[Note: This post contains major spoilers. Updated 11/19/15.]
Pivoting off Noah Berlatsky's 2011 Atlantic essay “What The Thing Loses by Adding Women,” a brief discussion on this writer's social media feed recently tackled the question of whether female sexuality—or, more specifically, male characters' perceptions of and relationships to that sexuality—is an essential element of horror cinema. As Berlatsky observes, even in films where female characters are completely absent, such as John Carpenter's 1982 horror masterpiece, that conspicuous lack establishes a potent subtext. Aside from a handful of features where the male presence is largely asexual—The Devil's Backbone and The Blair Witch Project come to mind as noteworthy examples—male anxiety regarding female sexuality (and maternity) seems to be lurking beneath the surface of many, many horror films.
This is particularly the case in the slasher subgenre, where a murderous, usually male maniac stalks and slays a succession of usually female victims. As Carol J. Clover famously articulated in her seminal 1992 study Men, Women, and Chainsaws, female sexual purity and desire play prominent thematic and even narrative roles in such features. In Wes Craven's meta-slasher Scream, horror aficionado Randy (Jamie Kennedy) points out that the unwritten rules of the subgenre dictate that a teenage character (especially a girl) who has sex will usually be gruesomely murdered shortly thereafter. However, even when the killer's motivation hinges on sexual transgression, as in the Friday the 13th series, the hapless adolescent victims (the “Meat”) are usually unaware of that fact.
Not so in writer-director David Robert Mitchell's new indie horror flick It Follows, in which teen heroine Jay (Maika Monroe) has an inaugural assignation with her new, older flame Hugh (Jake Weary) in the backseat of his car, only to be subsequently chloroformed, tied up, and debriefed. Hugh regretfully explains that he has “given” her something by having sex with her, just as it was given to him. That something is the singular attention of a malevolent shape-shifting entity, which will now follow Jay wherever she goes until It catches her. What exactly will happen to Jay should she fall into Its clutches is initially ambiguous, but it's clearly Not Good. Hugh barely has enough time to give Jay some rudimentary advice for surviving Its pursuit (“Never be in a room with only one exit.”) before It arrives, assuming the form of a nude middle-aged women who walks slowly but deliberately towards them. Hugh then hustles Jay away and unceremoniously dumps her in front her house, underwear-clad and sobbing, in a manner that says, “Good luck. It's your problem now.”
In this way, It Follows takes that which is subtext in most horror features and integrates it directly into the story: sex equals death. What's impressive about Mitchell's film is how this approach results not in a crude, exploitative treatment of adolescent sexuality, but an astonishingly cerebral work of cinema, blending aspects of social realism, teen melodrama, occult horror, and the slasher flick into an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. To an extent, this is because the film leaves a significant amount of white space where another horror film might have doodled in a convoluted backstory and mythology. It Follows reveals virtually nothing about the origin or nature of its monster. The film simply establishes the Rules and then observes as Jay and her small circle of allies puzzle out how (and if) she can escape Its unnatural and seemingly implacable pursuit.
Even characterization takes a backseat to the film's primary concerns. The characters are not cartoonish, but neither are they particularly well-developed. Blonde, doe-eyed Jay harbors a faintly myopic view of the world, but like most Final Girls she's made of tough stuff. Her no-nonsense little sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) is affectionate, but also aware that she is overshadowed by Jay's age and beauty. Gawky Paul (Keir Gilchrist) is a childhood friend of Jay's, and obviously quite desperately in love with her. Bespectacled Yara's (Olivia Luccardi) main attribute is that she is perpetually snacking while nose-deep in her distinctive pink clamshell e-reader. (Yara functions as a kind boorish yet erudite Greek chorus, offering choice quotes from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot that comment on the film's events.) Later this quartet is joined by Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the older, easy-going guy across the street, who also happens to have a romantic history with Jay. That is as much as the viewer learns about the principals, but more details would be superfluous. By not sweating elaborate character- or world-building, It Follows can invest all its energy in the two essential tasks of all great horror films: scaring the viewer and making them think.
On both counts, It Follows is a resounding success, being perhaps the first truly frightening and thoughtful American horror feature since 2011's Take Shelter. The galvanic character of the film's terrors stems in part from adherence to a kind of lo-fi magical realism. Whether by choice or necessity (the film's budget was a relatively paltry $2 million) or some combination of both, It Follows is a film that squeezes every ounce of unnerving dread out of seemingly mundane people, objects, and settings. The entity Itself is the personification of this horror-on-a-shoestring philosophy. Like the titular germ-like organism in the aforementioned The Thing, the monster in It Follows has no native form. It apparently cannot speak, but its guises are superficially human. At times these are terrifyingly familiar to Jay (Yara with a bloodied face) and at times they are completely bizarre (a partly unclothed young woman in fake vampire fangs and makeup, urinating obviously down one knee-socked leg). Although It Follows has no elaborate creature effects, it manages to make ordinary figures like an elderly woman in a hospital shift seem physically menacing.
