Two Essays on It Follows (2014)

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These essays are two in-depth discussions of It Follows (initial release: 2014; wide release: 2015) taken from seven (seven!) pages of notes during my second viewing.  I highly suggest you see the movie before you read. Two essays follow: one on the use of setting and aesthetics to create atmosphere; the other, objectification and the gendered use of sex in the film.

ATMOSPHERE AND THE POWER(LESSNESS) OF DETROIT

1173 words

I firmly believe that the atmospheric success of It Follows is a direct result of its refusal to commit to anything. The “It” of It Follows itself capitalizes on the film’s commitment to being noncommittal, transforming at times from minute to minute.  In this key feature, It shares DNA with another It – the one of Stephen King fame.  Both creations exploit the fear of never knowing the enemy’s appearance. What does it mean to fight an enemy that never looks the same way twice?

But It Follows’s ambiguities go far beyond the central creature. Everything in the film, from the props to the sets to the wardrobe, puts it in a nebulous time and place, and the setting of Detroit is a huge part of that.

"THE VAGUE SEASONAL SETTING
FALLS SOMEWHERE BETWEEN
A DIME-A-DOZEN SUMMER
SLASHER FLICK AND HALLOWEEN."

Part of Detroit’s influence is as elemental as the seasonal changes and the weather patterns. The film seems to take place in early fall – the leaves are turning when we meet the first girl who is quickly dispatched by an invisible stalker. But the time of year seems impossible to pin beyond that: the first victim is wearing what is essentially shorts and a tank top; Jay, the main character, makes her first appearance in a backyard above-ground pool; the girls all wear jackets and shorts no matter the time of day. The vague seasonal setting falls somewhere between a dime-a-dozen summer slasher flick and Halloween.

But Detroit’s other, major contribution is its most obvious. The economically bombed-out city is the perfect setting for a horror movie. In the suburbs, children are playing in their front yards and people are washing their cars, but once Jay and her friends cross into the city, the landscape changes dramatically. When Jeff and Jay have sex and he drugs her, Jay wakes up in an abandoned parking garage next to train tracks.  It is worth noting that when an officer asks Jay where Jeff lives, she says she knows but has never been there – a fact that is made less strange when we are shown that Jeff lives in the city, a place where people from the suburbs do not go. When they go to Jeff’s first address, it’s an abandoned building with cans hung by the windows, unlabeled pills in the medicine cabinets, and a dirty mattress with dirty magazines. When they find out where Jeff really lives, he’s out in the suburbs too, and it turns out he only went into the city to hunt for a victim. The final confrontation with It happens in an imposing building with a swimming pool, established as behind a fence with storm clouds rolling across the sky above it. When Paul goes looking for prostitutes minutes before the end of the movie, he is cruising weed-covered sidewalks, boarded-up houses, and depeopled streets. Detroit is cultural and movie shorthand for desperation. It is no coincidence that the city is full of strangers, of possible permutations of It. Staying in the city for any length of time would be a death sentence in the context of the movie, but that isn’t that much different from how people feel about it in real life.

"DETROIT IS CULTURAL
AND MOVIE SHORTHAND
FOR DESPERATION."

In comparison to Detroit proper, the suburbs seem safer in part because they seem more conservative. Some of this is owed to the architecture of affluent mostly white families. Houses are multiple stories, well lit, and finely painted with immaculate lawns. But it is the inside of suburbia that reveals its conservative aestheticism: analog TVs with CRT screens and radial dials, heavy use of fall colors in furniture that make the spaces feel warm and lived in, lamps, typewriters, old model cars, and dozens and dozens of VHS tapes. Even the cereal boxes they use for shooting practice are antiques. The kids embrace the aesthetic, too: Jay’s dress for her date with “Hugh” resembles a party dress from another decade; they play Old Maid with old-fashioned cards; they watch black and white scifi movies; and, perhaps most interestingly, they don’t have cellphones. The most high tech device is Yara’s strange seashell e-reader, upon which she reads a perfectly old-fashioned text (“The Idiot” by Dostoyevsky).  As an aesthetic choice, it’s an attempt to make the film feel instantly dated and classic, but the aesthetic quickly becomes more – a hint of tradition, of the feeling of home, of familiarity, of safety – when compared to the abandoned, tetanus-laden landscape of the city.

