[The following is an essay by Jed Mayer, written independently of the above video essay by PonderDog Productions.]
You never forget that first experience: sitting in a dark theater, or watching late-night television, the screen becomes an entrance into another world, one that is new, yet strangely familiar, as if the rain-lashed castle or the cabin in the woods existed next door to your own nightmares. After such an experience, other films may come and go, but the ones that really matter are those that let you into the abandoned buildings and haunted alleyways of that other world. Watch enough of them, and the other world begins to take on a life of its own, one that works according to its own sinister logic, and where settings and scenery are trapped in a dream time doomed to repeat itself, obsessively.
This other world of horror’s past is both the setting and the subject of David Robert Mitchell’s ‘It Follows,’ a film that has garnered accolades from critics and horror aficionados for its dense interweave of references to classics of the genre. Unlike Wes Craven’s ‘Scream’ franchise, however, which featured characters who meticulously (and often tiresomely) parsed the rules of the genre in which they find themselves trapped, ‘It Follows’ avoids the train-spotting approach of ticking off film references like a game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Mitchell’s film doesn’t just reference the spaces and traces of classic horror films: it occupies them, raising troubling questions about the persistence of the past in the cultural imaginary.
Even the filmgoer with only a passing interest in horror will note the strong presence of John Carpenter, particularly his breakthrough ‘Halloween,’ arguably the first major slasher film. The throbbing synthesizer-driven score by Richard Vreeland is a direct homage to Carpenter, who crafted his own soundtracks on analog equipment. The textures of old synthesizers have taken on a patina of age that marks them as products of the 1970s, before they were replaced by the sleeker and easier to use digital models of the 1980s that let anyone start a synthpop band. Vreeland’s score, like Carpenter’s, is dense, heavy, lumbering, like the monstrous pursuers it accompanies.
The landscape of ‘It Follows’ looks like it exists just around the corner from the sleepy suburb where Michael Meyers returned to stalk his teenage prey—lush, tree-lined streets where something sinister lurks in green shadows. And as in ‘Halloween,’ these streets are strangely empty, and even when we encounter residents other than our main characters, they seem detached, as if looking in from the outside. This is played to sinister effect in the opening scene of ‘It Follows,’ where a teenage girl, dressed in t-shirt, short-shorts, and, inexplicably, a pair of high heels, runs out of her home in obvious distress. As she runs down the leaf-strewn street, looking backward in terror, a neighbor unloading groceries from her SUV asks, “Hey, are you okay?” When the girl replies unconvincingly that she’s fine, the woman returns blithely to her groceries. Then the girl’s own father asks her what’s wrong, but doesn’t do anything to help her. Like Carpenter’s Halloween, It Follows takes place in a world where we can’t be helped by outsiders, and that includes pretty much everyone besides our small clique of friends.
Adults are notably absent from ‘It Follows,’ a trait it shares not only with the slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s, but also with the long tradition of children’s literature, in which young people are tested by trials and tribulations without parental support or interference. The slasher film can be read as one more variation of a coming-of-age narrative whose roots go back to oral forms such as fairy tales. Like ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and its sequels, the teens of ‘It Follows’ hang out and scheme, as they seek avenues of escape from the nightmare in which they find themselves trapped. Even high school, a place where one would expect groups of peers and a bustling sense of community, is curiously vacant, empty, as the teacher droningly recites “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to a sparsely-attended classroom.
One of the qualities of ‘It Follows’ that makes it so refreshing is its avoidance of cheap horror devices like jump scares, brooding ominously where most horror films would slap us in the face. Mitchell employs long cuts and deep focus shots that allow us to dwell on particular scenarios, waiting for something sinister to emerge from otherwise placid settings. Early in the film, the protagonist, Jay, floats dreamily in a stand-up swimming pool. As the camera pans in closer, we see that the water is littered with leaves and bugs. Jay picks up an ant, studies it curiously, drops it back. She notices something watching her behind the fence. When she discovers it to be group of adolescent peeping toms, she laughs it off.
Such moments recall dark retro-fantasies like David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ and Sophia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides, where nostalgia for the past (the 1950s evoked by Lynch’s soundtrack and costume design, and the 1970s evoked by Coppola’s suburban idyll) becomes morbid, grotesque, as we discover what’s rotting beneath the surface of our cultural memories. Returning to Lumberton, the sleepy logging town where he grew up, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) wanders the empty fields and finds a severed ear, crawling with ants, lying in the grass, a grotesque object that acts like a passport into the town’s dark secrets. The affluent suburban world of Grosse Point, Michigan is shattered with the dramatic suicide of Cecilia Lisbon, who leaps from her window and impales herself on an iron fence. In both films dreams of the past become nightmares.
It Follows takes place in a world that is difficult, if not impossible, to place in time. The teens communicate by corded wall phones, but recite ponderous lines from Dostoevsky on an e-reader. They get around in a beat-up 1980s station wagon, but pass other cars that are more recent. They watch monster films from the 1950s on tube-era televisions, and go to Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant movies at the local cinema, while wearing clothes that look like they came off the rack at Old Navy or the Gap. The world of ‘It Follows’ is like the world of horror cinema itself, haunted by its past, struggling to move on.
Much has been made of the film as a metaphor for sexual guilt, the curse suffered by the heroine following an unfortunate hook-up manifesting itself like a zombie version of an STD. She is pursued by revenants that only she can see, and the particular forms taken by these ghosts of the past are telling. A half-naked woman, beaten and soiled, confronts Jay first; an old lady, seemingly strayed from her rest home, stalks the halls of Jay’s high school; later, another beaten and stripped woman confronts Jay in her home, urinating on the carpet. These seem less like the avatars of sexual guilt than of urban decay, a point underscored by the film’s location, an unnamed suburb on the outskirts of Detroit. We only learn this relatively late in the film, when the teens go out in search of the boy who passed his curse on to Jay, and one character mentions to another that she had always been warned by her mother not to cross the line into 8 Mile. The seemingly placid environment of the suburbia where they live is now seen to be haunted by the urban decay existing just beyond the horizon. By setting his film in a world dominated by the tropes of horror movies from the Reagan era, Mitchell obliquely places us back in a time when trickle-down economics and deregulation eroded the middle class and grew a wider gap between rich and poor. Like those earlier horror films and the aimless, leisured lives of their white protagonists, It Follows is as haunted by the horrors it portrays as by those it turns its back on.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.