Neighborhoods in horror film It Follows look exactly like some of those in which I grew up, and if the movie nails anything, it’s nails the sense of Metro Detroit.
As a native of the area in which It Follows finds itself, I couldn’t help but read all kinds of things into the fascinating use of space going on within the film. Much of the movie is predicated on the movement between locations and the relationships of one space to another. Characters spend most of the film fleeing one location to find safety in others, but it’s only distance they can put between themselves and the threat — eventually, every hiding place is discovered. And the movie sees some pretty terrific interplay between urban and suburban and between the various echelons of middle class, and all of it uses the subtle history of its post-industrial setting to build a movie ostensibly about inescapable dread in a place that, itself, sort of conjures some. A low-level, not quite visible, back-of-your-mind inescapable dread of the suburban world, populated by kids just finally old enough to maybe leave it — but there’s nowhere to go, and nowhere that’s safe.
There’s a lot more great stuff going on within it than just its Midwest setting, however.
It Follows is an unstoppable monster movie with a lot of levels, described by many as a coming of age movie more than a simple sex-focused horror film. It is the latter as well, of course, but in a deeper way than the usual slasher: sex in It Follows isn’t a punishable offense or a frightful risk, but a vulnerability in trusting yourself to another person. If that person turns out to be dangerous, then sex can be dangerous. But as the film treats it, it’s also a number of other things — a comfort, an escalation of relationships, an act of protection, a means through which innocence can be gained and lost. It’s all these layers set upon the unassuming, suburban setting that make It Follows so unnerving.
The story, as is quickly gleaned from trailers, centers on Jay (played with ever-increasing despair by Maika Monroe), a young suburban woman in the post-high school transition between childhood and adulthood. She’s dating a boy named Hugh, with whom she seems smitten, and after their latest dinner and movie, they consummate the relationship in the back of Hugh’s car.
It’s then, crying, that Hugh knocks Jay out with chloroform. When she awakens, he’s tied her to a wheelchair in a abandoned, destroyed parking garage, and quickly runs down the rules of the film: there’s a creature. It will follow Jay incessantly. It’ll never stop and never waver — but it’ll do so at a walking pace. If it reaches her, it will kill her; if it kills her, it will go after Hugh, and then the person with whom Hugh had sex and who passed it to him, and so on. And the creature can look like anyone.
The wheelchair scene has a sense of violence to it, but it’s actually Hugh doing Jay a service. He’s explaining the situation rather than leaving Jay to her own devices, giving her the information she needs to survive. “Just sleep with someone as soon as you can,” Hugh says. “Pass it on.”
The rest of the film concerns Jay’s attempts to escape the creature, with a number of simple but disconcerting shots of people appearing in the distance, fixated, walking steadily toward her. Always the underlying implication is one of not being sure whether the threat is real or imagined; is that just a person going about their life or an unknowable fiend bent on nothing but destruction? Only Jay and other people infected by the creature can see it, which makes it even more difficult to deal with — Jay clearly is afraid of something in a few particularly intense moments, but her friends and sister aren’t sure what to make of her worried reactions to what appears to be nothing.
Still, in the movie’s best turn, no one calls Jay crazy or denies her experience. No one assumes her trauma is imaginary or the continued threat something she’s conjured up. Instead, her small group of friends rallies around her to help, supporting her through her trauma, making an all-important choice to believe her story, even as they lack evidence.
It’s the best part of director David Robert Mitchell’s script that the characters gain nuance from their interpersonal conflicts, and yet choose to provide positivity and support to Jay. The horror movie cliche in this situation would be to deny her experience, downplay her trauma, rationalize her fear. Instead, even when her friends struggle with their own issues — longtime pal Paul (a forlorn Kier Gilchrist) wishes he could gain Jay’s romantic affections even when he’s fully aware of the monster-death risk, for example — the movie never resorts to “and then someone does something stupid to create a dramatic situation” in order to move forward. That’s a rarity among horror movies in general, and it’s not just refreshing but realistic to see a group rally to their friend’s aid in a desperate situation.
As an allegory for sexual assault, which is one possible reading of a film with several, It Follows uses its characters as a point of strength against its intractable enemy, rather than a liability, and they feel all the realer, smarter and more human for it.
Visually, the movie is a series of interesting contrasts. Mitchell likes to shoot these 360 perspectives as the camera slowly rotates, both capturing and not capturing the action, which results in fleeting glimpses of dangers lumbering toward the heroes. It’s a powerful technique that highlights what’s not there, the false safety characters perceive and its ever-dwindling quality, forcing the audience to consider the distance an enemy can cover when you have your back turned and can’t actually see its advance. As a method of conjuring dread, Mitchell’s use of images in which you’re fully aware of the information you lack is highly effective, and probably what makes the movie work so well on a visceral level.
But I think my favorite part of the movie is the way the actors all capture those precarious moments at the end of childhood when suddenly we all discover we have more power to hurt one another than we might have ever realized. Yes, It Follows can be an an assault story, a story about being trapped in suburbs, a story about friendship and awkward romance, and a coming of age story.
But what I think It Follows is mostly about is a loss of innocence. Its best moments deal with how people interact with one another to get what they want and what they give of themselves in return. It Follows meets those moments in both positive and negative ways, and its understated performances and use of the unassuming and yet foreboding space of Metro Detroit helps the movie to explore how its characters deal with one another as much as how they deal with its threat to their lives.