***Note that while I avoid too many spoilers, I would highly recommend seeing “It Follows” and then reading my review/commentary.***
The horror genre has always held a magnifying glass up to American society. Current trends, urban legends, phobias and angst often are just below the surface of some of the great horror films in each decade. Social commentary in horror, much like science fiction, allows writers and directors to share their vision or fear in a chilling translation.
George A. Romero’s undead films are a classic example of using horror to speak to larger contemporary societal concerns (60s racism/civil rights in “Night of the Living Dead,” 70s consumerism in “Dawn of the Dead,” etc.).
I recently saw/reviewed Michael Ojeda’s “Avenged” (review here), and that film was like a PSA on the dangers of texting and driving. “It Follows” feels like a PSA on sex generally and unsafe/unprotected sex specifically. In fact, you could view the film as a straight forward nightmare young people face when confronted with the possibility of contracting an STD. The momentary passion overriding the logic part of the brain and then the guilt/shame/fear of what just occurred. Yes, you could view “It Follows” as the “Just Say No” of horror films.
But I think something deeper is at play here. It was clear to me from the opening moments of the film, that David Robert Mitchell, writer/director of “It Follows,” has some serious commentary on America in mind. Though clearly centered on American obsession with, and fear of, sex, there is constant symbolism of a decaying nation. The first character/victim we see, comes out of a house, frantic and the home address appears to be 1492. It seemed an oddly specific number to be on display (it could have been a coincidence of scouting location), and combined with the rest of the film seemed very intentional.
We watch as the girl runs into the street, clearly distressed, as her father appears and is confused/concerned about what is happening to his little girl. This would strike a chord with any father realizing their daughter is crossing over into womanhood and that scary mess is a horror story of its own.
The girl flees the broken, and clearly insufficient safety of family and home, and run off to face her fate alone. I was struck that seemed to be a metaphor for the fear and isolation the young feel as they cross the sexual meridian into adulthood. There’s that moment of realization of lost innocence that seems still within reach, but you know it’s forever beyond your grasp.
After the shocking opening, we meet the main character, Jay Height, played perfectly throughout by Maika Monroe. She’s fishing a leaf out of the backyard pool before diving in and relaxing in the water. The pool still has some debris so it’s not entirely clean much like everything in her life. She talks to her sister about having a date with a guy she’s been seeing and before exiting catches neighbor boys spying on her. This starts a persistent thread of voyeurism and sexual tension that runs throughout the film. As the camera pans across college quads, hospitals, etc. we constantly see couples flirting or making out.
Despite all the risks, the sexual drive is ever-present like an electric current through our DNA. Finished swimming, we see what comes across as a slice of 21st century Millennial life. Jay and her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe) live in a home that, unlike most films, actually looks and feels like a real home. Full of stuff in every room, it gives the Height home an unkempt, but lived in feeling.
You get the sense of a family that occupies the space, but fatigue, boredom and neglect has let things start to gather up. Jay, her sister and their friends seem to just hang out and watch old horror/sci-fi films with no real sense of purpose. We later see that Jay is in college and her sister and friend work in an ice cream shop of some kind. But you get an overall impression of everyone hanging out in a perpetual state of inertia with no clear path ahead or ambition. Just occupying time and space and not really focused on anything specific.
Recent studies have shown (check out this article), Millennials are struggling with unprecedented student loan debt, delaying marriage, making marginally more with a college degree than without and are more racially diverse than Baby Boomers. They still tend to be optimistic about the future, but the present holds a lot of challenges for this generation. This group, given their focus probably isn’t seeing a silver lining ahead.
Their mom, who is either in the kitchen or asleep throughout the film, interestingly is never seen directly. It seemed to me that the crumbling family is again speaking to America. When things start to go bad for Jay, her only comment to a friend, not to her daughter is that she’s sorry “that happened to her.” Completely devoid of tangible emotion or any vested interest in what clearly was a horrific event. She’s disconnected from her family and reality symbolic of the disillusioned middle class unsure how to connect with their Millennial children or the great family, America, decaying and slipping away all around them. The father is seen in photos but I don’t recall that he’s either named or his whereabouts explained. Are the parents divorced? Is he dead? In jail?
The mom, played by Debbie Williams, is there but not there. From what we see, and character comments, it’s clear mom is focused on smoking, drinking and not much else. Definitely not leading the family or involved in the ensuing chaos as we usually see in horror films (i.e., “Sinister,” “Insidious,” etc.). In one example, Jay and Kelly take a walk so the latter can have a cigarette. They discuss how the mom would reacting to her habit and while noting she’d be upset, the comment is she’d most likely just steal them from her. As we see the home and the neighbor’s across the street, I was again struck by the recurring theme of decay.
I initially thought there was a continuity error due to location filming on two blocks in the city. The neighbor’s home has a five-digit address and when the camera shows the Height home, it appears to have far fewer digits. However, in later shots you can see there are five and in the same block range as the neighbor. It’s just that some of the numbers have faded and the family has replaced it. “It Follows” was filmed in Detroit which is further featuring of the eroding infrastructure spreading from the city outward and loss of the American dream.
Throughout the movie as characters seek out answers, try and evade their fates, we see abandoned homes and decay spreading throughout the urban landscape. The film features solid cinematography, editing and a soundtrack full of really unique music. If anything, the look/feel, pacing, editing and music reminded me of the 1970s/1980s and some of my favorite horror films by John Carpenter.
