It Follows

IFposterRADiUS-TWC (2014) 100 min. R

Director: David Robert Mitchell

Screenplay: David Robert Mitchell

Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis; Editing: Julio C. Perez IV

Production Design: Michael Perry; Set Decoration: Joey Ostrander

Costumes: Kimberly Leitz-McCauley; Score: Disasterpeace

Stars: Maiko Monroe (Jay Height), Keir Gilchrist (Paul), Olivia Luccardi (Yara), Lili Sepe (Kelly Height), Daniel Zovatto (Greg Hannigan), Jake Weary (Hugh), Bailey Spry (Annie), Leisa Pulido (Mrs. Hannigan), Mike Lanier (Giant Man)

A dangerous sexual encounter results in teen Jay Height (Maiko Monroe) contracting a paranormal form of STD. A shape shifting apparition that only she can see attaches itself to her, shadowing her every move and threatening to slay her with its touch unless she can place the curse on someone else through another unsafe sexual encounter. Plagued by the hold hormones have over their lives, It Follows knows what scares most horny teens, the cause of most of their angst. Here, certain death is transmitted the same way it was in Larry Clark’s controversial Kids, thematically returning us to the psychosexual roots of the horror film.

The movie’s premise is as primary as a game of hot potato and the concept of passing along a lethal curse, whether it be vampirism or lycanthropy, the runes or just a subliminal videotape, is one of the genre’s most respected perennials. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, It Follows possesses the sexually sleazy quality of the most exploitative of teen horror films, but it’s wittier than most because there’s a floating idea in having the ‘curse’ be passed along through sexual contact. The beast with two backs has a bite here the likes of which few films have dared give it since the days of David Cronenberg’s Rabid. The moral of It Follows is rudimentary – be careful who you sleep with, since in this day and age you never know what diseases they might be carrying.

The longstanding cliché concerning horror films is that, according to their draconian moral code, teens who have sex must die as atonement for their ‘sin.’ But few thrillers have taken that premise to the screamingly funny extreme It Follows does, taken it as their very basis. Only Cherry Falls and Teeth really spring to mind, and It Follows is certainly in the same class as the latter. The movie has turned the idea of Max Ophüls’ La Ronde back to its original, less romanticized source, as metaphor for how sexually transmitted diseases spread like wildfire through society.

Like death itself, STDs are the great social leveler but It Follows offers interesting turnabout as these sheltered suburban brats begin venturing out into the big scary world on their own for the first time. Though patient zero seems to be associated with the seamier side of town, when the kids visit his squalid dwelling located on the wrong side of the tracks to look for clues he actually proves a transplant. The disease he carries was imported from the same safe, middle-class suburbia they inhabit themselves, trickling down through intermingling to unfairly plague the dregs of society more commonly thought of as unclean, walking infestations.

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Drawing a clear distinction between making love and the casual sex the victims must engage in to pass the curse or die, the permanent and possibly terminal effects of an act that has no lasting emotional meaning for participants, as depicted here, is intended to serve as deterrent for the target teenage audience, driving them back to the relative safety of purity rings. The movie might have been contrived by an overly vigilante parents’ committee as a nightmare lecture on the birds and bees similar to ‘the talk’ the kids in It Follows recall having been given once, when caught perusing porno mags.

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It Follows seems especially intended to warn young girls off sex by conceiving it in such a fearsome context. Rather than a trifling matter, quickly forgotten, it’s depicted as a permanently scarring experience that actually changes the physical constitution of the body, leaving people irreparably damaged and ‘haunted’ for the rest of their life. The arm cast Jay sports throughout much of the movie indicates a deeper injury of some sort, like that leg brace worn in Heart of Midnight by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who we came to find was sexually abused as a child. The view of sex as a terrifying prospect would make even more sense in such context, like the frightening visions experienced by repressed abuse survivor Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.

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In a scene that’s repeated three times, a half-naked actress is observed in a disheveled state by witnesses in front of her house in a manner intended to make it appear for all intents and purposes that she’s fleeing sexual assault. While she’s still basking in the afterglow, the heroine’s romantic encounter ends with her seemingly tender and caring partner Hugh (Jake Weary) turning on her the second the act is over, ripping away his demeanor of civility to cold bloodily chloroform and truss her up. After passing the curse on to her he rationalizes his behavior, comforting her that, being a girl, it should be easier for her to quickly give it to someone else, there being no shortage of randy male prospects constantly on the make.

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As in Cherry Falls and Teeth, much humor is derived from the long line of selfless, horny boys queuing to sacrifice themselves by offering their services. Since this can only be accomplished through sexual intercourse, these cunning little lotharios seem almost eager to glimmer the curse on to themselves, regardless of the consequences, more than willing to forfeit their lives for such a once in a lifetime easy score. Jay’s ineffectual best friend Paul (Keir Gilcrest) who’s nurtured a lifelong crush on her for instance, views her predicament as a godsend since it affords him the means of finally getting into her pants after all the time and effort he’s patiently invested.

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So Paul’s increasingly frustrated state becomes rather amusing as he plays witness to the parade of strangers she keeps sleeping with to buy herself some time. Having sex with everybody but him so as not endanger his life, becomes her way of showing him how much she cares. Intending to use these sexual contacts like industrial strength condoms, rather than serving as a protective bulwark against the creeping death, all the boys she sleeps with end up proving worse than useless however, folding in a domino pattern in a direction that leads right back to her.