The suburbs act as a position of power, a place to retreat to and regroup from, with the caveat that Jay isn’t safe wherever they are. Even with the mixed message about the actual safety of the suburbs, the message of the city is quite clear. If the suburbs are a strong, if porous, barrier against the threat, the city harbors the threat and renders the people within helpless against it. In the suburbs, It has to break windows to get into houses when people lock their doors, but when the gang troops over to Jeff’s hideout in the city, there are broken windows, falling pieces of wall, and a broken door through which they are able to walk without any problem. The audience is taught that the Detroit is the most dangerous place possible for the main characters, both in reality and in connotation – a fact that Yara and Jay bring up in a conversation about 8-Mile, the border between the suburbs and the city, right before the final confrontation in the city pool.

"IF THE SUBURBS ARE A STRONG, 
IF POROUS, BARRIER AGAINST THE THREAT, 
THE CITY HARBORS THE THREAT
AND RENDERS THE PEOPLE WITHIN
HELPLESS AGAINST IT."

It Follows is a convincing case for Detroit to become the future home of the horror movie industry. A video game reviewer once said that the difference between Japanese horror video games and American horror video games is that Japanese horror is “slow-building, oppressive, emphasizing the horror of being alone with something that hates you in a very passive-aggressive way,” while American horror is more about attaching “a chainsaw on your arm and slicing your way through waves slavering baddies who all respond like blow-up dolls filled with raspberry jam.” The same can be said of American and Japanese (or, generally, foreign) horror films with few exceptions. American horror films are hardly patient, and they focus on the beast or the murderer without spending much time creating the world the creature and its victims reside within. Atmosphere is often an afterthought or left to color correction in post, the equivalent of putting a “scary” Instagram filter on an entire film to do the work the camera could not manage while it was running. It Follows, in its own way, feels quite un-American – in part because it uses one of the quintessential American cities-cum-metaphor for post-economic superiority to build tension when It isn’t on screen. Vilification of the city itself is generally a no-no for big, loud, chainsaw-and-shotgun horror movies, if only because the budget gets poured into better effects as opposed to better locations. What It Follows shows us is that even now, amidst big budgets for CGI monsters and blood splatter, location and real, tangible aesthetic choices can make a movie feel real and terrifying almost on their own. 

______

SEX AND THE MONSTROUSNESS OF MEN

2240 words

“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.”

-       T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

We hear these lines in a classroom scene, when the Jay sees the titular It on her own for the first time. Jay flees the classroom, enters the hall, and sees It, an old woman in a hospital gown with knee and ankle braces, plodding behind her. This is the first time Jay realizes that the threat is real and not just a trauma associated with a hookup gone wrong.  This moment is also the division between the terror resulting from the aftermath of a sexual assault and the terror resulting from a murderous entity stalking the main character. These fears are the difference between being scared of the past and being scared of the future, but the moment is also an altogether different fear: the fear that can only come from the abusive words spoken in a moment of extreme trauma becoming true.

"EVEN THOUGH JAY IS ATTRACTED TO 'HUGH,' 
THE DESIRE STILL FLOWS FROM HIM TO HER
AND REQUIRES HER TO RECEIVE HIS DESIRE
RATHER THAN MEET IT HALFWAY." 

Objectification and sexual trauma is omnipresent, whether on the surface or lingering just underneath and creating tension. The first victim, murdered before we even meet Jay, is running from something unseen in red high heels and satin and lace camisole and shorts, almost as if she was in bed before she was attacked. Jay’s first appearance on screen is in a pool while young neighbor boys ogle at her. She is wearing a modest one-piece swimsuit in a small backyard above-ground pool makes her seem very young, almost childish (she’s not – her age is ambiguous, but context suggests she’s in her late teens/early 20s), but that does not stop her from being an object. Paul, her childhood friend, is obviously attracted to her from the first moment he is on screen, a fact that is common knowledge to Jay, her sister Kelly, and their other friend Yara. Greg, a young attractive neighbor, gives Jay and Kelly a long look as they walk by his house – a look that was probably meant for Jay based on later information that they hooked-up in high school. Jay doesn’t respond to any of these glances or advances. When she is getting ready for her first date with “Hugh,” she wears a light pink dress and light lipstick, both of which make her look very young. After her date with “Hugh,” Kelly asks her about whether they’ve had sex. Jay states that his desire was there but the moment was not. Even though Jay is attracted to “Hugh,” the desire still flows from him to her and requires her to receive his desire rather than meet it halfway. After “Hugh” and Jay finally do have sex in his car, she plays with white-flowered weeds with her bright red fingernails. It is one of the few times in the movie that a vibrant red makes an appearance, and the contrast between her red nails and the white-flowered weeds seems like a maybe-too-easy analog for sexuality and innocence.  “Now that we’re old enough, where the hell do we go?” Jay asks as she plays with the weeds before “Hugh” drugs her.

