Movie Review: It Follows
Directed by: David Robert Mitchell
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
It Follows has sparked numerous interpretations from film critics since its release in 2014, regarding the film's symbolism and unfortunately almost all of them have invariably resorted to interpreting the film as a parable about HIV/AIDS, or other sexually transmitted infections, and the social perceptions thereof; the sexual revolution; and "primal anxieties" about intimacy.
However, what these critics have failed to appreciate is precisely just how much trust we must have in those around us whenever we enter a public space. We rarely give any thought to the nameless faces passing by us who might not have our best interests at heart. Even though keeping a watchful eye on the strangers around us came to be an integral and fundamental part of the films universe.
The movie seemingly follows the familiar horror movie pattern: everyone who has sex, dies. Jay, a pretty and fragile-looking college student, leads a boring but seemingly satisfactory life in the suburbs of Detroit. Her days seem to consist of sitting around with her sister and close friends, drifting in a small swimming pool, and going out from time to time. Her new boyfriend, Hugh, takes her to the local vintage theater and then starts to act strangely, apparently seeing people that aren’t there. On another date they have sex and it’s then that Jay learns about her boyfriend’s true intentions, he wanted to pass something on to her. Hugh kidnaps her, straps her to a wheelchair and explains to the terrified Jay that she wouldn’t believe him if she didn’t see “It” with her own eyes. Together they wait until a naked woman suddenly appears, seemingly after the immobile Jay. Hugh takes her from the spot and says she must sleep with someone else in order to pass it further along, otherwise “It” will kill her and then return to kill him and any other person before him. The deadly chain cannot be stopped.
Jay eventually does decide to sleep with someone, Greg, who is portrayed throughout the film as a bit of a womanizer and someone to whom Jay admits, she has already slept with, to pass along the curse. And later on in the film we witness “It” in the form of Greg’s mother kill him while rubbing her crotch against his, wearing an undone nightgown, with one of her breasts exposed.
From this scene you could draw the following conclusion: what Hugh told Jay is not true, just as his name was false, “It” doesn’t just look like anybody. It personifies one’s deepest fears and repressed sexual desires. No one in the movie wants to tell the others what he or she sees as “It.” The characters subconsciously understand that this would reveal too much about themselves, about the parts of their minds that they don’t want others to know. When Jay’s sister asks “What do you see?” Jay answers “I don’t want to tell you” while looking at their father trying to attack her. But if this theory is correct then it can be seen as the movie’s weakness. Jay shouldn’t be afraid of just anyone, only people that look familiar and/or out of place to her.
But it’s also important to recognize that Jay was by no means a slut, made obvious by her one piece bathing suit, she's also even on the prudish side of things, which makes her feel even more guilty about having slept with a guy she doesn't really know. Thus, “It” also comes to signify social “stigma.” No one would ever pass it along mischievously to someone they love, since it would bring them harm. "It" can only be passed along through casual sex, just as “stigma” is never passed along to anyone for sleeping with their boyfriend or girlfriend in a loving monogamous and consensual relationship. The only time Jay can feel comfortable from "It" is at the very end of the movie, when Paul, who is truly in love with her, receives “It.” Since it was true love that aroused their sexual passions, they can feel safe around each other. In the final scene, they are even seen holding hands, suggesting that they are now a couple. Even though "It" was in fact still following them, they no longer felt threatened by it. Seeing "It" as a sort of social “stigma” also helps us to understand why it never seems to die: we will never live in a society where social “stigma” ceases to exist.
However, this third act victory has very little to do with an evil being banished. This isn’t a story about a monster that terrorizes teenagers and then is sent back to the depths of hell. It’s about a girl who is betrayed, must suffer through the aftermath with little help, but who ultimately finds someone willing to share the burden.
Throughout the film, we also see Jay’s friend Yara reading The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Which provides some good quotes, but a better piece of literature to sum up It Follows is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies. Early on in the film, Jay and Hugh play a game in which one of them scans the crowd and decides which person they would trade places with, and the other one guesses which person they chose. Hugh chooses a little boy because, “He has his whole life ahead of him.” What Hugh wants most is to be a kid again. Later, in her monologue, Jay reveals who she’s always wanted to be. She says she “had this image of herself” driving with some “cute guy,” not going anywhere, just “having some sort of freedom.” She’s become her little-girl fantasy of a sophisticated adult. And, she finishes, “Now we’re old enough, where the hell do we go?” There’s only one place to go once you’ve achieved adulthood, and that’s the grave.
It Follows is among one of the most thematically-rich horror films released in the past decade, so it’s endlessly frustrating for me to hear that the average viewer knows it only as “the STD movie.” But the movie is very clearly not about an STD, because you don’t need an STD to die. You’re just going to, no matter what you do. As Yara reads in the penultimate scene: “And the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour—then within ten minutes, then within half a minute, and now—at this very instant—your soul will leave your body and that you will no longer be person—and that this is certain. The worst thing is that it is certain.”
While Jay did open herself up to danger through sex, sex ended up being the one way in which she could free herself from the danger that she was in. We're all here for a very limited amount of time, we can't escape our mortality, and certainly not the horror of living. And what the film illustrates is that love and sex are two of the only ways in which we can, at least temporarily, push death away.