It Follows, probably thankfully, never addresses the questions that keep popping into viewers’ minds, such as whether contagion is only communicable vaginally, or even if one uses protection. Seemingly invoked from the elemental ether, no backstory is offered as to what this wraith is, where it came from or why it wants to kill. So despite its links to incubus and succubus tradition, the only read we can get is that it’s the physical manifestation of communicable diseases still quite capable of killing in our post-AIDS era.

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Being touched by It seems similar to being hit by a live wire as suggested by the attempt to electrocute it at the end, but we get no clear understanding of It’s modus operandi. The victim at the beginning appeared to have been ripped to pieces, while the neighbor boy Greg (Daniel Zovatto) just seems to have had the life essence sucked out of him. Unmotivated, random horror can seem the most terrifying kind because it’s the sort one encounters most often in daily life, but the downside is that too many of the scares here make no sense. Despite the title, things don’t generally follow logically, the way tIF (28)ahey should. We can’t understand why the shapeshifting demon takes the various forms it does for instance. If it’s a mental projection only Jay can see, like a tulpa or the rakshasa of East Indian mysticism, plucking images out of the victims’ minds, it makes sense that this girl who’s the object of so many unsolicited male gazes should imagine the little boys who peep on her while she’s swimming scurrying through the opening kicked in her door by the giant man (Mike Lanier) when he can’t get at her himself, amounting to symbolic intercourse. But then, if this being can kick down doors and break windows in the first place, gaining access whenever need be, why is It observed standing motionless on the roof in the guise of a naked old man (Don Hails) as the teens flee at the end, as if garlic and wolf’s bane had been keeping it out of the house all that time?

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The unexpected guise It adopts at the finale, taking on the form of Jay’s father much as it had Greg’s mother earlier, suggests an additional Oedipal angle, similar to the information that inexperienced Paul practiced kissing on his sisters. The forbidding figure of parental authority the demon takes on in its final strike is intended to drive home why Jay’s being punished in the first place, his reproachful presence emphasizing her guilt and shame at having illicitly engaged in sexual activity before being mentally and emotionally mature enough to handle it. But there’s no rhyme or reason to the other presences Jay envisions, such as the old woman (Ingrid Mortimer). They don’t even carry any real sexual menace and are only intended to keep us constantly unsettled and paranoid by the knowledge that terror can lurk in the most seemingly ordinary of places. Never knowing which direction It’s coming from encourages vigilant viewers to constantly scan the mis-en-scène.

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Because of such randomness there are no inviolable rules this film has to follow, Scream fashion, which permits it to violate its own dream logic right and left without compunction. It’s supposed to only be a threat to those who have had sex, but the slashes it leaves on Paul when he tries clobbering it with a lawn chair makes it seem far more corporeal than the movie lets on. And the fact that it makes its presence known to others in this fashion undermines another aspect of the horror, in which rational minds refuse to accept that someone is actually in real and immediate danger, as it was with Barbara Hershey in The Entity. The mass panic aroused among these impressionable kids whipped into a frenzy by Jay’s hysterical reactions to some invisible assailant they can’t see, leads to characters shooting blind, regardless of the innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.

Though inexorable, It walks, never runs (like a hall monitor), so it’s a snap for these energetic teens to escape as it shuffles after them at the speed of a swathed mummy. As Hugh advises, the real danger only lies in letting themselves be backed into a corner with no exit, which somehow still manages to happen over and over again. Because It can’t mimic human speech, like a doppelganger, the possibility of mistaking it for long never presents itself, even when it takes on the appearance of those nearest and dearest. And the logic of why the kids hit upon the idea of drawing it to water and electrocuting it remains a closely guarded secret locked in writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s own mind, though clearly it’s linked with female biological functions since the sight of water breaking is repeated more than once and the final image of the pool is clearly intended to evoke menstruation, the real curse women are plagued with.

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The thinly written characters, according to conventions of the genre, are frequently required to behave quite absurdly, and the horror setups rarely rise above the stock in trade, but It Follows still ranks as a cut above average because it gets at the primal, psychosexual roots of teen angst in a way most horror films steer far clear of. It’s unsettling in a deeper, more disturbing way than the standard slasher flick, downplaying gore for pitch black psychological soundings, the way Val Lewton tried to do in the ’40s. IF (80)It Follows even evokes Lewton’s most famous classic Cat People in that pool-set finale. Mitchell freely associates his film with other horror opuses as well, such as A Nightmare on Elm Street (by way of Rear Window), when Jay vainly tries to awaken the sleeping Greg in the house next door before he’s done in. The stacked, domino effect of victims bumped off in linear order recalls the Final Destination films, while Let Me In is brought to mind by the depiction of adults as virtual nonentities in their children’s lives. Most notably and disturbingly, It Follows cross-references itself with The Ring, in which one could only be saved by copying the cursed videotape and showing it to someone else, in effect sacrificing an innocent life in their place. It Follows focuses on the moral culpability of these tainted teens knowingly passing on their ‘infection’ to other victims with malice aforethought, in a desperate bid to save themselves. This aspect of the movie goes beyond the casual run of horror, cutting at something far more troubling. Clear intimations to the criminal transmission of HIV are being drawn when Hugh pointedly assumes a false identity in a strange city to seek out nameless victims, the boat load of faceless men in the harbor kept in anonymous long shot by the camera so viewers won’t see them as people as Jay swims out to offer herself to them, the prostitutes Paul cruises near the end, whose lifestyle makes them the easiest of targets, keeping them exposed to sexual high risks.

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Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is quoted at random throughout the film (not something to be found in your run of the mill horror film, though it certainly could apply to more than a few), as if to emphasize these unthinking teens’ carelessness with their bodies. But the growing malignancy that becomes evident through their unconscionable actions instead brings to mind Nietzsche’s warning “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

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