Let’s talk for a moment about zombies. To clarify, I’m not talking about those modern zombies that somehow run really fast no matter how badly they’re decomposing. No, I’m talking about the classic Romero-esque shambling dead.
Zombies may not seem like much of a threat when they could easily be outrun or tripped. Climb up a ladder or take out a bridge behind you and there’s no way they can follow. And so what if they can only be killed by a headshot? They move so slowly you’ve got plenty of time to aim.
Kill one zombie and there will still be an unlimited horde of others coming right behind. Their solution to overcoming difficulties by way of raw numbers and brute strength may be simple, but it’s irresistibly effective. Furthermore, zombies operate on the logic of “slow and steady wins the race.” Zombies can walk for forever and a day, but humans can only keep moving for so long. By a similar token, keeping isolated in some shelter is only a temporary fix. Whether by injury, sickness, lack of supplies, infighting, or whatever else, anyone holed up from the zombie invaders will eventually die of something else. And that’s really the point I’m getting at here.
Though zombies have been used as a symbol for a variety of other socio-economic concepts, they are ultimately a symbol of death itself. Like death, they cannot be negotiated with. Like death, they can never be truly defeated for good and all. We can run from death, as one might from zombies, but the very effort of escaping death will inevitably break us down and kill us. And of course, we mustn’t forget the odd zombie film character who kills themselves or kills someone who was only recently bitten. As frightening as death is, it may also be seen as a safe way out when all else fails.
It Follows is not a zombie film, but it features a monster with many of these same deathlike traits. The premise concerns a kind of curse, in which those affected are hunted down by a kind of monster that can take the shape of any human. There is only ever one of this monster, but it cannot be killed or otherwise stopped by any means that are discovered in the story. It doesn’t sneak up or run toward the target, but simply walks in a straight beeline toward its quarry, straight through any obstacles in its path.
We never learn the motivations for this creature or where this curse came from. Those questions are entirely beside the point. The monster is death incarnate, and that’s the point. It continues chasing our protagonist at a constant — albeit slow — pace, and there’s little our protagonist can do to stop it except run until her legs fall out from under her. It’s terrifying in the typical zombie fashion, but somehow even scarier because at least with zombies, we’d know what we’re dealing with.
Something else about this creature is that only the target can see it. Thus the cursed victims are deathly afraid of anyone walking in a straight line, running and screaming in fear of someone who (as far as the rest of the world can tell) isn’t there. Needless to say, paranoia is a central concept in this film, which naturally works beautifully in the greater context of a horror picture. Even better, it leaves our supporting characters with a significant problem: How can they help protect the protagonist from a threat they can’t see?
So how does this curse choose its victims and what can they do to possibly save themselves? The answer to both is quite simple: Sex. The curse is spread through sexual contact, and the last person in the chain of victims is the monster’s current target. It seems random and insultingly easy at first, but it’s really quite diabolically brilliant. The monster’s nature encourages the target’s isolation, yet the target can only possibly be saved by letting a total stranger get close enough for the ultimate act of intimacy.
(Side note: The thought occurs to me that this could just as easily have been titled “It Comes.” Too on-the-nose? Or maybe too juvenile?)
It also bears mentioning that if the target dies, the monster’s attention will be directed toward the previous victim and so on up the chain. So passing the curse on to a male lead who’s willing to make a heroic sacrifice isn’t really an option. It also means that for the sake of everyone involved, the target had better choose a sexual partner who will find another suitable mate very quickly.
The STD symbolism is obvious and really quite poignant. One moment the protagonist (Jay, played by Maika Monroe) is happy for getting laid, the next her genitals are her own worst enemy and a plague for everyone else. This is of course compounded by the realization that her would-be boyfriend (Hugh, played by Jake Weary) seemed to be a perfectly nice guy right up until he turned out to be a coward who used his dick to trade her life for his.
There’s also the matter of Paul (Keir Gilchrist), an old childhood friend who’s long held a torch for Jay. She could fuck him easily and have done with this whole thing straightaway, but then what? The thing would just go after him, probably kill the guy, and then go right back after Jay. That isn’t even getting started on the emotions involved with screwing someone who’s practically a brother to her, to say nothing of what they’ll have to go through with their mutual friends. One of whom, by the way, is Jay’s own little sister (Kelly, played by Lili Sepe).
