It Follows

It Follows gave me nightmares before I'd even seen it (cue a chorus of "I wasn't scared!" as if indifference indicated personal worth). The movie itself more than lived up to those nightmares. Spoilers below.

The film marries two terrific horror premises: a monster that moves slowly but never, ever stops hunting you, and a curse that's passed along by sex.
Lots of critics took the easy route and talked about "sexually-transmitted horror", but the horror in It Follows doesn't resemble an STD — you get rid of it by passing it along, for example.

Death Comes As The End

Most of all, the horror evokes death itself — death that draws one step closer with every passing hour of every day. The monster can take any form, but it chooses the specific horrors death brings — the age and infirmity of the old woman staggering through the halls of Jay's school; the rape victim, stripped of her beauty and dignity, pissing uncontrollably onto the floor; the shockingly mangled corpse of the girl in the opening scene. When the monster appears as Jay's father, she's too scared to tell her friends what form it's taken — and her father seems to be dead1.

One passage that Jay's sister Kelly reads from The Idiot describes the monster's relentless pursuit as much as it does the inevitability of death:

But the most terrible agony many not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within ten minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant — your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that is certain; the worst thing is that it is certain.

This applies to you, too

"Aha," you might be thinking, "Tracy says the monster is death — but death comes for everyone, not just people who've had sex. It's just as different from death as it is from an STD."

When I say that the monster in It Follows evokes fears of death, I don't mean that the movie is trying to convey a message, that it contains a secret code to unlock, or that it (ugh) teaches a lesson. I mean that when we look at the choices that David Robert Mitchell made when he wrote, directed, and co-produced the movie, we see patterns, and those patterns are as much a part of It Follows as the dialogue or the music.

You don't get more out of the movie by thinking of the monster as an STD, because it doesn't work like an STD, and it doesn't evoke the ideas we associate with STDs; you only spread it to the next person, but then it's their problem and not yours — but if it gets them, it'll come back after you. While the monster takes a number of forms that evoke horrible deaths, it never tries to seduce. There's nothing in the movie beyond the description to link it to STDs. But there's a lot to link the horror to death — and, beyond the grisly reality of death, to an awareness of death.

Having sex doesn't make you aware of your own mortality — but growing up does.

"Your Childhood Trauma Checklist" First realization that death is permanent First realization that death is inevitable First realization that death is happens to everyone First realization that applies to you too

Groening's "Your Childhood Trauma Checklist" is hilarious because even though the conclusion — someday, I will die — logically follows from what precedes it, it takes us a while to accept it (insofar as we ever do).

It Follows constantly returns to the theme of growing up, contrasting childhood and maturity. Early in on, Jay relates her fantasies of driving around with boyfriends and listening to the radio; a child's fantasy of grown-up life. Jay dresses up for her date with Hugh/Jeff in a chaste dress that looks home-sewn, then puts on a lush coat of lipstick that transforms her reflection from girlish to sensual. And when she and her friends flee to the lake house, we see them doing domestic chores — cooking and setting up furniture — rather than cracking beers now that there are no adults around to stop them.

Even Hugh/Jeff's most horrifying scene — chloroforming Jay, tying her to the wheelchair, forcing her to see the monster and realize it's real — is, in retrospect, a way of taking responsibility. The scene he stages is intended to help her (if only because helping her helps him, too). And we never see anyone else looking after the next generation of targets2.

The horror within yourself

In The Third Man, Holly Martins confronts Harry Lime in a Ferris wheel high above Berlin about the deaths he's responsible for. "Don't be melodramatic," Lime responds. "Look down there. Tell me, would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?"

That theme — how much will I harm someone else to help myself? — is a favorite in genre fiction. Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button", later adapted into a Twilight Zone episode, and then into the 2009 film The Box — with its nutton you push to kill someone you don't know in return for a fortune — presents the dilemma in a particularly pure form.

Far more commonly, the question is simply "Would you kill someone to save a life?" to which the answer is just as commonly "Fucking duh." Stage it as self-defense, and it's not even a dilemma; it's escapist wish-fulfillment.

In It Follows, the only way to save yourself is passing the curse to someone else. You don't get fat stacks of money; you get to live or die. But you can't just push a shiny button in a sterile box and eliminate some person you'll never know. To pass on the curse you must be, in every sense of the word, intimate with the person whose life you're trading for your own.

Page through the online discussions of It Follows, and viewers soon start strategizing about outwitting the monster. "Just travel to another country," starts a typical plan, "and have sex with someone, so the monster has to go after them —"

There's a lot packed into that "just".

Hugh/Jeff thinks it'll be easy for Jay to pass the curse along, because she's a girl. But he's only considering one side of the difficulty — attracting someone who's willing to have sex with her. He's not taking into account Jay's own willingness to put someone at risk.

