IT FOLLOWS (2015) / by B. Roche

 

Slasher movies are the clearest cinematic evidence that we have issues.  We love to watch people get killed for having sex.  Yet presumably we also enjoying having it in the first place.  So slasher movies validate our prurient instincts AND our guilt simultaneously.  For me, It Follows is such a special slasher film – one of the year’s best movies, of any genre – because it tries to get past our issues, while still delivering a clever and terrifying film.

Far from being punished for their promiscuity, The characters in It Follows must have sex.  Imagine a relentless ghost is following you.  If you have sex, it follows the person you did it with instead of you.  The relief you feel once you’ve done it is unprecedented.  The awful things you’ll do to do it and get the Follower off your back are also unprecedented.  Your willingness to do it with someone who needs to do it so the Follower will stop following them and start following you?  Unprecedented.  In It Follows, characters are killed, but they are not punished.

This value shift is all the more powerful for taking place in such a real setting.  The suburban world of It Follows had a cozy familiarity to me.  Growing up, I knew kids like these characters.   I hung out in houses like theirs.  The film nails the lazy hang-out atmosphere of the suburbs, as well as the feeling of going over to a friend of a friend’s house.  That sense of, who’s dating whom? Who’s related to whom? That kid who isn’t anyone’s brother, but who is always here, does he live here? And what I wonder in retrospect, where were the parents? Not, where are the parents to do the parenting, but physically, where the hell are they? In so many homes I visited growing up, there were no adults to be seen; at best there would be a cool older sibling coming and going, using the homestead as refueling station between Adventures in Being Older.

Jay, the cool older girl in It Follows (played by Maika Monroe, in a role similar to her anchoring work in The Guest) goes out with a new guy named Hugh. They park out by an abandoned building.  They have sex.  Afterward, Hugh chloroforms her, ties her to a chair and tries to explain why:

“This thing, it’s gonna follow you.  Somebody gave it to me, and I passed it on to you, back in the car.  It can look like someone you know, or it could be a stranger in a crowd, whatever helps it get close to you.  It can look like anyone, but there is only one of it.  Sometimes I think it looks like people you love, just to hurt you.”

Jay will be “followed” by this thing until she has sex with someone else.  Then the follower will be their problem - unless it kills the person, then it comes back for Jay, and on down the line.

A warning isn’t enough for Hugh; he wants Jay to know first hand.  He whips her around in the wheelchair he’s got her tied up in and waits for the Follower to show up.  Sure enough a naked and seemingly dead woman walks up out of nowhere and into the abandoned building.  Hugh takes Jay away before the Follower lady can get her, and dumps her on her front lawn. Though Jay is incredibly traumatized, she doesn’t rely on the police when they arrive.  Instead her friends all come together to stay with her and help figure out the situation. (There are three of them around all the time; my second viewing clarified that Kelly and Jay are sisters, and Paul and Yara are neighborhood friends.) While they don’t understand what Jay’s going through, or see the follower, they all trust her and care about her.

In short order, the follower starts following the shit out of Jay in a series of scenes that pull suspense out of every day details.  Jay is sitting in community college English class when she notices an elderly woman walking across campus.  Jay tries to focus on the teacher but she looks out the window again.  The old woman is closer now, walking toward Jay’s building, eyes locked on her.  Jay rushes out of class and down a hallway and turns around –the old woman is inside now and still walking right toward Jay.  Later, at home, a really tall Follower guy walks up out of the shadows in a doorway.  A football hits the window – is it from a neighbor boy, or the Follower?  Hugh’s warning turns out to be correct - the Follower does take the shape of people you love – including Yara, the kid next door, and Jay’s grandfather, naked on the roof.  In one scene with a lot of extras, the camera pans around Jay twice with no discernible target; the follower could be anywhere around her.

There could be one behind you right now.

That’s how the movie feels.

The suburban details and friend dynamics are so familiar and the horror so simple and persistent that it’s like we’re being followed.  (When it was over I legit looked over my shoulder in a fully empty parking lot.)  Jay can only take so much sheer psychological torture (and physical; she gets in a car accident while fleeing a Follower, and ends up in the hospital), so she starts to consider passing it off to her neighbor Greg. He’s helpful and listens without judgment.

While the sex issue differentiates *It Follows* from other slasher films, its characters attitudes take the separation even farther.  The experience for Jay and Greg is initially very positive and content, even though Greg knows he’s making himself the Follower’s next target.  Jay picked him because she thought he would be able to handle the pressure of the Follower, but he’s starting to feel used now that he hasn’t been followed yet.  They’ve basically stopped talking, until one night Jay looks out her window and sees Greg walking in to his house through a window. He’s dressed in tights or something and seems pretty dead-eye—oh, God. Greg has himself for a follower (or that’s how it looks to Jay; Apparently the Follower can appear differently to different people in the same moment).  Jay runs across the street (To help?  More likely to witness the experience of the Follower from the other side) and sees an apparition in the form of Greg’s mom.  Jay watches, horrified, as the Follower-Mom mounts Greg and cowgirls the life force plain out of him.

