On a whim I decided that this summer would be the summer of bingeing horror films. I've got a gorgeous blanket to knit and god knows I'll want something to hide my head under when things get rough, so horror it is. On another whim I decided that It Follows would be the first Netflix flick to catch up on and BOY was that an excellent choice on my part.
Which comes as no surprise to anyone who hasn't completely fallen off the horror wagon for 5+ years. (Like me. What was I thinking?)
The 2014 indie film has garnered rave reviews from critics and everyday viewers alike, scoring a whopping 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. And I can absolutely see why. The inversion of numerous cliched tropes (thank you! Friends that actually believe that there's a monster!), an innovative villain, eerie cinematography and a time period that doesn't quite exist... it's all designed to set the viewer's teeth on edge, and it all works. Next to Muschietti's It, It Follows may be my favorite, modern horror film.
...huh. Maybe I've just got a thing for monsters named It?
Who knows. The point is I loved this film, which means that I'm also eager to critique it. After all, when something's good there's an instinctual drive, at least in my mind, to think about how we might make it even better.
What immediately stands out to me is the film's obvious investment in women's bodies, particularly women's sexual freedom----or lack thereof. I mean c'mon, the monster is an evil STD, transmitted to anyone who dares to commit the evil sin of sex. It's a common enough theme in horror films. The last few days I've seen a lot of people referring to Jay as a final girl, but the definition is more specific than just the hot chick who we follow into a final confrontation with the monster. A final girl survives (or at least is the last to die) because of her supposed moral superiority, resisting bullying, drugs, and above all, sex. So Jay isn't a traditional final girl. Sex does lead to death, though not in the conventional manner. I can also appreciate the other ways that the film works to subvert this trope, specifically by having men and women equally effected by the curse. There's innovation here, no doubt about it. But that doesn't mean there aren't still messages conveyed that we need to address.
For example, take the forms that the monster chooses to inhabit. There are distinct differences between how the bodies of men and women are portrayed here. The two primary times that the monster takes on the form of a man is when it gains access to Jay's bedroom and later in the boathouse on the beach. The first instance relies largely on the man's large, hulking nature to terrify, while the second heads in the opposite direction, giving us a shrieking child that chills largely (again) due to conventional horror tropes. In contrast, the majority of times that the monster stalks Jay it takes the form of a woman and it's the presentation of their bodies that is meant to turn our stomachs. When the monster first breaks into her house Jay sees a young woman with her breasts provocatively hanging out, hair a wild mess, peeing as she walks across the kitchen floor. Later the monster takes the form of Greg's mother to gain access to his room. Again, her breasts are lewdly on display and after killing Greg she straddles him, humping his corpse until Jay finally books it.
This is an important moment because there's nothing in the movie's lore to suggest that the monster "fucks you to death" (thanks, After Hours) despite what we might assume based on how the curse is passed along. Hugh says only that Jay shouldn't let the monster touch her, but this is a misleading warning. There doesn't appear to be any supernatural element to how the monster kills. It's corporeal, even if it can't be seen. It chucks electronics at Jay while she's in the water. Breaks the bones of the first girl we see. In one of the creepiest moments of the film it lifts Jay's hair before starting its attack.
Ultimately, the monster is no more dangerous than anyone else trying to kill you----the only difference is that this creature will never stop. Which means that the manner of Greg's death was a conscious deviation from the traditional violence we see throughout the rest of the film. The image of an older woman (a mother) humping a man is meant to disgust us. Yes, a lot of that stems from the monstrosity, the incest, the pedophilia, but just as much comes from age and gender. We see this in our first glimpse of the monster: a naked woman walking straight your way, too confident and determined to be natural. Then later as an old woman inappropriately dressed in just a nightgown and socks. Take a look at the girls' playing cards. Though the 1930s Old Maid series has numerous caricatures, here we're only given the women, the most prominent of which appears twisted and eerie within the context of the film. The only time men are presented similarly is when Jay spots the naked man on her roof, but he's too far away for his nudity to have the same sort of skin-crawling, visceral impact. Which doesn't matter, because presumably it wouldn't be impactful anyway. He's not a woman. The monster is never quite sexualized because that implies potential desire on the viewer's part. The presentation of women's bodies is meant to horrify instead.
With Jay as the exception of course, and she's the one who is punished for her sexual agency. Plenty of horror films slut shame, but It Follows carries the message of, "Once a slut, always a slut." If you have sex once and contract this curse? You must have sex again in order to protect yourself. And once more isn't good enough. Due to the curse cycling back----targeting the previous victim once the latter is dead-----Jay must have sex with people continuously if she has any hope of survival. The next door neighbor. The boy she's unsure about. A boat-full of random guys. The curse takes what was once a romantic activity for Jay and turns it into a disgusting necessity, a form of murder, all while continuing to shame her for it.
This message is hammered home in the numerous ways that Jay attempts to exude innocence throughout the film. Her whole world embodies a non-existent nostalgia; no single timeframe, just a sense of the past when things were "better" and all girls were "good girls." The kind of daughters who sneak their cigarettes with guilt and are taught to fear leaving the safety of the suburbs. It's in this world that Jay is allowed to exist in pure white underwear, curiously examining her own body before a stray ball hits her window, once more flooding Jay with terror. During their game Hugh tries to convince her that the best thing would be to go back to being a literal child, pre-puberty with "your whole life ahead of you." There's a curious focus on Jay's hands throughout that culminates in the last shot of her holding hands with Paul, a tame act after their night together. (And again, Jay is notably in white). There is also the overt theme of cleansing through water, wherein Jay floats listlessly in her home pool----where the only 'danger' is two peeping toms who don't really mean any harm----and later tries to beat the monster in the city pool, the place where she and Paul shared their first, chaste kiss. This attempt, however, fails miserably.
Jay curls into fetal positions, picks at the grass, eats ice cream with sprinkles, and takes comfort in swing sets. She acts like a child because she still is a child, especially when scared, but the film never lets her go back to a time where she was "truly" innocent. Her choice to taint herself with sex will literally follow her until the end of her days.
I honest-to-god adored this film. The quiet tension that's favored over jump scares. The nods to culture and art in an otherwise simple world. How Maika Monroe so effortlessly embodies Jay that we can't help but be scared both for her and with her. It Follows is a mesmerizing film... even as it twists and perpetuates some of the worst aspects of the horror genre. I've got a lot to watch this summer and I'm hoping to see lots of differing, complex, powerful women in these movies. Not just hot chicks shamed for enjoying themselves and the continuing reminder that our worth is tied to how well our bodies age. I can do without those additions, thanks.
(Although, a friend tells me that Red Christmas has some fascinating anti-abortion messages... so we'll see how that goes.)