Netflix is removing It Follows from its streaming this month. This is a 2015 horror movie that got better-than-average (for the genre) critical praise. It was fairly low budget ($1-2 million), so the $23 million it pulled in meant for a pretty substantial profit.
I’ve never been much of a horror fan, so I’m not here to discuss the content so much. It wasn’t a bad movie. Personally, I appreciate all attempts to break out of the movie-making mold, so this one’s got the low-budget, independent thing doing it for me.
First impression came from it being filmed in Detroit. It took me a while to actually place the location, although it becomes obvious by the end of the movie. Even from the opening scenes it is clear that this isn’t California. The suburbia of It Follows is not the typical background of your Hollywood films. Everything is a bit run-down and cheap, despite the fact that the movie is about kids who are not poor. They have cars, homes, and plenty of leisure time. The older ones attend college.
It may be a representation of the middle class of fly-over America, one that has considerably less than the well-to-do coasts. It also have something to do with placement of this movie in time. Much of the decor is 70s or 80s. Cars, televisions, and telephones are all from a many decades ago. Mixed in, however, are some more modern artifacts. In the opening sequence, a character uses a cellphone to leave a message for her family. Is this an attempt to set the movie a generation or two back? Is it an attempt to portray visually the decay of Detroit? This might be another way to interpret this undercurrent of poverty. It is a representation, not of America overall, but of the very specific post-American dream Detroit.
Detroit may not be the focus of the movie but it is definitely a strong backdrop within it. What is the focus of the movie is the sexuality.
The writer/directory (David Robert Mitchell) has said that the genesis of the film’s plot came from a recurring nightmare he had as a child. A nightmare wherein he was followed by some unnamed horror. The sexual idea came as he was developing this “terror” into a film, first as an idea that the curse could be passed from person to person and then as a plot point of its own. Some film critics have speculated that the “follower” may represent AIDS/HIV or some other sexually transmitted disease. Others have wondered if it isn’t about sexual stigma itself; perhaps representing the stigma that sexuality has in our culture.
The director himself has been coy as far as divulging his intended symbology. While clearly intending some deeper meaning with the juxtaposition of sex and death, he has not acknowledged a direct, symbolic relationship between the supernatural tormentor and the sex acts which precede it.
Personally, I do see it as representing the the subconscious guilt that comes from casual sexual relationships. There is a certain contradiction here. Whether it is a result of the state of our current culture or a very subtle commentary upon it, that is the question.
In today’s society, we are largely taught that sex should be guilt-free. It’s natural, it’s positive, and it should be enjoyed as a part of what makes us human. Admonitions to be “safe” and have “consent” are tossed in to mitigate the obvious downsides. Yet I think nearly anyone can attest that the feelings of shame that accompany casual sex or one-night stands or sexual relationships where one participant is seen to “use” the other sexually; all these produce strong, primal reactions. While we interpret these as patriarchal prudery of a past generation, it may be something more integral to our beings. There are, of course, real risks involving unwanted pregnancy, disease, or simply unrequited emotional attachments. These things can be mitigated, but they don’t go away.
To me, the “it” that “follows” connects to that feeling, that knowledge, that your sex-without-love was something that you shouldn’t have done. This creates the contradiction. The characters themselves have no such hangups, no such guilt or shame. Whatever struggles the main character goes through regarding her supernatural curse, second thoughts about the sexual acts themselves don’t seem to be a part of it. Promiscuity, to a greater or lesser extent, doesn’t seem to cause any problems either socially or personally within the movie.
Is the film oblivious to this contradiction or, by presenting it as a big disconnect, is it trying to emphasize this exact point? Does it even matter? Sometimes a film can transcend the vision of even those who made it and, even if the filmmaker didn’t intend for this to be his theme, we in the audience can still take away from it what we will.
Whether intended or not, this theme does expose the conflict of our culture. There is this inherent conflict between the blind desire that drives us toward sex and the ambivalence and even regret that follows (see how that works). Modern politically-correct thinking is trying to square this circle and is having some difficulty. Should we be free and proud with our sexuality and reject the stigma of concepts like “slutiness” as tyrannies of a past age? Or does that post-coital depression tell us (particularly if we are women) that all sex is rape? Coming up with a set of rules that cover that whole gamut is bound to produce absurdity. Feminism seemingly embraces, simultaneously, an any-thing-goes debauchery of female sexuality next to a new puritanism for the men. It is internally inconsistent and surely is even more confusing for today’s youth than even the confusing sexual signals from culture’s past.
Even as we’re told to love promiscuity, something deep inside of us rejects and even hates it.