It’s a mistake to think IT FOLLOWS is just a horror movie about sexually transmitted diseases and the dangers of premarital sex.
True, the curse that sets everything into motion, putting nineteen-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) in the crosshairs of an unstoppable killing force, can only be caught by having sex and can only be abated—temporarily, we quickly learn—by having more sex. But that’s just one way to interpret the dangers that are conjured up and encountered throughout the film.
Shot on location in Detroit and the surrounding suburbs, IT FOLLOWS actualizes another, more palpable fear toward the city and its inhabitants.
After venturing out of the suburbs for a fling with a mysterious man (Jake Weary) from the city, Jay becomes the recipient of a curse that promises to consume her, unless she can pass it along to someone else before it catches up. She returns to her home on the outskirts of Detroit, but the curse follows her back there.
Throughout IT FOLLOWS, the divide between the city and the suburbs isn’t just economic; it’s spiritual, and it widens as the film goes on. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell uses the divide in a number of ways, principally to signify the transition between being a kid and growing up. In one poignant scene, Jay’s friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) reflects sadly on how she was always forbidden by her parents to go south of 8 Mile road, and didn’t realize until later that it was because it served as both a physical and psychic barrier keeping Detroit away from the suburbs.
Ostensibly cut off from all that urban danger, the suburbs represent safety and the protection of childhood. The teens still act like kids there, playing card games like Old Maid, and spending afternoons floating idly in the family pool. Although Jay and her sister (Lili Sepe) rankle at the house rules, they also enjoy the comforts that living there provides. However, when Jay tries to go home after getting exposed to the curse, to return to where she feels the safest, it becomes clear that she can’t truly go back and have it be again be what it was, because it’s not the same and neither is she. The creature creates an imperative—the need to move on and never look back.
As the reality of the curse does set in, Jay and her friends—including love interests Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Greg (Daniel Zovatto)—embark on a mission to track down the man who gave it to her, starting in the city. During the drive, Jay gazes in silence as they pass boarded-up shops and walls tagged with graffiti. Hazy figures in hoodies perch on a nearby corner, watching motionlessly as the car drives by. These figures probably aren’t like the one she’s trying to outrun, but she still stays put in the car.
The teens arrive at a dilapidated old house that looks like it’s been swallowed up by weeds. Inside, the house is empty but for a single mattress and a couple nude magazines scattered around the floor. Using a picture they find in one of the magazines, the group eventually traces the man back to a nearby suburb. But a question still remains: how did he manage to keep all this a secret and maintain the lie that he lived in the city? Jay says that he never let her go inside the house; he claimed he was too embarrassed by it. The unspoken thing here is that maybe she was, too.
The city imposes on the narrative more as the danger to Jay increases. Detroit is the “other” here, almost as much as the creature is. While the teens enjoy a privileged relationship with the city, able to come and go at will, its gutted buildings and empty, desolate streets are dramatized for maximum danger. At times, the haunting, anonymous “it,” which can wear any face it wants in a crowd, feels like a stand-in for the city’s residents and the mixture of fear and repulsion that the teens feel toward them. Late in the film, when one of the teens is seen driving around the city in search of prostitutes, the morality of who to expose the curse to suddenly comes under a new light. If the curse is a ghostly STD that needs to keep being passed on forever, who deserves it more: another teenaged friend from the suburbs or some random streetwalker from seedy Detroit?
Using a wide-angle lens, Mitchell bestows a grand, epic bigness to the city’s vacant buildings. Despite Mitchell’s attempts to avoid the label, it’s ruin porn. Simultaneously, the suburbs seem to shrink in size, growing shabbier and more foreboding each time we go back, like little wood-paneled death traps with halls that are longer, darker and narrower as the curse tightens its grip around the teens.
One of the strengths of IT FOLLOWS is the way Mitchell is able to tease the creature slowly out from these spaces, transforming its slow, steady march forward into something deeply unnatural. The creature takes on many different forms: a tall man, a child, an elderly woman and even Jay’s own father. About halfway through the film, an impressive circular panning shot at a school offers a momentary glance at a figure walking toward the camera, but it’s gone too soon to tell if it’s the creature or just another student on campus.
What’s interesting though is how none of these forms really blend into the crowd anyway, once you get a good look at them. Mostly bloody or nude or both, the forms appear in various states of decay and distress. Whether breaking apart from a crowd or moving solitarily in the darkness, the creature doesn’t really inhabit any of the spaces it walks through. It’s not altogether clear it wants to blend in, either.
Instead, the creature is a chronic trespasser in both city and suburb, and as it follows—through an aesthetic of abandonment in Detroit and the shabby-chic ranch homes up past 8 Mile road—so do we, gawking.