It Follows was originally given a very limited theatrical release. Because it was received so well, it’s release was extended and expanded, delaying its release to VOD. Thankfully it found its way to Charleston. I saw it last Friday, loved it, and saw it again on Sunday. The film has been garnering quite a bit of attention for its separation from a genre which has become synonymous with formulaic and unoriginal duds that spend more time in a Red Box than they ever do in a theater. It Follows is so good and so important because it has proven that you can make a modern horror movie without sacrificing style, subtext, and intelligence.
It Follows is a film by David Robert Mitchell. It is a “horror” movie in that it is scary, involves an evil, supernatural killer, and is suspenseful as hell. But many of the traits that have come to define horror movies do not apply to this one, and that’s a good thing. It all begins when Jay (Jamie) meets Hugh, and, after a couple of dates, end up doing the dirty in the backseat of his car. Afterwards Hugh informs her that he’s just given her the worst kind of STD, that she can now expect to be followed by some unknown sinister force hell bent on destroying her. Though it moves at a steady walking pace, it can assume any form, does not eat or sleep, and will pursue her nonstop until she passes it on to someone else. “IT” does indeed follow, and Jay relies on the loyalty of her sister and their friends to try and outwit, outrun, and outlast it.
It Follows is a very loaded story, with layers of symbolism the likes of which we haven’t enjoyed in the genre since perhaps The Shining. That’s not to say that you leave the theater completely confused about what you’ve just seen; the story is simple and sharp and easy enough to follow. However, it is impossible not to pick up on the fact that there is much more at play.
The film is incredibly stylish. With the crisp, gritty feel of an art house project, Mitchell utilizes a lot of wide shots that allow the viewer to fully comprehend the setting and feel as if they are a part of it. Several shots take wide, spanning angles and others are comprised entirely of slow 360 and 720 degree rotations. The effect is very eerie, especially since several such scenes show a far-off individual slowly lurching towards the camera who may just be a distant extra… or a definitive force intent on violence. The soundtrack, done by Disasterpeace, really helps to set the tone, and plays an integral part in the project. I’m reminded of the film’s very first scene: a terrified girl, running from something no one else can seem to see. The scene is creepy enough, but the shrieking, piercing tones in the track “Heels” complete the dreadful ambience that caused the hairs on my arms to stand straight up.
I was really impressed with some of the scenery details as well. A few scenes show the kids watching old science fiction movies in the girls’ house. The TV they are watching is set upon a larger, broken TV, which is one of those old sets that was built inside a chest of wood and made to look like a regular piece of furniture. I loved this because my grandma did the exact same thing – she had an old wooden-encased TV that broke and later became the pedestal for the flat screen we bought her.
Certain technologies, an e-reader and modern vehicles, let us know that the film is taking place in the modern day. Yet there are other details, perhaps anachronisms from the director’s own nostalgia, that give us the notion that the characters are trapped in an earlier time. None of the main characters uses a cell phone. Their TV is an old boxy cathode ray model. The cars that the boys drive are those old long, rust-colored sedans with a couches for seats. This blending of eras creates a timelessness that is wholly relatable to anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s.
Mitchell makes it easy to sympathize with his characters, young adults combating the doldrums of a depreciating Detroit suburb and coping with their inability to escape. There is a lot of history among the main characters, but everything we learn is through subtle context clues. Usually horror movies are where dialogue goes to get hacked to death in the woods. But the speech in It Follows is concise and appropriate. There was a lot I picked up the second time around that I missed the first time. Many of these details aren’t crucial to the plot, but it’s refreshing that Mitchell developed his characters into actual human beings with lives that go beyond the story being told. There is Jay and her younger sister Kelly. Kelly works with Paul, who has had a crush on Jay since they were young. Greg is the older neighborhood boy who lives across the street. The context of their other friend Yara is a bit of a mystery, and seems to stretch beyond what’s initially apparent. She reads Dostoyevsky, farts, and eats constantly. On the surface it doesn’t seem like there is any reason for her to be a part of the story, and normally I’d think she was just a poorly written character. But since Mitchell has already given us so much subtext in the film, we have to assume her presence is more than skin deep. What is the symbolism of her insatiable appetite? How does she know the rest of the group? And why is it that out of all Jay’s friends, Yara is the only one who “IT” assumes the appearance of?