At first, Jay refuses to infect anyone else — not even her friends who think they'd ne happy to take the risk. (Their eagerness to volunteer isn't just teenage hormones; like most teens, they don't quite grasp that they're mortal. They haven't yet seen Death trudging towards them.) This is a girl who, when we first see her, lets a bug on her arm swim away in her pool instead of swatting it. But after she's escaped an attack — and seen the monster kill someone else — Jay is desperate to live.

There's another line of Internet discussion about whether Jay has sex with the three guys she spots on a boat when she flees to the lake. But unlike her father's absence — where what's onscreen is consistent with more than one interpretation — the boat scene is not the least bit ambiguous. (The sex is offscreen, but we don't have to witness an event to conclude that it happened). We see Jay swim out to the boat, while the soundtrack swells ominously; then we cut to her sobbing in the car, her once-white plaster cast sodden and gray. The tear tracks down her face evoke the sexual degradation she's submitted to in order to survive another day. But that's not the only reason she's crying — Jay knows she's condemned another human being to death.

We cut to Jay's backyard pool — her peaceful refuge when the film began. Now the pool is smashed open. It's about as subtle as a shot of a train going into a tunnel.

When Jay and her friends leave her house to carry out their last desperate plan, and she sees the monster standing on top of her house, her face is grim — not just because of the threat to herself, but because she knows this means the man she infected is dead.

The horror of giving up your dreams

Jay used to date Greg from next door, and her platonic friend Paul is always hovering around her, but she isn't seeing either of them now. (The film is careful to establish that she wasn't a virgin before she contracted the curse; the monster is linked to sexuality, but not to the loss of innocence per se.)

Some reviewers call dweeby Paul a White Knight — he's certainly eager to blurt out how willing he is to help Jay, you know, however he can, as if he hadn't been sulkily pretending to ignore her. The film never passes up a chance to show Paul glowering whenever Jay pays attention to Greg. (You can almost hear him thinking "It's not fair how the girls I want go for the tall, good-looking, confident guys when they could have me instead!") Even after Jay lets Paul stand guard at her house, she clearly thinks of him as sexless — she sits beside him on the couch, bare legs up and toes almost touching him, without even tugging down her robe to cover her panties.

But there's more going on here than alpha Greg vs. beta Paul. Paul's offers of help are sincere, if awkward; he physically attacks the monster in a moment of crisis, and comes up with a grand plan to defeat it. It's not that he isn't helpful, it's that Greg helps better — offering Jay reassurance and a gentle touch when she needs it, teaching her to fire a gun (while Paul sits on a blanket, hilariously covering his ears.)

Paul is tougher than he might have been in a conventional film — and Greg is more vulnerable. When we see Greg chatting up girls in the hospital cafeteria, the tall, tan protector is revealed to be a dough-faced, greasy-haired teenage boy. When Jay won't call him after they've slept together, he nervously talks to her friends, seeking some sliver of reassurance that everything's okay. There's been a lot of speculation about the film's final scene, where it's ambiguous whether or not the monster is stalking Jay and Paul as they hold hands. But look at what is clear in that scene. They do not seem to be a happy couple; it's a wary, weary alliance. They're together because there's no one else in the world they could be with. Their black and white outfits suggest a bride and groom — they've settled for a cynical suburban marriage, without the freedom and romance Jay once imagined.

Frightening as It Follows is — from the spine-tingling soundtrack to the unbearably hyperarousal of staring at every shot, looking for the monster's approach — it's also a very thoughtful film, careful to tack against horror-movie conventions about sex and gender rather than letting the prevailing wind carry it where everyone else is headed. The film isn't just compelling on the screen — it's filled with ideas that are worth considering days or weeks later.

1. The movie is ambiguous on this point. We only see Jay's father in a family photo — there's no sign that he lives in her house. Jay's mother drinks so heavily there's a bottle of wine on her bedroom dresser. It's reasonable to assume that Jay's father died, and her mother started drinking heavily as a result — and that the monster takes his shape because, for Jay, that's the most personally painful form death could take.

But other viewers have come to other conclusions. The monster is linked with death, but it's also linked with sex — does it take Jay's father's form because he molested her? Is that why he's gone, and why the mother is drinking?

You could counter that if this were the case, his photo wouldn't still be on the wall in the family home. But I think it's worth being cautious with this level of "in retrospect, realistically &mdash" when it's clear that the film is using the photo to wordlessly reveal who the bearded figure is. (back to article)

2. Jay presumably tells Greg everything she knows before passing the curse on to him — but he never believes her. A few minutes tied up in that wheelchair, watching the monster approach, might have saved his life. (back to article)

Written on September 16, 2015