It Follows exists out of time in a paranoid nightmare
It’s intentionally difficult to gauge when It Follows is supposed to be set. Everything has a vintage feel. The old televisions, cars, and black-and-white movies make it seem like a hipster’s dream. A driving 80’s horror-synth soundtrack (by Rich Vreeland of Disasterpeace) follows the characters as they live a sleepy life in and run-down suburb of the further disintegrating Detroit, and their lives are accented by stylistic beauty of a curated mix of relics from different decades. The only nod to the “present” exists both in the future and the past: a pink kindle-iphone type device that looks like a 1960s pink clamshell compact. It’s a brilliant touch that had me craving it immediately and hating that it didn’t actually exist.
There are no screenshots of the clamshell device online, but it looks a lot like this, except it’s always open and Yara’s reading The Idiot on it.
It Follows may not be what some horror fans are expecting. It’s an existential fright that burns low and walks slow. The Idiot looms over the movie, stalking it just as hard as the shape-shifting ghost demon. As AS Byatt wrote in a Guardian review of the Dostoevsky novel,”The true subject of The Idiot is the imminence and immanence of death.” The rambling book, within which Dostoevsky was wrestling with complicated views about Christianity, also tries to reconcile what sexuality means for a “good person.” In her critical companion to The Idiot, Liza Knapp notes “Dostoevsky’s ‘idiot’ fascinates us because he embodies tremendous confusion about gender and sexuality linked to ideas about faith and religion.”
The concept of the film’s monster is new and refreshing, and thankfully isn’t fully explained. It tends to stick with the rules given to it, but the mysteries about what it is and where it came from propel it into a metaphor about running from something. What they end up running from is time, mostly.
This isn’t a film about STDS, even though sex is the way the haunting is passed on from person to person. There are some parallels, especially when thinking about the AIDS epidemic of the 80s, but STDS don’t work the way this curse works. The best way to lessen the destruction of a deadly STD is not not have sex. It won’t help the sufferer in any way, but the best case scenario is that there is a treatment, AND that no one else is exposed to it. In this case, giving this terror to someone else is the only chance for any type of relief, illusory and unsure as that relief may be.
Sex has long been a major part of teenage horror flicks, but even though it is deeply integrated into the rules of the curse, sex itself isn’t presented with the degree of disrespect and sensationalism that it often is in this type of context. Sex does, however, become a strange weapon against one’s self and others, but the motivations to have sex are explored in a surprisingly subtle way.
When main character Jay goes out on a date with Hugh, the guy who’s about to wreck her life and paranormally assault her, they play a little game. At the movie theater they each pick out a stranger who they’d like to be, and the other person has to guess. It turns out 21-year-old old Hugh wants to be a little boy again, because he “has his whole life ahead of him.” The comment seems extremely naive and idiotic until it’s revealed what’s really happening.
At 21, Hugh doesn’t just have the normal, seemingly overwhelming, pressures of a young adult. He’s cursed. His time has been snatched from him. He can try to run for it, by passing on the curse, but it never alleviates the dread and paranoia. No matter how far down the line the curse gets, it can still always come back to you. Childhood is over for these people in the worst way.
“The basic idea of being followed by something that is slow but never stops is from a nightmare I had when I was a kid,” writer-director David Robert Mitchell told Newsweek. “I would see someone in the distance, and they would just be walking very slowly towards me, and I would turn to the people around me and point them out, and they wouldn’t know what I was talking about. I immediately knew that this was a monster, something that was going to hurt me. And I would run away from it and wait, and then eventually it would come around the corner. I could always get away from it, but what was horrible about it was that it just never stopped. It was always coming for me.”
The presence of parents is also fascinating. While there are clues of Jay’s mom and dad: family photos, an empty wine bottle, at least two instances of a sandwich plate left in her room (I felt a visceral comfort to seeing that sandwich garnished with orange chips, pickle, and OJ,) the only time any of these college kids see their parents is when they are being hunted. Parents are our caregivers, but maybe didn’t always give the best care. Even when they do, growing up is a painful time of separation where parents represent inevitable responsibility and aging process. At the same time, parents may be a little jealous of their child’s youth and opportunity. It Follows explores some of the phantoms and fears between one generation and the next. Again, the smudging between decades makes the connections and estrangements even more confusion. When everything is so related and connected, the demarcations between generations are smudged. There is nothing between us except the relentless chase of time, which stalks behind us, slowly, possibly catching up with us at any moment.
