Warning: contains extensive spoilers.
Last year director David Robert Mitchell offered It Follows as a counterpoint to horror films in which the horror monster’s identity or motive or relationship to the protagonist is the film’s point and soul. To put it another way, the appeal of many horror films is calibrated towards that one moment in which the killer pulls off his mask or the protagonist discovers the truth of what she’s fighting.
Films like It Follows are calibrated towards a diametric impulse: the unflinching refusal to explain a villain’s origins or motive or identity. The thinking is understandable and admirable: at this point there’s little that film makers can say that’s scarier or more original than what’s inside the heads of its audiences. If nothing can match an audience’s collective imagination, the danger is that the big reveal will feel disappointing and predictable. Consider a film like Jeepers Creepers (2001), which was convincingly terrifying until the moment it fully revealed its strange and unconvincing bat-like creature (the point being that whatever was going on in audience members’ heads was much scarier than what was finally revealed on screen). So films like It Follows have decided that it’s more interesting not to say anything, and directors like Mitchell have decided not to compete with (or maybe it’s closer to say they’ve given full rein to) the human imagination. They might be right to do so. Recall, for example, what Billy Loomis says in Scream:
“You hear that, Stu? I think she wants a motive. Well, I don’t really believe in motives, Sid. I mean, did Norman Bates have a motive? Did they ever really decide why Hannibal Lecter liked to eat people? DON’T THINK SO. See, it’s a lot scarier when there’s no motive, Sid.”
The degree to which It Follows succeeds will depend on how much you’re willing to embrace Mitchell’s commitment to telling you nothing. Consider that the film has nothing like a conventional horror film resolution — we find out nothing about It beyond how it’s contracted and what it physically does. Conversely we don’t find out what it is or where it came from or how to stop it, and the characters don’t find a way to beat it. For many people this goes against the perceived wisdom of more conventional horror films, which explains why many people find the film long and narcotizingly boring. It’s a fair criticism.
But consider that the film’s narcotizing effect is not only deliberate but necessary; it obscures the film’s time period and gives the film a dream-like (or, more appropriately, a nightmarish) quality, but more importantly it lets Mitchell employ conceits that keep the creature firmly in the audience’s sub-conscious. Equally importantly it helps narcotize the audience into accepting those conceits. Consider that, when they’re not running away and screaming the film’s characters seem narcotized and passive to an unusual degree (there are moments in which they literally do nothing but wait). But consider that if they weren’t narcotized and passive Mitchell’s characters would be doing pro-active things like looking on the Internet (if the Internet exists) or looking in library books or tracking down the one character horror films always have who knows what the monster is and how to stop it. If a film’s power lies in its monster’s hold over an audience’s imagination, that film needs to do everything to keep the monster firmly embedded in the sub-conscious (rather like the way that Fred(die) Krueger’s power is rendered comically redundant when he’s stalking teenagers through the real world and not the dream world of A Nightmare on Elm Street).
Recall then that Jay’s one serious attempt to find out something about It concludes with Hugh/Jeff confirming nothing but what he’s already said, but with the caveat that he contracted It from an untraceable one night stand (which stops dead any thoughts the characters might have had of tracking the creature down the chain of victims and back to its source). Recall that the one serious attempt to stop It, by electrocuting it in a swimming pool, is disastrous and ill-advised because there’s no reason to suspect that It can be electrocuted: at this point the characters are massively out of their depth and just casting around.
If by this point you haven’t fully embraced the film’s concept and what it’s trying to do you’re going to feel like the characters are endlessly either waiting for It or running away from It. For most of the film’s detractors this sense of inertia, of the film’s characters’ passive acceptance, renders the film long and repetitive and contrived and impenetrable.
