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It Follows is a supernatural horror movie written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. It is hypnotic, mesmerising, beautiful and melancholy. It’s enigmatic, yet simple; refreshingly original and simultaneously steeped in nostalgia. It’s bursting at the seams with unspoken stories, enigmatic symbolism, unwritten mythos and rich characterisation.
There are definitely things to be gleaned from careful observation and analysis of this movie, so rather than a review, this is more of an analysis of the movie. Be warned – there are many spoilers.
Brief Plot Summary
It Follows is set in the dilapidated suburbs of Detroit. The central character, Jay (Maika Monroe), is a beautiful young woman with a thoughtful, introspective disposition. She is in a relationship with Hugh/Jeff (Jake Weary) and the pair have sex one night in his car. At this point he passes on to her a sort of curse, whereby she will now be followed, unrelentingly, by a an unstoppable force which wants to kill her. This creature will appear human but can change shape and is only visible to those who have contracted the curse. The only way to escape the creature is to pass it on to someone else, through sex. However, if the creature kills that person, then they will return their attentions to the previous person in the chain, whose only option remains to pass the curse onto someone else.
Jay is supported by her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), their friends Yara (Olivia Lucardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto). Paul is deeply in love with Jay and was her first kiss. Greg has previously had a (brief) sexual relationship with Jay.
Time and Era
The movie is deliberately impossible to locate within time, from the decade it’s set in to the season and even time of day. Jay bathes in an outdoor pool and Yara swims in the ocean, but there are indications that it is winter. Between shots the trees may be green, autumnal or bare. On screen at any one time are characters in thick coats and summer dresses. Jay wears a summer dress with knee high boots and a winter coat with short-shorts. I could go on…
All of this creates an unsettling, jarring feeling in the viewer. As does our inability to identify what decade the film takes place in. The vintage car of the movie poster (above) is at odds with the e-reader Yara is constantly browsing. Yet there are no mobile phones and the televisions are straight out of the 1950s. The characters watch 1950s b-movies. The soundtrack is a gorgeous haunting 80s synth affair which I could listen to forever and which adds so much to the atmosphere of this film.
Amidst the dreamy imagery of the film, it is possible to pick out some themes, although the meaning behind them is much harder to pinpoint.
That Clam Shell e-reader
Yara users her clam shell e-reader to quote passages from Dostoevsky. The following is recited immediately after Jay contracts ‘It’:
“I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction — if a house is falling upon you, for instance — one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one’s eyes and wait, come what may . . .”
Dostoevsky, (1869) The Idiot
The Idiot is the story of a Myshkin, an utterly good and loving man. When Yara says that the book “is about Paul”, this might be more accurate than we first believe. Paul’s love for Jay seems to be utterly true and abiding, though it may also ultimately destroy him.
The clam shell also relates to the recurrent theme of the ocean and water. It may also relate to a possible allegory of Venus (this of Botticelli’s Venus rising from the waves on a clam shell). Jay wears a seashell necklace. It’s also perhaps worth considering that clams are where pearls originate and that perhaps Yara is providing us with pearls of wisdom. Oddly enough, Yara is the most childlike of the group of friends.
The card game old maid is referred to a few times in the movie, the most obvious being when Yara, Paul and Kelly are playing it on the front porch. The point of this is perhaps simply alluding to the nature of ‘It’, no one wants to be left holding ‘It’, they need to pass it on or they lose the game.
It also relates to the game of happy families and we are clearly presented with several dysfunctional families in this movie.
Allusions to water are everywhere. The girl who dies at the opening of the movie does so on the beach. Jay and Hugh/Jeff appear to visit the same beach when they have sex in his car. Jay returns to the beach with her friends when she is attacked. She also returns to the beach when it is indicated that she is going to have sex with the three boys in the boat. Jay is introduced to us in her swimming pool. The picture of her on the mirror is also in the pool. The film’s finale is at a swimming pool. Another allusion, often missed, is that when we see ‘It’ killing Greg, It appears to be somehow producing water (see below).
Is It drawing water from Greg? Many see water as being an illusion to purity and innocence or to protection but I’m not so sure. It may perhaps simply be an illusion to life. Venus is also closely connected to water (again, she rose from the waves) and the moment when we see It kill, it is, perhaps symbolically, taking on the highly sexualised appearance of a woman. Perhaps it is not surprising that allusions are drawn between a creature that is passed on by sex, and a primordial goddess of sex.
