It Follows (2014)

There are several reasons why I’m not a fan of psychosexual symbolism. First, it presents what is ultimately highly subjective as if it were universal truth. Cylindrical objects are not inherently phallic, they’re only phallic in the minds of the people who say they are; yet Freudian symbolism presumes that everybody shares this interpretation, that everyone sees penises and vaginas everywhere they look. As fun as this may be, it doesn’t stack with experience and is ultimately a highly ethnocentric perspective (psychoanalysis is a Western tradition based in Western notions of normative behavior, sexuality and psychology).

(Cigars are just cigars, etc. etc.)

Second, this type of symbolism is necessarily ham-fisted. Everything is a metaphor for sex, and sex is a metaphor for everything. Sex is joy, sex is pain, sex is a weird undead demon thing stalking you endlessly for no apparent reason, pissing itself and waving its boobs at you because of course.

It Follows is a movie about awkward, awkward teen sex. It has a monster, sure, but let’s be clear: it’s about horrendously uncomfortable sex between people who seem way too young for this to be happening on screen. Sex is present in some form–conversationally, referentially, or literally–in just about every scene. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it left me wondering if this was a horror film or a PSA for teen abstinence.

The idea is, there’s this monster thing, which can take the form of any person, and which you “catch” like an STD after having sex with the person it’s currently stalking. Then it turns its attention to you, and it will stalk you–and if it catches you, it will kill you–until you sleep with somebody else. Then it moves on to that person. But fooled you, if it kills that person it’ll turn around and start following you again.

Jay is a young girl living in Detroit with her sister and negligent mother. She’s dating a guy named Hugh. On the night they furtively consummate their relationship in the backseat of Hugh’s car, Hugh follows his breathy, disappointing performance by chloroforming Jay. She wakes up strapped to a wheelchair in an old highway overpass or parking garage or something. Hugh explains to her that he’s doing this for her own good–never a good thing to hear–and tells her that the thing she’s about to see is real, and that it will follow her until she passes it along to someone else. He wheels her to the edge of a little hill, where she sees a naked woman slowly walking towards them. This is the film’s monster, which appears in various human guises and relentlessly walks. Walky walk walk. Probably a sex metaphor in there, too. Hugh (whose real name, we later learn, is Jeff) then deposits Jay in the street outside her house and speeds off.

The rest of the film is spent trying to get away from, and then to pass on, the weird psychosex monster thing. (And it unquestionably is a psychosexual thing: when we finally see it kill somebody, it appears to him in the form of his own mother, and it literally screws him to death.) Jay enlists the help of her sister and a few friends, and the greasy neighbor kid from across the street, and they, I dunno, go on a road trip? There’s the usual “nobody believes me” bit for a while, but Jay’s friends are forced to believe her when the monster–invisible to everybody but the people who’ve “caught” it–grabs Jay by the hair while they’re hanging out drinking on a beach.

I realize that I’m the odd man out here, but–in case you didn’t get this by now–I didn’t really care for this film. It featured a cast of unlikeable characters doing mostly unimportant things. I recognize that the film is attempting to generate fear by linking human sexuality to inescapable danger, but for me this simply didn’t work. Effective horror–even just effective scenes in otherwise lousy horror–frequently takes everyday situations and makes them frightening. This is Freud’s uncanny, and while I generally resist psychoanalysis, a lot of films have used this concept to good effect. Think of The Grudge, generally a crappy movie, and that one scene where the lady hides under her blanket but the ghost is in there with her under her blanket holy shit. Or what films like Poltergeist or The Ring did with televisions. But It Follows didn’t achieve this in my mind. Instead it came across as a vaguely Puritanical condemnation of sexuality. I’m sure this wasn’t the intention, but that’s what it felt like to me–very much like the awful, but at least humorous, Teeth. Although it lacked that film’s bite muahahahahaha I AM SO CLEVER.

I tried to avoid reading reviews before seeing it, but it was hard to miss the buzz calling this the scariest horror film in ages. I didn’t find it frightening at all; it was just loud. The throbbing, blaring 80s synth soundtrack was an annoying distraction, and while some will undoubtedly appreciate its classic slasher vibe, I found it more laughable than atmospheric.

Also, what the hell was the point of the pool scene with all the small appliances and whatnot? Bullets didn’t stop it; why did they think electrocution would? Did I miss something?

I saw It Follows with a group of friends, and I seemed to be the only one who really didn’t like it. As with everything–including the value and meaning of symbols–it’s subjective. This is an important distinction: I’m not saying this is a bad film, I’m just saying I didn’t like it. And as my pal Greg of Open Letters to my Enemies pointed out, the film has some cool cinematic techniques and competent acting. I also really do like the conceit of the implacable, totally unstoppable creature endlessly stalking its victims (though I could do without the heavy-handed sexual fluff). I just didn’t find its narrative as seductive as some people apparently did haha I CONTINUE TO BE CLEVER BECAUSE SEX.