It’s perhaps for this reason that fans who have fully embraced the film’s central conceit (the unknowability of the creature) reject any attempt to rationalise or quantify that conceit. It’s understandable; popular interpretations of It (most notably that It is a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases) risks reducing the creature and bringing it out of the audience’s imagination. Quantifying the monster in this way risks making it ‘just another horror film monster’, which is antithetical to what the film is trying to say: the monster’s power and the film’s ultimate conclusion and point lie in the fact that It is utterly beyond compre
This is why the film is least convincing when the monster acts in ways which seem counter-intuitive to what the film has established. Recall the moments in which the creature becomes aggressive — when it lurches snarling towards Greg, or kicks a hole in the door of the beach hut and then crawls, feral-like, through the opening. Consider the moment in which it stands naked and staring on the roof of the house, or the moment in the cinema (realised restrospectively) in which it stands at the back of the cinema in a yellow dress.
It’s possible that there are explainable reasons for these behaviours (Mitchell himself contends that there are), but making the monster impenetrable and unknowable renders these moments seemingly incongruous. They seem, in other words, like they’re in the film for the effect (perhaps to counteract the film’s otherwise narcoleptically dream-like pace). It’s no surprise then that far more effective are the moments in which a character who might or might not be It walks slowly towards the camera in the background. They’re more effective because, whatever the reality of the character in those moments, they serve as reminders that It is always there and that it is always walking slowly towards its intended victim.
It turns out that this certainty is the film’s heart and soul and ultimately the point. It turns out that the film is not about the monster but the characters’ response to it. Considering that It can be neither outrun indefinitely nor ultimately defeated, the film’s real conclusion is that the only practical and workable solution is acceptance. Consider that the film is bookended by two scenes which portray contrasting and diametric forms of acceptance: acceptance of death and acceptance of the creature as a fact of life. The girl who dies in the film’s opening dies not because she is caught but because she resigns herself to death: the thought of outrunning the creature for the rest of her life is, understandably, overwhelming. Recall here Yara’s quote from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which sums up what is truly terrifying about It:
The most terrible part of the whole punishment is, not the bodily pain at all—but the certain knowledge that in an hour—then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now—this very instant—your soul must quit your body and that you will no longer be a man—and that this is certain, certain!
In other words, it’s the certainty of It that makes it so creepy and terrifying.
The film’s final scene and conclusion are therefore all at once poignant and moving and sad and uplifting and affecting because they counteract the film’s opening: Jay and Paul decide to share and accept and live with the burden, whatever that might mean for their collective futures (notice that they’re not exactly thrilled at the thought). But recall that their acceptance contrasts not only with the dead girl in the film’s opening but also that it deliberately contrasts with the life Hugh/Jeff feels forced to live: recall that he’s scared and hiding in booby-trapped houses and regretting his various life decisions. Recall that, playing the swap game in the cinema, Hugh/Jeff announces that he would swap places with the boy (the point being revealed in hindsight: the boy has not yet had time to make the unfortunate and permanently life-altering decisions that Hugh/Jeff — who is alive but can’t really live, even having passed on the monster — has). Recall also that Hugh/Jeff has some serious intimacy issues: he’s not just reluctant to be around Jay, but feels threatened by her. And then consider again how the film’s final image counteracts these ideas about proximity: Jay and Paul consolidate the burden by sharing it. Notice that they’re walking down a street and holding hands while a figure who might or might not be It follows them. The truth of the figure in that final scene is not the point; the point is that they’ve decided it doesn’t ultimately matter. It will always be there even when it’s not really there.
Look again at the image in the film’s poster, and consider that synopses of the film often refer to ‘a seemingly innocent sexual encounter’. And then consider that this is the defining concept around which the film is based: it’s about the seemingly innocent but unfortunate decisions we’re all capable of making; and it’s about the way we choose to react to the things that can affect and define us for the rest of our lives.
- It seems strange that very few people talk about the film’s dream-like atmosphere beyond the way it makes the film hard to lock into a particular period of time. It’s strange because Mitchell conceived the film from a recurring nightmare he had as a child, and also because the characters themselves act as if they’re in a dream. In other words it seems strange how few people seem to have considered that maybe It Follows really does take place in a nightmare.
- Having said that, it’s really difficult not to consider, even in passing, that It is a convincing analogue and metaphor for the AIDS virus. But again, thinking about It in these terms takes it outside the audience’s imagination, which is where it is most effectively terrifying.