So that’s what the Follower does once it actually catches someone.   (I'd've issued a spoiler alert, but Bianca has no interest in horror movies and specifically asked me to spoil this movie.)

A final follower showdown (in which the Follower embodies Jay’s DAD – it knows no boundaries) gets mixed results.  The kids are able to shoot the Follower in the head – its blood emptying out into a swimming pool in a deep, red, and final-seeming cloud; but Yara takes a stray bullet to the leg.  Afterward, Jay sees the benefit of passing her curse off to nice, devoted Paul. Like Colonel Brandon, it was him all along, and they fall into a very chill courtship.  In the final scene, Jay and Paul walk hand in hand down their street.  Paul is even wearing a tab-collar moto leather jacket like Hugh had on before  - the sweet geek trying for the approval of his cool girlfriend (even though he already has her approval; guys are dumb.)  There is someone on the sidewalk a block back from them. Is it the Follower? The movie cuts to an angle close behind them, as they continue to walk. Fade to black.

Even though death is presumably on its way for Jay and Paul, their experiences and shared intimacy have made them whole again. *It Follows* takes togetherness – not just sexually, but bonds of friendship and family too - and makes it not only the goal but the great benefit of this fleeting life.

There are so many other details my nookie-driven synopsis did not allow, that show how much thought director Robert David Mitchell put into the movie. The dialogue is kept to a minimum and Mitchell uses the widescreen frame to develop character relationships, with long scenes of hanging out and simply being, and clever reaction shots.  The camera catches them all looking at each other surreptitiously, showing their annoyance or giving little crush looks. The characters, in a way, are “following” each other, and also showing all the ways that the game of Musical Dating Chairs might otherwise have worked out. Greg could have hooked up with Yara; Kelly could have hooked up with Greg; While Kelly complains of Paul’s obsession with Jay, her eye rolls seem to double as check-him-outs in a couple moments; in one scene Kelly’s reaction shots go from anger to acceptance as she silently assesses the growing attraction between Jay and Paul.

The time period is vague in a way that actually helps the movie. The clothes and hairstyles are a mix of contemporary and past styles, there are no prominent newish cars, all the TVs are black and white square sets from the 70s (which only show old sci-fi/horror movies; one appears to be about aliens telling humans they’re taking them over).  There is only one cell phone[1]. The only movie theater is a revival house. On the other hand, Yara wears OG hipster glasses and throughout the film reads Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on clamshell-shaped Kindle-like device. So Mitchell either unearthed an actual electronic reading device from the 80s or made one up. Either way it’s a great character detail. This approach makes for a timeless feeling; this scenario could happen to anyone at any time.

One more bit about the actress who plays Yara, which speaks to the whole cast.  She’s apparently the oldest actor by far[2], and seems to play the youngest character. In the second to last scene she reads a passage from The Idiot regarding the eventuality of death while eating a sandwich, exactly like a weird 12-year-old would eat a sandwich it’s a gross L-shaped crust by the end. This is really good acting and a good counterpoint to her monologue. The whole cast embodies teenagerdom in its awkwardness and lack of social grace like that.

A horror film needs good music, and *It Follows* has some primo shit from someone called Disasterpeace.  If you’re going to self-apply a nickname, you better be great. He delivers with a gorgeous electronic score, aping the synth music of John Carpenter and 80s movies in general.  It’s one thing for a horror film to have exciting music during the actual horror scenes, but Disaterpeace’s cues during more lower-stakes scenes are just as great.  The dreamy music under the early scenes of daily life are my favorite in the film.

*It Follows* offers so much more than mainstream horror movies.  It’s not just a superior teen horror movie with teens but a superior anything movie about anyone accepting death.  I will think of it for a long time, and think of what’s behind me.

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[1] The one cell phone points toward an intriguing narrative side-road. In the very first scene a scared girl drives away from her house – in a much nicer neighborhood than Jay, et al – and arrives at a beach. She uses the cell to call her dad and apologize for being a shit sometimes. She tells him she loves him. Cut to the next morning. The girl is on the beach. One of her legs has been severed, and the other has been twisted around in a horrible shape. Maybe economics drove cell usage in 1998, but these days every kid has one. First Girl is in the future. Later, when our gang takes refuge at Greg’s lake cabin, First Girl is one of the follower’s shapes. So I think the follower knows all its victims, throughout the timeline. What difference this makes for anyone, I have no theories there.

[2] In a rarity for a teen horror movie, all the actors look age-appropriate for their roles (though all are apparently older than even their appearance); there are no 27-year-old teenagers here. This adds the only vulnerability to an otherwise strong and resourceful group.