look at the title of “It Follows,” an unsettling, and deservedly
celebrated new horror film, and can’t tell what the movie is about, then the
movie is already working. “It Follows,” the second feature by
writer/director David Robert Mitchell (“The Myth of the American
Sleepover”), works as well as it does because its creators keep viewers at
arm’s length. It’s a ghost story,
though dead people don’t necessarily haunt its suburban
protagonists. And it’s about teenagers who have sex, though it’s neither a
simple celebration nor condemnation of under-age necking. Instead, “It
Follows” both prolongs and heightens the potency of high school-age fears
until they appear to be ancient existential terrors. In that sense, “It
Follows” is not really about sex, but an unbearable, unsinkable mood that
descends when you come of age, and never completely dissipates, not even after
climactic sexual, or other violent acts.
“It Follows” concerns the never-ending state of hormonal crisis we
call “adolescence,” the film is about illogical actions that have
long-lasting consequences. Jay (Maika Monroe), a quintessentially sullen teen,
learns this soon after she has sex with, and is summarily abducted by Hugh
(Jake Weary). After he chloroforms and ties up Jay, Hugh deliberately, but
impatiently tells her everything he knows: Jay is the latest victim of a
sexually-transmitted haunting. She must pass this burden on to another person
by having more sex. If she doesn’t, she will be relentlessly pursued by someone
she knows…or maybe it will be a stranger…possibly living and/or dead.
Whoever follows Jay—it varies from encounter to encounter—cannot be seen by
anyone else, but can definitely hurt her. Jay passes
this knowledge on to worried friends, like stymied love interest Paul (Keir
Gilchrist). And they consequently try to help Jay banish whatever it is that’s
panic: “It Follows” is not nearly as obtuse as it sounds. If
anything, it’s a little frustrating in its limited view of kids that are always
concerned with, but never really thinking about sex. Jay and her friends take
for granted the fact that they’re living in a constant state of excitement.
That’s a given, so Mitchell doesn’t exoticize, or exaggerate that aspect of
their characters. He does, however, refuse to explain what Jay feels when she’s
pursued by various pale, zombie-like followers. Jay’s not really introspective,
so she only cursorily talks about her naive pre-sexual expectations. All we
know is that she expects sex to be momentous and/or freeing, as she airily says
to herself after she and Hugh fool around. Instead, it’s a momentary
respite that’s inevitably followed by a series of confrontations with people
she may or may not know (aka adulthood).
horror at the heart of “It Follows” isn’t a singular threat, but the
vague knowledge that nothing lasts forever. Jay and her friends try to connect
with each other physically, but only wind up realizing that, while their bonds
are not skin-deep, they’re also not liberating. Here’s where “It
Follows” gets frustratingly—but pointedly—murky: if life after sex is
purgatory, does that mean sex is bad, or that sex simply isn’t a cure-all for
juvenile awkwardness? The latter seems more likely given an unnamed book
passage that Jay’s loyal friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) reads aloud later in the
film. “Your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a
person,” Yara tells Jay, underscoring Jay’s implicit understanding of sex
as an out-of-body vanishing act. Jay’s haunting either frustrates this
vague fear, or confirms it. Either way, she is pursued, and may never know why.
kind of primordial dread is embedded in the film’s visual style. Mitchell’s
camera visually unifies the characters’ shared world, either through static
panoramas that show several characters occupying the same space, or tracking
shots and/or pans that follow characters from one end of the room to the other.
We’re also given the impression of infinite space whenever Mitchell’s camera
stands in for, or is positioned inside Paul or Jay’s cars. In these scenes, the
road that stretches out in front of them/us is long, and there is never a set
destination in sight. That concept is far more unnerving than any of the film’s
more traditional scare scenes, though those are pretty good too (don’t look at
me, experience them for yourself). No, what’s most disquieting about “It
Follows” is the way it presents sex as neither abnormal, nor beneficial.
By contrast, sex in “it Follows” indiscriminately draws pre-existing
emotions out, like a cruel genie that can never be returned to his lamp.