By Jesse Friesen (Portland, OR, USA)
It has been an unusually good period lately for horror movies. 2014’s. The release date for the highly anticipated The Witch is right around the corner. The Babadook and this summer’s The Gift (though arguably more thriller than horror) wowed most critics and audiences alike. In addition, it’s possible we’ve glimpsed a much welcome return to form for M. Night Shyamalan with the comically creepy The Visit. But perhaps the most pleasantly surprising recent addition to the halls of horror is David Robert Mitchell’s exceptional It Follows. This is, quite simply, the best horror movie I’ve seen in years.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I would suggest you read no further. Perhaps one of the reasons the film shocked me to the degree that it did is that I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the theater. All I knew about It Follows was that it received generally positive reviews thus far, and it had something to do with a sexually transmitted haunting. Don’t worry, that last part sounded stupid to me too.
From the opening scene, it is evident the movie will be unconventional. A terrified young woman races from her suburban home into the street. She weaves across the road, staring wildly all about her, looking for something. She then runs further down the sidewalk, before looping back toward her own house. Dashing inside, and ignoring her confused father standing in the lawn, she returns with car keys. Without pausing to explain, the girl scrambles into her car and drives away. There is no music, very few words spoken, and no indication of why the girl is frightened. She drives into the night and parks at an abandoned beach front. Here, she calls her parents, bidding them an emotional farewell. She sits just at the water’s edge, looking back in the direction she came. Her car is parked with its lights silently bathing surrounding trees. We have the strong sense that she is waiting for something terrible to emerge into the light.
In the morning, we see that the car has not moved. The girl, too, remains on the beach, her lifeless body mangled horribly. Incidentally, this is easily the most explicitly violent shot in the entire film. It Follows is a breath of fresh air for the genre for many reasons. One of the first things I noticed is that the movie does not rely much on sensationalism or hackneyed gimmicks to enhance the horror. Consequently, if you’re looking for cheap jump scares, shaky hand-held cameras, shrieking violins, or offensively graphic scenes of gore, this movie is not for you. That said, as sexuality is a major theme of this horror story, there is a fair amount of nudity throughout the film, though, personally, I was never uncomfortable with its usage.
The ingenuity of It Follows is partially in the simplicity of its premise. It does not try to define or explain the origins, identity, or motives of the terrifying apparition doggedly shadowing our protagonist. We do not ultimately learn that the monster is actually some kind of demon, dybbuk, or hateful human spirit. There are no researching montages where our main character sifts through old newspapers in a dark library somewhere. And rather than expend any time attempting to provide half-hearted explanations for the apparition, Mitchell instead focuses his efforts on perfecting the film’s pervasive and almost numbing atmosphere of dread. Indeed, his choice to provide as little exposition around the monster as possible only serves to accentuate the helplessness of its potential victims. In addition, omitting a practical origin story for “It” also increases the film’s already strong sense of sexual symbolism, but I will return to that in a moment.
The “rules” of the movie are fairly straightforward and established near the beginning of the film. Mitchell even allows an experienced character Hugh (Jake Weary) to provide the film’s protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe) with practical instructions on how to survive her new haunting: “It’s going to follow you. Somebody gave it to me, and I passed it to you… It can look like someone you know, or it could be a stranger in a crowd, whatever gets it closer to you… Sometimes I think it looks like people you love just to hurt you…You can get rid of it, okay? Just sleep with someone as soon as you can. Just pass it along. If it kills you, it’ll go after me…Never go into a place with only one exit. It’s very slow, but it’s not dumb.”
As I first heard this set of instructions, I began to get excited about where the film might take us. This monster can appear at any time, it never stops slowly walking toward its victim, it can take on whatever human form it wishes, and it can only be seen by those who are “infected.” Oddly, the only way to delay the apparition’s pursuit is to have sex with someone else, and temporarily pass the curse on to them. Yet, this again, is only a temporary solution. I can’t remember a film where I spent more time scanning the background of any given scene. I was nearly always on edge. Frequently, I found myself eyeing passing strangers or distant blurred movements with distrust and anxiety. Often it’s never actually made quite clear whether we just caught a glimpse of the disguised apparition nearing Jay. Even those few scenes wherein viewers usually take their cues to relax are experienced with paranoia and the nagging awareness that it is somewhere out there. Perpetually looming. Always nearing in silence.
