by Evan J Peterson
On Tuesday, April 5th, join us for the next installment of our SHRIEK: Women of Horror film and discussion class. This time, we’ll get into It Follows, one of the most original, popular, and effective new indie horror films.
Stats on It Follows (2014)
Body Count: 2 people
Nudity: full frontal, mostly female with distant male, but not sexualized
Major protagonists: female and male
Villains/Antagonists: the monster varies in gender
Major actors: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Writer: David Robert Mitchell
Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: Yes. The monster doesn’t follow a gender binary, and so women discussing the monster are not talking about a man.
How do I love It Follows? Let me count the ways.
Firstly, before we even unpack the story and the characters, let’s talk about the writing. Not a single word in this film is spoken redundantly. Every bit of dialogue either builds characters, moves the plot, or both. Dialogue is not necessarily minimal, but it’s usually terse. Things mentioned or hinted at in Act 1 are revealed by Act 3 (except when mystery adds to the effect). Rather than running to the authorities with wild claims and being rebuffed as hooligans, the young characters explicitly refuse to go to the authorities or their parents, knowing these people will do nothing to protect them. Unlike the run-of-the-mill horror film, actors do much of their acting through the subtleties of facial expression rather than through screaming and joking. In the tradition of serious horror titans like Alien, the film wastes nothing.
This film is one of few I’ve seen recently that effectively creeped me out. The film gets under the viewer’s skin, and it left me checking over my shoulder and watching my bedroom door at night. A major part of this isn’t just the story, but director David Robert Mitchell’s framing: the monster (which some fans have dubbed “The Follower”) is usually glimpsed in the distance, behind or out of sight of the characters it pursues, before it attacks. The audience scans the whole frame, just as the characters themselves keep vigilant watch. If you pay close attention, you’ll find clues to understand some key elements of the monster.
The Follower itself is one of the most literally nightmarish I’ve ever seen. It’s such a simple monster in concept and appearance, requiring little budget, yet it’s far more like a nightmare than anything else I’ve seen as an adult. Like any dream, but particularly a bad one, The Follower’s appearance shifts, as do its killing methods. That’s part of what makes the film so frightening. It’s not a gory-toothed beast snapping at us. It’s far worse. The fright is accomplished with very little gore (most notably and grotesquely in the prologue rather than dispersed throughout).
Although there are more major male characters than female, the film centers on Jay, a very young woman who receives a curse when she has sex with a cursed man, “Hugh.” He informs her that she can pass this curse on as well, and she must do it as soon as possible, or the unnamed “it” will kill her, then Hugh, then the woman who cursed Hugh, and so on. It sounds a lot like an urban legend, and that’s absolutely intended. The film reinvents clichés of urban legends and the trope of “have sex then die” so often found in horror films from the late ‘70s onward. Other reinvented tropes: the female protagonist with the androgynous name, the conveniently absent parents.
While the ensemble cast is strong and cohesive in chemistry as well as support of one another, this film is mostly about women. It is Jay who is our main protagonist and perspective character, the one who must deal with the aftermath of an assault, the one in the most danger, the one who must be both clever and strong, who must rely on her friends rather than trying to save them. She feels like a Final Girl, yet she has little in common with the archetype: she isn’t a virgin, she isn’t a tomboy, she’s not the only survivor, and she doesn’t take down the killer single-handedly. Why does she feel so much like a Final Girl? Let’s discuss that at the event.
In the previous months, we examined The Countess and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night for SHRIEK. Both films are up for debate as to whether they’re horror or not. It Follows requires no debate. It is absolutely, undoubtedly a horror film. Mitchell and score composer Disasterpeace (Rich Vreeland) are able to create jump scares without much motion or loud noise, which is a tremendous feat in a genre filled with the kind of tacky, paint-by-numbers scares that you’d find in a commercial haunted house. There’s no sudden appearance of the monster in a mirror accompanied by a musical string sting. It walks into the frame far more often than it lunges, and often it’s Disasterpeace’s music that makes this slow ambulation so incredibly freaky.