2andahalfscoops

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15 thoughts on “It Follows (2014)

  1. I was curious whether or not we’d agree on this one, and I find it interesting our opinions are so far apart. I mean, I agree that it’s not scary. Not at all. So not scary that I’d be tempted to categorize it as “thriller” rather than “horror”.

    But I interpreted the whole sexual plot really differently. It felt like what they were physically doing with each other was sex as it is in reality (more than anything else, awkward, but anticipated as such) and what was stalking them was sex as we fear it to be (embarrassing, exposed, possibly gross).

    Also, I really really like the soundtrack. Like, a lot. Enough that I’m thinking about buying it.

    I wrote something up on my blog, I’d be interested to see what you think of my take on it.

    • That sounds like a totally reasonable interpretation to me. And that’s actually precisely why I don’t care. Symbols don’t frighten me, at least not in this context.

      You’re the second person today to tell me that they really like the soundtrack. I think I might like it apart from the film, but it was so loud, and the timing was so comical, that it just didn’t work for me.

    • Natalie, this is a really interesting distinction you’re making between sex as it really is and sex as we fear it to be. Does that mean, then, that “real” sex (ie, unglamorous, kinda awkard) creates this horrifying, destructive force (sex as danger, as degradation, etc)? Are we being asked to conclude that kinda awkward but realistic sex, which should be no big deal (as Jay says at some point), has the effect of inviting this disastrous stigma? This makes a certain amount of sense to me, but if that’s the case, I would have liked to see this echoed in the film more widely–that is, I would have liked to see how people’s attitudes toward Jay changed as they learned about her sexual history (paralleling the “change” of being the new target of the monster). There is, for instance, there’s the scene where the cop is asking Jay whether the sex she had with “Hugh” was consensual, but that isn’t really leveraged to much effect. If this is a story about slut shaming (that is, a story in which you are undeserved stuck with a monstrous sentence for having sex), it seems to me that could have been mirrored more clearly in the attitudes of the human characters.

      • I do feel that the attitudes of the male characters changed a bit toward her. Greg (the neighbor, whom she had a previous sexual relationship with) seems to see the whole thing as just a weird diversion from the boredom of daily life, until he sees she’s so desperate to escape this thing that she’ll sleep with him again. Essentially he sees her fear as an opportunity for sex. And Paul is very obviously intensely jealous. Even after he’s seen the whole demon-hair-pull thing (which I will agree is TOTALLY hokey), he’s jealous that she’ll sleep with Greg and not him.

        If I thought the director actually thought this through, I’d say perhaps it’s a comment on intimacy more so than slut shaming. But I think, above all else, you and I probably just put more thought into the takeaway message than the writer/director did. Because whatever it is that he hoped to achieve in terms of plot/message, I don’t think he achieved it.

        I don’t really mind that the plot wasn’t all there. I didn’t go into the theater expecting to be scared, I went in expecting an hour and a half of atmosphere. So I think that’s why it fully met my expectations. I like It Follows for a lot of the same reasons I like Kiss of the Damned (which is, by all accounts, a terrible film in terms of plot). The visual/auditory experience of it is enough for me to enjoy it.

      • I absolutely agree that we’re over-thinking this. There are some films that bear up under in-depth analysis, and my feeling is that, as you said, this is one where the filmmaker really didn’t think the metaphorical aspects through. It’s much more operating in the realm of the literal–which is surprising and disappointing, given the psychosexual features “it” exhibits. Like, don’t show me a girl’s half-naked father trying to electrocute her in the swimming pool where she had her first kiss and then try to back out and pretend it doesn’t mean anything. Not only is it heavy-handed, as Jeff say, but it’s lazy symbolism. To mix a metaphor, it’s like the filmmaker has set up the pins and then when someone knocks them down, feigns ignorance that they were ever there. The film is establishing metaphors it’s not interested in exploring in a particularly thoughtful way. The same is true, I think, of any attempt to read the supernatural entity as a metaphor for sexually transmitted disease–if this is an STD, is the “cure” then to sleep with as many people as possible? That seems like a mixed metaphor to me.

      • “Like, don’t show me a girl’s half-naked father trying to electrocute her in the swimming pool where she had her first kiss and then try to back out and pretend it doesn’t mean anything.”

        Oh, man. I over-analyze pretty much everything I watch and even I missed this one! I did notice that no one ever has sex in a bed, which I found interesting Re: the intimacy argument. Car, hospital room, boat (maybe?), sofa. But no bed.

        So maybe I was being a bit too literal in my original sex-splanation. IF there were successful metaphors at play here (which I don’t think there are) then I’d say the sex shouldn’t be taken at face value as sex but rather the sex is a metaphor for relationships.

