It Follows

The absolutely brilliant movie that left me unmoved
David Robert Mitchell
Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Jake Weary
The Setup: 
Girl inherits curse that will follow her until she passes it on.

Here’s It Follows, the acclaimed new horror film! I first heard about it when I saw it getting excellent reviews on Metacritic, including several perfect ‘100’ scores, then heard overwhelmingly positive things from friends, then even more great reviews… and I was desperate to see it! And I finally did! And it is wonderfully atmospheric and scary and well-made and acted and all the elements are in place. So… why didn’t I love it?

I saw a few posters for it in the lobby that clearly were attempting to position it in the tradition of classic 70s and 80s horror films, and numerous things about the film’s tone, music and style harks back to that time—not least of all the fact that most of the cars we see are from the 70s. We open in a pleasant/oppressive suburban neighborhood at dusk, with a young woman running out of her house in little but an undershirt and, I believe, some high heels. The camera tracks her 360 degrees as she cowers in the street, then runs back in—by her father, who is asking her what’s wrong—before coming back out again and racing off in the car. We see her cowering on a beach at night, then as she calls her father and tells him she loves him. Sudden cut to: her dead body, legs opened to such an extreme that one leg is snapped upward. Then—title!

We now join our main character, Jay, hanging out with her friends as they watch TV, take walks in the neighborhood sipping cokes, doing normal, “boring” everyday things. This film is the first I know of to really leverage the menace of daily, dreary teen life in the suburbs in a way that only Halloween did. The suburbs of this film are all suburbs of Detroit—where I grew up—so every environment they walk through here was absolutely vivid and true-to-life for me. One of the girls is reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on her eClam reader [you’ll see], and she will periodically grace us with key passages throughout the film. Jay has a movie date with a guy she likes, but when he sees someone that she can’t see, they have to bolt the theater. The next day, she walks with her friend, saying that she’s ready to do it with the aforementioned boyfriend.

They have a date that night, and have sex in his car. Then he chloroforms her, and she wakes in an abandoned parking structure, where he tells her that he passed something on to her through sex, and now she’ll have someone following her, until it kills her. She has to have sex with someone else to pass it on, but if that person gets killed, it’ll come back to her. And it can change forms at will. He shows her a woman coming at her, then drives her back home. The movie shows itself as a nasty piece of work as her friends watch his car pull up… then react in horror as he pulls away, leaving her nearly naked in the street. She goes to the police and the hospital, and we see the police investigating the scene. We see her alone in the bathroom, feeling awful, looking in her pants at her vagina—the film is treating this whole thing very much as a rape.

The score is very noticeable and notably apes the electronic Vangelis/Tangerine Dream scores of 80s films. Jay is menaced by an elderly woman walking toward her from across the school lawn. Then she is staying with her friends, who sort of believe her story, when she is menaced by a nearly naked woman in the kitchen. The woman appears to have been some sort of sex victim, and comes at her, lipstick smeared, breast hanging out, and urinating as she walks! Thing is, no one but Jay can see the person coming at her. Soon her friends believe her, including somewhat nerdy friend Paul, who we come to see nurses a crush on her, and is hurt when she accepts the attentions of older/cooler Greg. They go to find Hugh, the guy who gave it to her, to get more answers.

They do, but they don’t get many more answers. He tells Jay that she just needs to sleep with someone else. But we know more… she has to sleep with someone who will theoretically sleep with more people, because her only hope is to get it further away from her. By now we’ve noticed that the director is really, really into those 360-degree pans, but they’re working quite well for him. You’ll also notice that there is often someone in the background, slowly walking toward Jay, which is quite effective at keeping the menace and dread nearly constant.

They go to one of the kids’ vacation homes on a lake, where Jay is attacked on the beach, all her friends present—and he is where my enthusiasm for this movie waned. The ghoul, or whatever you want to call it, grabs Jay’s hair, and we see it lifted, as though by an invisible hand. When Paul attacks the invisible menace, he is kicked out of the frame! Okay… so others can touch it, although they can’t see it. This is a new rule. And… perhaps a bit silly? The ghoul kicks a hole though a door, and Jay escapes in the car, leaving her friends behind, but soon crashing in a cornfield.