After a number of attempts to “escape” the shadow pursuing them, nothing is resolved. The end shot is creepy and ambiguous. Whether or not the person behind Jay and Paul is It is a bit irrelevant. This curse’s terror is as much about unknowns as it is about actually being followed. At least you know where it is when you are actively being. Once it’s passed along, the threat of it returning when you least suspect it is always there. Everyone you see walking towards you, whether you know them or not, is a possible monster. And, of course, you become a monster yourself, passing on not only death, but this horrible fear of the unknown more tangible and threatening than the low buzz of dread humans already harbor about our inevitable ends.
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By Kyle Buchanan Follow @kylebuchanan
It Follows has quickly become the horror hit of the year, expanding into over 1,200 theaters this weekend after weeks of rave reviews and sterling word of mouth in limited release. The premise is irresistible — after hooking up with her shady boyfriend, Jay (Maika Monroe) learns she will be stalked by a shape-shifting monster unless she passes her affliction on to someone else through sex (though if the monster then slays that person, it will return to hunting Jay). But even after seeing the movie, fans still had plenty of questions about what it all meant and how key sequences were conceived. Vulture recently called up It Follows writer-director David Robert Mitchell to explain himself, and perhaps shed light on some of the story’s pivotal shocks. Be forewarned: The following interview includes massive end-of-movie SPOILERS. Don’t read it until you’ve watched the film! (And after this weekend, you’ll have no excuse not to.)
Talk to me about our heroes’ final plan to kill the monster in the pool. I was rooting for them, but I also felt like it was sort of naïve to think that plan would work, given how little they really know about the monster. It’s the stupidest plan ever! [Laughs.] It’s a kid-movie plan, it’s something that Scooby-Doo and the gang might think of, and that was sort of the point. What would you do if you were confronted by a monster and found yourself trapped within a nightmare? Ultimately, you have to resort to some way of fighting it that’s accessible to you in the physical world, and that’s not really going to cut it. We kind of avoid any kind of traditional setup for that sequence, because in more traditional horror films, there might be a clue that would lead them to figure out a way to destroy this monster. I intentionally avoided placing those. Instead, they do their best to accomplish something, and we witness its failure. It’s probably a very non-conventional way of approaching the third-act confrontation, but we thought it was a fun way to deal with it.
Initially, they do fail to dispatch the monster, but after several gunshots to the head, the pool fills with the monster’s spreading blood and they can escape. At first, it’s a relief — it seems like the monster has finally been slayed — but as the blood cloud keeps expanding outward, it becomes a more and more ominous visual. All I can tell you is that I’ve talked to people who have read that as a conclusion — they see that sequence and believe that the monster has been destroyed — and then there are other people who see it and feel that it’s a sign of their inability to destroy it, or for it to be destroyed, period! I imagine people can figure out how I feel about that shot, but I won’t say specifically. Let’s discuss how you came up with the different forms of the monster. We’ll start with the very creepy school sequence, where Jay sees an old woman heading for her, whom she perceives to be the follower. It feels so malevolent and wrong right off the bat because the old woman stands out among all these teenagers. When I wrote those scenes where we see different forms of the monster, I tried to just think about what was troubling to me in each of those situations. And I think what you’re saying is true, it’s about the contrast of this woman in its location. Instantly, you realize that something is not quite right. And people are not paying attention to her, although in any other situation, they would be. We know that the monster can also take the form of somebody who’s familiar, which comes into play when it heads to Greg’s house to kill him. At first, when Jay sees the monster, it looks just like Greg. Later, when it finally kills Greg, it takes the form of his mother … which is doubly disturbing because it fucks him to death! So why did I make it the mom, other than just saying it was one of the more fucked-up things that I could think of? [Laughs.] It’s also that within the film, we’re sort of avoiding the influence of the adult world, and so I thought it was interesting to only enter into that space through the trope of the monster. There are other forms that tie into other characters, too. Some are very clear and people get it, and some are much harder to pick up on. There are a couple that I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone even ask about, because we also tried to be true to distance. We tried to keep the camera closer to the location of the actors, so if there’s a point-of-view shot from their perspective, we didn’t necessarily throw a longer lens on so that that form of the monster would be closer and clearer. You’re very circumspect about the amount of gore you chose to show in this film. The kills are very brief, and it’s more about the shock of, “Whoa, what happened here?” There are a few moments of gore, but it’s not really the point of the film. I was drawn to the movie as a way of making a film about dread and anxiety, and I think a certain amount of gore can put people in the headspace to feel that, but I think it’s more about the feeling of waiting for something. You understand how terrible things can get, but you don’t know when it’s