        And I guess it’s really an STD with no cure at all. You’re never getting rid of it permanently, you’re always going to be looking over your shoulder.

        But mostly I think he just wanted to make a movie with lots of sweeping widescreen shots and a moody electronica soundtrack. Which I happen to love for what it is. But I am also disappointed (as has been pointed out by both Jeff and commenters) that something more substantial wasn’t achieved with the concept of the unnamed-curse-that-follows.

      • I’m sorry for replying so many times, and the limitations of WordPress’ comments feature makes this kind of a mess but whatever.

        I agree–there is no “cure” for this disease. Like in “The Ring” there’s no way to solve a problem like this demon, you just have to pay it forward. I actually found myself thinking of “The Ring” a lot at the end of “It Follows”. Both make this gesture toward the possibility of reconciliation or resolution (Naomi Watts thinks that if she goes back to the source, she can set Samara Morgan free, and Paul thinks he can kill the demon), except that instead of Naomi Watts embracing Samara at the bottom of the well and her son creepily telling her she’s wrong (and all that follows that moment), we get the scene in the pool, which is handled much less ably in “It Follows”.

        Maybe the metaphor (again, if there is one at all) is for trust in relationships. If we have sex with people (or enter into relationships with them) thinking of them as targets or as means to an end, we’ll end up getting hurt. If we go into them openly, treating one another as equals, we have at least a chance of survival.

        Ultimately, though, I agree that what this film has going for it is that it’s pretty and atmospheric. I doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny and the second 1/3 of the movie (if not before) really unravels, but there’s a lot in the beginning that’s moody and suspenseful and subtly creepy.

  2. Full disclosure: I have not seen the movie yet. That said, your take on this is exactly why I have been dragging my feet about going. The whole premise is just so ham-handed and obvious.

    You helped me put a finger on one of my objections to the film, btw, when you said, ” I also really do like the conceit of the implacable, totally unstoppable creature endlessly stalking its victims…” Yes! It bothers me that such a great concept was used as a consequence for sexual activity. It could be so much more interesting, and now it’s ruined for the foreseeable future.

    I am intrigued by Natalie’s take (in the comments) on the two faces of sex, though, and when I watch the film I’ll have that in the back of my mind.

  3. I agree with everybody. Everybody everybody! But I have to wonder, what kind of sex are people (rhetorically) having that there should be this kind of shame and fear and negativity associated with it? On a strictly symbolic level I guess the film kind of hangs together if you accept the unspoken (but blatant) premise that sex is always furtive and weird and uncomfortable, even in the best cases; and disastrous (and their are some weird intimations of incest too, with the thing looking like Greg’s mom at one point, and Jay’s dad at another [Mr. Height appears in the credits, and I’m pretty sure he’s the naked guy on the roof watching them drive off]) in the worst cases. But what about all the billions of people who are not Jay & Company who are having normal non-demonic sex? What is the ultimate implication here? “Realistic” sex is not necessarily awkward or uncomfortable, unless something’s gone wrong somewhere.

    • I think we have to make a distinction between an undeserved association (even the blandest sex carries a negative stigma, especially for women) and a deserved one (someone does something horrible and harmful to someone sexually that they *should* be ashamed of, like, oh, I dunno, passing on a demon without their consent). If “it” is metaphorical for “sex as danger/stigma/disaster”, that doesn’t come from something inherent in the act but from how we are seen. That is, Jay isn’t ashamed of having sex but some nameless, malevolent force (aka SOCIETY) shows up to punish her for it nonetheless.

  4. OK, here are a couple more thoughts I’ve had turning over in my head all day:

    For one thing, I’m still not over the issues of consent here. “Hugh” has sex with Jay under false pretenses, which makes the sex they have inherently nonconsensual. Yes, she consents on the surface but he’s lied to not only about who he is, but also about, let’s just say, his sexual health. He’s explicitly having sex with her in order to pass on a what is essentially a disease. The way he tells her, after the fact, is both too little too late and also needless cruel. (Seriously, why the hell would you chloroform someone and tie someone to a wheelchair just to show them the demon? Why not just hang out with them for a while and point it out when it shows up? Also, practically, why would you consciously let the demon get that close to the person you’ve intentionally put between you and the demon so it doesn’t kill you next??? Like, this is just a garbage sensationalist effort on the part of the filmmakers to show us an attractive girl in her underwear. Bogus.) Jay, on the other hand, is open about her circumstances when she has sex with both Greg and Paul. They have the option to say no and go into the encounter knowing (even if not fully believing) what will happen to them. (The guys on the boat may not be so lucky, but that’s less clear.)

    Also, seriously, I’m really pissed off by the fact that this movie secures these kids’ safety at the expense of sex workers. Because of course a prostitute is an expendable human being who deserves to be exploited. Gross.

    I had something else I wanted to add but I can’t seem to keep it in my head.

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