Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: It Follows (2015)

Beware of spoilers! Proceed at your own risk!

The new horror film It Follows (2015) has earned a tremendous amount of industry and viewer buzz, and for good reason. 

Not unlike The Babadook (2014) before it, the film is unceasingly scary and smart. But horror aficionados have additional reasons to rejoice, beyond the fact that the movie delivers the entertainment it promises.

In addition to being legitimately terror-inducing, It Follows succeeds artistically on two dynamic fronts. 

In the first case, it beautifully apes the look, sound, and feel of a horror classic: John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). The film is a weird remake, in a sense, of that classic picture, but one that eschews the slasher film paradigm and reveals why Halloween’s narrative and thematic structure works on a human, rather, than formulaic, basis.

On the second front, It Follows possesses veritable layers upon layers of visual and thematic subtext. Many critics and audiences have rightly picked up and enumerated on the strong sexual themes. The film involves a kind of “curse” passed via sexual intercourse; a curse that can only be lifted by passing it to another lover. 

It is not difficult, then, to read the film as a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases. Once you contract it, it follows you to your next lover. And behind you, on the same chain, are all the other people who were compromised before you were.

But underneath that particular metaphor, It Follows actually features a powerful subtext of an economic nature. One apparent message of this horror film is that bad choices follow you around through your life. 

That's not just a personal, sexual thing...it's a civics thing too. It's a governance thing.

To wit, the film is set in post-Great Recession Detroit, a realm rendered a post-apocalyptic-seeming nightmare through one bad choice after another. The movie could occur in no other modern city, really, because of its blighted, decaying landscape, and due to the visual notion that you can’t escape bad choices. 

Instead, all you can hope to do is pass the suffering and misery onto the next generation, or the next unwitting victim. In some fashion, this actually makes the film a close relative of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) too.

No matter how you choose to read or interpret the film, It Follows doesn’t follow the pack in terms of modern horror films and their cliches. 

Eschewing jump scares for mood and atmosphere, and harnessing patient, diligent, perfectly-crafted camera-work, It Follows leads the pack.

“It’s never about going anywhere, really.”

In Michigan, young high-school student Jay (Maika Monroe) dates an older boy, Hugh (Jake Weary), and decides to have sexual intercourse with him.  Afterwards, Hugh drugs her, ties her to a chair, and tells her a terrible and incredible story.

By having sex with her, Hugh has given Jay a curse. 

A strange, solitary monster -- one that can appear as any person -- will now follow her and attempt to kill her.  Jay can escape this curse only by having sexual intercourse with someone else; by passing the curse on to someone else; someone who does not suspect the truth. 

And if Jay or her victim dies at the hands of that monster, the monster goes down the chain, and kills the originator of the curse.  In other words, if Jay dies, Hugh is in danger again. And if he dies, the girl who gave it to him is next in pecking order.

Jay does not believe the story at first, but soon realizes that Hugh has been truthful about the curse, if not about his identity, or even his name. Her friends try to help her deal with her new reality, but Jay is hunted relentlessly by the monster, which follows her everywhere.

Another boy, Greg (Daniel Zovatti) elects to have sex with Jay, but he doesn’t believe in the curse.  When he dies, Jay is again vulnerable to attack. A sexually-inexperienced friend, Paul (Keir Gilchrest), meanwhile, wants Jay to have sex with him, but she is reluctant to endanger him.

Jay, Paul and two other friends attempt to electrocute the monster in a swimming pool in Detroit, hoping that the strange curse can be ended once and for all.

“Do you feel any different?”

It’s no great secret -- nor any great revelation -- that the horror film, as a format, has always been intimately and inextricably linked with sex.  In the 1980s, this connection became clear again by sheer dint of repetition.  Many post-Halloween slasher films repeated, ad nauseum, the principle that “vice precedes slice and dice.”  

In other words, if a young, unmarried individual has premarital sex, or smokes weed, it’s a virtual guarantee in this format, that he or she is “fair” game to the likes of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, to name just two assailants. The (conservative) message underlining the 1980s slashers is that if you break the laws of man and God, a supernatural-seeming predator will hack you down in your prime.