In the hospital, she has sex with Greg, who is quite confident afterward that it’s not after him. Tension is relieved for a short time, but soon Jay sees someone break the window of Greg’s house, and enter. She bravely goes in after, and finds a woman pounding at his door. He opens, and it becomes apparent that the woman is his MOTHER! She is there, breast exposed, and when Jay looks in the room, is on top of his now-dead body, humping it! Oh trust me, there is NO mistaking that mom’s apparition is being very, VERY sexual with her son! …We now have to remember the image of the opening victim's dead body from the beginning, and how her legs were violently spread open, as though killed through extremely violent sex. This movie’s curse is really fucking dark!

Jay goes to the beach, where she sees three guys in a boat. We see her strip to underwear and get in the water, then cut away. She was going to swim to them and have sex with them? And maybe she did? Then all the kids go to a huge swimming pool, bringing every electrical appliance they can. Apparently the logic is to get it into the pool with Jay, then she’ll get out and they’ll electrocute it. Only… it’s not very logical, as they’ve already shot it and found it had no effect. But maybe they’re desperate and confused. Anyway, the thing shows up, and starts chucking appliances at Jay. Soon they throw a sheet over it, and shoot it in the head. But there it is, still in the pool, grabbing Jay’s leg. They shoot it in the head, and she gets away. When she goes to look if it’s dead, she sees a massive pool of blood spreading in the pool. Okay… now what does that mean? Later, we see a picture that shows us the form the ghoul took in the pool was that of her father.

Later, she has sex with Paul, the one who has long had the crush on her, and we see them walking hand in hand, as a distant figure slowly follows in the background. The title appears—it’s the end!

So… there’s a lot that’s very good about it. The biggest achievement is the atmosphere and overall sense of dread it is able to achieve and sustain. It very skillfully uses camera compositions, music, lighting and editing in order to create constant unease, and it works beautifully. He gets a lot of menace out of showing very mundane suburban scenes, like bugs on the surface of an above-ground pool, and that pool later, one side caved in. The evocation of the teen scene seems very real, and you don’t hate any of the characters for being stupid. The score is good, although it announces itself as an homage to earlier films every time it sounds. Though it has jump scares, they aren’t of the stupid “It was just the cat” variety. And it was scary. And everything is solid and firmly in place.

So why didn’t I love it? Why didn’t I really even particularly like it? I got frustrated that the rules of the ghoul weren’t consistent, and didn’t make a lot of sense. I was okay with it all—although it annoyed me that others couldn’t see the ghoul, but I got over it—but then it can hold physical objects, and can hurt non-cursed people? And you can throw a sheet over it? I was okay with the initial set of rules, but once we started introducing new ones, I lost interest fast. If we establish rules, we [the audience] can start thinking of ways to escape it, and wondering what these characters should do, which is another way of being involved with the film, and caring about the characters. When the rules change, or don’t make sense, I become less involved. From the start it’s almost impossible to escape the curse, and as it becomes even more intractably impossible, well, not much reason for me to stay involved with these characters, right? Jay’s going to die, no matter what, so I guess I’ll hang out and watch it unfold, but my commitment is draining away fast.

My second gripe is that the subtext is not very solid. First it would seem that the curse is a sexually-transmitted disease. But it’s soon not just that, but maybe sex in general… but not really fear of wanting and liking sex, or fear of rape… The ghouls who appear to be sex crime victims make it seem like it might be a rape metaphor, but then the incest content starts to come in, with the one character getting killed in that rather sexual manner by a close relative, and Jay’s father coming after her… but it doesn’t all click into one coherent statement. And none of this really clicks with the characters themselves. Jay isn’t a sexpot, doesn’t dangerously desire sex, and there is no hint of incest in what we see of her family life. So what’s it all about? And again, if I can’t get a sense of what’s going on—even if it’s just vague allusions that all seem to click into place—there’s no reason for me to continue paying attention, and I start to lose interest.

