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“IT FOLLOWS”: A Critical Analysis

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UK actor, teacher and writer (and newly minted FANGORIA scribe) Nigel Parkin was so smitten by David Robert Mitchell’s critically lauded thriller IT FOLLOWS that, to time with the films Canadian release today, he requested some space to offer his own personal thoughts and analysis. Who were we to refuse? Have a read…

If you have seen IT FOLLOWS, you will know how the film lingers in the mind. Haunting you. Following you. Chances are you want to draw a close circle of friends around you and talk about it. Such discussions may feel unusually intimate because the film will have touched so may personal nerves, awakening deep physical memories and bringing back figures from your past. And while the people involved in the discussion may also have seen the film, there will be something unique about your own response which you feel you simply have to pass on.

That’s what the film provokes – a sense of collective haunted intimacy. Soon we will all be talking about it. In the meantime, what follows is my own personal response, which I feel compelled to share. You should perhaps wait until you have seen the film before joining me. That won’t be long; like the dark fate that is embodied within it, the film will catch up with you. Soon.

On its most obvious level, this is a film about teenage sexual anxiety. Is there a part of you that is lost in the moment of intimacy? How can you trust that the person with whom you are sharing that moment isn’t just treating you as an object? It follows that for many young people, the loss of virginity comes at a moment of experimentation and exploration, with a person who is likely to slip out of their life pretty soon afterwards. It is a moment that can carry the weight of confusion, disillusionment, suspicion and despair, leaving you feeling frightened, remote, disconnected even from yourself.

It is clear that the film deals with this. Of course the ‘curse’ can be seen as a sexually transmitted disease but it can also be seen powerfully as a representation of the soulless process of ‘being taken’ by someone who doesn’t really care, who is ‘performing’ the act of love, conducting a charade… surely, this explains the choice of film playing at Jay’s local cinema. And the way in which Jay’s soul seems to be increasingly eroded as the action of the film progresses and as one grim sex act follows another is in many ways more disturbing than the various figures pursuing her.

That’s the surface. Underneath all of that, the film works superbly as a meditation on the experience of watching horror films. Right from the beginning when we see the first victim running in a circle outside her, house the idea of being taken on a journey that continually loops back on itself is established. Most of the horror films referenced here are famous for having sequels, for being part of a cycle in which one film follows another while also taking the viewer back to the original.

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The opening shot ushers us into the world of the film while also taking us back to the quiet autumnal streets of HALLOWEEN. This film consciously follows a range of earlier horror films, not just in terms of coming after them but in terms of retracing their steps. Having established the HALLOWEEN reference, the film later takes its young characters on a journey through streets of dilapidated houses, any one of which could be the Myers house. In moving forwards, they are brushing against the past, pursuing classic spirits while being followed by new ones. They have become part of a self-consciously referential cycle of horror films.

So where else do we see references? Well, there’s a lot of David Lynch here. The fact that the malevolent force takes on the form of Jay’s father in the climax is surely a nod to TWIN PEAKS, not to mention the whole presentation of a world in which lovers try to find areas of natural beauty and serenity alongside ugly derelict industrial wastelands. IT FOLLOWS also features the figures hovering in the bedrooms and on the lawns of neat suburbia threaten at any moment to become wild and sinister recalls BLUE VELVET. The film also has the flavor of Lynch in its slow, dream-like atmosphere and its oppressive soundscape. And of course, Lynch is fascinated by repetition and loops; his whole oeuvre can be seen as a cycle.

There is also a lot of Romero. In key ways, Jay can be seen in the same unfortunate light as MARTIN, but she is also moving through her own long dark night of the living dead. Nowhere is this more evident than when she attempts to drive away from the beach on which she has been attacked. Here, she is Barbara escaping from the cemetery and we realize that, at this moment, it is not just her assailant but her friends who are being presented as the slow-moving zombies from whom she needs to flee. This is a crucial moment in the film. Jay’s close circle of supporters are, we realise, also her circle of contagion. They are as attached to her as the entity that follows her and they are all gradually eating away at each other in a mutual fog of fear and desire. It is inevitable that she will have sex with both Greg and Paul, but it almost seems superfluous in both cases because in some deep, fundamental way, they already seem to be doomed.

The first victim, presented as an artistic tableau of violent mutilation on a beach, reminds us of Chrissie in JAWS when she has been washed up as horrific flotsam. She is a brutally posed mannequin and as such, she sets an interesting precedent. Jay and her circle are often filmed as if they have been similarly posed – curiously inert as if they are already victims… or perhaps as if they were never really fully alive in the first place.

This could be David Robert Mitchell’s point. Perhaps these characters are designed to reflect the insubstantial stereotypes of the slasher film. They are such stuff as dreams are made on, spirits who will disappear into thin air the moment the thrill of the film is over. But in being so they also become a deeply significant and intensely substantial representation of the sexual anxieties with which we began. The film’s most crucial image is of a scattering of crumpled tissues on top of a stack of porn magazines. The real fear these characters live with, surely, is that they will merely become one of these tissues, having been used in someone’s act of self-gratification.

The empty orgasm. Quick. Soulless. Momentarily thrilling. Like so many horror films. Mitchell’s new masterpiece deliberately follows such films, driven by a desire to possess them, to gaze on their deathly beauty, to share in that brief rush of complex and guilty pleasure… but not to discard them. No. Mitchell wants to make sure that the spirits of these films linger in the dark corners of our minds, ready to assume surprising and frighteningly familiar forms and to follow us, steadily, inexorably, driving us forwards while forcing us to look back.

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About the author
Nigel Parkin

NIGEL PARKIN has been telling scary stories and talking about horror films since Fangoria was in its infancy. At first this was just a playground pastime but it soon became an obsession and ultimately a professional pursuit, taking him through King’s College, Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He now works as a teacher, storyteller and critic.

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