World’s Greatest Boss: Sex, Death, and Nostalgia in ‘It Follows’

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It Follows (2015):

The Plot: The trailer does a great job of laying out the premise, and I’d rather not spoil too many plot points. Just ALL OF THE THEMES:

One of the many strengths of It Follows is that It is never explained. Once the central premise is laid out, that’s all she wrote. The rest of the film is about Jay and friends trying to deal with this supernatural menace. It is unknowable, an ever-changing shadow that taps into a fear beyond any rational thought, most likely located at the base of the spine, where I’m assuming primal instincts live.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell never truly releases the tension, even during moments of relative tranquility. Frequently, the camera pans in a slow circle, effectively training the viewer’s eye to search for that figure in the background. The one person in the crowd moving straight for Jay, unfettered by all the quirks and stumbles of real humans. The shark in the water, the tiny dot in the clouds that rapidly becomes a set of talons snatching up the ill-prepared tortoise.

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Hand-in-hand with that ever-present tension is a pervasive melancholy, a sense of nostalgia for innocence lost and a future that might never be. At its heart, It Follows is more than a horror movie. It’s expertly frightening, but that terror is backed up by an understanding of the many spectrums of adolescent sexuality and a keenly felt sadness rendered with subtle grace. The horror is always at the fore-front, but there’s a rich subtext present that grounds that horror in real human emotion.

While It Follows is ostensibly dedicated to sharing that unique, sickening feeling of being stalked by an unshakable predator, it’s also about the complex stew of emotions that bubble and brew during puberty. It’s about reconciling sexual fantasy with reality, and coming to terms with mortality, the only absolute during a period of constantly shifting grounds.

Mitchell infuses the unease of adolescence with real terror, making the familiar foreign. The settings feel both lived-in and ethereal, like visiting your childhood home in a dream. Comfortable memories share space with the creeping sense that something is very, very wrong. A living room cluttered with objects cloaked in varying degrees of emotional significance is a shadow’s width away from death, an invasion felt in the subconscious of every human made aware of the grim certainty of an end.

Several times, It takes the form of its intended victim’s parent, possibly the most unsettling appearance for a sexually-motivated killer. The adults in the film are nearly as slight a presence as they are in Charlie Brown’s world. Jay’s mother is an emotionally distant alcoholic, and her father is totally absent. When Hugh/Jeff gives It too her and forces her to watch its approach so she’ll believe him, It comes in the form of his naked, grimy mother. Part distortion of the ideal American home, part commentary on the chasm between adolescents and caregivers, these scenes cast the guilt and discomfort that come from revealing sexual activity to judging parents in a darkly hyperbolic light*.

Similarly, but somewhat less disturbingly, the peace that Jay feels in water is slowly perverted, as scenes of her languishing in her backyard swimming pool give way to a lakeside appearance by It and a final showdown in a public pool. What starts out as a stand-in for womblike security soon becomes a refuge for the hunted, and the once-familiar eventually transforms into a battleground against the idea of death itself.

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Jay’s very real struggle for survival represents our own efforts to put aside thoughts of mortality in order to find contentment in the presence of a deadline. The objects we cherished as children mean different things to us as we grow older. Toys we put aside during a rebellious adolescence become windows to a rose-tinted past. Movies we loved let us remember, however fleetingly, what it felt like to be a child, confident in the knowledge that the world was simple and good, and someone was looking out for us. We take the past with us, turning a blanket into a cape we can wear on our way to the only permanent finale.

Even the film’s aesthetics are rooted in nostalgia, hovering somewhere in the mid-80s or early 90s, with only the rare cell-phone to reveal the artifice. Mitchell taps into his audience’s nostalgia for those decades, grounding his themes in a sense of longing for a culture both real and imagined. Horror fans will notice a deeper layer of homage to John Carpenter’s classic films, most notably Halloween, the movie that sparked the slasher genre. Disasterpeace’s supremely effective synth-heavy score** and the suburban setting evoke Carpenter’s best without feeling beholden or slavish. It Follows is both unique and tied to the past, a product of history that forges its own path.

Perhaps the greatest strength of It Follows, beyond even its propensity for being truly scary, is its ability to humanize its characters. Jay and company share the unlikely distinction of being sexually active teens in a horror movie without coming across as utterly terrible. In fact, no one is really all that bad, with the obvious exception of It, which could probably use a nap and a hug. Even the guy who passes It to Jay isn’t cruel, just terribly frightened. The film successfully manages to be about teenagers getting murdered just for having sex, while also fairly depicting the full range of (hetero) teen sexuality***.  It Follows has its cake and eats it, too.

When Jay goes out with Jeff/Hugh, she’s just expecting a nice evening with a cute boy, because she’s done this before. She’s sexually experienced—and, I might add, not judged for it—and self-assured. Immediately after having sex with Jeff/Hugh, she tells him:

“I used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates. I had this image of myself holding hands with a really cute guy, driving along some pretty road. It was never about going anywhere, really. Just having some sort of freedom, I guess.”

Sex is nice and real and sweaty and rewarding, but she’s wistful; not so much for being younger, but for the way she viewed the world when she was young. Little Jay saw dating as something freeing, a way to live another kind of life, but really it’s just like everything else: you’re still you when you do it.

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RADiUS-TWC

The movie isn’t about the dangers of teen sex. It isn’t a punishment, but a force, a burden that kills anyone you get close to. The frightening thing about sex, or really any close relationship, is the vulnerability. Everyone is going to die sometime. People do it every day. Someone’s doing it right now, but you don’t have to think about it. Every life matters, but most of them in the abstract, because constant awareness would be devastating. The more you know about a person, the more you care, the scarier that abstract thought becomes. It Follows takes that thought and makes it a reality. The only way to save your life is to doom someone else, and the only way to save the intended victim is to take up the burden yourself, to share the weight of death.

It Follows, beyond being the most frightening movie I’ve seen in a long time (sorry, The Babadook), is also one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. It’s fresh, smart horror enriched by subtly-woven themes and well-crafted characters. This film scared the shit out of me, but it also made me sad, which, when you’re watching a movie about death, what more could you ask for?

*In case you’re reading this, Mom and Dad, I’m not talking about you! You guys have always been great.

**So good, it stuck with me in the nightmare I had about It following me.

***The “full range,” in this case, referring to age, rather than orientation.

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