On the dawn of my eldest son’s sixth birthday, he confided that he wanted to stay five forever. When I asked why, he came back with, “I just like the number five.”
It Follows begins with a sunny day in Michigan, as a college student named Jay (Maika Monroe) floats in her swimming pool. An ant moves over her arm as freely as the water around her. Jay drops her hand below the surface of the pool. The insect is swallowed up by the cool liquid. The ant, nature’s epitome of teamwork, is killed in an instant.
That night, after a sexual encounter with her boyfriend, Jay discovers she is being stalked by an evil force invisible to those around her. It can take the appearance of any person and if it catches her, will kill her. She clutches on friends for protection, but the group is defenseless against the attacks of the shadowy interloper.
Casual critics of It Follows viewed the film as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unprotected sex, but a deeper reading of the picture yields a horrific commentary on the trials of growing up. Jay and her friends are at a transitional period in their lives. The carefree days of their youth are coming to an end as quickly as the life of the ant in the pool. They reminisce about games they played as a kids, their first times experiencing a kiss, their dreams of traveling the world. Adulthood, like the foreboding presence that has been haunting Jay, cannot be escaped. The memories Jay and her friends have of their childhood will last long into their later years, so too will the tribulations of their youth. The habitual badgering and intimidation they suffered, the stress and strain of school will “follow” them forever.
Fans of horror cinema are well-acquainted with the sex-as-deadly-sin conceit. Vampires have been seducing victims since Universal modified Bram Stoker’s eponymous villain; final girls have been eschewing the licentious nature of their peers for years. The metamorphosis of heroines in these types of movies from timid victim to resourceful survivor is typically triggered by a symbolic representation of sex rather than an actual performance of the act. They spend the bulk of the movie trying to avoid penetration by the killer’s phallic weapon only to turn the tables on their attackers, killing them with their own pointed instrument.
Sex leads to death in It Follows, but it also leads to life. The supernatural force is brought about by sexual intercourse, the ultimate analogy for innocence lost. There’s no morning after pill to save Jay from danger, no cream or ointment. However, the evil can be averted, at least for a short while, by engaging in sex with another. The “disease” remains with someone until they pass it on or it kills them.
This is where many critics lose their way. They see the sex and don’t realize it is simply representing the inevitability of aging, of innocence lost and entrance into decrepit adulthood. Sexual chastity is not the only youthful innocence. It is a many layered thing and dissolves with both time and experience. Sure, a young girl has sex and is changed forever, but there’s a day she finds out there’s no Santa and that her parents smoke dope sometimes. These are rites of passage into adulthood, too.
I’m reminded of parents living vicariously through their children. They call on the good and bad experiences in their lives and do their best to make certain their kids enjoy happy times. The window closes on the dreams they set for themselves, so they push their children toward fulfilling their personal fantasies.
As a child, Jay dreamed of meeting the perfect man and embarking on exciting adventures. As a young adult, she is forced to make tough decisions about work and relationships.
In a scene that feels pulled from a John Carpenter flick, Jay is viewed sitting in class listening to a lecture on T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Eliot’s first published poem, Prufrock tells of a man who has seen “the moment of greatness flicker.” The protagonist in the poem shares more than a name with heroine of It Follows. He tries desperately to prolong his youth by telling himself he’s got plenty of time to spare. Reality is a bugger and the truth quickly becomes apparent. Likewise, the Jay in the movie attempts to sidestep fate by reliving past memories and lounging on the beach with friends. Growing up though, like the evil on her heels, is unavoidable. Jay’s only chance to overcome her fears is to face them head-on.
Life is a cyclical thing. Like the zombies returning to the mall in George A. Romero’s horror masterpiece Dawn of the Dead, people are creatures of habit. Jay chooses to battle the mysterious demon where she feels most safe–a swimming pool. Her story comes full circle.
A number of filmmakers at the turn of the century rejected the flashy pace and style of contemporary horror cinema in favor of atmospheric designs replete with distinct visuals and political messaging. The House of the Devil stands out as the loftiest production aesthetic in the career of Ti West, yet was still made for less than a million dollars. Shunning the gory tendencies of his contemporaries, he instead relied on mood and atmosphere to create shock in his junior effort. In similar fashion, director Jim Mickle leaned on rounded characters and an eerie ambience to deliver a potent vampire flick with Stake Land.
Director David Robert Mitchell follows suit with It Follows. There is a power to the proceedings that transcends its shoestring budget. Natural dialogue and gorgeous photography give life to the subjective feelings of the characters. Mitchell utilizes a simple premise to tackle socially relevant issues. The picture draws strength from the restrained tactics of its director, with Mitchell’s minimalist approach to violence on display from the opening scene. An unknown girl runs from her house and into the road, a tee hanging loosely from her shoulders, eyes enlarged, sweat glistening across her brow. She seems trapped in a nightmare, the evil that haunts her visible to her eyes only. The girl jumps in her car and drives to an open beach, the gentle sand and buoyant waves around her standing in stark contrast to the turmoil brewing within her. Something leers in the distance, watching, waiting. Smash cut to the following morning: the girl lies at an awkward angle, her eyes wide but unseeing, leg bent back on itself. She looks like discarded waste left by an ignorant beachgoer.
The most frightening movies are those that understand wickedness is everywhere around us; always lurking, always watching. It Follows touches something primitive in viewers who share a natural response to being pursued by an unknown evil that can’t be warded off. It is steeped in dread, its horror ingeniously constructed. We watch with mounting intensity as Jay navigates the landscape for the mysterious force. Mitchell is not interested in gory spectacle; he understands true terror lies in the stalk.
John Carpenter’s famous slasher killed without motivation or provocation in Halloween, with his white, featureless mask adding to the unsettling nature of the movie. It Follows takes that idea a step further providing a shapeshifting monster that looks like everything and nothing all at once. Like Jay, we are in the dark about its origin or incentive to kill. Fear of the unknown is a fundamental emotion that exists within each of us. Mitchell taps that fear to create a deeply terrifying experience.
Ominous tracking shots, effective use of space and a synth-driven soundtrack point further toward an admiration of Carpenter and the neon-infused 80s. Still, It Follows is more than mere homage. Mitchell mingles archetypical genre elements with his own mythic sensibilities to create a chilling metaphor for teen angst.
Mike Gioulakis’s camera casts an eerie spell over the audience, its dreary shades of blue and red indicative of a nightmare. Authority figures are completely ineffective and time lines are ambiguous. Jay and her friends gather around a tube television while operating futuristic e-readers.
We live in a visual age. There is immense power in the image. Horror movies have worked to address the fears and anxieties of society from the time they were first conceived. Gothic films of the 1930s like Dracula and Frankenstein represented an escape for frustrated audiences, while creature-features of the 1950s such as Them and Godzilla tapped the ultimate threat of nuclear war. Likewise, Red Scare flicks like Invasion of the Body Snatchers represented apprehension surrounding Communism. It Follows premiered at Cannes in 2014, but its theme is timeless and universal. Its nail-biting ambiance and originality will follow audiences long after they’ve seen it.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
It Follows opened to critical acclaim and exceptional receipts. The initial buzz surrounding the picture led to talks of a sequel. Director David Robert Mitchell’s highly anticipated follow up Under the Silver Lake is currently playing in select theaters. The film, a modern noir about a young man (Andrew Garfield) who’s determined to find his missing neighbor (Riley Keough), divided audiences on the festival circuit.