The fact that “IT” is passed along via sexual intercourse is an obvious commentary on sexually transmitted diseases, and all the other problems that can arise from unsafe or irresponsible sex. I think a lot of this commentary is a little tongue-in-cheek, since none of the characters are outwardly lascivious, and since we have a rooting interest in them. But it is interesting how, once a person contracts “IT”, their only real option is to pass it along to someone else. Sex is no longer about desire or lust but becomes a method of survival and safety. And while sex is often something enjoyed with a loved one, Jay has to look for partners she doesn’t even know because she is afraid of passing “IT” along to someone she cares for.
We get the sense that Jay’s dad has died or is no longer in the picture. Her mother is either drinking or asleep while her kids are out and about. Paul and Yara are always at Jay’s house, so it’s not like their parents are keeping tabs on them. And when the group goes out to Greg’s lake house and Kelly asks him if his mom will mind, he replies that she probably doesn’t notice he’s even left. And yet, Kelly and Jay mention they don’t want to say anything about “IT” to their mom because they don’t want her to freak out. And Yara at one point says that when she was a kid her parents wouldn’t allow her to go south of 8 Mile Road because that’s where the suburbs ended and where the city began. She laments that it seemed unreasonable she couldn’t even go to the state fair just because it was a few blocks into Detroit, and Jay says that her parents were the same way. What are we supposed to take away from this? It seems like, on the surface, these kids’ parents could care less where they were or what they were doing. Although we know almost nothing about Jay’s mom, Kelly mentions that she wakes up before 6am every day, perhaps to go to work. It might be that Jay and Kelly’s mom is just having trouble raising two kids on her own. The house looks like its falling apart on the outside, the family is obviously not rich. It may be that Mitchell is simply trying to say that when parents aren’t around and their kids find themselves in trouble – pregnancies, STDs, whatever – that it’s not always because their parents don’t care about them, but because they’re too busy trying to keep it together.
The themes in the film really seem to converge on that of wasted youth. When Hugh and Jay are playing the ‘trade game’ Hugh says he would like to trade places with a young boy because he has his whole life ahead of him. As Jay points out, it’s not like Jay is that old. However it’s also not like you can enjoy your youth when you’re being constantly stalked by “IT”. It’s similar to another life-altering event caused by sex, teen pregnancy. And like pregnancy, contracting “IT” invites a certain finality into one’s life; even after you pass it along you can still see it, and are always in danger of it coming back for you. Mitchell, being from Detroit, seems to connect this idea of lost youth with the images of his decaying city. Several of the longer shots in the movie are when the characters are driving around, passing by dilapidated neighborhoods of boarded up houses on overgrown lawns. We’re shown crumbling theaters, an abandoned indoor pool, and cracked concrete foundations on which buildings once stood. It’s clear the recent deprecation of the city has affected the Director as it has the characters in his film. While Detroit may look like a pile of rubble to an outsider, it is still his hometown and invokes a fond nostalgia. No one can return to the safety and carefree life of their childhood, but that doesn’t mean those memories aren’t worth holding on to.
I remember seeing The Conjuring in the theaters and thinking, ‘it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a horror movie that was actually this good.’ I think that at the time I was thinking that only because I had been watching so many of these God-awful slashers from the 80s. The thing is, The Conjuring probably is one of the better horror movies that’s come out this decade, but even it cannot hold a candle to It Follows. I bring it up here because the two represent such distinct ends of the movie spectra. The Conjuring is very much a Hollywood film. It’s almost entirely CGI. The haunted house story is unoriginal. And it’s already spurned one spin-off in Annabelle (which I refuse to see) and a sequel that’s currently in the works. On the other end, It Follows is wholly unique – the story is based on a nightmare Mitchell once had. It is artistic, thought-provoking, and layered. I’ve read several reviews of It Follows saying how its flipped the genre on its head. I think that’s a fair assessment. But what I really hope is that It Follows shows that a horror movie can be an overall great movie, and not just a movie that is great for a horror movie.