by Marie Baleo
Note: This article contains minor spoilers about the 2014 horror film It Follows.
It Follows’ harrowing first scene sees a teenage girl running out of her home in her underwear and high heels, seemingly stalked by someone or something the spectator cannot see. Manifestly terrified, the young woman ignores her father’s cries and drives away in an attempt to escape this unknown assailant. She finds refuge on the edge of a cliff, near a beach, where she exits her car and sits, terrified, in its headlights. In the next, grisly shot, morning has broken and the girl has been murdered, her corpse lying broken and contorted in the very same spot we last saw her.
When we first meet 19 year-old protagonist Jay, she is alone, floating silently on the surface of a swimming pool in the backyard of her suburban Michigan home on a hot summer day. The languid, silent scene is an excellent introduction to the film’s portrait of teenagers living in an affluent suburb of a derelict Detroit.
Later on, Jay goes on a movie date with a young man named Hugh. A few minutes before the show starts, Jay’s date shows her a girl in a yellow dress standing at the back of the theater, but, lo and behold, where the girl should be standing, Jay sees no one and nothing. Suddenly struck by panic, Hugh convinces Jay that they need to leave the theater immediately. After Hugh seems to recover from his inexplicable anxiety attack, they have sex in his car. Afterwards, as Jay is lounging in the backseat, she is chloroformed by her date.
When she wakes up, Jay has been strapped to a wheelchair, still in her underwear, in one of the film’s most frightening scenes. In what is possibly the only benevolent abduction of all time, Hugh explains that he is being followed by a malevolent humanoid presence, which can appear as a normal person. This “thing”, the “It” from the title, is invisible to all but the “cursed” ones. It will follow its victim, walking ever slowly, incapable of running, until it catches up with said victim and kills them.. But here is the catch: the only way to outlive the thing and get rid of this curse is to pass it on. And how is it passed on? By having sex!
By sleeping with Jay, Hugh has passed the world’s most disturbing STD onto her. Jay cannot deny the reality of this new ailment when she spots a half-naked woman slowly walking toward the abandoned building where her date has taken her. After kindly explaining the rules of the game to Jay, Hugh presses her to find someone to sleep with as fast as possible in order to rid herself of the curse. He then proceeds to drop her off at her house, where, terrified and traumatized, she is tended to by her distraught sister and friends, including her childhood friend and first ever crush, Paul (Keir Gilchrist). After Jay shares the nature of her predicament with her friends, both Paul and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), Jay’s neighbor and former conquest, volunteer to help free Jay of the curse by sleeping with her. The movie follows Jay as, surrounded by her sister and friends, she narrowly escapes “It” several times, in various forms (a giant man, an old woman, a young boy, …), and attempts anything to rid herself of the disease.
Mitchell takes a plot that may appear campy and formulaic from the outside, and gives it the logic and obviousness of a dream: once you awake, you realize nothing makes sense, but as you dream, you are convinced, just like a Lewis Caroll character, of its absolute rationality and reality. This device allows It Follows to leave us with the lingering feeling that we have just awoken from a pleasant nightmare, a sensation many viewers cannot shake off for days, and that I personally have only ever had from watching Twin Peaks.
To create this atmospheric, haunting feeling, It Follows uses long takes and elegant, smart photography and composition. Berkeley band Disasterpeace’s score is minimal but effective, and sounds like a mix between Vangelis and the Halloween soundtrack. It Follows knows where it came from and pays tribute to 1970s aesthetics and 1980s horror. Many critics have likened It Follows to a John Carpenter movie and indeed, beyond the score, the similarities abound: likeable protagonists the viewer can identify with and a sleepy, suburban middle-class environment are just some of the elements It Follows shares with its famous predecessors. There is nothing too modern in this story, which could just as well have taken place in the 1980s. As Vulture summarized it, “Mitchell knows It Follows follows in big footsteps, and lets us know he knows without campy winks and nudges”. Others have described the film as “ an unusually observant, literate horror film”. It Follows is well aware of its heritage and its nods to legendary horror films are smart and subtle, but never let the spectators forget they are watching a new, modern, independent horror movie of the 21st century. And one of Mitchell’s film’s most innovative aspects is that it understands the power of harnessing realism in order to frighten its viewers far more deeply and lastingly than any cheap supernatural horror film of the 2000s ever could.
