“‘Maxi, it’s time. I reach this point with everybody. What you need to deal with now is The Wisdom.’
‘Great, I’m at the dentist here.’
Shawn darkens the blinds, puts on a tape of Moroccan trance music, lights a joss stick. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Here it is-The Wisdom. Prepare to copy.’ She stays on her meditation mat despite herself. Breathing deeply, Shawn announces, ‘Is what it is is … is it is what it is.’ Allowing a silence to fall, lengthy but maybe not as deep as the breaths he’s taking. ‘Got that?’
‘That’s The Wisdom, repeat it back.’
Sighing pointedly, she complies, adding. ‘Depending of course what your definition of the word ‘is’ is.”
Thomas Pynchon, -Bleeding Edge
I would think that, to describe horror as coming face to face with that which cannot be explained, is tantamount to cliché. To young movie goers, horror seems so engrossing and captivating largely for this purpose. “That which cannot be explained” is the story of their small amount of time on this Earth, where their feelings arise seemingly outside of their person, occupy a space that troubles themselves especially, and cannot be reclaimed as anything but the highest term we use to codify our young memories: formative. As a young person, I simultaneously seemed hot-headed and weak willed, willing to try the most absurd ideas, yet I also became a chameleon, copying whatever friend happened to be near me. I lacked an inwardness that history would define as “character” or “dignity”. Horror seems fascinating to youth because the questions “what is wrong with me?” and “what is wrong with the world?” are not only easy to ask, but intensely large to answer. No young person really understands the phenomenal weight of history, the inner workings of economics, or the psychology of cognitive bias, though they find themselves imprisoned by all three. Which is why, when horror announces itself on the big screen as the dream logic of being unstoppable, they eat it up as fast as their movie theater popcorn.
I say all these things, because It Follows needs young people to work.
The story is about Jay (Maika Monroe), a young and pretty suburbanite, who goes to community college classes by day, lounging in the remnants of the American middle class by evening, as she swims in an above-ground swimming pool, and watches cheap science fiction movies on a CRT television with her friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi), Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe). Together they operate in an endless summer, with adults hardly existing, an American wasteland of making time go by. But it seems like Jay has a way out as she goes on a date with a man named “Hugh” (Jake Weary) to the movies. In line to buy tickets, they begin a game of people-watching, but when Hugh points out someone Jay cannot see, he turns paranoid, and they run away to the woods, where the two become intimate. In a bizarre change, Hugh catches Jay in a monologue involving adventures cut short by…chloroforming her. She awakens tied to a wheelchair, where Hugh orbits with a flashlight, telling her about a curse. This curse affects him, and, now that they have had sex, it now affects her. There will be a person, a human, who, though it changes forms, will continuously walk towards Jay, attempting to kill her. No one else will see this figure, except for Jay and anyone else who has had the curse. It used to try and kill Hugh, now he has passed it on to her. If she were to be killed by “It”, then it would return to hunting Hugh. At first glance, Hugh has taken her to a secluded place, and tied her up, and told her this obscure story, because he is insane. But as he wheels her around to the edge of this abandoned concrete scaffolding, we see what Jay sees: below, in the woods, a naked woman emerges from the woods, looking directly at her. The rest of the film involves Jay’s growing fear, her forced acceptance, and her eventual resistance of “It” with her friends’ help.
There is a blurb in the trailer that describes It Follows as “like an urban legend you’ve known your whole life.” What makes the movie particularly relevant to American culture is its subject-matter of sex and sexuality. Being punished for sexual acts is often a strategy by American parents and religions to encourage abstinence, and what flows from that is the taboo around sexual gratification. For many young people, it may seem odd to suggest that sex can be fun, or playful, or a method of communication, or selfless. The idea of a curse that comes to fruition after sexual gratification is made more palpable when you begin to question the rules of the game. Is an orgasm proof of the sexual act? Or would a handjob suffice? Would a threesome split the follower into multiple beings, thus compounding the issue into exponential opportunities for danger? As any young American knows, creating a hierarchy of sexual acts is an important method for creating your own virgin loopholes.
The movie’s pace, as slow and methodical as the creature employed, allows the viewer time to formulate such readings. It Follows delivers a repetitive set of scenarios where Jay finds herself finally relaxing to the idea of space between her and the creature, only to find that, no, the creature is back, and she must do her utmost to put some space between her and the thing. This routine, coupled with the methodical plodding of the human towards her, different in appearance at each moment, walking without any recognition from those around it, is what sells the movie. The monster necessarily becomes larger than the actor or actress who embodies the malevolent force. It skips the concrete and begins to take on conceptual power, like that of sexual insecurities.
It cannot be overstated that, with barely above one million dollars, director David Robert Mitchell is able to squeeze out every penny, using numerous props, set-pieces, and camera tricks, to make the world feel alive. Compared to such big budget features like Westworld, where the season four city streets appear as ghost towns rented out by a massive HBO budget, Mitchell’s suburban town is densely arranged with early summer nostalgia, with teenagers playing night card games under incandescent lights, families coming home from vacation in late dusk as they unpack their minivan. The characters enter a high school, and investigate yearbooks, as the camera spins in 360 degree turns, timed just so that each detail is given its newness and its potency in one fell swoop. The monster, when it comes, often does so in a benign way, with its walking scarcely discernable from other students, for example, or coming out from the woods behind Jay with barely a cinematic nod. The short lens lengths allow close ups of the characters, as well as enough depth in the scene to be placed in Jay’s position, which is having to constantly pay attention to what is not in focus, but rapidly approaching.
