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Film Review: It Follows

It Follows (2014; Directed by David Robert Mitchell)

Fêted at Cannes, released Stateside to great acclaim, and referenced analogously in the pages of the New York Times to apply to a leading Republican Presidential candidate, It Follows has been understood as a singular indie revivification of the horror film genre in America. It is that, admittedly, but you may be surprised to learn that it’s more, much more. It’s a creepily resonant, eerily ambiguous meditation on sex and death, the transitory nature of youth, the immutability of the past, and even urban planning, socioeconomic divisions, and the persistence of itfollowshistory in contemporary America. It’s Freud meets The Ring filtered through dialectical materialism and social stratification, Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock, and classic slow-pursuit slasher and zombie flicks.

It Follows teases its core concept in an initially unexplained but indelible opening sequence. A young woman exits her suburban home at dusk, frightened, frantic, paranoid. She runs out into the street, alarming her neighbours and father, then circles back into her home, always looking at something behind her that remains unseen but clearly terrifying. Rushing for the car in the driveway, she speeds far away into the night, finally stopping at a park at the edge of a body of water, where she she tells her parents that she loves them on her cell phone, gazing fixedly into the beam of the car’s headlights for something. It must have found her, because the next shot is of her shockingly broken body on the beach in the morning.

From there, writer/director David Robert Mitchell sets about establishing Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty but unremarkable college student in suburban Detroit, and her circle of friends. These are contemporary young people in a consciously, almost archly intelligent retro-indie suspense-horror, so they hang out while watching black-and-white B-movies rather than keeping up with the Kardashians, and the only smartphone any of them seem to own is used only to read germane excerpts of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot related to mortality. Jay’s friend since childhood, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), still tends a flame for her, but she’s dating a guy named Hugh (Jake Weary). They like each other, even if he wigs out at the movies when he seems to see a person who isn’t there. Jay has sex with him in the back of his car in an abandoned lot (plenty of those to choose from in Detroit, and I doubt that it’s a random choice by Mitchell). And there, gazing at a flowering plant growing from a crack in the pavement, is where her troubles begin.

It’s more fiendishly difficult than it might initially seem to describe the core concept of It Follows without inviting ridicule (as Mitchell himself claims to have realized, and therefore tended to avoid describing). But the film accomplishes the feat of direct and unmockable explication well enough on its own in a scene already verging on iconic cultural status, so why not go direct to the source?

The following “thing” is transmitted from victim to victim by sexual intercourse, a too-obvious metaphor for STDs that Mitchell spends most of It Follows dismantling and contradicting only to re-assert again. It can be outrun, but not easily outsmarted or outfought. The only way to be rid of this implacable curse is to “pass it on” through sex with another, and even then it can kill its way back to you if its new quarry isn’t wary enough. As Jay and her friends slowly come to grips with the horrifyingly reality of the follower, more rules and elements of the being become evident, and they attempt to formulate plans to evade, escape, and finally defeat it.

The schematics of this horror are well-defined, like those of post-modern horror films like The Ring or Scream or Cabin in the Woods, but it sticks stubbornly to those rules instead of unsettling them in a quest for a harder scare like the aforementioned genre entries. Instead, It Follows unsettles genre convention with its beguiling visual textures, its aural landscapes (an unnerving old-school electronic score by Disasterpeace), its lulling pace, its subtle silent compositions, and above all its metaphorical, psychological, and social suggestions.

The follower invokes the prudish streak of slasher films and their gruesome punishments held in store for sexually active youth, with its transmission methods and graphic close-ups of its dripping nether regions. But the sex in It Follows is intimate and corporeal, an act of tenderness to stave off an imminent demise, and it leads Jay and Paul to an eventual sense of besieged security. The curse’s Freud-by-way-of-Hitchcock dimension simmers long and low before boiling over in the kids’ climactic attempt to ambush and electrocute the thing in a closed-down swimming pool, as Jay’s pursuing ghost takes the form of her dead father come to slay her.

Most unexpected, however, is the sociohistorical dimension of It Follows. Michigan native Mitchell sets scenes in shrunken Detroit’s vacant lots, abandoned houses, and other locations of urban decay, as well as in the sturdy but samey residential sprawl of the suburbs. To whatever extent these settings in this leering grin of a city missing half of its teeth are merely atmosphere, texture, or background symbols, they become something else late in the film. As the friends march to the abandoned pool to set their trap, one of the girls reminisces on their childhood, when protective parents forbade them from crossing 8 Mile Road, Detroit’s long-recognized socioeconomic border between the more affluent white suburbs and the low-income African-American ghettos of the urban core, even to attend the State Fair. She recognizes the larger injustice lurking behind this prohibition like a dull ache.

What are we to make of this scene and its bearing on the metaphorical meanings of the curse of the follower? I’m loath to dismiss it as a simple localized shout-out, a hometown indulgence in Mitchell’s screenplay, largely because it comes at a such critical juncture in the narrative. Intercut with shots of shuttered homes and Jay’s Rubicon-crossing act of confronting that which is haunting her (no surprise that she sees her father in that moment, when you consider it), is this Mitchell’s way of connecting his imagined horror with the very real horrors of dislocation and disenfranchisement in what was once one of America’s most thriving metropolises? Is the follower a spectral embodiment of the death of the American Dream, or of the nightmare that this Dream always was for those with no access to the images of society’s plenty that it broadcasts?

From this psycho-socio-historical perspective, the follower encompasses America’s disavowed past of terror and exploitation, taking the form of the discarded, the unproductive, the struggling unfortunates cleaved apart from the fortunates by permeable but still rigid membranes like 8 Mile. It is a history of death and pain, a return of the repressed, intruding into the carefree suburban security that is all Jay that knows, penetrating her house, her school, her circle of friends. It’s the more grim side of the Janus face of the American cultural war, the other segment constituted in the symbolized alarmism over youth sexuality. It’s a history that cannot be outpaced and can never ultimately be escaped, especially because it is also inescapably the present.

It Follows is a skillful and memorably creepy genre film, but it’s also an arresting tone poem of a nation that is rapidly decaying as it flees the truth of what it really is, what it always has been. In a land (and specifically a city) that defines itself above all by perpetual mobility, death always follows. And eventually, it catches up.

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