I’ve read a few interpretations, the most coherent of which is that it’s about the loss of innocence. You attain maturity/have sex and before you know it, you’re aware that life is finite and that there’s no way to get out of this alive. It’ll always get you. This is supported by a character toward the beginning looking enviously at a young boy who “has his whole life ahead of him.” Okay, but if that’s so, I wish the movie had a little more to say about it… like the benefits of experience, which does work out well for the majority of people. I’ve read interviews with the director, who says that the idea came to him from a childhood nightmare of something following him that no one else can see. He purposely left the “rules” unexplained and let them trickle out over the course of the film. He resists giving one interpretation of the film, but says he wanted the film to have a dreamlike quality, in which not everything has to make sense, but can have an overwhelming, inescapable sense of dread. Okay, but if it’s all a dream, no need for me to care, right? No sense in paying attention?

And even so, some dream films do make a sort of internal logic, and when they do, can become riveting and inexplicably spooky. The reason Alice In Wonderland [no, I do NOT mean the Tim Burton version] retains its fascination is that it echoes with a lot of resonances that have meaning in the real world. The classic films of Jacques Tourneur bristle with a lot of resonances, most of which are not fully fleshed-out, but the way they point consistently in one direction makes them riveting and gives them a power above and beyond the content of the films themselves.

So, I just didn’t feel it here. I started becoming disengaged at the midpoint, and just kept losing interest. I am fully willing to consider that I may have been the victim of heightened expectations, and if I had just come to this film fresh, I might be singing its praises—even, conceivably, it’s wobbly metaphor, perhaps. But I’m not. I really wanted to like it, and I acknowledge that there are a number of absolutely wonderful things about it… although one is often kept more aware of its homages and influences than what this movie itself is bringing. I was sitting there chalking up everything it was doing right--while at the same time remaining unmoved. For me, it hits a lot of great notes but ultimately fails to make music.

Should you watch it: 

Definitely, it’s still very well-made, better than most everything out there, and will give you plenty to discuss.


That's pretty much how I feel about it: a very effective, but fleeting mood piece, fading away in memory very quickly as it ends. I watched it in October last year on a movie festival and didn't think much about it since then. Maybe it just isn't creepy enough or doesn't have at least one standout scene/sequence to leave a lasting effect (on me, at least)? If I had a choice, I think I would prefer to watch You're Next (also strongly evoking Carpenter with its soundtrack) for the fifth time than this one again.

That being said, Mitchell is definitely a director to watch and if I somehow do end up watching it for the second time, I'm sure I'll enjoy it again.

I liked You're Next very much [though I never reviewed it]... did you also see The Guest by the same team? It also continues the humor and genuinely clever surprises, along with intriguing characters, and it goes pretty much apeshit in the most delightful way at the end.

And the awesome 80s synth music adds to the batshittery of it all. I can't believe the climax is set to Annie's "Anthonio," what an inspired and unusual choice.

Did you ever see Tourneur's "Curse of the Demon"? If so, what did you think of it? (It's one of my favorite horror movies. I even like seeing the titular creature, although its appearence has been widely reviled.) Just wondering.

I did see it, and I really liked it. Remember in my post about remaking the site I was saying that I woud watch movies and just never get around to writing about them? That movie is a case in point... I might still have a half-written review somewhere that I just never went back to finish...

I liked the appearance of the creature because it made the whole thing unambiguously real, at least to those cursed. I also liked that it was HUGE and truly supernatural. But I thought it was a super-clever climax simply that one guy has to find a way to give something to the other guy... I can see why It Follows made you think of this... and was all just beautifully made and clever.

I'm glad to hear that you liked it. Among my favorite scenes were the hilarious (and then sinister) seance, the encounter with Hobart's utterly joyless family, and the interview with the insanely-terrified Hobart himself, which was dynamite from start to finish. I hope you get around to reviewing it some time.

It Follows is a very impressive piece of filmmaking and I think too many people are responding negatively (and over-positively) to the hype, which is almost impossible not to do in these situations (shades of The Blair Witch Project). I agree the metaphor is perhaps a bit wobbly but in an ok, figure-it-out-to-your-own-satisfaction sort of way. The movie has actually been haunting my thoughts ever since I saw it earlier this week. The lead actress is very good and obviously the director is one to watch. Like you, Scott, I grew up in Detroit so the locations were extra special icing on the cake.