While some jump-scares make an obligatory appearance, It Follows is mainly a horror film of long, agonizing stretches in which the characters (and viewer) are simply waiting for something to happen. It is established early on that the monster moves at a slow, steady walking pace. A victim might buy some time by, say, getting into a car and driving like hell for hours and hours, but It will always catch up. This lends much of the film a sense of weary, sickening anticipation, and reveals the peculiar genius of Mitchell's approach. The viewer will often find themselves nervously scanning the out-of-focus background of each shot, straining to catch the first glimpse of the monster as It mutely plods into view. The natural expectation created by cinematic negative space becomes a canvas which the filmgoer covers with their own anxiety. The viewer thus experiences, in some small way, the frazzled, heightened state of animal fear in which Jay spends most of the movie's events. In one superlative shot, the film utilizes a glacial 360-plus degree pan from within a windowed hallway to suggest the omni-directional vulnerability of the preoccupied characters. (This is only enhanced by the slightly smeary quality to the film's digital photography, which prevents the viewer from getting a clear glimpse of distant figures while the camera is in motion.)
Credit where credit is due: Mitchell's disciplined control of the film's protracted pacing and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis's exceptional camera work would not be nearly as effective without Michael Perry's anachronistic production design and the film's distinctive, retro-synth score by Disasterpiece (the working moniker of musician Rich Vreeland). Although Tangerine Dream's iconic Thief score is a prominent point of reference for the latter, Disasterpiece's work also evokes a host of late 1970s / early 80s horror films, including Apocalypse Now, The Shining, Scanners, The Fog, and the first A Nightmare on Elm Street. (Panos Cosmatos' Cronenberg-esque 2010 experimental mind-fuck Beyond the Black Rainbow leaps to mind as well.) It Follows' score lends a melancholy aura to even relatively mellow scenes of teenage suburban idleness, but it's the prominent use of relentless metallic droning when the creature appears that injects the film with such an ominous tone. This wall of sound creates an impression of psychic assault, like a satanic migraine lancing straight into the cerebral cortex. The creature that stalks Jay might be a flesh-and-blood predator that can maim and even kill, but it is also an entity born of fear, apparently capable of reading its quarry's mind and adjusting its shape accordingly.
The score's vintage flavor also enhances Perry's stellar design, which places the film in an ambiguous period when electric typewriters, cathode ray tube televisions, and e-ink pocket tablets coexist. The odd contemporary details aside, however, the whole film has a distinctly throwback feel, what with its boxy American cars, nonspecific latish twentieth-century fashions, and a teenage existence where diversions seem limited to games of Parcheesi, midnight creature feature movies, and the occasional clumsy lay. This lends the film a weird, unsettling aura pitched somewhere between the cinematic Americas of Steven Spielberg and David Lynch.
The film's Detroit locations, meanwhile, suggest an environment that is crumbling and forgotten, perhaps even a post-apocalyptic setting. (One could almost believe the decay is staged, if Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's 2011 documentary Detropia hadn't revealed far worse urban rot in the Motor City.) It is a landscape of decrepit row houses overgrown with weeds, ugly public buildings long overdue for upkeep, and half-demolished concrete edifices that wouldn't look out of place in some abandoned corner of post-Soviet Ukraine. Even the suburbs of this environment seem to sag: the houses are dim, smoke-stained spaces full of shabby furniture and cheap, outdated fixtures. This place's economy hasn't just declined; it's packed up and lit out for the Territory. Like the 1970s-80s Yorkshire saga Red Riding, everything about the look and feel of It Follows' setting suggests an earthly purgatory. It brings to mind a line from Zbigniew Herbert's doom-laden “Report From a Besieged City,” a poem also quoted in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis:
here everybody is losing the sense of time
we were left with the place an attachment to the place
still we keep ruins of temples phantoms of gardens of houses
if we were to lose the ruins we would be left with nothing
Late in the film, the screenplay allows details from the real world to seep into the story, when it is observed that the adolescent characters dwell on the suburban (read: white) side of 8 Mile Road, Detroit's notorious demographic dividing line. Parent-imposed restrictions on their younger wanderings once prevented the kids from venturing across this racial and economic boundary to the nearby Michigan State Fair—which, in one of those unspoken ironies, is now defunct and has been replaced by an unrelated fair in a more distant suburb.