The score is one of the greatest highlights of a film packed with highlights. Mitchell and Disasterpeace are both inspired by the scores of John Carpenter, known for supplying his own electronic compositions to his films (he created the iconic music for Halloween among others). Disasterpeace’s score is also sure to become iconic. It has already been approximated on American Horror Story: Hotel. The sometimes dreamy, sometimes jarring electronic score is tinny, effervescent, and absolutely unnerving, reinventing the repetitive shriek of Psycho during the times of greatest danger. I’ve been listening to it for months now. I’m listening to it now as I write.
Some of the loudest negative criticisms of the film are exactly reasons the fans love it. There has been some criticism, most notably by Quentin Tarantino, that the monster is an inconsistent one. The monster changes its mode of attack. While some believe that this is a huge continuity problem, I disagree. This film is a nightmare, inspired by the nightmares of the writer/director (as he makes clear in interviews and in the audio commentary). Like in a nightmare, the antagonist suddenly develops new ways to menace its target. It attacks three targets differently each time, no explanation required. It’s more frightening because there is no explanation.
Additionally, there’s a slippery time setting. Characters are dressed and groomed in ways that suggest the 1970s, they watch old films and read old books, yet they use technology both appropriate and anachronistic to the era. Again, this is intentional to create a dreamlike effect. The physical setting is Detroit, ranging from the pleasant (white) suburbs to the urban blight past the famous 8 Mile. The decaying, abandoned areas of the city offer an excellent modern Gothic backdrop as the monster walks, walks, walks in constant pursuit of Jay. One criticism I can definitely make is to the lack of actors of color; there are some black actors dispersed throughout, but almost all are literally in the background, with little dialogue. There’s an English teacher and a concerned neighbor, and thankfully there are no downright insulting black characters (the prostitutes are white or at least white-passing). There may be some actors of color who are white-passing, but every character with more than a splash of dialogue appears to be white. Perhaps this too was intentional; the ‘70s/’80s pastiche of the film might be so well thought-out that it mimics the whitewashing of that era. Even so, it’s bizarre that a film about Detroit wouldn’t have a single black main character. Feminism win, racism fail.
The film leaves some difficult questions unanswered, just to mess with us. Where are the parents most of the time, especially Jay’s father? What are the troubles in Jay’s family that Greg’s mother talks about? Did the protagonists win, or is “winning” truly impossible? Do the affected/infected characters actually have sex with the uninformed people they’ve stared at, as we know they want to?
Consent is a huge issue in this film—far more relevant than the easy-to-notice trope of “get laid and die,” which this film is questioning rather than perpetuating. When the man Jay has been dating intentionally gives her the curse, the sex appears consensual until we learn the truth. The film reinvents the rape-motivation clichés of the horror genre by having the protagonist kidnapped after she has consensual sex. Is that a rape, without showing us one? My gut says “yes,” because he has sex with her in order to pass on the curse, not because he cares about her. He may not even be attracted to her. It’s now a matter of legal debate as to whether sex is truly consensual if a person is being lied to (i.e. when an undercover cop has sex with a criminal in order to earn their trust). It will be interesting to hear the audience discuss this at SHRIEK.
In this way, the film comes across as sex-positive and even feminist; it’s not really about characters being punished for having sex, or even about rape itself. It’s about the necessity of informed consent and awkward conversations about STIs. It’s about women and girls supporting each other and working together, especially when men are skeptical or downright malicious. Mitchell has been very clear in interviews by saying that this film is not another cliché horror film in which characters who have sex are killed off. Instead, he says that the film is an exploration of the responsibility and disillusionment that comes with sex. Childhood is over, and the adult world comes with new dangers.
Join us Tuesday, April 5th for SHRIEK: It Follows! You can reserve your space in the class here.
Scarecrow Video is wheelchair accessible. We suggest bringing an extra chair cushion if needed for comfort. The SHRIEK community film class is designed to offer everyone an affordable, accessible way to learn about film and women’s studies. We hope to inspire more women to get involved in filmmaking, especially in the horror genre, where women are severely underrepresented behind the camera.
Evan J. Peterson is a journalist, professor, 2015 Clarion West writer, Lambda Literary Award finalist, and author of Skin Job and The Midnight Channel.