It Follows, It Frightens, It Rules

121456607Last year saw a sharp increase in the amount of clever, independent horror films in my diet, with both Starry Eyes and Housebound particularly standing out and almost making the cut for my Favorite Films list. It Follows is a great continuation of this new trend, an exciting piece of work both in concept and execution. While Starry Eyes felt very much like a throwback piece of smart schlock, and Housebound was just a good ol’ fun romp, It Follows is a masterclass in tension and dread, and sets a high bar for intensity that few films could claim to match. My second-favorite film of this still-young year, and one of the better horror films I can recall in my narrow experience with genre, It Follows is one to watch, and now.

The story follows Jay (the still-underrated Maika Monroe) who is stalked by an unknown creature after she has sex with the monster’s previous target and it is “passed” to her. Jay is told that It can appear as any person, it will never stop following her until it kills her, and the only way to possibly save herself is to pass it along to another person, again via sex. Right away, one of the smartest things writer/director David Robert Mitchell does is completely avoid any attempt to explain the nature of the monster, or have the characters look for answers about it. The monster just IS, and the only mystery is how can Jay keep it from killing her. This only adds to the dread and anxiety of the situation; if the creature isn’t explained it only becomes more scary and intimidating, an anonymous and many-faced phantom that never stops.

While the concept and creature are unsettling enough, it is the execution of the idea that really makes It Follows stand out. The film takes place largely during the daytime, and there is never a definitive reprieve from the creature; It is always coming, and can appear anywhere at any time, which makes even the quiet moments absurdly tense. Furthermore, the story’s timeline is stretched over days as Jay & company travel all over trying to avoid the creature, and in doing away with the condensed timeline and setting of most horror films, the creature’s indefatigable nature is made more clear and more frightening. Mitchell is also very clever about the many ways that the creature appears and attacks: besides doing away with jump scares, he is able to take “person walks towards Jay” and depict it with all sorts of different twists and changes to keep the audience on their toes. You quickly learn to constantly scan the background looking for anyone advancing towards the camera, and even when there’s nothing there the anxiety such alertness fosters just adds to the intensity of the film.

it-follows-cannes-2014-4

All of this careful and often-gorgeous craft is grounded nicely by the naturalistic cast of characters and the likable performances that define them. Maika Monroe, between this and The Guest, is setting herself up to be a genre staple, able to play frightened and vulnerable without seeming dumb or helpless. The whole cast is very relaxed and comfortable with each other, and the suggested history amongst this group of friends feels very real without a ton of obvious expository dialogue. It’s also nice to see a group of horror movie protagonists who don’t seem like complete idiots, and who don’t immediately dismiss claims of the supernatural. The gang believes Jay’s fears enough to stand by her and help her right away, and the finale involves Jay and her friends becoming proactive in the smartest possible way.

The one downside I see in the film that keeps it from being a slam-dunk for me is a matter of theme. It certainly feels like there are some things on Mitchell’s mind involving sexual dynamics, or maybe sexual assault, or something, but it doesn’t ever feel particularly clear to me. Perhaps that sort of depth would become more clear on a second watch, or after reading a deep thinkpiece on the movie, but on first glance that side of the story felt ill-defined and murky. But since the characters’ emotional arcs have been replaced by this vague thematic arc, there doesn’t seem to be much catharsis or goal beyond the surface level “survive and kill the monster”. It’s really a mark of how well-made the film is, and how distinct the characters are even just on a surface level, that this doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it normally would.

Ultimately, even with that caveat in mind, I think It Follows is a flat-out great film, and one that deserves as much of an audience as possible. While it may not be as thematically resonant with me as I would have expected, it was more than enough of a thrill-ride to balance that out. Like many of my favorite films, it takes genre tropes and expands them in smart and fun ways, crafting an intense and visceral experience that I would certainly like to revisit soon, and potentially very often after that.

Advertisements

7 Comments on “It Follows, It Frightens, It Rules”

  1. shiran says:

    I’ve been trying to think about what the theme is for a while, because when I first heard about the plot I thought it sounded like a groan-worthy allegory about STDs and the dangers of teen sex and I just wasn’t interested. But the actual movie seemed to care so little about moralizing and never judged the characters at all, which I loved, but I wasn’t sure what Mitchell’s point was.