Finally! A realistic portrayals of teenagers and their sexuality
With It Follows, Mitchell is drawn once again to the subject of his 2011 debut feature, The Myth of the American Sleepover: teenagers. In The Myth, Mitchell portrayed a group of friends over the course of a weekend. Though It Follows is Mitchell’s first foray into the treacherous genre of horror, the subject itself remains the same, and Mitchell’s nuanced, realistic perspective on what it means to be a teenager is a pleasure to watch. It Follows’ likeable, profoundly human teenagers are reminiscent of those depicted in The Breakfast Club, and the heavy influence of the 1980s on the film’s photography and score only serve to give the viewer the feeling that if John Hughes had directed an independent horror movie in 2014, it would have resembled this.
Never has a horror film been less about horror and more about the throes of adolescence – fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of aging, fear of death – and about its joys – friendship, intimacy, freedom, the active process of building one’s personality and becoming independent, self-reliant, stronger.
This transient, complex period of every individual’s life, this transition between the extraordinary years of childhood and adulthood is hard to describe in literature, a form of art that leaves almost unlimited space for expression. Few have achieved it, with perhaps one of the only exceptions being JD Salinger with Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. It is even more difficult to portray adolescence somewhat realistically on film, and especially within the constraints of horror, a campy genre not prone to lengthy discussions on the human condition. But It Follows does a magnificent job of picturing adolescence faithfully, while providing both the cheap, superficial thrills and deep, lasting unease that are the recipe for a great horror film. The near-absence of any adult characters in the movie (parents are either distant, disengaged or downright terrifying) only reinforces the independence and strength of the film’s teenage characters.
The film is well served by its talented teenage actors – not just up-and-coming Maika Monroe, but also Lili Sepe as Jay’s sister, Olivia Lucardi as her friend Yara, and, again, Keir Gilchrist. In line with its choice of realism, the film stars actual teenage actors, something which both film and television have traditionally been reluctant to do. Just consider these examples: Jennifer Grey was 28 when she played 17 year-old “Baby” in Dirty Dancing, Rachel McAdams was 26 when she played Regina George in Mean Girls, 24 year-old Michael J. Fox was 17 year-old Marty McFly in Back to the Future, Olivia Newton-John was 29 when she starred in Grease; I could probably go on forever. The fact that Mitchell’s stars are both actual teenagers and relatively anonymous makes for an even more realistic work.
Unsurprisingly, however, the film has faced considerable backlash, as many viewers and critics have interpreted the “STD” storyline as a condemnation of premarital sex and a call to abstinence. For example, one particular film critic in French newspaper L’Obs wrote the following:
“Have sex and you will die”, that is, in short, the discourse held by It Follows (…) In a Christian town suffocated by prudishness and propriety, teenagers are terrified of sex. Naughty children who fail to listen to their parents shall be punished: the first “contaminated” youth is punished for a one-night stand. The teenagers in “It Follows” fear for their lives after sex. The ghosts chasing these young women are named STDs, AIDS, pregnancy, perhaps (…) It Follows likens those who make love before marriage to individuals suffering from AIDS and purposely spreading the disease. What It Follows seeks to spread is paranoia, and it is indeed contagious. Without any pedagogy, without differentiating love without a condom from love, It Follows offers an abject and harmful discourse”.
Beyond the fact that this particular reading discards the significant artistic merits of the film and errs in its literal interpretation of the film’s plot, it is all too easy (particularly as a French journalist!) to slip into a self-satisfied, judgmental reading of “puritan America” and its independent filmmakers with their hidden fundamentalist Christian agenda. Instead, It Follows offers perhaps one of the only realistic portrayals of teenage sexuality in horror in recent years, and shows that horror has a lot to gain from increased realism in terms of “scaring power”.
