It Follows is the movie Franz Kafka would write if he were into making sex horror. And, you know, if he was still alive.
When Jay (Maika Monroe) sleeps with her boyfriend, she wakes up to find herself tied to a wheelchair. He has something, he tells her. It follows him. Now, he’s passed it on to her. It can look like anyone – a stranger, a loved one. Like those dreams where we seem to run in sand, it only ever walks, but it always catches up. The only way she can rid herself of it is to transmit it to someone else by sleeping with them.
This is a horror villain passed along as an STD, and that’s a coldly effective conceit in a movie that frames its images to make the viewer feel like a Peeping Tom.
Where are Jay’s parents during all of this? It’s a little unclear – her mother is the only one around and never far from the bottom of a bottle of wine. These kids – much as teenagers in the real world – are terrified that their worries will be laughed off by adults. As a result of circumstance and their own decisions, they’re on their own, forced to face this new horror and their own trauma without a real adult connection to bolster and support them.
That’s the most important rule of It Follows. If the kids feel it, it’s part of how the world around them is written and filmed. When does It Follows even take place? Your guess is as good as mine. Most of the cars are 70s beaters. Jay dresses and decorates her room as if it’s the 70s, her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) stepped out of a 90s wardrobe, and their friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) looks like she rolled out of bed and threw something on just that morning. Yara is constantly reading from a futuristic looking Kindle and a cell phone is pulled out by another character, but outside of this, everyone’s dependent on cheap, plastic, landlines from the 80s. The only movies the characters watch are black-and-white classics from the 50s or before, and the score feels like 70s progressive rock.
There’s a difference between not taking place in any era and taking place in all of them at once. It Follows spans across every decade that cinematic horror has existed. The world these characters inhabit feels real, it feels consequential, but so many of the markers that anchor us in horror films are deliberately erased. It’s like watching a dream with all the fingerprints that make it yours removed. You don’t feel like you belong in it, and so you become a voyeur of all that happens.
“Scary” isn’t the operative word here. “Dread” feels more appropriate. If horror movies embody the feeling of waking up in the middle of the night and feeling like something’s in the dark there, standing just out of sight and waiting, then most horror movies are about the jump – the moment the thing in the shadows leaps out at you.
It Follows is about anticipating that jump. It’s about staring into the shadows and the shadows staring back. It’s about the ebb and flow of that moment when you’re just not sure what’s there. There’s dread, yes, but the longer you hang there doing nothing, making no decision, the more you learn to live with that dread. The moment you make a move, you fight, and there’s nothing left but to do or die. If you can just stay hung there, frozen all the longer, stretching that moment out, you can still cling to some vestige of hope, prolonging the inevitable.
We all feel those moments in our lives, when we’re faced with some kind of impending doom and procrastinate, refuse to believe, refuse to act, inventing some sort of illusion that everything’s all right until it’s too late. There’s a draw to doing nothing – no, it’s more than a draw. There’s a temptation to continue sitting in the dark and staring at the shadows, waiting. This is horror all the more disturbing because each of us understands the impulse to settle in and pretend it’s all going to be fine. Why? Just because, we tell ourselves. It has to be.
This is the terror in It Follows. It burns so patiently, forcing its characters to face a shifting villain in the movie, and its audience to face what we dread in our own heads. It can be an empowering act, but for some viewers it may trigger the traumas they’ve survived.
This is a special film, and a stunningly executed concept. It is among the more unpredictable, meaningful, and dangerous movies I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen countless cheap-shock movies that failed to stick with me even 10 minutes after I’d left the theater. I’m sick of them. I’ve rarely seen a movie filled with more insidious dread, and believe me, this one clings to you like a second skin for days. “It follows,“ goes the title. It really, really does.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.
1. Does It Follows have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Aside from the core cast – Monroe, Sepe, and Luccardi – Debbie Williams plays their alcoholic mother, Linda Boston plays a teacher, and Bailey Spry plays Annie.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. The vast majority of their dialogue is about the mystery at hand or about Jay and her safety.
Look, It Follows is layered in metaphors about feminism, how we deal with sexual assault, PTSD, privilege, women in the horror genre, and the viewer as voyeur. The broadest metaphor in It Follows is reading it as a sort of STD public service announcement, but this only scratches the surface.
It’s also a conceit about surviving trauma – Jay suffers PTSD from a form of sexual assault. That trauma follows her into every moment of her life. Sometimes she can even see the moment approaching, but she can never do anything about it. One of the most effective ways of avoiding coping with the trauma is to repeat it, or to enact it on others. It Follows makes this literal. To buy herself time, she must do to someone else what was done to her. When we suffer, sometimes we don’t know how to communicate our suffering except to replicate its conditions. This is why abuse is so easily passed on from one generation to the next.
There’s also a running theme of privilege, or rather the lack of it, and about the lurking condition of living poor, detached, and without much hope. Parents are barely there. Jay and her friends live in a place that seems devoid of time, so how can it have a future? Her whole world feels like a dream about to be woken from. Just like the entity chasing her, the world around her seems to guarantee she has no chance at a bright future.
By making the girls each embody a different era in horror – the 1970’s victim is always on the run, the 1990’s brave stoic is observant and defensive, and the 2010’s nerdy heroine is book-smart to the point of distraction – It Follows also finds a sly way to present the evolution of feminist heroes in horror, for better and for worse.
And, obviously, I’ve gone over the message about learning to ignore rather than deal with the impending terrors in each of our lives. Like the sexual assault at the film’s beginning, ignoring it only perpetuates the issue. It’s allowed to culturally seep in and ingrain itself into how we live, to the point that sexual assault has become so much a part of everyday reality that very few people seem in any rush to meaningfully confront it.
So yes, It Follows has a hell of a lot to say and it’s able to do it all in 100 minutes without ever losing grip of it’s building intensity.