Movie Review – It Follows (2014)

David Robert Mitchell’s second film, It Follows, inspired by a recurring nightmare which the filmmaker experienced, made a big splash with both fans and critics when it was released in early 2015. Filmed in the Detroit area, the movie follows Jay (Maika Monroe), a teenage girl experiencing sexual awakening who contracts a supernatural sexually transmitted disease. The boy who gives it to her, Hugh (Jake Weary), informs her that the entity will follow her wherever she goes, always walking slowly toward her, and if it reaches her will kill her. It can appear as a stranger or someone she knows. All she can do to save herself is pass it on to another. On the bare surface, the film appears like a teen’s cautionary tale about sex, and the complete lack of prophylactics would support that reading, but like a real STD there appears to be more going on beneath the surface.

Horror films, especially slashers, are often described as inherently moralistic cautionary tales. Teens are butchered for sexual and chemically-induced transgressions, and the slasher is God’s wrathful hand. However, I feel this misunderstands the purpose of horror and misinterprets its methods. Horror doesn’t seek to instill new fears into viewers, but rather to examine and exploit those already present, if sometimes unrecognized. It doesn’t say “don’t do this or this will happen,” but rather “here’s where your fears and insecurities lie, now get ready to confront them.”

Jay and her friends are in a transition period, confronting the realities of sex and entering adulthood. Jay believes the act of coitus will be freeing, but instead she finds it is a rather banal part of the human experience. Sex is neither celebrated nor condemned in the film – it simply is. It becomes another element of their mundane existence, just as taxes will one day be. Nevertheless, its introduction into their lives marks a loss of innocence, and the film’s mood emits a somber gloom regarding this. Hints of it abound: the first victim is seen apologizing to her father on the phone for being so difficult; when Jay asks Hugh who he would like to trade places with he chooses a young boy, happy and without adult worries; when Jay runs from her home the first time by riding a bicycle, she seeks the refuge of a nearby playground – a symbol of a more innocent time. The pool we see Jay floating contentedly in at the beginning, also symbolic of her childhood, is dried up after she may or may not have seduced three boaters to pass on the disease. Even though the characters are sexually active, the plan they hatch to kill “it” is the sort a child might come up with after taking too many notes from Scooby Doo, Where Are You?

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Sexual anxieties are also explored in various forms. Jay and her friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) reminisce about finding porn magazines as kids and not understanding them. Later, Paul finds porn magazines in the abandoned house and thumbs through them, understanding them all too well, surrounded by discarded tissues. Will they too be used and discarded sexually by another? When we see what “it” does, in an especially Freudian manner, those fears are confirmed.

Loss of innocence is also explored in terms of class. As Yara (Olivia Luccardi), another friend, states, “When I was a little girl my parents would not allow me to go south of 8th mile. And I did not even know what that meant until I got a little older. And I started realizing that. That was where the city started and the suburbs ended. And I used to think about how shitty and weird was that. I mean I had to ask permission to go to the state fair with my best friend and her parents only because it was a few blocks past the border.” They live in a middle class neighborhood in the suburbs and, to escape, go either to the dilapidated neighborhoods of Detroit, whose abandoned decrepitude serves as a reminder of their own privilege and probable fate, or to the comfort of nature which, be it a cabin or the lakeshore, is a place associated with childhood memories. However, their escape to these settings, especially to nature, is partly out of practicality. Despite their relative economic privilege these are latchkey kids whose parents care only when they take the rare opportunity to notice. They have no adult guidance to assist them through their transition. Jay’s mother is mentioned but scarcely seen and is not viewed as a figure upon which to depend. When we see Jay drive off to the lakeshore and sleep on the car hood we are reminded that she is without income – there are no hotels to stay in, no plane tickets to buy – and she must eventually return to the comforts of the suburb.

Aside from being rich in subtext and symbolism, It Follows is also beautifully shot with an effective electronic score reminiscent of the synth scores from the early 80s or of John Carpenter’s early work, and which will likely be running through the viewer’s head long after the movie has ended. The era is purposefully indiscernible, mixing visual cues from the last few decades in a manner that keeps the viewer off kilter while allowing audiences who were born in different decades to relate in some way to the world which Mitchell has created. Yara reads off a technologically modern clam-shell e-reader, but we see the teens passing time watching old movies on an old television set or playing cards – the kinds of activities typically seen engaged by teens in movies of the late 70s or early 80s.

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Another strong element which Mitchell uses is the camera’s gaze, which is decidedly male, lingering on the girls to emphasize their blooming sexual nature and, at times, unconscious desirability. As Hugh says of Jay, “It should be easier for her, she is a girl. Any guy would be with you.” Here he is openly acknowledging Jay’s physical desirability to those around her. Also, at one point the camera lingers on Yara’s legs, a character who throughout the film appears to have not viewed herself as particularly attractive. Ready or not, these girls are sexual objects.

The movie succeeds on many artistic levels, giving the viewer a lot to ruminate upon long after the movie has finished, and it is effectively creepy. It’s certainly one of the smartest films to come out of the genre recently. Personally, I appreciated the ambiguous ending, which may frustrate those viewers looking for concrete closure. Whether or not It Follows has the strength to maintain its longevity only time will tell.

Grade: A-