This, if executed poorly, could get old pretty quickly. But Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis lose no opportunities to leverage these feelings of dread and exacerbate them. Prolonged, gently zooming shots within a well-placed frame are used often, and in all the right places. In one notable scene, the camera leisurely rotates in an extended panning shot for almost two full revolutions while Jay and a friend are investigating a high school. The shot serves to build suspense, as our eyes strain in all directions on the lookout for the monster. Camera tricks like these may be relatively simple, but in the context of this story, they are extremely effective in heightening suspense. I’d like to throw out a few, more specific examples, but I don’t want to ruin some of the best scares of the movie (for those of you who haven’t seen it yet).
In addition, I’ve already heard many comparisons drawn between this film and those of John Carpenter, and, yes, some similarities are definitely there. Most noticeably, the soundtrack of It Follows is so reminiscent of Carpenter films that I honestly wondered in moments if the film was supposed be set in the 1980’s. Soon enough, one character proves otherwise, bringing out a kind of shell-shaped device from which she’s reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. However, the unusual choice of musical style is a welcome break from the knee-jerk jump scare scores we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years. Instead, an ominous, claustrophobic, pulsing keyboard is the score’s most prominent feature, which somehow captures the mood of the film perfectly.
I’ve saved my own interpretation of the film’s themes for last, as the primary complaint I’ve heard leveled against this movie is that its thematic symbolism is muddled or loosely thrown together. While It Follows certainly requires some interpretive license; I frankly disagree with this criticism. I felt that the film is about sexual abuse, shame, and the subsequent effects of sexual abuse upon the abused party. Also, Mitchell skillfully ties in themes of childhood friendships, freedom, and the disappointments of coming-of-age, but for the sake of time I’ll have to let another writer tackle those. There are a few clues to support this sexual abuse theory, but before I go on, I should advise again that I’ve placed big spoilers ahead.
First, there are several indications that Jay comes from a broken home. Parents are almost altogether absent from the story, and her own father is never directly mentioned. When she is returned home by Hugh after he infects her with the haunting, one neighbor comments on the police cars outside Jay’s house, saying, “Those people are such a mess.” The family has apparently earned a reputation in the neighborhood.
Next, I have to mention the use of pools (and water in general) as being an interesting symbolic motif that I believe also supports the sexual abuse theme. In the beginning of this film, Jay is first seen relaxing alone in her outdoor pool, a neighborhood boy peeping at her from behind the fence. This is her bubble, her body of water, and she is whole here, unviolated. Later, after Jay’s friend and lover is killed by the monster, she flees in her car, eventually stopping at a lake. Here, Jay observes some men in a boat, not far from shore. She solemnly begins removing her clothes and stepping into the water. This scene implies she has lost hope, her curse has trapped her, and she is even willing to have sex with a stranger in order to delay death’s inevitable approach. The next scene shows Jay driving home, wet and teary-eyed. A dismal shot of her outdoor pool soon follows. The pool is now empty, misshapen, and dirty, as if her innocence has been compromised. And let’s not forget to mention that the climax of the movie takes place in, you guessed it, a large pool. Jay’s plan involves luring the monster to enter the pool with her. She must allow it to enter this body of water in order to confront it.
It is here she is approached by the final manifestation of the apparition. She refuses to describe its appearance to her friends, which seems odd at the time, as the apparition merely appears as a relatively normal looking middle-aged man, actually far less disturbing than many previous manifestations we’ve seen. Eventually, the monster ends up in the water with her, holding her captive below the surface. She is ultimately rescued by her childhood friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and pulled from the water in safety. Meanwhile, the pool itself turns red with blood, and the monster seems to have been destroyed, thanks to the efforts of her friends and primarily Paul. The group returns home, and Jay spends the night with Paul, who is clearly in love with her. Before she falls asleep, we notice she is gazing at a framed picture of her full family, who we are seeing for the first time. It is made clear from this picture that when the apparition attacked her in the pool, it was disguised as her own absent father. The underlying themes of this movie, as well as her father’s absence throughout the film leads me to wonder if Mitchell is implying that this all began with him—the father. Perhaps there was a betrayal, an assault, sexual or otherwise, for which Jay’s father is ultimately responsible. Something that her traumatic encounter with Hugh dredged up. Perhaps.
The final scene of It Follows features Jay and Paul wordlessly walking down a sidewalk, hand in hand. A slightly blurred figure is visible in the background between them, slowly walking in their direction. It is not quite clear if the monster has returned, but the figure in the background appears to be normal. Yes, Jay is finally safe, in a healthy relationship. Yet, there is always her lingering suspicion that the sexual curse is still alive, still active and following her, just waiting to rear its ugly head.