Indeed, Mitchell’s subtle, realistic, sympathetic treatment of the theme of teenage sexuality is also what sets It Follows apart from decades of caricatural horror movies where sex is usually both strictly forbidden and the surest way for a character to die in the next five minutes. In It Follows, the protagonist is not a virgin, sex is not a big deal, and girls are not passive and subject to the aggressive sexuality of males. The usual idea of teenage boys being more sexual than girls is effectively shown for what it is: a myth. Jay is a refreshing young female character free to make her own choices, at ease with her sexuality and not frightened by it or passive in any way. She has no qualms sleeping with men to rid herself of her disease and is a welcome departure from the “terrified virgin” trope. Colin Geddes, of TIFF.net, accurately stated that “Mitchell handles teenage sexuality in a sensitive and non-exploitative manner, allowing his characters to make realistic and sympathetic choices”.
It Follows has picked a brilliant leading lady
When I headed into the theater with my family earlier this year and looked up to see that the movie we were about to watch starred Maika Monroe, I was instantly thrilled. 21 year-old Maika Monroe has been on my radar since I first saw her in The Guest, a horror film directed by Adam Wingard which premiered at Sundance in January 2014. In The Guest, the Petersons, still mourning the death of their older son, a soldier killed in Afghanistan, are visited by a charming young army veteran (played by British actor Dan Stevens) who claims to have been a friend of their son’s but turns out to be a deceitful, psychotic assassin. In this violently dark and altogether brilliant indie, Maika Monroe is Anna Peterson, one of the two remaining children, and the only one not fooled by the guest’s perfect manners, good looks and prodigal son behavior. I was struck by the strength and determination of her character, a product both of the clever script and her acting chops. Far from the terrified, weeping scream queens of 2000s horror movies, she is cool and collected, strong, always in charge, an heiress of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween and Sigourney Weaver in Alien. But Maika Monroe, who looks like the lovechild of Gwen Stefani and Amber Heard, is also much closer to Hollywood’s beauty standards than Jamie Lee Curtis was in her time, showing that perhaps one can finally be both a traditionally pretty girl and a smart, strong woman in a horror movie.
Past years have seen the rise of a wave of what I like to call “fake feminist horror movies” which merely reverse the usual pattern of male to female violence and displays women inflicting violence upon men (Jennifer’s Body, Teeth, …). Making men victims instead of women does not a feminist movie make; giving women agency and control of their sexuality without them becoming dangerous, murderous creatures, and portraying both men and women as neither subservient victims or aggressors does. That is just what It Follows has done. Monroe’s characters in both The Guest and It Follows are able to display sexuality and sex-appeal on screen while remaining subjects of their own, rather than becoming sexual objects, which is generally the fate of female characters in movies.
Monroe is a kiteboard champion and her physical strength shows in her characters. Perhaps that is why David Robert Mitchell chose Monroe to lead a film which terrifies us using realism and allows us to identify with its main character by showing us a complex, flawed, strong being, much closer to the women we know and love than to the usual horror movie trope.
On top of having impeccable taste in horror (Halloween, The Shining, Nightmare on Elm Street, and – gasp – Blue Velvet), Maika Monroe is a feminist: to a New York Times journalist who asked if she had been offered more traditional teenager roles, Monroe replied: “Yeah, and a lot of them I have no interest in playing. Cheerleader roles are really not my thing. I want things that are weird or not typical. I think a superhero would be awesome to play.” In a Bustle interview, Monroe declared: “I like strong women, seeing strong women in film, and you know — tough chicks (…) I’m still young in this, but it seems to me that there are some really amazing roles for women today that is a newer thing. I do see a change, and it’s really good”.
This change has indeed come, and it signals a change for horror too: It Follows is one of this century’s first humanistic horror movie with self-reliant, strong young characters and a tough, independent female lead. An ode to adolescence, it may just help horror finally regain the certain measure of nobility it has lost in recent years.
 Did the author and I watch the same movie?