An alternative is Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the bad boy living across the street. He seems much more capable of surviving on the run for extended periods of time, he could probably find another girl to bed in a much more timely manner, and of course Jay would have no problem seducing him. But then we run into the same problems of whether or not he really is capable of handling the curse. And Jay would also have to deal with any potential jealousies from Paul.
The characters all generally succeed at making an impression and they’re all superbly acted. In particular, Maika Monroe more than earns her paycheck and she carries the film incredibly well. There is a weak link, however: Olivia Luccardi doesn’t leave much of an impression as Yara, though that’s probably because Yara was given very little to do other than read from some weird clamshell e-book.
Also, the movie is quite decidedly vague on how old these characters are, and that’s a significant issue when sex is such a huge part of the story. The “sexual awakening” angle and the characters themselves are all developed in such a way that it would make more sense if they were high school age or younger. Yet there are some plot points that don’t work at all unless they were 18 or older.
Of course, you would think that all the sexual content would be a lot less squicky for the audience if every character involved was over 18. The filmmakers address the problem of depicting potentially underage sex by going very far out of their way to make sure that the sex scenes are all entirely void of nudity. We see a lot of characters having intercourse through their clothes under L-shaped sheets. Yet the film does have nudity… by way of the monster. It’s not at all uncommon for the monster to appear as people who are old, mutilated, or otherwise misshapen in addition to being at least partially naked or minimally dressed. The monster even has an incest-related kill that I dare not spoil any further than I already have.
I’d be very interested to watch the film again and try to get a feel for the deeper symbolism at play here. It’s tempting to think that the monster’s depiction of sex and nudity represents the scarier, more violent, more dangerous and disgusting aspects of sex, in keeping with its status as an STD symbol. But then why is the sex between our main characters so much more pure, even when it’s spreading that same STD? If anyone out there would like to discuss this further, then by all means, please leave a comment.
Also, as for one last nitpick, I really wasn’t fond of the soundtrack. I’m sorry, I know I’m in the minority on this, but I thought the music was way too overbearing. The soundtrack was too loud and too blunt, practically screaming at the audience to pick up the hint that something scary was about to happen. Moreover, the music is largely comprised of synthesizer cacophonies, and the film wasn’t nearly ’80s enough for that to work. In fact, everything about this film seems to have been designed in such a way that it could easily have taken place at any time in the past forty years or so. It lends the film a timeless quality that isn’t likely to date the film anytime soon, so kudos for that.
Perhaps most importantly, the loud and screechy music doesn’t remotely mesh with the spare nature of the film’s premise and antagonist. It speaks volumes that the scariest scenes in this movie are the ones that don’t have any music at all. Hell, the movie never even needed a soundtrack — all it needed was the rhythmic beating of feet marching closer and closer.
Just to make it clear, this movie really is absolutely terrifying. A lot of that comes from the mysterious nature of the monster, since we really don’t know what it is or how it operates. The film tricks us into sharing the characters’ paranoia, always on the lookout for a walking figure in the distance and wondering if that figure could possibly be the demon. The camerawork and editing are absolutely top-notch, playing into the fact that any horror audience will constantly try to anticipate when the next scare will be. It’s too shamefully rare to find a filmmaker like writer/director David Robert Mitchell, who clearly understands that the time when nothing happens is the time when anything could happen.
It’s tempting to say that the setup is more important than the payoff when it comes to horror, but Mitchell would prove me wrong there as well. In the very first scare of the film, we see a character running for her life, then we smash cut to the same character’s gruesomely rearranged body, and we have no idea what happened in between. The message is clear: Whatever this film is dealing with, it’s not something to be trifled with. Which means that we now have actual stakes to make the following scares more terrifying. The scene also gives us a promise that we’ll eventually find out how this character died, and that’s a very compelling promise, given the graphic nature of the death. So in a weird way, that early payoff becomes a setup for the rest of the film.
It Follows is an excellent horror film. The premise may be exceedingly simple, but it still allows for some deep thematic layers on death, paranoia, and sexuality without getting in the way of the scares. It also helps that Maika Monroe is a natural-born scream queen and Mitchell knows how to shoot and edit a scene for maximum tension.
I have no idea how a no-budget festival circuit favorite like this one ever got such hype and a wide release, but it definitely needs to happen more often. Such a creative and well-constructed film more than deserves our support, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to go and see it immediately.