Director: David Robert Mitchell
Words: E. Jackson
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows opens on a teen running from our ominous POV in a suburban street, terrified and stumbling from house to house in the smallest satin lingerie possible. Shortly after this girl is dispatched off camera we move on to watch the heroine, this time in a swimming costume, our gaze no longer murderous but lingering pensively (sleazily) on her shape, her skin. It’s a horror trope to have your female characters objectified from the buttocks outward before they’re really introduced, I conceded. It’s just a nod to the exploitation roots of slashers, pause for a sly wink to the genre fans as is currently trendy. The politics of the film will surely improve. It’ll get scarier than that first kill too. Won’t it?
The horror portion of the film begins when Jay (Maika Monroe) is drugged and abducted by the boy she was dating (Jake Weary). She is told that their previous sexual encounter has ‘passed on’ victimhood to an unknown force that will kill her unless she, too, passes on the role by having sex with someone else. To me that set-up is creepy for reasons more basic than supernatural and the allusions to an abuse dynamic are only briefly addressed, but soon enough Jay starts to see that she’s being pursued by a thing in myriad forms, invisible to others and characterised by following her at a snail’s pace and trying to kill her. So far so good, a chilling concept with room for everyone’s idea of frightening. Once this reality is recognised by Jay’s mostlylikeable friends, the plot revolves around how they handle this supernatural STD, together and with refreshing openness.
The question of morality in passing ‘it’ on is less considered here than whether the monster can be killed and if it can harm the group. Worryingly, the issue of whether Jay actually wants to have more sex also takes a back seat, as her increasing vulnerability leads to a clinical attitude of contact based on self-preservation: The sense of exploration and curiosity in related sex-threat movies such as Cherry Falls or Contracted is very much absent. A lingering shot of Monroe exhausted and looking towards a distant boat is intentionally nauseating, the implication being that she will seduce the three men on board just to push herself further down the potential chain of murders. Her predatory element is dismissed quickly in the case of a girl on guy seduction, references to porn culture hinting that for the guys on the boat or in her bed, it would be a short-lived dream come true rather than an unwanted encounter, and she has their inevitable deaths to worry about without having to question the original situation in context.
Conversely if we consider Jay as abused rather than abuser, lines like ‘You’re a girl, it should be easy for you’ (to prostitute for survival regardless of desire) make the film’s politics clear, ignoring the idea that the constant objectification and pornification that inevitably accompanies girlhood and attractiveness is also the climate that typifies the vast majority of physical abuse, kidnapping, rape, and murders preceded by stalking in the real world. It could be argued that the scariest place inhabited in this metaphor is the vulnerability to attack brought on by female sexuality itself, but that’s a conversation larger than a review will allow for and it certainly seems beyond the scope of the filmmakers as long as sexual identity is used as a bartering tool for the larger theme of menacing STDs.
Simply put, Jay can’t win here. For her sin of genuine desire, she’s made a carrier for something that either renders her a victim to be killed or a murderous femme fatale by association. Problematic doesn’t cover it. Additionally, Monroe’s given nothing to do with much of this emotional minefield besides run and panic, and no real personality means we have no real stake in what happens to her character, wasting the talent she demonstrated inThe Guest.
In fairness, male characterisations are equally thin on the ground for It Follows. A few seconds of incestuous horror in one particular scene come across as forced and flat because we have no idea of the existing family dynamic for that victim outside of a threatening context. Perhaps the most insulting of these male arcs, though, is the suggestion of Keir Gilchrist’s Paul as a white knight figure for Jay and a sexual partner we should be rooting for. Why is Paul subtly painted as a hero? Purely because he offers to have sex with the good-looking Jay in order to hypothetically sacrifice himself and save her from the unseen pursuer. Absolute gent! If that still seems relatively selfless in light of the murders, consider that it’s brought up following many years of post-childhood-kiss attraction in which Jay has (crucially) chosen to reject his apparent advances under the façade of genuine friendship. How heartless of her, then, not to reward his basic humanity and sullenly jealous staring with sexual transaction based on her affection towards him as an old friend, despite years of saying ‘no’ without saying it aloud. To sympathise with Paul’s character as intended is to buy into the sexist conceit of the ‘nice guy’ myth: That all well-intentioned men have an innate entitlement to be rewarded for good behaviour with female bodies, regardless of how the people inside those bodies truly feel about things. Flying in the face of Jay’s active sexual pull towards other men in the film and her many years of non-attraction to Paul, she eventually comes round to the idea that his attitude represents good boyfriend material, and the pair are united based on what’s purported to be attraction so deep Jay hid it from herself. It’s a sub-plot, but the feminist in me recoiled at what this is telling target audiences.
It Follows is as derivative as it is complex, and the comparison which really stood out for me was David Cronenberg’s masterful Shivers, dealing with the same STD-as-enemy metaphor in a manner that’s all the more disturbing for its crescendo of culturally inappropriate eroticism. We are told in the unapologetic exposition of It Follows that the pursuer can be anywhere, represent itself as anyone human, and that Monroe’s Jay and all her future sexual partners are now trapped by its slow, relentless hunt for them. These criteria are also met inShivers, but there the hunter is parasitic and alien, each new victim’s quest for spiritual and sexual awakening likely a wily ruse towards the adversary’s goal of survival. Here we are given no such perspective to wrestle with, no rationale leading back to us from the beginning of the chain, nor is there any real sense of magnetism in or out of the film’s several sex scenes. As a fan of abstraction and cinematic brevity I’d like to say that all this motivational ambiguity lends the film mystery, but it’s just not so.
In a penultimate set piece, the characters gather in an abandoned pool to protect Jay and bait the entity stalking her. Recreating Shivers’ terrifying ending seems like a perfect opportunity for Mitchell to more openly ‘pay homage to’ Cronenberg and go to the extreme yet logical sexual conclusion of the chase. He instead opts for something tamer, perhaps censored for ratings systems that balk at consensual teen sex yet merrily encourage on-screen violence towards potential shaggers. The result is no more frightening or original than previous scenes, but has all the crafty editing and staged grandeur of an event intended to be climactic.
It was another misfire in a film brimming with moments where I wondered if I should be tense, distractedly contemplating why I wasn’t and instead enjoying some snazzy, pretty effects work. It was also another instance in which I was reminded of a better film. See also: Being beaten over the head with the deliberately noticeable Carpenter-esque score; theHalloween lighting; Elm Street costuming and casting of Deppish Daniel Zovatto; the Let The Right One In pool terror and Swimfan swim along shots, and many others.
I feel I should note here that the film is indeed visually stylish and competently produced and acted, for all its faults elsewhere. However, if we’re to go home terrified by the notion that It Follows, we might first acknowledge that ‘it’ also plods at a decidedly unthreatening pace, structurally repeats itself beyond effect, acts as a collage of superior movie elements, and ultimately bores and offends in equal measure. That It Follows might polarise viewers is not a reflection of unrecognised skill or interesting controversy so much as indicative that this film, like the creature of the title, represents itself within a variety of guises and some of those may appeal. I have no doubt that the overall retro artifice will draw younger audiences who might see it as new or charmingly ironic rather than tired or desperate, but in my eyes, without exception, all of these skins were worn through long before now. There’s nothing more to the chase.