by: Josh Sczykutowicz
A guest contributor makes his case for the best film of the year with David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows…
The death of adolescence is something that has been explored countless times throughout history. The existential terror of our awareness of mortality has been a plague on humankind’s thoughts and portrayed regularly throughout literature, painting, sculpture, music and film, and just about any other form of expression possible. But few genres are capable of exploring this theme quite as well as horror can, a genre that, at its best, portrays innocence lost as unflinchingly as possible. And few horror films to date have done it as well as David Robert Mitchell’s 2015 instant classic, It Follows.
It Follows is a film built on a simple and yet somehow fresh premise. You have sex with someone who is already carrying It, and suddenly, an unknown entity begins to follow you, until It inevitably catches up with you and you die. Once you die, It goes after whoever gave It to you, and then whoever gave It to them, and so on and so forth. To save yourself from death, you have pass It on, as far away from yourself as you possibly can. You can’t reason with It, or talk to It, or make a deal with It. You don’t know what It wants, or why It is doing what It is doing, or how It came to be. It can turn into anyone, sometimes doing so just to upset you. That’s It. That’s the monster. It follows.
Director Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover) doesn’t allow It Follows to fall into the banal tropes of a typical, cliché teen slasher film, but instead presents a cerebral and thought-provoking examination of what it is like to be aware of, and stalked by, death. If maturity requires the death of innocence, then, in a sense, sexual maturation is possible when that death occurs. In that way, it’s through having sex that this awful fate is invoked (Is It a curse? Is It a disease? Is It some evil spirit? You’ll get no answers in this article, or in the movie). Playing on the fear of sexual assault, STDs, and the inescapable force of death, Mitchell examines the most basic of anxieties of the human psyche, while considering the impact these fears have on society.
The film’s female protagonist, Jay, played by the exceptional Maika Monroe, first comes upon It in a terrifying scene when she sleeps with the man who passes this fate along to her. The sex is consensual, but what happens after it is vile and disturbing, where a cloth soaked in chloroform is placed across her mouth and she later awakens strapped to a wheelchair, utterly helpless. But Jay is not alone in her distress, she is instead supported by a network of high school friends. This cast of characters is far more relatable and sympathetic than the Nightmare On Elm Street variety, which were all too often reduced to glorified dissection dolls. Each character is full of nuance, their dialogue age appropriate, and all have fully matured and distinct personalities. Like Stephen King’s classic novel It, It Follows exhibits the deep bonding that occurs among a group of young people as their adolescence wanes and the certain dread of adulthood approaches.
Like the monster of It Follows, you can never escape death. Regardless of how you may try, it will find you one day. The acute awareness of mortality is something that differentiates children from adults, and it is in the adolescent and teenage years where these lines begin to blur. It is in these moments in the film, the quiet spaces where you are given a chance to consider the unstoppable and always approaching force of death, where the terror is almost too much to bear. Like the awareness of mortality, the longer we are given to think about it, the more frightening that unseen inevitability becomes.
It Follows is shot in a manner which feels classic. The color palette and setting that defines the film brings to life a sense of a sleepy, small-town America that has largely been abandoned in the horror genre. Nearing the climax, the film’s group of teens pass through an abandoned part of town, possibly destroyed by an unfortunate economic downturn. Dilapidated buildings set the scene as abounding decay hints at the grim reality of their situation. Mitchell’s cunning direction propels It Follows’ theme of attempting to outrun the inevitability of death, and his pacing is purposeful and affecting. There are enough breaks within the film to catch your breath before the terror sets in again, and the abundance of legitimate and psychologically startling moments appearing at all the right times never seem gratuitous or over-done.
Within It Follows, parents are almost entirely a foreign entity, barely appearing or spoken of. Kids get into car wrecks and disappear for days. Houses are broken into with windows smashed while screams fill the streets. Frantic phone messages are left as cars are taken and driven as far as the gas tanks can go. And all the while, there is almost no parental force present. It is so prevalent that it’s easy to surmise that this is a deliberate choice by Mitchell, playing well into the idea of the existential dread of leading an existence that is ultimately directionless and destined to end a certain way, no matter what. It suits the theme of teenage promiscuity and disaffection, with a thin sheet of depression seemingly laid across every character. Long before any unexplained creature falls into frame, there are few smiles to be had.
It Follows is scored by electronic/chiptune artist Disasterpeace (Rich Vreeland), referred to by Academy Award-Winning composer Trent Reznor as “excellent.” His score is reminiscent of the taut hypnotic tension and mood setting synths of John Carpenter’s films. It’s a retro-synth junkie’s dream of a score, and is absolutely vital to what makes this film so effective. Few scores are as essential to their respective films as Disasterpeace’s is to this one. At all times, from the over-driven panic attack blasts of noise to the introspective, ‘80s style moody ensembles, the music is regularly playing into and off of the audience’s emotions, sending a very clear message constantly: something is very, very wrong, and everything is threatening to go off the handle at any minute.
Towards the film’s conclusion, a friend of Jay’s recites a passage from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot about the inescapable nature of death. It’s a fitting quote, and one that seems to largely summarize the film’s focus excellently. The quote reads: “The most terrible part of the whole punishment is, not the bodily pain at all, but the certain knowledge that in an hour, then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now, this very instant, your soul must quit your body and that you will no longer be a man – and that this is certain,” accentuating the fact that the monster of It Follows is following all of us, whether we can see It coming or not.
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows defies typical horror movie pitfalls that reduce themselves from things of substance to simple audience-pandering and cheap, unsatisfying tricks, and instead manages to stand alone as a fascinating, gripping, and unrelenting examination of mortality, sexuality, and adolescence. Featuring excellent performances from a cast of incredibly young actors, cool and focused camerawork, and a premise that is guaranteed to hook horror movie fanatics, It Follows crafts a dreamlike reality that operates in its own way, with dark streets and blue corridors populating the screen. Brooding, calculating, focused, and tightly-wound, It Follows is an example of what the horror genre is capable of when it is at its best.