It’s intentionally difficult to gauge when It Follows is supposed to be set. Everything has a vintagy 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 an run-down suburb of the further disintegrating Detroit, and their lives are accented by the 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.
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 exactly a film about STDS (other than metaphorically,) 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 to 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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