It Follows: A Nightmare Caught on Film

If you haven’t seen It Follows, there are spoilers here. I highly recommend avoiding this post until you have a chance to watch and unpack this movie. Not even because I’m spoiling it for you, but because I want you to spout your theories and your reads. Let’s dig into this shit.

It Follows is the modern horror movie that finally understands that over-explanation is, in fact, the removal of horror.

That writer/director David Robert Mitchell rejects any notion of explanation is why It Follows is as compelling as it is. In this interview with Yahoo! he has a lot of interesting things to say, but his quote “something from a nightmare can’t be explained” sums up his movie perfectly.

It Follows is a horror movie with something to say, but ultimately it’s up to the viewer to unpack what that might be. It could be read as an allegory for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, a celebration of monogamy, an exploration of true love, a condemnation of casual sex, the terrible effects of a non-present parent, the nature of death, facing the consequences of our choices, or… it could just be a nightmare caught on film. And there are no rules for a nightmare.

Another quote from Mitchell’s interview with Yahoo!:

The only rules that we hear are rules that we’re told by a character within the film, who has access to limited information. If you look at the film enough, you can start to understand how he may be figuring these things out and how he has gotten the information that he has. But you also have to understand that they’re not rules on a stone’s tablet; they’re a character’s best guess about what’s happening to them. So, you know, they seem mostly right. But for me, that’s kind of fun, in that there might be some gaps in information, some things that he doesn’t understand and neither do we.

This is something I found remarkable. Not only does it justify anything that might be a bridge too far, logistically — like the naked man on the rooftop — but just as nightmares often drift from scene to scene, so too does the movie. At points it feels like something has been omitted, but it hasn’t, not really. The threads are there but it’s up to the audience to connect them and make sense of them in the same way that we reconstruct our own dreams and decide how we might’ve thought it all up in the first place.  This comes into play in a few key points, usually when sex is involved: when Greg is flirting with the unknown girl after he and Jay have sex, or when Jay wonders into the water toward the boat with three men, or when Paul cruises by the street corner hookers. In all instances we are left to deduce on our own, and either conclusion works.

The ending is the the most obvious example of this (about which Mitchell tells Yahoo!: “I mean, if you’re a teenager trying to stop a monster, you’re out of luck, honestly. You really are.” He has more to say about it in an interview with Vulture), where we’re left guessing whether or not “it” was defeated. Whether or not that’s “it” in that final shot. I would argue that it is. That the Jay/Paul relationship paid off; now they are a team, a unit. They can fend “it” off together. At least until they can’t anymore.

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Something else I found even more interesting is how we never really see Jay’s mother’s face — Mitchell goes through great lengths to obscure it in almost every scene she appears. Later, during the kids’ botched attempt to stop the monster at the pool, “it” appears as a man we haven’t seen before.  Jay can’t bring herself to describe it. In fact, it takes a few moments before Mitchell clues us in to what form “it” has taken, echoing Jay’s own sort of denial at what she’s seeing. It’s the first time Mitchell uses this approach, as we always see “it” from Jay’s POV (except for the one instance on the beach, but I would argue that was less about character and more about establishing the entity’s strength and abilities).

A scene later, we get a reveal of a picture frame in Jay’s house with the whole family — Jay, her sister, their mother, and their father… the same man from the pool scene. And that’s it. There are other clues throughout the movie — how the mother behaves, what Jay’s sister says about her, Greg’s mother’s reaction to Jay’s family while watching through the window. It’s the subtlety that intrigues me, because Mitchell paints an incredibly potent picture using minimal strokes. But it’s all an abstract painting; it evokes emotions rather than A-to-B-to-C story points. We can infer any number of scenarios from the information given to us. Combined with some of the forms “it” takes over the course of the film, these inferences can lead down very dark roads indeed.

Do a quick journey down the Reddit rabbit hole and you’ll find all sorts of theories about this movie. But aside from all of the ambiguity, It Follows is still powerful in its construction, basic themes, and portrayal of its characters. The camerawork and choreography is stunning. The soundtrack is fantastic. The performances are stellar. It respects the audience.

It’s an exploration of teenage sexuality and teenage love. It’s an exploration of family and friendship. These are teenagers making teenage errors, but with stakes that are a little higher than some high school drama. All of these characters feel and act real; they aren’t saying things real kids wouldn’t say or acting too mature for their age. They are applying their teenage real-world brains to other-wordly problems and getting realistic results.

There’s no “a-ha!” moment where our hero discovers some piece of information that will explain the origins of “it” or that will provide a solution to their troubles. Mitchell never provides an in for that, and as such, never provides an out either. And that hopelessness, that utter inevitability of defeat, that is the very essence of horror. There is no defeating what you don’t — can’t — understand. There is only surviving it for as long as you can.

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