It Follows plays an intriguing game with this idea. Here, sexual intercourse transmits a fatal curse; pursuit by some malevolent being that can take various forms. Like Michael Myers (and later, the Terminator) this boogeyman will absolutely not stop until it kills the intended victim.  Sex is the catalyst for the violence.

However, though sexual intercourse is what passes the curse to the next victim, but -- and here’s where it gets truly interesting -- by having intercourse with another stranger, the curse is passed along.  So sex is actually both the thing that brings the curse to its victim; and the thing that takes it away.  It is both damnation and salvation.

Like the best of horror movies that establish such rules (think: Gremlins [1984]). It Follows doesn’t spend too much time lingering on the exact specifics of the curse. For the sex to bring the curse, does it have to be unprotected sex, so that fluids pass from one individual to another?  

Does the sex have to be consummated by either ejaculation or orgasm, or is penetration enough to bring it on?  

And, what about non-heterosexual sex?

By leaving the concept vague and amorphous -- and yet clearly understandable at the same time -- It Follows opens up, much like Halloween’s "Shape" -- Michael Myers --a world of interpretations and possibilities.  

For example, the film clearly raises issues of morality and responsibility. Is it right to doom another person to this horrid curse if you know you are infected?  And again, relate that idea directly to STDs. 

In this case, however, there’s actually an another level to consider. The curse, after it kills you, will go back along the chain of the infected.  

So whatever a “cursed” person decides to do, someone is going to die; either a total innocent (someone new on the chain who is randomly infected), or someone who has been a part of it already (and passed it on intentionally.)  This is a no-win situation.

In some fashion, then, It Follows concerns the way that one bad choice (sex with someone who may not be trust-worthy) can lead to another bad choice, and then another. The film ends with a nod towards the stability (and predictability?) of monogamy, as two of the cursed individuals -- Jay and Paul -- seek each other out and stay together.

In the film’s final shots, we see them walking together, holding hands, committed to each other.   The monster, however, is still present in the background, a visual warning that if either of them strays, the curse will be back.  

At least that’s one possible interpretation.

What’s remarkable about It Follows is the manner in which it nails teenage attitudes toward sex. 

Jay believes that sex with Hugh will somehow liberate her. She will feel free, and grown-up.  Jay associates intercourse with adulthood, romance, and freedom. What she finds, however, is that Jay used her; not to get off, not because her loved her, but to save his skin.  He “dumped” the curse on her, and therefore their sex was not about romance, or respect, or regard.  

It was about a selfish desire.

By contrast, Paul, a nerdy friend of Jay's, is so desperate just to have sex that he would happily risk the curse just to get laid. He knows he will be endangered by engaging in intercourse with Jay, but he is so desperate not to be a virgin that he is all-in, literally speaking. He acts, in a way, in the same manner that Hugh does. 

He wants to have sex with Jay for his own selfish reasons. And by passing on the infection to him, Jay shifts her beliefs too. Now she is just being selfish too, not dreaming about what the act of sex can portend in a life, or in a relationship.

The film's monster, when we see it, adopts human form, and is a kind of twisted amalgam of human sexuality. It is depicted, on at least two occasions, urinating relentlessly. That's a reminder that humans often expel waste from the same region of the body where they make love; a connection that makes some folks believe that sex is, by its very bodily geography, a "dirty" process.  

And when it catches its prey, the monster seems to ride the victims to their death.  

One embodiment of the monster also appears to be the victim of rape, missing one sock, wearing smeared, garish lipstick. In this case, the monster is like a stalking, mobile, unsolved sex crime. Perhaps it is the embodiment or manifestation of sexual violence, even.

John Carpenter’s Halloween featured a sexual subtext, certainly, involving the virgin, Laurie, and her more promiscuous friends, Annie and Lynda. But It Follows, clearly, makes the sexual material much more...overt.  

