31 DAYS OF HORROR #29: Tim Coleman on IT FOLLOWS (2014)

Spoilers

Moving Pictures editor Tim Coleman is sure someone’s following him – and getting ever closer – in David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 neo-slasher…

A woman runs, terrified, from her house. She’s dressed in silky nightwear and heels, her eyes fixed on something – as yet – invisible. A neighbour asks if she needs help: no. Her father calls off camera, is everything ok? She says she’s fine. A moment, then she’s dashing back inside to grab her keys, jumping in a car and getting the hell out of there. Later, she’s on a beach at night, leaving a tearful phone message to her dad before – jump cut – her body in the sand, one leg snapped back at a horrific, twisted angle.

As openers go, it’s a doozy, and perfectly sets up the familiar – and startling original – territory in which David Robert Mitchell’s film plays. Sex and death have always been easy bed-fellows, both in horror and more widely (the obliteration of ecstasy; “la petite mort” being the French expression for a post-orgasmic state) and ever since Jamie Lee Curtis ran down Haddonfield’s streets in 1978’s Halloween we’ve been accustomed to seeing young women flee a killer in small town America. What’s interesting here is the exaggeration and inversion of the iconography: the young woman’s heels almost panders to male fantasies, but the absence of an assailant is confusing. So too the trope of an “opening kill” – particularly in slasher movies – is well established, but that’s missing too: instead we see the emotional turmoil of the victim before, and the chilling aftermath of her violated body. Audience expectations are subverted, replaced with a devastating gut-punch that’s rooted in emotion, not gore.

The plot soon moves to Jay (Maika Monroe), another young woman, a student with good friends and the object of desire for the local boys, not least pal Paul (Keir Gilchrist) whose barely concealed affections bubble beneath the surface. Jay isn’t interested though, and so when she hooks up with Hugh (Jake Weary) one things lead to another and they sleep together in his car. So far, so standard in the teen drama stakes. Then Hugh stuffs a chloroform rag over her mouth, and Jay awakes, still in her underwear, strapped to a chair.

The spectre of male violence hangs heavy over genre cinema, and up until this moment Mitchell has been trading hard on this history. But again – much like the limbs of our opening victim – that all gets bent out of shape as Hugh lays out the film’s central conceit: something is following him. Someone gave it to him, and now – via their backseat tryst – he’s passed it onto Jay. It never sleeps, never stops, always walks, following whoever is the latest person to receive the curse. And right on cue, out of the gloom, a naked woman emerges, coming straight for Jay.

The fact this aggressive entity is not male, indeed not even human – genderless, amorphous, a changeling which can look like anybody – creates an uncanny kind of dread. This isn’t sexual violence that, however repulsive, we understand, but something dissonant, unknowable, other.

Hugh dumps Jay back home and speeds off, to all intents leaving her on the curb like a date-rape victim. Which, in a sense, she is: the sex might have been consensual, but came with undisclosed baggage. Jay is understandably traumatised, though remains confused and sceptical about the veracity of this curse: that is until she’s sitting in class one day and sees an old lady in a hospital gown, shuffling across campus, eyes locked on her. Jay gets up to leave, only to be followed through the halls by this woman. What’s more unnerving is no-one else can see her. As in the opening scene, to all but one, “It” remains invisible.

What essentially follows is a thrilling mash-up between a supernatural “curse” narrative, more typically associated with J-horrors such as The Grudge or Ring (the latter in particular featuring an ambulating ghoul who must be paid forward to another for the victim to survive) and slashers, infamous for their relentless killers who calmly pursue their quarry. The Evolution of Horror identified It Follows as essentially being a remix of this latter subgenre, and this feels congruent: it is, in some ways, a neo-slasher, the tropes reborn and – crucially – made frightening again. This is perhaps none-more-true than a few moments later when, shortly after the old woman set-piece, there is perhaps one of the most terrifying sequences in horror movie history.

Thoroughly freaked, Jay confides in her friends who sleep over at hers, when they hear the kitchen window break. Paul investigates, sees no-one: but Jay encounters a woman, half-stripped, breast out, looking as if she has been assaulted, urinating on the floor – an unnatural tableau shot in slow-motion, trading in sexual imagery but completely unerotic. Jay recoils, screams and flees upstairs, locking the door behind her. Hysterical, she tries to explain to her friends, even as they insist there is no one out there. So she opens the bedroom door, and behind her friend a giant man with cavernous eyes walks slowly out of the shadows.

It’s one of the most deftly executed jump scares of all time, precisely because it eschews convention: there is no sharp cut, no dramatic camera work, just the methodical inevitability of something very bad moving unstoppably forward and – in this shot, framed almost as Jay’s POV – towards us, the audience.

It would be easy to read It Follows purely as a “demonic STI” film, which – on the surface – it is. The old adage that when you have unprotected sex you’re sleeping with everyone that person has slept with rings especially true – particularly when further lore building shows that the entity works its way back up the line of victims (if it gets Jay, Hugh later explains, he will be next on the list). But there is something more universal here: the unrelenting march of mortality, which moves every closer to us all. The film’s tagline “It doesn’t think. It doesn’t feel. It doesn’t give up” feels particularly apt, and nods towards Kyle Reese’s description of The Terminator in that 1984 techno-slasher: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop… ever, until you are dead.” The message is clear: this condition is terminal.

This reading perhaps has most merit in the final act. After fleeing a lakeside confrontation with the entity Jay has sex with neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto), before a few days later seeing the entity coming for him. Running into his house she’s too late, discovering “It” – now transformed to look like Greg’s mother – rutting on his lifeless corpse. There’s a clear Oedipal element here (something which is doubled-down on a few scenes later), but also in linking the likeness of one’s parents to the harbinger of death there’s a sense in which we are staring at our own destiny: the natural life-course is, after all, that all get older, perhaps become parents, and eventually die.

Jay and her friends conspire to kill the entity, luring it to a swimming pool where they hope to ambush it. However “It” arrives looking like Jay’s deceased father – reinforcing the imagery from Greg’s death a few minutes earlier. The gang shoot it and – as the water mists with blood – it feels as if they may have been successful.

In the closing moments Jay and Paul have sex, before Paul goes cruising for prostitutes to pay the curse forward again. However the final scene – with the new couple walking hand in hand (itself an uneasy image, given Jay’s lukewarm feelings for Paul throughout) the audience notices a lone figure appear out of nowhere, in the distance behind them, following.

It’s a coda which chills to the core, a sense of inevitability hanging thick in the air. For although the “It” of the title is liminal (much like the the titular shape-shifter of Stephen King’s novel, or the elusive “It” which …Comes At Night in Trey Edwards Shults 2017 film) the power of that final image – lover’s holding hands, and death behind – is undeniable. “We’re all here for a limited amount of time and we can’t escape our mortality,” says Mitchell, “but love and sex are two ways in which we can at least temporarily push death away”. But for Paul and Jay, and for all of us, that reprieve is only temporary, and it is this knowledge which follows us after the credits close.

Tim Coleman

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