The experience of acquaintance rape often takes on a Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde quality to the victim of said rape, when a brutal, violent side of the acquaintance suddenly makes an appearance that the victim never knew existed. The movie makes this experience quite literal when “Hugh,” the date, turns out to be Jeff, a jock from a completely different suburb who had found Jay because he was hunting for a victim.  Jeff’s choice of words after Jay wakes is cruelly ironic (“I’m not going to hurt you. Don’t worry.”) in light of his strapping her to a chair, saddling her with a curse, and then dumping her into the street outside her house in her underwear without untying her arms.  He is a monster who has convinced himself that he is somehow doing the right thing.

"[JEFF] IS A MONSTER WHO HAS
CONVINCED HIMSELF THAT HE IS
SOMEHOW DOING THE RIGHT THING."

The audience may be able to draw another conclusion about Jeff and the unexplained death at the beginning of the movie: it is possible that Jeff’s first victim was not Jay, but the first girl who dies, and his franticness to pass on the curse again while also forcing Jay to see It and giving her barrage of information about what It is may be seen as an adjustment of previous tactics used on the first victim. It’s unclear from a second viewing, but it seems possible that the girl in the picture with Jeff that Paul finds in a porn magazine is possibly the first victim. If so, this adds another dimension to his monstrousness: not only did he catch the curse from a “one-night stand,” but he possibly gave it to his girlfriend and sealed her fate as well.

The theme of rape is strongest here in its aftermath, when Jay is too depressed to eat food or leave her house (perhaps compounded by an atmosphere of shame created by her nosy neighbors peering into her yard and watching her house after her trauma). Jay and Kelly’s mother converses with a friend about what happened. Their conversation (“Did she catch anything?” “I don’t think so.”) is juxtaposed with Jay in the bathroom, looking into her underwear, growing more and more upset.  The response makes sense – Jeff told her that he “passed” something to her, and Jay’s terror that he intended to damage her and has succeeded is appropriate for a sane, non-supernatural interpretation of what Jeff told her. It’s only after It’s old woman permutation, however, that the hard truth hits home: not only had Jeff, her date turned attacker, traumatized her with crazy riddles that seemed only to point to his diseasing of her body, but he had possibly been telling the truth – the nightmare of anyone trying to move on from sexual trauma. When she first sees It in her home and runs upstairs, she cries, “Is something wrong with me?” She is referring to what she is trying to convince herself are hallucinations, but there is an undercurrent to her statement that she is worried that Jeff has damaged her irreparably.

". . . JEFF TOLD HER THAT HE 'PASSED' 
SOMETHING TO HER, AND JAY’S TERROR
THAT HE INTENDED TO DAMAGE HER
AND HAS SUCCEEDED IS APPROPRIATE
FOR A SANE, NON-SUPERNATURAL
INTERPRETATION OF WHAT JEFF TOLD HER."

Perhaps the permutations of It reveal another dimension of the sexual trauma prevalent in the film. It appears first as a naked woman with a bikini tan lines and a strip of pubic hair. When it first appears in her home, It is a woman missing her front teeth with her breasts exposed over her torn bra. When the friends are at the lake, Jay runs from a permutation that looks like the first victim. The It that kills Greg looks like his own mother wearing a satin robe opened slightly to reveal her breasts, and It kills him with sex.  While these are not the only forms It takes, these forms seem important for either implicit or explicit suggestion of sexual violence, either received or performed. The creature is constantly in steady, dogged pursuit of the curse-bearer and seems to fall somewhere between externally driven and purposefully vengeful. The appearance of It as the first victim raises the question if all the permutations are not somehow victims of this sexual curse.

The threat of sexual predation from acquaintances not only comes from Jeff, but it also comes from people whom Jay has known her whole life. When Jay turns to her sister and Paul for their help, Paul offers to sleep on the couch and keep watch for any intruders. Kelly immediately says that Jay might wake up to Paul “humping your leg” and warns her, “Just keep your door locked.” Jay’s main method for protecting herself against It is suddenly the same method she needs to protect herself against Paul. Greg’s entrance into Jay’s story is tense because of their past sexual history and his apparent mistreatment of her (Greg mentions at one point that he should have treated her better in high school). When Greg sleeps with Jay in her hospital bed to take on the curse, Jay lays still, unfeelingly, while Greg moves on top of her. Their last interaction on screen has Greg’s hand on Jay’s leg, rubbing her thigh, while Paul looks on jealously. When Greg comes to see Jay before It finally catches up to him and is denied, he is insistent on going up to Jay’s room to see her and then says her hysterics were meaningless. There is a restless energy to his failed visit, as though he was there not for her well-being (which he does not believe to be in danger), but for the sex she was willing to provide to him in her weak, depressed state.

