One of the biggest things that ties horror to comedy is the fact that it’s all subjective. What is funny to one person could be dire to another. What scares someone could easily lead another to laughing about it. This subjectivity is both incredibly important to the genres as a whole, and something that can potentially lead to great frustration on their (or the viewers) parts. The question, especially in horror, all too often shifts from taking a more personal stake in a story to attempting a bit of a “shotgun approach”; if we just hit the scares broadly enough, we should be able to get the bulk of the audience at least once.
That can be a very effective way to go about telling a story, but sometimes, keeping your story a little more personal can be effective, too. Of course, the risk you run by doing so is that you can very easily split the audience into two very distinct factions. On one hand, there is the group of viewers who will not only love your story unabashedly, but they will try to get others to take it in as well. On the other hand are people who, for one reason or another, found the only redeeming quality to be the jokes they can make about the events that they just witnessed. A recent movie is currently hitting both factions, as has been evidenced by the reviews it has received. More personally, I was able to witness the precise split when watching this very movie with a group of friends. The movie I’m talking about, of course, is
In many ways, It Follows is a hard movie to quantify. It is the story of a vengeful murder ghost that is unleashed on unsuspecting victims via sex, so that kind of makes it like The Ring, except with intercourse replacing a video. But is it also talking about something deeper? And how scary is it, honestly? A lot of these questions are really left up to the interpretation of the viewer, and whether or not there was something in the film that grabbed their attention enough to want them to dig deeper. After all, on its surface, again, it’s about a vengeful murder ghost unleashed through sex, which might just be enough for many audiences.
The characters in It Follows, at least the living ones, are your fairly standard horror movie fare. A group of young adults, composed of Jay (Maika Monroe), her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) are enjoying their somewhat temporally-dislocated life when, suddenly, Jay finds herself the victim of the eponymous “It”, all thanks to a bit of late night fun with Hugh (Jake Weary). Greg (Daniel Zovatto) gets roped into the turmoil along the way, and, seemingly, is the perfect answer to Jay’s problems, thanks to his presentation as a bit of a lothario. Much of the acting is almost purposefully subdued, which allows the film to take the time it needs to flesh out the story.
One thing it doesn’t do is worry about fleshing out the creature itself. What brought it into being? Why is it chasing people down the line, to get bitter revenge? Why is sex the thing that passes it along? And, since it will continually move back down the line, progressing through a reverse sexual order, is there any way to get rid of it? Leaving the creature without a lot of clarity makes sense, even if it sometimes feels frustrating. Honestly, it’s refreshing for horror to step away from the idea that everything can be researched or understood. Sometimes, the monster is just a monster that you need to overcome, or escape, not learn about. When that monster is ONLY visible to its victim (although it can affect and be affected by others), that just serves to heighten the tension for that character. It also leads to one questioning whether or not that character is a reliable narrator, by bringing their sanity into question. If only they can see it, does it really exist? On this level, It Follows answers with a resounding “yes”. The creature feels like something out of a dreamscape, one that ends up being at least somewhat shared, and fleshing it out, so to speak, would weaken it.
But what is the moral of the story? It would be easy to write off It Follows as a precautionary tale about who you have sex with, and assume that the ghost is some sort of stand-in for STD’s. However, that moral falls apart when the cursed characters are encouraged to have MORE sex, to pass the creature along, and to create a barrier between themselves and the monster. Also, if safe sex was the moral, and sex was what the villain was standing in for, the movie would never have taken any strides towards stating that Hugh wasn’t Jay’s first. In many ways, It Follows seems to be more about the loss of innocence than anything else. The spirit is able to change its appearance to keep its intended victims off-guard, and it seems that the most effective guise is one of family or friends. The movie isn’t trying to say that sex is bad. It seems to be trying to say that you never know who you can trust.
Of course, there is also the thread weaving through the film about The Idiot, helpfully read to us by Yara on her clam shell e-reader (seriously, it looks like a Kindle BirthControl). And yet, the passages from the book, specifically about the loss of purity and the relentless pursuit of eventual death, don’t really describe what’s happening here, either. Yes, these are definitely factors at play in the film, but none of this seems to be the central driving force. If anything, the film actually embraces said purity through the interactions of Jay and Paul.
It Follows remains at its most effective when it indulges in long, steady shots, much like the scene that opens the film. When there is a clear, uninterrupted scene, the foreboding of the monster, and its effect on the characters, is much more palatable. The opening scene is a incredibly beautifully shot one, in which an unknown girl runs out of her house, makes a wide arc, and eventually runs back in to grab car keys and drive away, all in one long camera pan. And yet, as strong cinematic as that scene is, it is the rest of the movie that really heightens the opening, as suddenly the film’s internal logic works its way back to what we already witnessed. We couldn’t see “It” following this woman, because she wasn’t the focus of the story, or our personal stand-in for the events. It is only after Jay receives the curse that we, the viewer, are able to see it as well.
Another point about the camera work, and one that should receive more praise, in my opinion, is how it treats the “male gaze”. Horror specifically has a tough time not subjecting itself to the male gaze, as we’re often shown long lingering views of women’s bodies. It Follows doesn’t entirely avoid this set-up, but it does so clearly through the eyes of the characters, and it is both men and women that fall under the camera’s “eye”. The ogling gaze never feels as though the director was simply adding it for titillation, but more that it was inserted to display a reality of uninvited “peeping”.
One thing that definitely leaps about It Follows is the usage of nudity, or the specific lack thereof. Point of fact, while the movie does have some sexual acts, they are all consensual, and none overtly use nudity to drive the scene. In fact, the only real nudity in the film takes place through whatever exactly “It” is, as more than a few of the forms it takes appear either partially or completely naked. However, this usage merely increases how disturbing this creature can be, as, again, it is at its most effective when appearing as a family member or friend of the victim. If this killer really is the stuff of nightmares, there are fewer things more personally terrifying, especially to young adults, than the notion of being relentlessly chased by their naked parents and grandparents.
I mentioned above about the “temporally-dislocated” setting, and that bears further mention. There is Yara’s e-reader, which would clearly seem to place the movie in present day. And yet, the films watched by the characters are older black-and-white horror fare. The soundtrack seems to be heavily inspired by the films of the 80’s. Overall, much of the film seems to be, instead of capturing a moment IN time, attempting to capture a moment OUT of time. By not allowing the film to exist comfortably in any particular time period, it simply adds to the atmosphere of the film as something out of a dream, or, in this case, a nightmare.
But is It Follows scary? Your mileage will almost undoubtedly vary on this. For some viewers, the film will stick with them, and they may find themselves looking over their shoulder more often than they did before. For others, the movie didn’t really work at whatever it set out to do, and it is best left as another forgettable entry into horror’s catalog. Personally for me, while I didn’t necessarily find It Follows to be an overly scary, or even creepy, film, I definitely walked away doing a lot more thinking than I expected I would. It’s refreshing to see a film of any kind, horror or not, that deals with some of the more human points addressed in It Follows. Just don’t ask me to tell you categorically what it means, because, as with all horror, the points it makes are subjective.