Similar to Ti West’s amazing “House of the Devil” which itself was shot/edited to appear to be a lost 1980s horror film, this film avoids specific dating. The family friend always hanging out at their home, Yara (Olivia Luccardi) has a sea shell-shaped device which, based on context is an ereader. In the opening scene, the first victim uses a cell phone to call her parents. But other than that, the decor of the Height home, vehicles, music all seems non-contemporary. I love the timeless feel and it will help the film have an impact without being seen as “so 2014” in any way.
At its heart, we have a new “urban legend” if you will about “It” that is an STD that passes through unprotected sex. If you have sex with someone who’s been cursed, it passes to you. “It” will follow you, slowly but surely no matter where you go. The only hope you have is to pass it on to someone else. However, if they don’t out run “It” and are caught, they’re out of the line and it’s back to hunting you.
So we begin with Jay deciding to pursue sex with the guy she’s started dating, “Hugh” (Jake Weary). The scene is passionate and probably extremely common young first encounter in the back seat of a car. It seems like exactly what Jay was expecting and hoping for…
That is until Hugh knocks her out and she awakens tied to a chair in her underwear. He wanders around the condemned and hollowed out building, more decay, as he tries to assure her that he means her no harm. No further harm and that she has to pay attention. This bit of exposition sets up the rules around “It” as he awaits its appearance. And sure enough a naked woman appears below and is soon approaching them. Hugh makes sure “It” sees Jay, and selfishly that it no longer notices him. Assured that the curse has passed, he gets Jay out of there, races to her home and dumps her, still bound and in underwear in front of her home. All this to the shock and horror of her sister and friends.
As they hunt down “Hugh” with the help of neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto) in his mom’s station wagon (again symbol of aging things), they learn there may be no escape. Clearly having sex with others is the only choice, but this presents an amoral dilemma. Do you attack others as Hugh did? Do you have sex with a lot of people and not tell them?
At times the way the characters are struggling with their unsafe sexual practices reminded me of the 1995 film “Kids.” Like that film, “It Follows” doesn’t offer easy answers and choices get increasingly moral ambiguous or immoral as time passes. That means we see characters slowly take more chances and, as options run out, resort to actions they would probably never have considered before this started.
As a final touch of American symbolism, Jay has sex with one of her friends covered in a blanket with red, white and blue stripes. They both know it’s probably their death sentence, but of all the encounters, it appears to be the one that’s based truly on love and friendship. A desperate act to buy more time while they face an uncertain cursed future. As for “It” what can we learn from what’s shown to us?
We see that it can impact the real world and without spoiling anything, appears to be vulnerable to some things including potentially water. When one of the characters embarks on a interesting approach to delaying “It,” it did make me wonder what would happen if you got on a plane and flew to Europe and slept your way across the brothels of Europe?
I also began to wonder, why the “It” is a specific curse that appears to be focused on a long line of heterosexuals. Although we see flashes of different “It” with a form that varies throughout the film changing gender, age and even appearing as people currently alive, the focus of “It” appears to be hetero partners. Granted, we’re only seeing a snapshot of time and victims, but I did wonder what would have happened if Jay had sex with a girlfriend or one of the guys impacted had paired up with another guy?
Would that have broken the curse? Or just spread it down new avenues? And what about contraceptives? Would a condom save the day or is it a psychic transfer with an infected person no barrier could stop? Clearly I let my mind wander a bit trying to figure out escape paths for the characters. Clearly a lesser film would have been more focused on titillation, but “It Follows” presents sex, at least unprotected sex as best we can tell, as risking your life. And when I am emotionally invested in the characters and wanting to figure out the mystery, it’s a good thing from my perspective.
Reminding me of something from early John Carpenter films, with touches of Ti West and other great contemporary horror directors, I loved “It Follows.”
Maika Monroe is phenomenal and utterly believable as a Millennial college-age gal working through a sexual nightmare. This is a tour-de-force, career-launching role and she owns it much like Jamie Lee Curtis did in Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic “Halloween” (and one of my all-time favorite films). I’m looking forward to what she does next! David Robert Mitchell is to be commended for his writing and direction creating a smooth, atmospheric thriller with one of my favorite soundtracks to date.
The unrelenting “It” is like the “Shape” (aka Michael Myers) in “Halloween,” an inevitable force of dread that will never stop coming for you. I haven’t seen his prior film “The Myth of the American Sleepover” (2010) also filmed in Detroit, but will check it out now. I’m feeling my age a bit that he’s four years younger than me and already has two films under his belt (three if you include his 2002 short “Virgin”) – but I’ll catch up I swear!
The pacing is perfect and a fresh antidote for the hyper kinetic “Fast & the Furious” style of horror movie gore porn from the last few years. I did hear some mixed reactions to the film, the ending in particular, from younger folks in the audience. My guess is they probably only know “horror” from last 10 years, and the pacing and moral ambiguity of it all may seem off to some.
However, if you cherish original, indie horror films and if you love your horror old school, “It Follows” should be seen asap. And seen again. And owned eventually. I love all kinds of horror films from the goriest blood tests to the slow burners.
And I can safely say that “It Follows” is one I’ll be enjoying many times in the future.
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