"JAY’S MAIN METHOD FOR
PROTECTING HERSELF AGAINST IT
IS SUDDENLY THE SAME METHOD
SHE NEEDS TO PROTECT HERSELF
AGAINST PAUL."

Paul’s relationship with Jay has the tone of a pleading “good guy” who thinks he is better for the girl than the boys she chooses. He constantly pushes her to have sex with him so he can “protect” her, but he cannot deny that doing so would be a lifelong wish-fulfillment. Early on in the movie, when Paul is staying downstairs to keep watch and Jay joins him, Paul mentions that Jay was his first kiss before reminiscing about what seems to be their first moment of sexual awareness: finding porno magazines in an alley and laying them on Greg’s front lawn. Both of them say they didn’t know what they were doing, but that they got the “sex ed talk” the next day. Jay and Paul laugh about the memory, but the context in which it is brought up suspect and seems to serve as a way to date his pining for her and his awareness of her as a sexual object.

When Paul tries to kiss Jay after she witnesses Greg’s death, the move comes off as repulsive, not sweet. He sulks afterward and asks, “I like you too, you know. Why’d you pick Greg?” He is so wrapped up in his obsession that he cannot see the reason in Jay’s actions nor the reason why making a move now is a terrible idea.  “I wanna help,” he says, to which Jay replies flatly, “Do you?” She knows what the sex would symbolize to him – an opening, a chance, a relationship that she doesn’t want. When Paul and Jay finally do have sex after a crazy plan to kill It fails to work, Paul is seen cruising and looking lingeringly at prostitutes on a street corner. The suggestion is that Paul has ultimately bought himself and Jay time by sleeping with a prostitute, who would then pass It on to others. But ultimately, as Jeff before him, he has passed on a disease-made-manifest, a curse, to unsuspecting women in order to save himself.

"JEFF TELLS JAY THAT IT
SHOULD BE 'EASY' FOR HER
TO PASS IT ON BECAUSE SHE’S A GIRL. . . 
YET THE MOVIE ALMOST SUGGESTS THAT THIS IS
EXACTLY WHY IT IS HARD FOR JAY. . ."

The only time after being cursed that Jay wields her sexuality in the same way as Jeff before her and Paul after her is when she wakes up next to the beach after running away and swims out to a boat of three guys partying on a boat. The audience sees her take off her clothes and begin to wade out, and we see her afterward, her cast soaking wet. She has been crying on her drive home. When she and her friends leave to execute their grand plan to kill It, Jay sees It on the roof of her house. She begins crying again, knowing that whichever of the men she condemned to die has in fact perished. Jay is the only one who regrets the decision, who regrets her role in perpetuating the curse.  Jeff tells Jay that it should be “easy” for her to pass it on because she’s a girl, and anyone would be willing to have sex with her. Yet the movie almost suggests that this is exactly why it is hard for Jay – not because of her femininity, but because she is not as monstrous as the men who don’t care about the people they pass It on to. Unlike Jeff, who dumps her in the street, or Greg, who uses her weakness to have sex with her, or Paul, who uses her weakness to satisfy his obsession, we see Jay regretful, sorry, and in pain over the people she has harmed.

"THE FILM TACITLY SUGGESTS
THAT RELATIONSHIPS PURIFY PEOPLE
WHO ARE PLAGUED BY THEIR SEXUAL DECISIONS. . . 
BUT THE SYMBOLISM IS EQUALLY SUGGESTIVE
THAT THEIR MONSTROUS DEEDS
WILL NEVER BE FAR BEHIND THEM."

So what do we make of the ending: Paul and Jay walking hand in hand, she in a white dress and he in a white shirt, walking hand in hand down the street? The camera catches a figure in red shambling behind them, but it’s purposefully unclear if this is It or someone else. The film tacitly suggests that relationships purify people who are plagued by their sexual decisions. The man in red behind them is only the third instance of vibrant non-blood red in the movie, after the first victim’s red high heels against her white clothes and Jay’s red nail polish against white flowers. Is this symbolic of a lascivious life left behind? Possibly, but the symbolism is equally suggestive that their monstrous deeds will never be far behind them. It is Paul, not Jay, who seems slightly uneasy at the end. He is in line before Jay and has more to immediately fear. The cost of his obsession and pressuring Jay to have sex with him is to be a buffer between her and death for the rest of his life. With that heaviness weighing on the ending, it seems altogether possible that Jay may be smiling for another reason.