Director: David Robert Mitchell
Producers: David Robert Mitchell, Rebecca Green, David Kaplan, Erik Rommesmo, Laura D. Smith
Writer: David Robert Mitchell
Stars: Maika Monroe, Lili Sepe, Keir Gilcrist
IT FOLLOWS (2015) is a difficult film to analyze and interpret, difficult even to name. One walks away with more questions than answers (to what I suspect is director David Robert Mitchell’s delight). Where does the film fall generically? How should we interpret the film’s “message” (for we can assume that such a meticulously crafted work is meant to convey something universal to its audience)? Most pressingly: what is “it”?
IT FOLLOWS begins (after a vivid introduction) with Jay (Maika Monroe) submerged, an image that calls to mind birth just as swiftly as it calls to mind death. She is in the swimming pool in her backyard, in a Detroit suburb, enjoying primordial solitude before—you guessed it—a date. The date is with a boy she’s seen at least a couple of times—we learn that she likes him and, what’s more, her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) even approves—but tonight’s date is strange. Though personable and seemingly interested in Jay, Hugh’s (Jake Weary) abrupt manner and apparent paranoia unsettle her. Nonetheless, Jay interprets his discomfort as disinterest in her, and perhaps because of this, has sex with him in his car on their next “date.” (Whatever. Not every date can be candles and roses, okay?) It should come as no surprise to the seasoned horror fan that this is when the nightmare truly begins.
Here’s what we know about what plagues Jay:
It’s sexually transmitted. It’s relentless. (The only thing that can lessen its impact is passing it on to someone else through the same sexual means and, even then, it is still omnipresent.) It shape-shifts—sometimes bearing the form of pure abjection—tube-sock-wearing, pissing, bloodied abjection—sometimes resembling a loved one. It moves slowly—“walking, not running.”
That’s all we know. And that’s all Jay knows. It’s even all Hugh knows.
I was—after a mere ten minutes. And yet, I found myself overwhelmed. I’ve seen few films in my lifetime written with such meticulous intention … intention in every detail! The composition of each shot is rendered in a painterly style, scintillating and bright. (I included a few of my favorite shots in the review, but I could have selected many, many, many more, all characterized by the stylish minimalism you see here.) The screenplay is also a triumph—there is no adult condescension evident in how the teens (who constitute nearly the film’s entire cast) are portrayed; instead, young characters are nuanced and treated with astonishing respect—no silly stereotypes to be found here. And that’s not to say that Mitchell doesn’t drop in the occasional homage to tradition—John Carpenter fans will delight in a few shot-by-shot matches to moments in 1978’s HALLOWEEN.
Low on triggers, high on suspense, IT FOLLOWS is a prudent choice for queasy horror fans, or those with mental health concerns, especially those who enjoy art films. There are moments of body horror, but they are tasteful. This isn’t the gore splashed across the screen in a Rob Zombie flick. IT FOLLOWS is also low on exploitation—as I said, the subjects of the film are treated with empathy by the screenwriter and director (Mitchell is both) and, along those lines, no minority groups, historical atrocities, or collective traumas are mined for their horror potential here. Perhaps this is why IT FOLLOWS has gained, well … a following.
IT FOLLOWS is haunting, but pinpointing why is nearly as challenging as pinpointing the film itself. It’s worth noting that although I classify IT FOLLOWS as an occult film for its mysterious paranormal aggressor, much of what is loved and feared in the slasher is also present here: a ruthless stalker, a suburban space rife with symbolism, a gang of teens coming into their own, a demonstrative blonde protagonist. But much of the film is also so mysteriously other: the puzzling shape-shifting, the seeming randomness of the monster’s strikes against Jay, the complex gender dynamics underpinning Jay’s curse and how the men in her life feel compelled to react. If you asked fifty people who have seen IT FOLLOWS why it scares them, I bet you would receive at least five or ten different responses. I can only give you my own.
Jay’s hideous nightmare—which is how director Mitchell refers to it, by the way—is something I’d rather not think about: the ugly fact of the risks of intimacy. HIV/AIDS, yes—certainly a sexually transmitted killer if there ever was one—but, even beyond that, the grief and rage and regret and disgust that sex can leave you with. You don’t want it, but you can’t escape it, and you certainly can’t explain it: “Was it consensual?” a police officer asks Jay. “Yes,” she replies between sobs. She can run. She can hide. But it follows. All Jay can do is continue to make herself vulnerable, often sexually … perhaps out of a desperate need to stave away what follows, but also perhaps in the hope of finding love—the only known opposite to fear.
I streamed IT FOLLOWS on Hulu Plus (free with a Showtime add-on subscription). You can also watch IT FOLLOWS on iTunes for $12.99 or buy your own copy of the DVD at Barnes & Noble for $14.99 ($8.99 online) or used on the B&N Marketplace starting at $4.49.