With such a fascinating concept, and such a low budget, it seems inevitable that the movie loses some of its tight grip in the second and third acts. There are only so many moments where Jay can repeat the struggle of having to gain space between her and the monster, and many of the attempted tactics of the young characters seem ill-advised, as well as badly executed. The choice for an ensemble cast makes each character less memorable for their individuality, leaving us to wonder if Yara exists as the Greek chorus, or as just another potential victim. For more astute viewers of the film, or those with a more proactive psychology towards conceptual horror, the choices by the young people may turn out to feel frustrating or jarring. You may find yourself shouting at the television that the solutions available are either obvious, or find that the movie breaks its rules in order to continue its tension. The cinematographer desperately needed some of the funds available for stabilizing equipment, as many of the panning shots requiring a calm delivery, jitter erratically. And while the screenplay is sparse and serviceable, it highlights nothing that makes Jay worthy of inquiry beyond what has happened to her, which forces us to use that overused word in our age, the word “problematic.”
We should point out that, thanks to the conceptual power of It Follows, there is plenty to talk about. Unlike the trend of shock value horror we see today, It Follows follows in the vein of a long list of horror that attempts to provoke a cognitive response, as well as an emotional one. Some of the obvious readings of the film include the one mentioned above, that of sexual insecurities, but taken further, we might suggest the trauma associated with sexual assault and STDs. Jay, having reeled from the curse Hugh has placed on her, eerily copies the behaviors of a victim of rape. She checks her intimate area for signs of bruising, finds herself at a loss to describe emotional pain, which also happens to be invisible, to her skeptical friends. She either craves close areas, surrounded by safe walls, or she desires elaborate openness, like that of a park swing, so that she may breathe freely. Her scared staring into various doorways, reminds us of the jittery responses of those who have suffered from assault. Throughout the film, Jay considers sex again, not for any sort of romantic or emotional belonging, but so that she may somehow break the curse. Our viewership of Jay having sex is tainted with the conflict of the film. Each of these story beats rings true for sexually transmitted diseases, where sexual activity spreads the curse like HIV or AIDS would. Some characters, desperate to help, are willing to have sex with her, while some who get the “curse” are unaware it has been transmitted.
Perhaps the film has something to say beyond sex? For those who claim that It Follows speaks more to a broad category like “mortality,” the edges do not seem flush. At times, the zombie-ish figure takes the role of a young woman, battered, with a ripped bra, pissing herself. At other times, it takes up the role of the peeping boy who watches Jay as she swims. When Greg’s confidence gets him killed, he is literally fucked to death. Sex and death are closely related in psychoanalysis, but the need to use death as an aphrodisiac in order to have better sex does not seem likely here. The order seems wrong, and as such the order does not follow a mathematical “commutative” property. Sex therefore death, not death therefore sex.
In order to talk about It Follows properly, I suppose we had better return to the irksome idea that Jay is an uninteresting character until she is violated. Greg, an older man who has a past with Jay, is just as happy with the prospect of dating other women, until Jay runs out of the house screaming bloody murder in the early hours of night. Greg does not seem to believe in the curse, yet is willing to “help” Jay by having sex with her. Jay relents, and Greg is comfortable moving on with life. Paul, her childhood friend, still holds a torch for her, and is able in the end to save her by shooting the zombie and by committing himself to staying by her side after sex, thus reinforcing a strange sort of monogamy. They walk, side-by-side, along the sidewalk, with the curse following them, into the credits. What Paul sees in her, we are not sure. They have a childhood history, and Jay’s sister Kelly remarks that it is “annoying” how pretty she is. But we are given little time to see Jay’s personality, beyond a monologue only tangentially related to the plotting of the film. Otherwise, like the other young adults, Jay seems afflicted with wanderlust, staring off into the trees overhanging the above-ground swimming pool, offering little beyond a tone or mood. The characters exist, therefore, as less an object for scrutiny than they do as a stand-in for the viewer. Similar to The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian novel Yara reads constantly from a strange dual screen e-reader, perhaps It Follows critiques the power of the camera to observe and close in on whomever it pleases, thus giving them an inordinate power simply by being ripped from their context? Jay’s only interest to us is in her contrasting opposite, which happens to be both the curse, and ourselves, as we are forced to be magnetically positioned to go towards her at all times. Once the movie becomes about Jay, it cannot be about anyone else, until the movie ends.
Taking this position, the movie suddenly explodes into possibilities. Why are we obsessed with youth, when it only contains that which the worst parts of society seek to place on it? How can any young person survive TikTok stardom? Similar to last generation’s Disney stars like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, attention of this kind becomes a trauma all its own. Young people seem powerless when confronted with trends and marketing gimmicks. Young people seem devoid of any of the cognitive faculties to properly address something like the curse. In other words, they have no idea how they are being manipulated. When Greg leers towards Yara, for example, the camera takes the role of his male gaze, and for several strange moments in the film, sexualization is made as predatory as the curse that afflicts them. It is in these moments where the zombie and the camera conflate, and this is the peak of the film’s message.
For the rest of it, in order for It Follows to work, it takes a certain degree of ignorance and fatalism of the kind that made gothic horror passable in the mainstream. Otherwise, an adult seems a little too curious into the specific details of the curse. Who is patient zero, and how did the curse begin? Why not simply dig a large ditch, lure it to the hole, and then bury it? Or why not hook a ball and chain to it and drop it into the ocean? Indeed, each time the creature appears to be “caught” the thing appears yet again. The riddle to a child may be more interesting, but the adults prefer the answer. Adults require definitions, and we want to know the logic behind all the words being used. We want to know what “it” is, and how it is able to do what it does. The Wisdom that adults recognize is that most of life’s horrors are banal, indifferent, and can also be meticulously explained. Had It Follows leaned into this granularity, it could have elevated it beyond the cult film into something like a classic. Unfortunately, “it” was most satisfied when it was unknown.