It Follows is a fascinating movie, even before you see the movie itself. This critical darling was slated for a VOD release, which was then delayed after strong performances in a small group of theaters. As of this writing, It Follows is available in every major American market, which is pretty mind-blowing. Other reviewers have hailed it as the best American film in years and revolutionary in its radical approach to horror. That may be accurate. This is, in fact, an oddly European film, a movie that has as much to do with existentialism as teenage jeopardy, which makes it a challenging and dense film, one that I’ve been puzzling over for two days.
Let’s get the synopsis out of the way. At its heart, It Follows is the story of Jay (The Guest‘s Maika Monroe), whose first sexual experience with her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) results in a supernatural sort of STD. Following a traumatic post-coital experience, Jay finds herself stalked by…. something. Friends and family rally to her side in an attempt to protect her, placing themselves in harm’s way.
I know, that’s brief. But trust me, you don’t want me to describe more. You want to experience this for yourself. Or you should, but I want to offer a huge caveat for horror fans who could be dramatically disappointed by this film. This is not a typical teenagers-in-danger movie, nor is it a monster movie. It is, a little, but not really. It Follows is more concerned with the underlying philosophy of its characters than in the eminent threat of some boogeyman in pursuit of our heroine. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of tension as the titular “It” tracks Jay, and they are effective when they come, but that’s not what It Follows is about. There are certainly the trappings of the teen horror film, but this has far more in common with Martyrs than with Friday the 13th.
I was reminded repeatedly of the French horror cinema of recent years, particularly Martyrs. It Follows doesn’t revel in the violence or gore the way Martyrs does, but the more cerebral aspects of that film are present here. This, like Martyrs, is born of existentialist horror, a film that culminates in a relentlessly bleak notion that is simultaneously undeniable and terrifying . There is an examination of human sexuality that is just as haunting as the end of the film, and writer-director David Robert Mitchell has a real ear for truth in regards to this issue. In many films, not just horror films, sexual expression is a reaffirmation of life. Not so in It Follows, where sex is reduced to its other non-reproductive function – thrusting the participant into adulthood. The characters in the film are, almost to a one, clinging to childish views of what it means to be grown up, or the belief that there is some revelation that comes with the rupture of a hymen, but the truth is muddier, more disappointing. One by one we see youthful assumptions destroyed and perverted, and the painful realities left behind are somber affairs that bring the characters no joy.
I suppose there is a way to see the last shot of the film as something more optimistic, a statement that togetherness may be a key to survival, or, at least, something preferable than awaiting one’s death in isolation, but I’m not convinced it is quite so optimistic. The fact that the movie is forcing me to consider these elements at all is a testament to how damned thick the movie is with its grim philosophy, which elevates to beyond most movies, never mind horror movies.
Aside from the thematic success of the film, which is really the towering achievement of It Follows, I also adored the timeless look of the film. Cars come from the past three decades and the televisions are old and black-and-white, even though one character is also reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on a digital reader, so your guess is as good as mine as to the actual date of the film’s events. The music is fittingly very European, echoing Goblin at times, but striking throughout. The performances, too, are solid across the board. I don’t mean to sound dismissive of these successes, but it’s the ennui that accompanies this film that I will remember best about it, once I shake it off, of course.
See, I still feel it. I’m still thinking about the lines quoted from Eliot in one scene in the film, wondering about my own occasional desire to be “a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” I have been haunted by this movie since I left it, turning over some very fundamental questions about meaning or the lack thereof, just as I did after seeing Martyrs. With that comparison in mind, I think It Follows accomplishes this existential horror with more grace and more genuine truth than does the French film. Maybe that’s the cultural difference at play, but I believe It Follows is the superior film in this regard.
Will there be a better film than It Follows this year? It’s hard to imagine, but I hope so, because of all that implies. It’s certainly the most impactful movie I’ve seen this year, and required viewing, I think, for horror fans who don’t mind their horror to aim for the brain instead of the gut. It’s smart, sophisticated storytelling with a message of honest terror. Like all art, which It Follows most certainly is, what you see may be different. See it, then come back and tell me what you think. Maybe in that moment of discussion, we won’t be quite so alone.