Why is ‘It Follows’ (2014) So Scary?

It Follows has been called “the scariest film of the decade”. Such hyperbole turns me off. Wasn’t the same thing just said about The Babadook that was released less than a year earlier? Besides, scary means different things to different people. I’m over the “jump-scare” and found footage craze going on- I’m even not scared by horrible monster-type ghosts (as in The Conjuring). The real scare is the dread and anxiety about the unknown. Not that you will be killed immediately, but that there is no escape from a nightmare of a life. And such is It Follows.

Of course we want clear explanations for everything. How did the curse start? Why is is transmitted through sex? How do you stop it? Why does it appear like humans? How can they manipulate objects (i.e., walk through doors, throw hair dryers into pools). If you fly across the world, will it take years to get to you? Why does it kill you by having sex with you?

These are answers that will not be answered. And even if I want them answered, I don’t really want to get it answered. It’s like movie masochism; the tension of unresolved answers is the best part. The best horror movies aren’t about the who, what, why, where, and how. The best ones are the ones that highlight the intense dread evoked. The “follower” walks fairly slowly. One can run from it if one wants to, and can probably get away easily. But, it will never stop following you, and it could come at any time, and you’ll never know what it looks like. Furthermore, you are the only one that can see it. And that is fucking terrifying. The not knowing. The constant fear. The paranoia is causes. The strain on loved ones. The ability to never live a fear-free life.

Many viewers have been quick to jump to the fact that it represents the fear and guilt of STDs. That seems just too on the nose. Besides, Jay, the main character, does not feel any guilt about having sex (except when she knows it might kill someone.) After having sex with Greg for him to take on the curse, she tells someone else “it’s no big deal, we already slept together in high school.” Nor should she, as a woman, feel guilt about the actual sex.

It Follows is a film, a film is a form of art, art is subjective and interpretive. If we take the film at face value, you’ll be frustrated because there are no answers to the paranormal activity. Is there a reason Greg’s final follower was his mother? Is the incest significant? At the climax at the pool, Jay sees her follower but won’t tell her sister what he looks like. We find out later that it has taken the form of her father, just as Greg’s killer took the form of his mother. Another terrible fear is the people we love and trust the most, have turned on us. Our parents are protectors, and parents who abuse their children are the worst nightmares. In the film, Jay’s father is absent, but is it because of death? Divorce? Abuse? My first inclination is that Jay was sexually abused by her father, and her mother blames her for breaking up the family, and that thought haunts her. Literally.

The aesthetics of the film, the directing choices, and the cinematography was second to none. It was minimal get striking, perfectly added to the nightmare landscape. The music was an homage to John Carpenter horror films of the eighties (which seems to be the ‘in’ thing for horror films, see also House of the Devil). My biggest criticism was the hollowness of the characters, Jay herself did not show much personality other than on her date with Hugh, when she seemed to be directing the conversation, wanting to play a game she used to play with her sister – perhaps another example of not wanting to grow up. Her sister and other friends seemed to be set decoration, and of course they cared for her, but the lack of talking amongst them was striking, and not in a positive way. The bespeckled friend’s clamshell e-reader, in which she read quotes from The Idiot, seemed way too shoehorned to make some sort of deeper meaning.

Horror films seem to be the most prolifent to be made (see the horror section on any streaming video service) but rarely hit the mark of being both scary and deep in characterization. (Congrats to perhaps Martyrs, The Skin I Live In, and The Last Exorcism for achieving it). It Follows has achieved the scare factor and the visual aesthetic, but still lacks the Je Ne Sais Quois. Still, walking around crowded downtown San Francisco after the film, I couldn’t stop imagining anyone could be my follower, or that even I was the follower.

 

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