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Review by Joshua Gibbs
Let me overstate the case: at least so far as Hollywood is concerned, horror is the one genre which yet thrives. I’ll come to back this in a moment.
I once had a friend who had the awful job of reading unsolicited scripts submitted to a major Hollywood studio. All the scripts he read were placed into one of three piles: no, maybe, and yes. Everything in the maybe pile were passed laterally to another lackey script reader for a second opinion. Everything in the yes pile were passed up the ladder for a higher approval. The yes pile was rushed to the top. He once told me, “I could ruin Hollywood movies for you. You would be shocked at how formulaic they are. All major motion pictures must contain a significant turn of the plot in the seventeenth minute. Every page of a script represents one minute of the film’s run time. The first thing a script reader does is look at the 30th page of a script and the 60th page of a script. Those pages represent the beginning of the second act and the third act. If something significant does not take place on those pages, the writer is obviously unfamiliar with the three act structure of a film and the script is almost always rejected. There are other formulaic aspects to Hollywood films, but I won’t ruin them for you any further.” From time to time, while watching a big Hollywood picture, I hit the pause button at the first major plot event, and nearly every time, I’m somewhere between sixteen and eighteen minutes into the film. Like clockwork.
I have been writing short fiction since I was sixteen, and given my particular interests in film, I generally don’t shy away from spoilers, unless the twist-reputation of a film precedes it. I enjoy formula, relish it. I value originality when it comes within rigidly drawn parameters, but am far more moved by excellence of form than by novelty.
While all genres are bound by quasi-fascist demands for certainty of structure and pacing, horror movies are the most tightly regimented of them all. Every young horror filmmaker today has invariably read and believed certain works of theory while studying filmmaking in college. Generally speaking, I find works of theory written in the 70s, 80s, and 90s to be unreadable and pretentious cant, though I would make exceptions for those omnipresent works of horror theory, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982) by Julia Kristeva and Carol Clover’s remarkable Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1993). Kristeva puts forward a profound theory of the grotesque which is staked in Old Testament laws of ceremonial cleanliness and it was Clover who potently identified the “final girl” archetype, the young female character whose chastity ensures that the monster cannot touch her. Clover suggests that horror films are, despite the nude teen hard body actors and graphically mutilated corpses, ultimately moral tales. The run-of-the-mill slasher flick begins with a bunch of young, licentious coeds gathering at a lake house or after-prom hotel. As they begin to undress, some ancient monster is simultaneously shown rising from a long-slumbering posture and then seeking out the fornicators that he might slaughter them. The first is killed while alone, all the rest disbelieve the report, and only the one girl who refuses to sleep with her boyfriend survives till the end. Traditionally, horror overlays promiscuity with death. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance, Victor Frankenstein attempts to produce a son in a science lab, by himself, outside the bounds of wedlock. Once the monster comes to life, Victor abandons him, and the child grows, matures, then destroys the life of his father. In the penultimate scene, the monster slays his father’s new wife on her bridal bed, which the monster refers to as a “bier.” Sex means death because, despite Romantic and Enlightenment pursuits of individuality, conjugal union always creates a lasting bond which destroys the autonomy of both celebrants. To sleep with someone is to be bound to them and thus to lose the freedom of bachelorhood. While current storytellers working in the genres of comedy, drama, and science-fiction are all beholden to the three act structure, only makers of horror films readily ascent to strongly codified thematic and philosophic traditions. In this way, horror is one of the last true Hollywood genres. I wouldn’t expect a young maker of drama to be familiar with Greek tragedies, though I would be shocked if a young horror writer didn’t know Oedipus Rex, the most venerable and excellent piece within the genre. Simply put, horror writers are the most traditional writers working in Hollywood today.
All of this brings us up to speed with the strictures David Robert Mitchell had to work within while making It Follows.
Chances are good that, if you’re reading this review, you are already familiar with the plot of the film, though I’ll briefly recapitulate it: the heroine of the film sleeps with a young man in the back of a car, after which he informs her that he has transmitted a curse upon her. In the next few days, a specter will begin to haunt her. The specter will be visible to her alone. It may come to her in the form of a stranger or a friend. She will see the specter a short ways off, and it will slowly walk towards her. If it catches her, it will kill her, though she can flee it by simply walking or running away. Eventually, though, it will find her and continue chasing her. She can pass the specter on to someone else by sleeping with them. If the specter catches and kills that person, it will begin to chase the last person again. Thus, the specter can be passed on indefinitely, or else it will methodically kill everyone who has ever been brought into the lineage of the curse.
