“I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction — if a house is falling upon you, for instance — one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one’s eyes and wait, come what may . . .”
More so than perhaps any other genre, horror films affect their audience on an extremely visceral level. They keep us in a sustained state of paranoid anticipation by holding some gruesome thing just out of sight, and then violently break the tension by making it leap out at us. When it does, we feel an immediate visceral shock; our hearts leap into our throats and our stomachs churn at the sheer gruesomeness. Almost every film in the genre does this to some extent, from the great horror masterpieces to just about every run of the mill “jump scare” flick out there. However, It Follows isn’t like most horror movies. It doesn’t try to frighten its audience in the usual visceral way, but instead presents us with a quiet contemplative nightmare. Not the type of nightmare where Freddy Krueger tries to murder you with his big scary knife fingers, but the type of nightmare that preys on our all too real fears and anxieties.
The film begins with our not quite teenaged, not quite adult protagonist, Jay (Maika Monroe) going out on a few dates with her new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary). After the two have sex in the back of his car, Hugh knocks out Jay with a chloroform rag and she awakens to find herself tied to a wheelchair in what appears to be crumbling parking garage. Hugh frantically explains that, by sleeping with her, he has transferred to her a curse of sorts. A phantom being is now slowly chasing after her. It can take on the appearance of anyone, be it a random person in a crowd or someone she’s close to, but it always know where she is and it will follow her constantly.
Just like that, a naked woman steps out of the shadows and starts advancing slowly towards her. Hugh whisks Jay away to safety and explains to her the terms of her new ordeal: she must stay away from it at all costs. If it catches her, it’ll kill her and move down the line to whoever passed it on to her. She must find someone else to sleep with in order to pass on the danger, or else spend the rest of her life running.
At a glance, this premise sounds like a loose justification to see sexy professional kite boarder Maika Monroe sleeping her way across town while someone gets brutally murdered every so often: equal parts murder porn and actual porn. But It Follows doesn’t use sex as a vehicle for cheap thrills. Instead, it examines the implications that sex has on the young adult psyche by personifying them in ominous terms. And therein lies the horror. The “monster” in It Follows isn’t all too scary in itself, but rather in what it represents for the young protagonists.
You can see the film’s looming phantom as representing any number of anxieties stemming from young-adult sexuality. It could be the paranoia of sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy. It could be the confusion that comes with your newly awakened sexuality taking form. It could be the fear of losing your innocence along with your virginity as you’re forced to accept your burgeoning adulthood. But no matter what form the creature takes, be it physical or metaphorical, what makes it so terrifying is that it’s inevitable. It’s always looming just over your shoulder and creeping into your every thought, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You can’t shoot it in the head, you can’t electrocute in the public pool, and you can only run away from it for so long. The only thing you can do is pass it on to someone else and hope that he or she can handle it better than you could, or else let it destroy you. As one character elegantly sums up by quoting Dostoyevsky: “The worst thing is that it is certain.”
It’s this feeling of inevitable hopelessness that makes It Follows so oppressively frightening, and the filmmakers are well aware of it. The film purposefully takes an extremely minimalist approach to such thing as plot and characterization in order to keep the focus squarely on it’s themes. Almost nothing happens in the story in that isn’t directly related to the central conflict, and you can count everything that we’re told about the main characters on one hand. Even the creature itself, the ostensible point of the entire film, is never defined in any certain terms. It isn’t expressly a demon, or ghost, or the result of a curse, or even a “creature,” really. It just sort of is, and every character in the film accepts it unflinchingly as such. While this doesn’t give the audience much in the way of explanations, it intentionally avoids distractions and allows the audience to focus on what’s going on thematically beneath the surface. This lack of specificity coupled with the film’s dreary, muted atmosphere gives the entire experience an undeniably dreamlike quality, and much like a dream, the specifics don’t matter nearly as much as overall feeling. This isn’t a movie about ghosts, or about a girl named Jay. It’s a movie about the underlying anxieties that truly frighten us.
As much as I’ve been singing its praises up until this point, I understand that It Follows isn’t going to be for everyone. I went to two different screenings of this movie, and during both I saw large groups of people get up and leave the theater out of (what I assume to be) boredom. Even I wasn’t totally feeling it the first time I saw it. When I left the theater after seeing it for the first time, I felt more perplexed than I did frightened…or even entertained. It wasn’t until I took a step back from the movie and really started to think about what it was doing that I came to appreciate it for its subtlety. And the more I thought about it, the more unsettling it became.
It Follows moves at a much slower pace than a lot of other horror films, and is much more deliberate with its themes. At times, it feels more like a tone poem than a horror movie, which could be a turn off for those seeking more immediate thrills. But if nothing else, It Follows is different, and it gives us something to think about. It shies away from the genre’s all too common visceral shocks in favor of a deeper seeded, more intellectual scare that will follow you long after you’ve left the theater.
Little Things I Didn’t Get To:
+ The droning score by Disasterpeace is a nice throwback to 80’s teen horror movies, and brilliantly compliments dreary tone of the film.
+ A lot of care went into the cinematography. There are some really great shots here, especially the brilliant 360 pans.
+ Although she isn’t given a whole lot to do in the way of character building or line delivery, Maika Monroe gives a great performance and does a good job carrying such a minimalist film. In particular, I think she does a good job of being believably scared as opposed to being “horror movie scared.”
+ I like how this movie is temporally implacable. The fashion sense, the television, and the types of cars people drive would suggest that this movie takes place in the 80’s…but then we see people with cellphones and magic seashell shaped Kindles. I think that this really added to the dreamlike strangeness of the whole film.
– This might sound petty, but I wasn’t a fan of Yara’s character. It seems like her only purpose in the movie was to be heavy-handed with Dostoyevsky quotes. I have similar problems with the character of Kelly, but to a much lesser extent.