Monday, March 30, 2015

Forget the STD metaphor, It Follows is really about the fear of getting older

The most crucial scene in It Follows, this year's indie horror movie sensation, is disguised as a relatively minor one.  Young college student Jay (Maika Monroe, of last year's The Guest) is on date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a guy she just met, when she proposes that they play a game while waiting in line at the theater.  In this game, one must look at their surroundings and pick somebody they'd want to switch places with.  The other person then has to guess who that person would be and why.  Jay predicts Hugh would want to switch places with a guy in the crowd who has a hot girlfriend.  Hugh tells her she's incorrect, and points to a couple and their young son.  She assumes he means the dad, but no, he actually means the kid.  "Must be nice to still have your whole life ahead of you," Hugh remarks wistfully.

Once their relationship progresses a bit, Jay and Hugh have sex for the first time in his car, after which he chloroforms her.  The film's premise is then laid out simply and economically: Jay wakes up tied to a wheelchair, and Hugh explains that he's passed on a curse to her by having sex with her.  She will be followed relentlessly by a mysterious, murderous entity.  It can only be seen by those with the curse, it can take on the form of any person, and even though it's slow, it's not dumb.  The only way to get rid of this curse is to pass it on to somebody else, but if they get killed, the curse just reverts back down the line of transference.

It's easy to see that premise as one extended metaphor for STDs -- I mean, the film is essentially begging for that interpretation.  After all, it's about a supernatural force that's exchanged through sexual intercourse, something that follows you and haunts you constantly.  And indeed, many viewers have picked up on that explanation and ran with it.  But consider a secondary, deeper-seated metaphor, one that's clear from the aforementioned scene between Hugh and Jay at the theater.  It Follows is a horror film about the fear of aging.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell landed on the scene with his feature-length film The Myth of the American Sleepover, a dreamy panorama of teenage life on the last weekend of summer vacation in the suburbs of Detroit.  It got rave reviews at film festivals, and though I personally wasn't crazy about it, I did love the hazy mood of it all.  Either way, I don't think anybody could've guessed that his follow-up would be this.  It Follows exhibits such a technical mastery and distinct visual style that it feels like somebody with 10 films under his belt, not one.  The best trick in his repertoire is his use of the slow pan, circling around these perfectly choreographed scenes to give more visual information and map out the geography of a setting, priming the viewer to prepare for terror coming from any direction.  He uses those elegant, glacial camera movements time and time again for the film's many ingeniously constructed setpieces.

But though the film may be a gigantic leap-forward on a filmmaking level, it's very much in tune with his debut on a thematic and textural one.  That film was all about bottling up the experience -- the look, the sound, the mood -- of adolescence.  This one does the same, only in more oblique ways.  Though they may initially be skeptical of the veracity of what Jay is going through, she has her younger sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and her two friends Paul (Kier Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) to stand by her through this ordeal.  Mitchell puts such care into carving out the interpersonal relationships here, and the film would work well even without the horror plot, solely on the strength of their characterizations.  They become something of a Scooby Gang on their quest to rid Jay of this evil.

There's such an aching nostalgia for youth in the way he captures the specificity of being young.  The way the characters lay around in bed, curled up beside each other.  The way they spend vacant time, sitting on the porch playing cards because there's nothing better to do.  The way they watch old black and white movies and goof around.  It's a romantic view the film takes on, as if everything after is going to be all downhill from here.

But the clearest evidence of the film's true aim of being about the anxieties of getting older is in its many scenes where a piece of literature is read aloud.  The first instance is a scene where Jay is sitting in English class, a day or two after she's had the curse passed down to her.  Her professor is reading T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to the class, but Jay is too distracted by what she sees outside of a window: "It" staggering towards her in the form of an old woman.  Prufrock is a rambling, disorienting poem, but one of the prevailing interpretations is that it's about aging and decay.  It's no coincidence that as we hear a poem about a man who has "seen the moment of [his] greatness flicker," we see this harbinger of death inch closer and closer in the frame.

Or consider the film's penultimate scene, which would otherwise seem like it has no purpose being left in the final cut.  Throughout the film, Yara is reading Dostoyevsky's The Idiot on her little clam shell e-reader.  After the climactic showdown with It lands her in the hospital, there's a scene that's just her reading this excerpt of the book to the rest of the gang:
"When there is torture, there is pain and wounds, physical agony, and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering, so that one is tormented only by the wounds until the moment of death. But the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then ten minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant--your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that this is certain.  The worst thing is certain."
It's Mitchell last way of saying: death is coming for you, no matter what.  You can try to avoid it, but it will catch up to you eventually.  Sounds like something else in this film.

When you're young, you feel invincible.  Darker days may be in store, but you don't have to worry about that for now.  Your whole world is those card games on the porch on lazy afternoons.  But then at some point, a rewiring begins to happen.  Adulthood encroaches -- slowly, then all at once -- and with it comes an awareness of your own mortality, your eventual decay.  It Follows knows that that's the greatest horror of all.


  1. Julia and I saw this film a couple days ago and thought it was pretty good. The tension and mood throughout is very well executed, the forms that the "It" takes are disturbing and unsettling (two aspects that come to mind are the tall man that comes from behind her friend in the house and the random off-kilter nature of the "It" partially exposing itself, whether it be one sock on or a singular exposed breast).

    Beyond that, the whole pool sequence at the end, while seemingly coming out of nowhere, is very entertaining and I loved that after "It" was shot, it seemed to become this hellish smoke (that I wish they hadn't just cut away from).

    Also, what the hell is that clam shell reader anyways?

    1. The director really likes to be ambiguous about when his movies take place so there always tends to be a mishmash of periods in them. I assume that clam shell reader was like an example of something futuristic because I tried to look it up and it doesn't actually seem to exist. Meanwhile, there's alot of other stuff that feels very 80s in it.

      Anyway, I'm glad you and Julia enjoyed it. I loved it alot, it's probably going to be very high on my end of the year list.