If the trick of the movie sounds clunky, Mitchell is able to pass all this information on to viewers in a few short, lucid strokes of dialogue. When compared with densely law-oriented trick plots, like those which drive Christopher Nolan movies, say, the whole thing seems simpler than the first two rules of Fight Club.
Mitchell’s debut was 2010’s The Myth of the American Sleepover, a film which was half mumblecore, half paean to John Hughes. Mitchell was born and raised in the Detroit suburbs and has set both of his films in neighborhoods near where he grew up. Sleepover employed unknown actors and living rooms and back yards which looked well lived-in. I suspect that most of Mitchell’s actors wear their own clothes and, to keep the films cheap, offered their own bedrooms and driveways for a handful of scenes. Few filmmakers are so at ease with their shooting locations as Mitchell, who directs his actors into places with which they are already familiar. Their faces, gestures and intonations echo their situations and circumstances. The places have made the actors, and the actors have made the places. Christian filmmakers take note: these are the dynamics of an incarnational film.
When Jay Height (Maika Monroe) goes on a doomed date with Hugh, the two stand in line for a movie and play a game where Jay asks Hugh to spot a stranger with whom he would like to switch places. He isn’t to tell her who he wants to switch places with, or why, and then Jay has to guess who and why. Hugh picks a young child standing nearby, playing with his mother and father, and says he would like to be so loved. After the trick of the movie is revealed, and Hugh has passed the specter on to Jay, the game is never referenced again, though it retrospectively takes on a morose quality. While a few reviewers have pondered the meaning of the specter, suggesting it stands for a sexually transmitted disease, Hugh’s desire for innocence defies such an interpretation. Hugh is ashamed not only of what he has done, but what he is going to do before the date is over. Just as the specter may come in the form of a friend or a complete stranger, feelings of guilt may revisit the guilty at any moment. To look on the face of another person, to contemplatively gaze at the human visage, inspires a knowledge of the individual’s universal guilt. As the Elder Zosima says, in The Brothers Karamazov, “…do not say, ‘Sin, wickedness, and bad environment are too much for us…’ Rid yourself of that despair, children! There is one way for you to overcome these obstacles: take firm hold of yourselves and make yourselves answerable for all men’s sins. […] For as soon as a man sincerely accepts the idea that he is answerable for all the sins of all men, he will realize that that is, indeed, the truth, that he is answerable for everybody and everything.” Reminders of shame and guilt are as common as the human face. Perhaps a madman could alleviate his guilt if he could destroy every human being in the world, and herein rests the implicit logic to the trick of It Follows. If the specter of guilt haunts the last person to receive the curse, all man must die before curse is alleviated. What’s more, the curse is passed on sexually, and so the film might be seen to draft off the doctrine of original sin. Too much? I found it telling that the curse could only be passed on by way of potentially fruitful, heterosexual unions.
In her attempts to flee from the wrath to come, Jay and her friends leave the suburbs and drive to an isolated beach house. At the point in the film wherein the attempted escape is made, Jay understands the rules which govern the curse. Some viewers may be put off by the pointlessness of the escape. When younger, I was always baffled as to why so many horror heroines don’t simply pack up and leave town. So many of them pass whole weekends at home while their friends and neighbors are systemically picked off, and viewers are left wondering, “Why doesn’t she buy a plane ticket to Madrid in the middle of the night? Why don’t her friends do this? Is a psychopath really going to board an international flight and track them down?” In such cases, the stupidity of the heroine is not a mistake of the plot, not a lapse into illogic or poor characterization, for the foolishness of the doomed is precisely what doomed them in the first place. They refuse to understand what is obvious to the viewer— that sin leads to death— because it would involve confession of guilt. The wicked have behaved wickedly; their wickedness has aroused the monster. In like manner, in real life, no matter how many horror stories the licentious man hears of friends who could not maintain their chastity, he still acts upon his lust. The obvious terrors which attend sin rarely restrain the sinner.
However, would it really help matters if the guilty skipped town? It Follows suggests it would not. At the beach house, the specter returns to attack Jay, though the audience knows there is no physical, material escape possible. Why? Horror movie monsters are never summoned through material means, but through spiritual means. The monster is a manifestation of a spiritual problem, hence, all material attempts to deal with the monster ultimately fail. While it was gratifying to see a horror heroine flee, and behave in what seemed a common sense manner, I was also struck by the arbitrary nature of fleeing. Why did Jay think the specter could be escaped?