Cars, like water, are everywhere in the movie. Immediately before Hugh/Jeff chloroforms Jay, she says this:
“It’s funny, I used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates and drive around with friends in their cars. I had this image of myself: holding hands with a really cute guy, listening to the radio, driving along some pretty road. Up north maybe. The trees start to change colours. It was never about going anywhere really. Just having some sort of freedom I guess. Now that we’re old enough: where the hell do we go?”
It’s no coincidence that she shares this thought, at this moment and framed in this way.
The car in this movie is not just a method for moving around. It’s the symbol of escape – but it’s also a symbol of not really going anywhere. Kids dream about going on dates and driving around. But, as Jay says, now that they’re grown up – where the hell do they go?
Hugh/Jeff answers this question – he is going to show her, face to face, the only place left to go: death. Everything else, is just driving. This scene is framed in a stationary car. They are literally going no where. There is an inescapable link between sexual awakening and death, amid the crisis of teenage years when young adults become aware of their own mortality and the harsh realities of life.
Jay and Hugh/Jeff go to see a movie at the cinema and it is Charade from 1963, starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. The relevance of this (aside from being another opportunity to throw in some anachronisms – including an organ at the cinema) is that this film is entirely about hidden identities. No one is what they seem. And while this obviously applies to the deceitful Hugh/Jeff character, who hides his identity from Jay, it is also a reference to It, which can appear to be anyone. Is Anyone Who They Really Seem To Be? – runs the tagline.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
The movie contains this excerpt from the T.S. Eliot poem:
Prufrock and Dostoevsky are what really trip me up in this movie because I’m not sure I fully understand the allusions. This section alone contains references to Shakespeare, the Bible and Andrew Marvell. The entire poem itself is enigmatic, concerned with love and possibly sex. It has a dreamy, uncertain quality which matches the film. We also have another allusion to the ocean and at the moment we see the old woman crossing the lawn onscreen, we hear the line: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead/Come to tell you all…”
The faces of It
These are the many and varied faces of It. We also have a description from Hugh/Jeff of It appearing like a girl in a yellow dress. And we see It appear as Greg twice: once breaking into the house and again immediately after It has killed him. I think that the girl in the white dress (middle right) may be the girl who is murdered at the beginning of the movie (Annie, played by Bailey Spry).
One thing to notice is that they all appear to be in states of undress. It can clearly disguise itself as anyone, living or dead (it imitates Greg immediately before and after he dies). Also, when it kills Greg and attempts to kill Jay, it appears as their parent.
Woah there? The guy at the pool is Jay’s dad? Although it is never explicitly stated in the movie, the answer to this is simply: yes.
Above is a picture of Jay’s dad (Ele Bardha) on her mirror, next to the form It takes to attack her in the pool. The placement of the photo is also a neat foreshadowing of the climax of the movie, where Jay is again in the pool. If you still don’t believe me, check the credits and imdb, where this character is listed as Mr Height (Jay and Kelly’s surname is Height). This is also the reason that Jay replies “I don’t want to tell you” when Kelly asks her what she sees.
As an aside, we never see a clear shot of Jay and Kelly’s mum in this film. It is also strongly implied that she is an alcoholic and perhaps depressed. The reason for this is presumably due to her state of mind following the death of her husband. Greg’s mum also comments “those people are such a mess”, again an allusion to Mr Height’s death and Mrs Height’s depression/alcoholism.
Jay’s ordeal opens and closes (at least for us) with Dostoevsky. Yara’s second and final quotations from The Idiot:
When there is torture, there is pain and wounds, physical agony, and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering, so that one is tormented by the wounds until the moment of death. And the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within 10 minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant—your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that this is certain. The worst thing is that it is certain.
It Follows is clearly an allusion to death and the realisation of impending death which comes to most of us during our teenage years, at a time when we are also experiencing a sexual awakening. Sex and death are inexplicably linked at this lonely and isolated time.
We rarely see clear shots of the adults in this film. This is particularly true for Mrs Height, who is never really seen because she isn’t really there. The focus is on the lives and relationships of the teenage characters. The story belongs to them. They discuss their childhood innocence (reading porn-mags on the front lawn, Paul kissing his sisters) and their loss of innocence.
There is a lot I don’t understand about this movie and I’m not sure how much we are supposed to understand. But this is a gorgeous piece of cinema, and example of how beautiful and fragile and human a horror story can be. It mixes scares with beauty – and don’t be misled, the concept here is genuinely terrifying.