaks left it an open mystery who the killer was, for the captivating episodes anyway. The teenagers may have suspected one another, but they may also have suspected an adult from the community, an outsider, or a supernatural force. Unlike straight horror movies where the evil entity is known from early on, the unresolved mystery in Twin Peaks led to a tension between trusting and suspecting your closest friends and community members.
Lurid plots involving the closest of friends coldly and psychopathically killing each other have also long been a staple on Law & Order: SVU.
The main innovation of It Follows is the logic of how the evil entity "selects" its targets, but that's just a gimmicky plot device. It's still largely of a piece with the Scream-and-after era of horror movies.
The change in approaches to these themes follows straightforwardly from the phases of the social cycle, which alternates between a outgoing / trusting phase (roughly the '60s through the '80s) and a cocooning / suspicious phase ('90s through today).
I find it mind-boggling that film nerds compare stuff like this to classic slasher movies, all because it has an eerie synth soundtrack. In narrative substance, It Follows could not be any more of a bizarro '80s movie.