Well done fright, classic message in modern horror-thriller “It Follows”
Many horror movies are simply morality plays. In fact, most of our stories, be they legend, fairy tale, myth, or fable, exist for more than mere entertainment. They serve a larger purpose, one meant to exercise a certain amount social control through fear in order to warn us against our baser instincts.
It can be argued that most of the world’s major religions serve the same role. The lessons contained in stories told for generations dictate and reflect the social mores of the cultures that create them. Many of the themes found in the horror tradition reflect American Puritanical roots, despite the conventional rejection of the genre by the more conservative-minded.
Fables and fantasy are told to young children to help guide them on their path to adulthood. They are told through a palpable, easily understood medium that will both hold the interest of the child and provide context for their thinking. Horror film is no different—it is simply marketed to a different age group.
There is no doubt that the majority of tickets sold are purchased by adolescents, and as a result the subtext of many of these films is clear, if occasionally lost on an audience more interested in dark rooms than deconstructing themes. “Friday the 13th” stresses responsibility to prevent tragedy. “Carrie” argues for social acceptance and criticizes intolerance. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” highlights the brutality of preparing animals for food.
These are all warnings in some way or another, meant to teach moral lessons to the youth of the world. “It Follows” continues in this tradition, warning against casual sex by equating its consequences with a slow, creeping unnamed monster that cannot be turned away, only passed on. “It” could be many things—disease, reputation, or self-worth.
“It Follows” is distinctly timeless both in its treatment of these themes as well as its technical construction. As much as the world has changed with the introduction of powerful communication technology, the American suburbs have endured in much the same form as always: middle class, white, and relatively safe.
The dangers have always been more unseen, a thief in the night preying on the unwary. “It Follows” personifies this danger, giving “it” many faces with the same deadly effects. The story follows Jay, a blond girl in her late teens/early twenties. She has a new boyfriend, one that seems sweet but distracted. After the two share a seemingly innocent sexual encounter, he reveals to her a horrible truth.
There is something dangerous following him and now that something has been passed to her. There is no way to get rid of it. It can only be passed along. It is slow but unrelenting. It can only be escaped for a time.
There are themes within themes in “It Follows.” The obvious criticism of sexual promiscuity and the consequences of unchecked sexuality are easy to pick apart. However, the film goes deeper. There are readings from Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” sprinkled throughout the narrative, highlighting the inevitability of death and our collective fear of moving steadily towards a final conclusion.
In one particularly chilling scene, Jay first experiences the unremitting gaze of “it” to a classroom reading of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” When Jay’s professors intones the lines “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/scuttling across the floors of a silent sea” as the emotionless visage of “it” stalks calmly across the campus lawn, we understand that “it” represents the Eternal Footman snickering at our pretension in the face of time.
Beyond the well-developed themes, cinematography and directing are used to insert the audience into the narrative. We scan the horizon alongside Jay and her friends, searching for the lone figure striding towards us, chilling our blood as it gets closer with each pass. In some ways, the experience is more harrowing for us, as we can see the danger long before the characters and can do nothing to warn them away.
Director David Robert Mitchell has only two features under his belt but his talent and eye as a director is clear. “It Follows” shows that he has a deep understanding of the genre and a powerful storytelling sense.
“It Follows” is one of the first classic horror films of this decade. It’s simple without being formulaic and frightening without relying on jump scares or excessive gore. It follows you home and lingers in the hallway.
“It Follows” is playing at the Chattanooga Film Festival on Saturday, April 4 at 4:45 p.m.