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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.