    Ultimately I think the movie’s more interested in using the sex monster to represent coming of age and accepting the reality of death. The scene early on with “Hugh”, where he talks about wanting to be the little kid with his whole life ahead of him, really set that tone for me, as did Jay’s beautiful monologue about how she used to picture what it would be like when she’d become old enough to date. Having sex is so often used as a marker of adulthood, and here having it literally forces the characters to come to face with the fact that death is always gonna be looming. The fact that the movie is pretty much only populated with teenagers is so spooky and significant — Mitchell seems really fixated on youth and aging.

    And the specific details about the monster — that it’s always coming for you at a slow but deliberate pace, that you’ll always be on its targets list even after you pass it on to someone else — are really cool when you see it as a metaphor for death, as do the last few elegiac scenes in the movie. Sex (i.e. an intimate human connection) is what brings the monster, but it’s also the only thing that helps the characters cope with it.

  2. Louis says:

    spoilers…

    This was worth seeing for the score alone. And also, for the lighting alone. And the shot where blood starts spreading through a swimming pool like billowing red clouds in some shot left over from The Shining.

    However, like yourself, I came away feeling as though I’d missed the point. This was especially frustrating because this film so clearly has a point to make. Too many details and entire scenes appear extraneous without the addition of some subtextual theme to give them meaning. For example, why does Jay swim out to those three young men partying on the boat? Was she planning to sleep with them and relieve herself of the curse? It was never explained. Neither do we really know why Paul starts cruising for hookers towards the end of the film. Was he too trying to pass on the curse to a stranger? If so, did either of them end up doing it? If so, why didn’t it work? And what the hell was with all that water (pools, lakes and beaches, not to mention shell necklaces, shark t-shirts and clam-shaped cellphones)?

    I have a theory. Its all about sexual maturation in adolescent girls. I know that’s always the safest interpretation of any horror movie (“sex equals death”) but I feel it’s particularly apt in this case. Remember the poster for this film? It didn’t depict any of the hugely iconographic images from the film itself. There were no creepy children or giant men lumbering straight for the camera. Instead, we see two teenagers getting it on in the back seat of a car because, within this film’s universe, that is the greatest horror of all.

    It Follows opens with a girl (16-ish), frantically running from some unseen terror. She’s wearing inconveniently high-heeled shoes and the sound of them clattering against the asphalt is mixed particularly high in the sound design (Interestingly, this scene is also accompanied by a song called “Heels”). Her fearful gaze is always aimed offscreen, away from her family’s home. She’s being driven away rom her parents by some external force. That force, I think, is the lure of a life as a sexual adult or, as Jay puts it, “I used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates with boys.”

    The high-heeled girl drives to the beach, (this film’s first depiction of a large body of water) and she calls her father. Sobbing, the girl apologizes for all she’s ever done wrong and says goodbye to her parents as though resigned to some fate for which she has only herself to blame. This fate, I think, is life as a sexually active adult woman. A life here symbolized by water, or more specifically, large bodies of water. A jump cut later we see her dead body, snapped at the knee as though she failed to survive either those high heels and the transition into adulthood.

    Next we meet Jay. She’s floating in a pool in her backyard while two young boys spy on her through a neighboring fence. A more accurate diagram of the male gaze can not be imagined. The boys are numerous, faceless and hidden in plain sight while Jay is alone, undressed and on display with all the vulnerability of a fish in a tank. Jay tells them “I know you’re there!” and in doing so, she asserts a moment’s dominance by revealing at least that she is not blind to her own objectification. Still, the boys watch on in silence, undeterred. Jay does not seem bothered. The boys are too young to pose any real threat. The pool is small and the water is shallow. This scene depicts three pre-sexual adolescents trading in a currency of gender and sexuality which they do not yet understand but will so soon come to govern their lives.

    We meet Jay’s friends, all around her age, all cooped up in a teenage world wherein the innocence of childhood is too boring to bare but the sins of adulthood are too scary to face (as for Jay) or just too hard to come by (as for Paul). It’s interesting to note that there are no adult characters in this entire film. When adults do appear, they are nearly always rendered as faceless voices offscreen (as with the high-heeled girl’s parents and Jay’s teacher) or by denotative uniforms which reduce them to a function (as with the cops and the doctors who too appear with their faces out of frame). In a way, this isn’t the real world. It’s Ghost World or Donnie Darko’s neighborhood or the woods of Stand By Me; a world in which “coming-of-age” is as much a setting as it is a theme.