What may not be immediately apparent is that It Follows is indeed a spiritual remake of Carpenter’s film, and, simultaneously, the best such remake of the material.  David Robert Mitchell has captured the essence of the material, both in terms of narrative and theme, but has done it outside the paradigm (and formula) which gave rise to Friday the 13th (1980), Happy Birthday to Me (1980), Prom Night (1980) and the like.

In terms of visualizations, it's fair to say that Mitchell goes full Carpenter, opting for long, slow pushes in towards characters. He uses slow, meticulous pans extensively.  In both cases, the patient, anddiligent camera-work creates the impression of a real world, a real terrain.

Over-use of fast cuts would fracture the space of this world and break the spell, and Mitchell is careful to avoid this pitfall.  Instead, he lets scenes build and build, creating powerful suspense in the process.   The film plays as infinitely more real or true than many recent horror films do because the camera is so assiduously planted in our reality, moving through the space rather than violating it for the purposes of shock.

It Follows, like Halloween, concerns an inexplicable being intruding into a real town. Like The Shape, the “thing” in It Follows walks, but never runs. 

Yet it always catches up with its prey.  

And also like Halloween, It Follows generates significant frisson from showing not where the monster is, but where it is not.  Knowing the landscape of the town, or the neighborhood, thus becomes essential. We have to understand the battlefield.  We have to sense when something is off, or wrong.


It Follows
Consider the final montage of Halloween, wherein Carpenter cuts together -- in reverse order -- all the places that Myers has been seen.  These locations are now empty, devoid of his monstrous presence.  And yet we still hear him breathing. We know he is there...somewhere.  It Follows features similar montages mid-way throughout, with a ruptured above-ground pool (signifying that something destroyed it…), a half-open gate, and other visual signs of invasion, intrusion, or life disordered.  We don’t need to see the monster to be afraid.  

We just have to know it is close, and that it has been here; that it continues to stalk, or follow as the case may be.

The musical score from Richard Vreeland has earned a lot of attention in the press, and rightly so, since, without stealing any cues, it sounds very much like Halloween: a kind of synthetic, trance-inducing drone, but one punctuated by moments of harsh, angry repetition and intensity.  

But the Halloween comparison is notable elsewhere. Many shots in Halloween establish “normality,” the town with the wide streets, sparse trees, and long cement sidewalks. There are scenes in It Follows that deliberately evoke these ground-level moments. One scene, with Jay and a friend walking and talking, is almost a perfect mirror for the scenes early in Halloween of Laurie and Annie walking home from school.


It Follows
Also consider that in Halloween, a horror movie marathon is on the television. Films that appear in the movie include Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Thing (1951).  They comment on the action in a way. Michael is a Monster from the Id, like the creature in the former, and has been buried in the ice, in a way (locked in a mental hospital), like the monster in the latter. 

Here, other 1950s horror movies are also often on screen. I was able to pick out Killers from Space (1955), for example. There, the solution to stopping the invading aliens involved electricity, and the final strategy in It Follows does as well.


It Follows
And then, of course, there’s the classroom. 

In both It Follows and Halloween, our hero sits in a high school English class, gazes out the windows, and sees the Monster that no one else can detect.

Laurie sees Michael and his car across the street, while a teacher drones on about “fate.”  Nobody can escape fate, she says. It is like a force of nature. And Michael, therefore, is a force of nature too, meting out fates for the kids of Haddonfield on Halloween night.

In It Follows, Jay sees the monster as an old, infirm woman, on the school campus, while the teacher discusses T.S. Eliot (1888-1964), and quotes “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,” in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915). 

Another line, quoted in It Follows, establishes “I am Lazarus, come from the dead.”  

In scholarly circles, there is great debate about the meaning in Eliot’s work here. Some believe the main character is talking to himself, discussing a romantic longing for a woman he hopes to court. Others suggest that the words reference mortality, and surely they do, on a literal basis.  The moment of greatness that flickers is our mortal life. And in Lazarus is a figure who has defeated death. 

