David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) is destined to be a classic horror film. It’s mesmerizing, chilling, and deeply unsettling. It’s indebted to the horror tradition, yet utterly distinct. On the surface, it’s about the classic equation of horror: sex = death. But underneath, it’s just about death—not violent, bloody, shocking death but death’s slow inexorability.
In its central plot device, It Follows draws from the slasher tradition: you have sex, you die, not at the hands of a knife-wielding monster but in the form of something that acts like a virus. Some “thing” as Hugh (Jake Weary) tells the protagonist, Jay (brilliantly played by Maika Monroe), after he’s passed it on to her, will now follow you: it won’t run; it’ll only walk, but it won’t stop and if it touches you, you’re dead. We see the influence of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002) here. For now Jay has something of an ethical dilemma: does she pass on the fatal “thing”? To whom?
The “thing” that follows is a shape-shifter (hearkening back to Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers). It disguises itself sometimes as people you know (and love) and sometimes as just anyone. One of the (many) brilliant things about the film is that it forces the viewer—like Jay—to constantly scan the horizon for the “thing.” You (like Jay) are constantly asking yourself whether a passerby is human or a “thing” that’s bent on your destruction (a phrase from Invasion that seems apt here). Mitchell uses the camera to great effect, brilliantly heightening the viewer’s paranoia with his constant panning shots. The horror film has long traded in the tracking shot to induce fear, as we move forward with a terrified character, for instance. The horror film is also known for its subjective “I-camera” shots from the perspective of the killer. (The opening of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is famous in this regard.) But Mitchell never once gives us the point of view of the “thing” as it walks straight toward its target. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t use many tracking shots, toward or away from the “thing.” The camera is, instead, always panning the horizon (including several 360 degree pans)—representing (and inducing) the paranoid dread that is the film’s main affect. Mitchell may have borrowed here from the Paranormal Activity series, especially Paranormal Activity 3 (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2011), in which one of the characters attaches a camera to an oscillating fan, forcing the viewer, as in It Follows, to desperately search the frame—knowing something will appear but getting no direction from the camera as to where.
Even though sex seems to be the source of horror in It Follows, it’s what sex is used to ward off that’s truly terrifying. Mortality. The first time we see the “thing” inexorably advancing, when Hugh passes it to Jay, it seems to be incarnate as his mother; near the end, Jay sees her father. And in the most chilling scene, when Jay is sitting in a classroom, the “thing” takes the form of an old woman, emerging from deep frame and moving unerringly toward Jay, grotesquely out of place among the young people that populate the college campus.
Once Jay’s eyes are open to the presence of death, once she know “it follows,” the existential question she confronts is what to do. That the film is punctuated by two quotations about facing death is, then, no accident. Jay’s friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) spends the novel reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot from some sort of electronic device—and one of the two quotations she reads aloud invokes impending death: “if disaster is imminent, if the house is collapsing on you, you want terribly much to sit down, close your eyes, and wait”: you want to wait for inevitable destruction. And later, when Jay sees what follows her when she sits in the classroom (a clear reference to Laurie’s Strode’s first glimpse of Michael Myers when she’s in English class in Halloween), the teacher is reading T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem about a life spent wasted in inaction, in doubt and self-questioning—a life spent waiting. “Should I, after tea, and cakes, and ices, / have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” Prufrock doesn’t have the strength, intoning later “I was afraid.” And still later, lamenting, “I grow old . . . I grow old.”
Both quotations stress that inaction, paralysis, is not the answer to the remorseless threat of death: when Jay locks herself in her bedroom, shuts herself off, sleeps, waits, she’s only inviting death in a different form.
But sex isn’t the answer either. Mitchell’s film suggests that efforts to ward off death by sleeping with whoever is at hand are not only ethically questionable but worse than useless. Promising transcendence, the carnality of meaningless sex only cements us further in the mortal body (a theme Mitchell also hints at in his first feature film, The Myth of the American Sleepover ). When Jay has sex with Greg (Daniel Zovatto), which means nothing to either of them and is a repetition of the sex that meant nothing to either of them in high school—only death follows. The film ends with the suggestion that only friendship and love may be able to stay ahead of what always follows. What follows, however, is the only thing that’s certain, as the other passage Yara reads from Dostoevsky tells us:
“And yet the chief, the strongest pain may not be in the wounds, but in knowing for certain that in an hour, then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now, this second—your soul will fly out of your body . . . and it’s for certain—the main thing is that it’s for certain.”