    Jay’s new boyfriend, Jake takes her to the beach. Jake wears a T-shirt with a shark on it. Jay isn’t comfortable by the water. Instead, the couple have sex in Jake’s car. Immediately after, Jake violently suffocates Jay with a poisoned rag. She wakes up to find herself tied to a chair in time to hear Jake explain the premise of the movie. Then he dumps her on the road outside her house and speeds off. But wait. Why did Jake drug her? Why tie her to a chair? Why take her to a warehouse? His character had no need to do any of this. Once he’d slept with Jay he only needed to explain the rules of the curse and leave her to pass it on to the next victim. Why should this exposition play out with the aesthetic of a rape scene? Maybe because this is her entry into the sexual activity and it is unfortunately no less violent, confusing or unexpected than the “deflowering” of any teenage girl. The reality of “going on dates with boys” is more harrowing and unrelenting than Jay’s childhood fantasies had promised. She must now come to terms with her sexualized identity and all the dangers that “follow” it. It’s this struggle for psychosexual maturation that is the central theme of the film’s second act.

    From here on out, Jay is pursued slowly but surely by the film’s titular “It”, a lumbering shapeshifting monster invisible to her sexually inactive friends. The numerous forms “It” takes are varied but, I feel, not random. Each incarnation can be read as a different obstacle which might face a young person throughout their psychosexual development. The naked man on the roof of her home might signify domestic violence, the Peeping Tom’s doppelgänger might signify objectification and her friend Yara’s doppelgänger might signify homosexual experimentation for example. Jay is incapable of killing any of these monsters just as she would be incapable of ridding the world of rape, misogyny and violence. Instead, she must learn to survive in a world in which these threats loom in the background of every shot.

    Ultimately, Jay, Maya and Paul face off against the monster. Jay stands in the middle an olympic size swimming pool. Her small backyard pool in which she played before sleeping with Jake is shown to be empty with a gash inexplicably torn in its side. The monster appears in the form Jay’s father and immediately tries to drown her. Here, I think, we’re seeing the final phase of Jay’s psychosexual development – the resolution of the Electra Complex. Just as Jake faced his mother’s doppelgänger, Jay must face her father’s. In Freudian terms, Jay must overcome her childish proto-sexualisation of her father and find a real sexual partner of her own.

    And she does. Jay’s new suitor, Paul shoots her father’s doppelgänger and Jay scrambles to safety. Suddenly we see a striking, nearly abstract shot of the pool as it fills with blood. This, I feel, is not blood as a symbol of death but rather blood as a symbol of feminine maturation and of menstruation (or, as it was once called, “the curse”). The shot is immediately followed by a scene in which Jay and Paul have sex followed by one in which they walk hand-in-hand whilst “It” follows slowly in the distance. They can never escape the complexities of adulthood and sexuality but they have learned to face them without the fear or naivety of youth.

    • pm says:

      Nice analysis. I just saw the movie last night and thoroughly enjoyed it . One quick comment: Jay was not a virgin when she had sex with Jake (this was confirmed very matter of factly when Jay explained to Paul why she chose Greg over him – -because she had previously had sex with Greg in high school and it was “easy”, or something like that). I’m not sure what this says about the otherwise clear allegory and symbolism concerning the scary and dangerous jump into sexuality and adulthood.

  3. brendanfh says:

    It really drives home the quality of the film that there can be this much discussion and thought about it after the fact. Both of you make really good points about the thematic undertones, and thanks to that I feel that I have an even greater appreciation for the movie. I can’t wait to watch it again armed with this perspective; should be an even better experience than the first time. Thank you both for commenting and sharing!

  4. […] It Follows: I didn’t fully “get” It Follows when I first saw it. It clearly had a ton of thematic depth under the surface, but the one downside to its intentionally-murky mythology was that it was hard to nail down what the exact metaphor (if any) behind the high concept really was. But this was the sort of uncertainty that bred curiosity, not frustration, and it provoked some great discussion as any good film should. Add in the intense slow-burn and discomforting mood and it’s no wonder I was eager to revisit it. Thankfully David Robert Mitchell’s film more than holds up upon additional viewings; the scares don’t dissipate and the themes reveal themselves more. It Follows is emblematic of an entire generation of indie horror, and serves as a reminder of all the tremendous chillers lingering on the fringes of cinema, waiting to be discovered. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s