In Halloween, Laurie could not escape her fate -- to be hunted by the Boogeyman -- and in It Follows, Eliot’s poem similarly diagrams Jay’s destiny.  She is hungry for adulthood, for the freedom and romance she has imagined it would bring with it. 

Instead, however, she has learned that adulthood has made her confront her own mortality, and its impending demise.  Some of the figures that the monster assumes similarly seem to be of the dead or the soon-to-be-dead (Greg, for example).


It Follows.

I have written about the importance of the high school classroom in Halloween, but also in A Nightmare on Elm Street.  In that film, the hero, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) is explicitly compared to Hamlet in Shakespeare’s tragedy. 

She is a character who, like the literary prince, must dig and dig to discover the truth about her parents and their sins.  So It Follows conforms closely to horror movie tradition by allowing some aspect of literary philosophy to “leak” into the movie through a high school English class.

When you consider the nature of the monster -- a thing which walks but doesn’t run, and yet still catches you -- as well the soundtrack, camera-work, and settings (a lower-middle class neighborhood, a high school class room, an intimate walk with a friend), one can see how It Follows takes all the symbols of Halloween and re-uses them for its own purposes.  

There is even a scene in It Follows in which the hero hears something outside, and gazes into the back yard, aware of a malevolent presence. 

In Halloween, Laurie sees Michael for an instant in the shadow of a fluttering sheet on a clothes line. 

In It Follows, a ball hits the window, startling her, and she looks out, only to see nothing.  But still, the presence of the monster hangs in the air.


It Follows
Many diverse elements of Craven’s Elm Street are here too. For instance, Jay has a single, alcoholic mother, and is estranged from her father.  

I believe -- unless I missed something -- that he is either dead or otherwise abandoned the family. He shows up, however, as a “Bad Father” (like Freddy) when the monster takes his form during the film’s denouement. 

Similarly, the film’s Greg character lives across the street from the Final Girl, Jay, and she watches his house through her bedroom window.  Greg, like Johnny Depp’s Glenn, also meets a terrible fate that Jay attempts to stop, but can’t.  The monster is her boyfriend now.

Much more significantly, I have often diagrammed an economic reading of A Nightmare on Elm Street, to the consternation of some, and the fascination of others.  That Craven film is very much about a monster who suffers the sins of the father upon the children.  In real life, in 1984, that was a topic much very in debate, regarding America’s deficit.  The country was spending money it didn’t have to support tax cuts and military spending; thereby visiting the sins of the father upon the next generation.  

It Follows closely echoes A Nightmare on Elm Street in terms of the way it erects a similar economic case. (And just for a similar analysis, read Stephen King’s brilliant description of The Amityville Horror [1979] in Danse Macabre sometime to register how that horror film is also, about, finally, economic concerns).

Consider: It Follows is set in Detroit, the largest city in American history that has ever filed for bankruptcy protection. The city is some 14 billion dollars in debt (operating with a deficit of over 380 million dollars) after decades of borrowing money to continue running.

What killed Detroit? 

A series of bad decisions, or bad choices, one might claim. Not only did the auto industry shrink nationally, it all but abandoned Detroit, taking most of the good jobs when it left. Whites and blacks alike fled the city for the suburbs, reducing the city's population from over a million to approximately 750,000. That flight then reduced the tax base, which meant that the city became even more starved for funds. 

In It Follows, the camera captures several views of urban blight, of  a ruined Detroit that is, literally, a dead man walking. Homes are abandoned, falling into decay, and Jay, Paul and the others explicitly discuss warnings from their parents not to walk alone beyond a certain point on 8 Mile Road, the border between suburbs and privilege, and the city and poverty.

Significantly, the film’s climactic scene is set on the wrong-side of the tracks, at an abandoned city swimming pool where the American flag is prominently seen hanging on the wall.  

The implication seems to be that Detroit, like Jay, is the victim of bad decisions, bad choices, made over a very long period of time. 

The first time that we see the monster in the film, importantly, she is actually crossing a set of railroad tracks, coming from the side of the failed city to Jay’s suburban side.  

