Sex is the subtext in many movies; whether it’s rape (Alien) or infidelity (Jaws) there are plenty of examples to offer, and I recall listening to Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson explain how A Nightmare on Elm Street was actually about fathers screwing their daughters. It makes sense that sexual matters are bubbling about in the subtext because humans are sexual animals and some of us can be driven quite mad by desire and so on.
That the sexual business is usually to be found in the subtext is what makes It Follows so bloody creepy to begin with: the movie tells us it’s about sex pretty much right from the off. So here’s the thing: if it’s about sex on the surface, what hell is it going on under the surface?
What the hell is the subtext to It Follows?
It begins with a young girl running in a circle outside her house, looking behind her as she goes, then darting back in to grab the car keys before speeding off to the beach. Then we see her calling her parents to leave a message telling them she loves them as we cut to her point-of-view of the car she drove there in. This is the first suggestion she can see something we can’t because she’s obviously looking at something (hence the POV shot) but all we see is her car. Then we cut to the following morning and the poor love is artistically mangled and very dead.
Then we cut to our lead chick: she’s having a dip in the pool while the neighbouring kids spy on her. This is the first incident of voyeurism – the kids are checking her out because she’s wearing a swimming costume, and one of the same kids, later on, spies on her through the bathroom window (while she’s wearing suspiciously boring underwear which made me think of the Queen of Drab: Emily Rose.) That’s two instances of voyeurism and it’s said that, in drama at any rate, if you want your audience to remember something – when there’s something you want them to ‘get’ – you mention it three times to stick it in their heads, is it two times with movies?
(This tiny piece of speculation comes from Olympia Dukakis asking ‘why do men chase women?’ in Moonstruck. I ‘remembered’ this question being the thing she ‘spends the whole movie’ trying to figure out; then I went back and checked the number of times she asks it and it is just twice.)
The basics run thus: the girl goes on a date with a guy and has sex with him in the back of his car on some waste ground. All okay so far. Then he presses a drugged handkerchief over her face – the classic move of moustache twirling villains everywhere – and she wakes up tied to a wheelchair while her male friend rushes about looking for the thing which has been ‘following’ him. When he sees it he tells her that it’s going to be following her now, and it might be slow but it’s not stupid. To get rid of it she needs to sleep with someone else to pass it on, and if it kills her, it’ll return to coming after him.
So starts the movie proper.
What the hell is the ‘thing’ which is following her and invisible to everyone else except those who have been followed and managed to ‘pass it on’? Does it represent guilt about something, or maybe a sexually transmitted disease? Does it represent a kind of knowledge about the world which we get through a loss of innocence as we get older, and the sex idea represents this loss of that innocence?
Is it a dark satire about the dishonest games adults play with each other about relationships and sex – satirised using the idea of the childish ‘so and so has fleas – pass it on!’ game children play?
I think that’s more likely to be the case than any question about disease or guilt.
I think this movie is about the lies and bullshit people spin for themselves and each other as they bed-hop their way through life using pleasure to distract them from Thanatos, who’s always stalking very close behind. It’s a movie which understands the atheistic nature of youth; understands the desire of youth to reject authority and religion, while inventing new ways to deny death – and by doing so, confirm further that rejection of religion by realising that the survival of death is religion’s only selling point.
It Follows (quite unlike the pseudo-religious-death-survival-fantasy-bullshit of Lucy) is a movie which subtly makes the case that we do not survive death, and this unfortunate truth might be what motivates us to seek pleasure and happiness while we are alive.
Take that to nihilism through hedonism if you like, but one could just as easily take the meaning as the advice to create meaningful relationships and ‘enjoy life’ while we are here for the short time that we are.