The aforementioned parents rarely appear in It Follows, which shares many themes with the aforementioned A Nightmare on Elm Street: shameful family secrets, generational disconnection, and the irrelevancy and impotence of adults with respect to the dangers their children face. Jay and Kelly's widowed mother (Debbie Williams) is glimpsed only at the film's periphery, her face never entirely visible even when she is roused from her stupor of alcohol and grief. A similar off-handed depiction of parental figures can be observed is Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, a feature that likewise focuses its attention on the mindsets of its adolescent characters. Adhering to the teen viewpoint is entirely fitting, given that It Follows is concerned with the loss of sexual innocence as a psychological experience rather than as just another peril that sets parental hangs wringing.
Indeed, the prevalence of false parents among the monster's faces—Hugh's mom, Greg's mom, and Jay and Kelly's dad all make an appearance in Its rotating wardrobe of masks—hints that the parents are part of the problem. Given that It often appears naked or in underclothes, there is an element of incestuous ickiness to the creature's menace, perhaps plucked from the Freudian nightmares and longings of its victims, or perhaps based on past incidents of abuse. This incestuous aspect to Its threat is usually only vaguely implied, as when It appears as Jay's deceased father in a grimy undershirt and boxers, and then begins viciously throwing objects at her. Rarely, it becomes quite explicit, as when It assumes the form of Greg's mother—her night robe open to expose her breasts—in order to gain access to his room and savagely assault him. This jarring scene is when the creature's previously indefinite intentions become grotesquely clear: It literally rapes its victims to death.
This mingling of sex and death contains a potent erotic charge, of course, owing in part to the perverse sexuality at play when women are threatened with or subjected to violence on film. The sequence that opens the film—one orthogonal to Jay's story—depicts a teenage girl, Annie (Bailey Spry), fleeing from an unseen assailant down her street in broad daylight, clad only in underwear and high heels. This brings to mind not only the terrorized Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) stumbling naked and sobbing out of the dark in Blue Velvet, but also local news director Nina's (Rene Russo) vivid description of her show's spirit in the recent Nightcrawler: “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” Within ten on-screen minutes of Annie's savage murder, Jay not only has sex, but is stripped down to her (virginal pink!) bra and panties, drugged, and bound. This places her in a position of absolute helplessness at the hands of her boyfriend Hugh. (He's not the "real" threat, of course, but the image is still a disturbing one.) One doesn't need a degree in feminist film theory to recognize the linkage between female peril and male arousal. Indeed, the confusion of sex with violence in the male erotic imagination is hardly a new phenomenon. In Yara's reading material of choice, The Idiot, Myshkin's romantic rival and frenemy Rogozhin quite openly discusses both his sexual longing for and his murderous rage towards the “sullied” woman Nastassya, admitting that the two urges are inextricably linked in his obsessed mind.
Such readings also underline one of the film's other primary themes, that of mortality and its link to sexual awakening. Not for nothing is orgasm described as la petit mort: the fleeting sensation of calm transcendence that follows a sexual climax, which provides a kind of existential clarity. Such insight is not available to children, who are ignorant of both sex and their own mortality. In an early scene, Hugh expresses a wish for a return to the blissful ignorance of childhood, when he was not cognizant of either sex or death. Orgasm, and thus sex generally, opens the mind to a secondary loss of innocence, that of mortal awareness. One could identify the entity that follows in the wake of sexual experience as the Grim Reaper, lurking in the background for the rest of a person's life, even in their happiest moments. The inescapable certainty of this specter of death then colors everything, spurring subsequent sex acts as a kind of proverbial whistling past the graveyard.
Needless to say, the monster in It Follows elicits numerous other metaphorical interpretations, from sexually transmitted disease to post-traumatic stress disorder induced by childhood abuse. The frequent references to “passing” or “giving” the creature's curse to a sexual partner favor the former, but It Follows is ultimately a work that operates more clearly as a nightmare scenario than as neat allegory. As with slasher films, it's tempting to indict the film's worldview as anti-sex or at least morally conservative. Granted, the monster's predations have led to a recurring pattern of desperate one-night stands, followed either by gruesome death or another link in a daisy chain of disingenuous sex. If the film has an ethos, however, it is one that favors emotional intimacy and sex positivity. The film's ambiguous ending sees Jay and a freshly deflowered Paul walking hand-in-hand down a suburban street, the couple perhaps being followed by It or perhaps not. Having established that the curse's donor retains their ability to see the normally invisible entity, the recipient has a natural ally, but only if they stick together and watch each other's backs. It therefore becomes apparent that it is not fucking per se that gives the monster strength, but the endless cycle of fucking followed by callous abandonment. Inasmuch as the characters have any hope of defeating It someday, that hope arguably lies in sleeping with as many of their trusted friends as possible.