This moment qualified as a book-end image for the pool scene, where the suburban kids attempt to lure it back to its side of the economic divide, and kill it.

Furthermore, the monster takes the form of the “absent” or "bad" father at the pool in Detroit, a symbol perhaps, for the abandonment of the city by its metaphorical fathers; by those who fled to the suburbs. The absent father could be the city fathers, the state government, or the Federal government.

On a similar note, after Paul has sex with Jay, he passes the curse to prostitutes, to hookers working the wrong-side of the tracks again.  Paul is making the curse their problem, not the concern of other suburbanites, like Jay, or himself.

So -- as every critic will tell you -- It Follows is about sexual politics, and specifically, a sexually-transmitted curse. 

But more than that, this horror film seems to concern bad choices on a global, collective scale, one including the economic background. Here, one bad decision is passed on to another generation or group, and then that group is “screwed” (hence the sexual metaphor), forced to make another decision (like bankruptcy) that screws up yet another group.  

The infection of bad economic stewardship keeps claiming additional victims.

In my introduction, I compared It Follows to The Babadook. And there’s a very good reason for that which goes beyond the fact that both movies are scary and well-made.  Specifically, both films conclude with the idea that the monster can’t be killed.  It can’t be destroyed. 

In The Babadook, the monster lives on in the basement (a symbol for the mother’s psyche, and her suppression of her fears about raising her child). 

In It Follows, the monster is seen in the background, still following, still waiting for an opportunity to return.  

Now, you might remind me here that Halloween ends with Michael Myers still prowling (or at least vanished) and that A Nightmare on Elm Street literally puts Freddy back in the driver’s seat for the final jolt. 

But importantly, in both of those cases, the monster is put down for an interval of peace. Loomis shoots Michael six times, and he falls from a ledge, into the yard.  At least momentarily, he is out of action.  

And Nancy turns her back on Freddy, reducing him to no more than atoms, again, assuring at least a brief respite from his murderous agenda.  

In The Babadook and It Follows there is no real relief, no interval of victory.  

Instead, these 21st century horror movies tell us that we will have to learn how to adapt to our lives, to the monsters that dwell in them, and that follow us each and every day. Defeating them, even briefly, isn’t really an option. They will always be there, in the basement, or ten paces back.

Unless we get our house in order, these monsters will follow us for the rest of our days. In It Follows, as long as we make bad choices -- about sex, about commitment, about our cities and our economy -- we will have a “monster” shadowing our every move.  Again, that's one possible reading of the images.

In my books and here on my blog, I write often about how horror movies must always shape-shift with the times, to be scary to us in the nowKing Kong (1933) or Dracula (1931) can be considered great, classic horror movies, but they aren’t scary to audiences today because the culture has moved on to a different set of dreads.

It Follows updates the symbols, narrative and even subtexts of classic horror films including Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street so that we recognize those dreads as part of our twenty-first century Zeitgeist.  The film injects fresh blood into old narratives and themes.

It only “follows,” then, that David Robert Mitchell has directed one of the truly great horror pictures of our Age.


  1. Great review as alway. I do have one difference of opinion however. It's been a while since I've seen the film, so I might be remembering the ending wrong, but I was under the impression that it was fairly ambiguous. In other words, it was left up to the viewer to discern whether or not the background figure was the manifestation of the "monster" still coming for them, or if in fact it was just a background figure.

  2. I look forward to your Horror Films of the 2000's for many reasons, but I'm interested in your zeitgeist for the 00's. Because it seems that a ever-present monster is indicative of America's un-ending fight against terrorism.

    Our politicians always stated we would win the Cold War. Similarly we are told now that we as a free society will never be rid of terrorism, that the threat will always be with us..... No relief, no peace.

  3. I actually just watched It Follows and while I didn't enjoy it as I had hoped, I can certainly agree it is visually fascinating. How do you account for the low box office performance of the film - I don't think teens were jamming the multiplexes to see it like they did for Halloween, Freddy, Alien etc . . . Is a subtle horror film like It Follows too much for modern audiences? I wonder what that says about the zeitgeist.