Jay is accompanied by a small troupe of friends, on one hand the hardened Greg and on the other Paul, a timid boy who has silently been in love with her for years. After Greg receives confirmation that the specter is not merely the creature of Jay’s imagination, he volunteers to sleep with her and take the curse on himself, confident he can “handle” whatever comes with it. For Greg, sleeping with Jay is not an act of self-sacrifice, but pure arrogance. When the specter is understood as guilt, Jay’s decision to sleep with Greg is understandable, though hardly commendable. She is attempting to bury her feeling of shame beneath sensuality, or through the faulty belief that her own guilt will diminish when it is shared, but it only increases. Greg soon becomes the first central character to die. Undaunted, or unwilling to learn, Jay then sleeps with three unnamed strangers in a single afternoon, hopelessly trying to bury her shame even deeper, though the specter quickly returns, this time in the form of her father. The more ostentatiously Jay mires herself in sin, the more painful the image of guilt becomes.
I will risk what might be an overly sunny reading of the very end of the film, so you might want to bow out now if you’ve plans to see it. Finally, Jay decides to sleep with Paul, though this trip to the sack seems substantially different than anything before it. While the narrative never points out that Paul is a virgin, we do see him express disapproval that Jay decided to sleep with Greg. Paul has something to offer Jay which no one else does, and that is love. When Paul sleeps with Jay, he does so in full confidence that the specter will haunt him, and neither is Jay trying to hide her remorse any longer. Obviously, that he loves her is no excuse to take her to bed, as though “love” validated any and every sexual union, though I doubt that’s what Mitchell has up his sleeve. Immediately after they go to bed, we see Paul alone, cruising around the seedier neighborhoods of Detroit, slowing driving passed two prostitutes on a street corner. Is he caught up in the same aimless cycle of trying to bury guilt? Mitchell never shows Paul rolling down the window. We see him drive around the block, still moving when the scene cuts away. In abandoning the temptation, the nature of the curse is transformed. Returning to Frankenstein for a moment, I would agree that sex is a surrender of the self, and that in opening oneself up to a fruitful sexual union, the autonomy of bachelorhood is lost. Whether or not the loss of pure, arbitrary, discretionary freedom is terrifying or not depends entirely on what we hold to be the purpose of having a body. After Paul leaves the prostitutes behind, we see Paul and Jay dressed in white, holding hands happily and walking in their old neighborhood. We see a blurry figure off in the distance behind them, though certainly moving towards them. As they walk, we hear one of the characters read a passage from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot:
But here I should imagine 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.
The quote comes from a passage wherein Prince Myshkin is describing why it is worse to be executed by the state than to be suddenly slaughtered by thieves. Unlike Greg or Jay, who initially believe they can escape their guilt and are thus haunted by it, Paul is able to face the certainty of death with courage because he is not obsessed with using his body for pleasure. The loss of his body is no eternal loss at all. Greg slept with Jay because he did not care what became of it, and his lack of care became willful emotional ignorance, despair, acedia. While Jay and Paul are dressed in white after they sleep together, I don’t think it unreasonable to intuit that, figuratively speaking, their sexual union was their wedding, because it was done freely and openly, “until death” and unto death. In the end, the specter is transformed from a haunting guilt to a simple concession of man’s mortality.
What is genuinely impressive in all of this is just how fine a line Mitchell is able to draw. There are two ways to not care about death, and one is reckless while the other salvific. There are two ways to draw near to death, and one is despairing while the other is hopeful. The division between self-abnegation and self-destruction is one which can only be unearthed in an investigation of the soul. Merely cataloguing the actions of a body in motion is insufficient. At no point in the film do we sense that survival is important because the interior lives of the characters begin to weigh more and more heavily on our interest in what becomes of them. When Gregg is killed and Jay stands on a beach, looking out on a boat a hundred yards off where stand three blurry men, we immediately know what she will do and shudder at wondering how far she will fall before the end. She moves to swim out toward them, then the scene cuts to a drenched Jay, crying a single tear as she pilots a car back to her house. That she is neither sobbing nor completely dispassionate is a masterstroke of Mitchell. That single tear conveys the most profound confusion. Jay senses that she has done something horrendously wrong, though she knows she would have never done it under normal circumstances. Do circumstances change moral obligations? Has she defiled herself? Is it possible to willingly defile yourself? Is not the will unabatedly sacred? Maika Monroe plays Jay as stunned, yet a lone, Petrine try emerges on her face, protesting the lies she told herself about why the swim out to the boat was allowable. Despite the somewhat schlocky trappings of all horror films, in a sudden moment, the film transcended its cheap special effects and throwback soundtrack and became a genuine tragedy.
Perhaps the real coup of the film is the title. The “it” of It Follows is, in one sense, the ghost which haunts the guilty. However, “It Follows” is also a euphemism for “it is only logical,” and despite the mysterious quality of the specter, Mitchell rightly reports the story as a reasonable one. Guilt haunts the guilty until love atones. What else did you expect?
MPAA RATING: R (for disturbing violent and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language)