The New Terror of It Follows (Plus Thoughts from the Director!)
David Robert Mitchell’s new indie thriller, It Follows, opened March 13 with expectations of a small theatrical run and an early Video-on-Demand release. But following initial success and positive reviews, the film received wide-release treatment on March 27. Reaching far beyond the cheap scares and gore of standard horror films, It Follows marks an important turn for the genre.
It Follows stars Maika Monroe as Jay, a young woman who finds herself stalked by a mysterious presence after a sexual encounter with her new boyfriend. After sleeping with the new beau, Hugh, he knocks her out, ties her to a wheelchair in an abandoned lot, and informs her that he has passed along a pseudo-curse. A being will follow her at a walking paces, says Hugh, and take whatever form will allow it to get closest to her. If it reaches Jay, it will immediately kill her and move back to stalking him. He suggests that she have sex with another person as soon as possible to pass the curse along. The knocking out and tying up may seem unnecessary, but Hugh wants to keep Jay in one place so that he can prove that this unknown “follower” exists and properly warn her of the threat. He wheels Jay to the edge of the lot where an unfamiliar woman, completely nude, is slowly making her way through the nearby foliage and towards the couple. Hugh then drives Jay home and drops her off in the street in front of her house where her sister, Kelly, and their friends immediately realize that something terrible has happened. Although only Jay can see this presence, her friends are quick to believe in it after seeing Jay’s absolute terror when faced with the being. The rest of the film follows Jay and her friends as they try to escape the “follower” and rid Jay of its presence for good.
sO what’s different HERE?
It isn’t immediately obvious that It Follows is a genre game changer. It does, after all, begin with a scantily clad young woman running scared through a suburban street before cutting to a shot of her mangled dead body on a beach. But as the film unfolds we see that this isn’t your average teen scream-fest. Here are the major aspects of It Follows‘s uniqueness.
Jay and Kelly are joined by childhood friend Paul, their neighbor Greg, and close friend Yara. These characters care about each other, working together to hide from the “follower” and attempting to outsmart it. We even get some backstory about the characters. Backstory, I tell you! Typically in horror films the only information we get about the players is that which immediately drives the plot forward, usually some sort of sordid family secret or a deeply hidden revelation about a main character. But a late night conversation between Jay and Paul reveals that they’ve known each other for years, were each other’s first kiss, and that there may be deeper feelings under the surface. As the group continues to protect each other and run from the “follower,” we become invested in their normalcy and obvious bond.
2. The setting.
Location-wise, It Follows was filmed, and takes place in, metro-Detroit. For the most part, we see suburban neighborhoods, with small trips to a family cottage and the local pool. What makes the setting of It Follows different and subsequently, quite scary, is that much of the terror takes place in broad daylight. Horror films tend to be of the “make it through the night alive” variety, and there are a few instances of nighttime “following” in It Follows, but mostly the characters are seen struggling between dawn and dusk, making the terror all the more real. Jay sees her supernatural stalker at home, at school, even at the beach.
Time also plays an interesting role in It Follows, contributing to the nightmarish setting. It’s not obvious which time period or decade the film takes place in. The cars are vintage and the characters’ clothing nondescript. No one uses a cell phone, tablet, or any other modern device; the only phone call made during the film is on a corded house phone. The only exception to this absence of modern technology is their friend Yara’s small shell-shaped device. It could be a phone, but the only time Yara uses her “shell phone” is to read. She is seen reading The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky several times during the film and even reads passages aloud to other characters. This timelessness contributes to the dream-like sense we get when watching It Follows; it could be happening anytime or anywhere, which means it could be happening to us.
3. The terror.
We’ve become very accustomed to horror in scary movies. What we’re not quite used to is terror taking the front seat. Gothic lit scholar, Devendra Varma, wrote, “The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.” Where terror is the anticipation, the waiting, and the anxiety before the horror hits, horror is the blood, guts, and appearance of the monster. It Follows, of course, has moments of horror. We see the “follower,” after all. But what is scariest in It Follows isn’t always the appearance of the “follower,” but rather the slow pace of its approach. The viewer knows the “follower” is there, can see it with their own eyes, but what tortures us is the anticipation of its leisurely walk. Knowing that the “follower” is constantly in pursuit of Jay also lends a sense of dread to the film. It could literally appear at any moment. There is absolutely no safe place and no obvious solution.
4. No explanations.
Characters in horror movies tend to seek help from an outside source. It could be the police, a priest, a paranormal investigator, or an ancient tome in an obscure library stack, but the protagonist almost always looks for an explanation to their struggle. This is not the case in It Follows. Jay and her friends seek help from Hugh (real name Jeff) about halfway through the movie, but they otherwise don’t try to discover the origin of the “follower.” They don’t ask their parents for help or mention the menacing presence to other authority figures. This also lends to the nightmarish quality of the film: there are no answers or solutions in nightmares, we are simply stuck in our terrifying circumstances.
THOUGHTS FROM THE DIRECTOR
The theatre in Detroit where I was originally supposed to see It Follows was sold out, so my friends and I drove about twenty minutes north to Royal Oak for another showing. Unbeknownst to us, writer/director David Robert Mitchell was in attendance and stuck around to answer questions after the film. Here are some thoughts he shared with the audience:
- The film was inspired by a recurring nightmare Mitchell had when he was about 9 or 10 in which he felt someone following him no matter what he did.
- The forms that the monster took in the movie weren’t necessarily thematic, they were just the things that happened to scare him the most.
- Mitchell’s favorite scene in the film is Jay’s monologue while lying in the backseat of Hugh’s car after the two have sex. He says that the cast and crew had a lot of time to work and rework this scene, including tiny details like the positioning of flowers.
- It Follows is meant to seem as if it takes place “outside of time,” not necessarily in a specific decade.
- Sex in the film isn’t meant to be dangerous or manipulative. It’s a normal part of life and even serves as a moment of freedom for Jay.
- The ending of the film was always meant to be ambiguous. Mitchell thought that it would seem silly if the characters found a logical way to solve the problem, so he leaves them still being followed.
Did you see It Follows or plan to see it? What did you think of its spin on horror?