going to happen, or how, or where. There are incredibly gory films that I’m a huge fan of, but it just didn’t feel right to put too much in this. I had to laugh at the scene where Jay’s friend Paul offers to have sex with her. He’s positioning it as this very noble attempt to take on her affliction, but at the same time, he sees this as an opening to finally get with her! Yeah, it’s funny to me. The only person so foolish to put themselves into that situation would be a teenage boy in love! I think maybe that’s an age and a moment in time when it would almost be too easy to not realize how bad the consequences are. I don’t think that Paul is being manipulative — I think there are genuine feelings there — but at the same time, it is humorous, at least to me. When they finally do hook up, Paul asks her, “Do you feel any different?” That’s a line you often hear after movie characters lose their virginity, but boy, is it fraught with new meaning in a film like this. Yeah, I enjoyed that, I had fun with that line. I’ve heard a few different interpretations of their connection — or their lack of connection — and I would never want to over-explain that or give it away, but I do like that some people see it as them connecting in a kind of real way, and other people see it as a sad moment that’s maybe one-sided. I like that there’s at least a certain amount of ambiguity there, in the sense that I’ve heard both interpretations embraced by different viewers. The movie ends with Jay and Paul walking home. A ways behind them, we see a teenage boy walking in the same direction … it might be the monster, or it might not. Was that always the final shot? Yes, for sure. We had a couple variations on it — I think we had some where he was really far back, and then some where no one would ever miss him — but we settled on the one where he’s there, but not too close. It allows people to make up their own mind of what it means.
I talked to you at your Cannes premiere last year, and you said that you have some ideas for where the story could go if it becomes a franchise. I would have to think, based on how well the movie is doing, that maybe there have been tentative discussions about exactly that. Can you say anything about it? It seems like the response has been very strong at this point, but any specifics [about sequels] — that, I couldn’t say. I have a lot of different kinds of projects in many different genres, so I don’t know that a sequel would be the next thing that I would do, but I’m certainly open to it. I just kind of want to see how things play out. But I do want to say that when I wrote this, I had some bigger set-pieces, a few things that I sort of simplified, and some stuff that we chose to cut out because of the budget and time, so there’s all kinds of fun things that could be done with this concept and story.
1) STD: sexually transmitted disease.
2) Demon: an evil supernatural being such as a ghost or spirit.
3) Virus: a small infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of other organisms.
4) Curse: any expressed wish that some form of adversity or misfortune will befall or attach to some other person or entity.
5) Chain Letter: a letter that is mailed successively to different recipients, with each recipient being instructed in the body of the letter to mail the letter to another person or persons.
6) Nostalgia: a sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.
7) Monster: a terrifying or dangerous creature.
8) Rape: a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual penetration perpetrated against a person without that persons consent.
9) Adult: a human being or other organism that has reached sexual maturity
10) Teenager: a young person whose age falls within the range from 13–19.
11) Existential: if you wrestle with big questions involving the meaning of life, you may be having an existential crisis.
14) Childhood: the age span ranging from birth to adolescence.
15) Stalk: to approach slowly and quietly in order not to be discovered when getting closer.
16) Perspective: the ability to consider things in a given context.
17) Abstinence: specifically, the practice of abstaining from sexual intercourse, either permanently or until marriage.
18) Ambiguity: something that is open to more than one interpretation, exploration, or meaning that cannot be determined from its context.
19) Dread: great fear in view of impending evil.
20) Horror: a genre of fiction meant to evoke feeling of fear and suspense.
Questions for It Follows:
1) What does the demon in the film actually look when it isn’t imitating other people?
2) How can a demon be propagated through sexual intercourse? Or, is it better understood that the film is a metaphor for the dangers of premarital sex? If so, why is it so wrong to have sex outside marriage? Who made up this rule, and for what reasons?
3) Why doesn’t Jay like Paul? List some reasons, and then try and explain why she finally consents to sleep with him at the end of the film?
4) Does Jay have sex with the three men on the boat? If so, what happens to them? Does she tell them the rules of surviving the demon, or does she just leave them to die so she can live longer?
5) How is it possible that a bullet can injure the demon but not kill it? Is it possible to actually kill the demon?
6) Could you escape the demon by flying to another country? Like, the demon would not be able to cross water, right? I mean, the demon does not get into the pool to kill jay at the end of the film, right?
7) Where does the demon come from?
8) How are audiences supposed to understand the end of the film? I mean Jay and Paul are holding hands like a real couple, but does that mean it’s a happy ending?
9) Who on Earth is that weird tall man in the hallway? Speculation required for this one as I don’t think he’s a character Jay actually knows.
10) Who is the creepy half-naked girl Jay encounters in her kitchen, and why does she appear to be traumatized?