It Follows: A Homecoming for ’80s Horror

When leaving It Follows, you will not know exactly when it was set, but you'll realize where it is: John Carpenter's backyard.

This article contains mild It Follows spoilers.

From the opening frame of It Follows, you know exactly where you are. Wide, listless shots of a quiet suburban neighborhood populated by frantic teens and oblivious parents. Even if viewers can’t yet see the film’s unnamed boogeyman, this unspoken It, they can feel its labored, deliberate, and ceaseless shuffle, marching a helpless victim (Bailey Spry) towards oblivion. All that’s missing in the panoramic 360-degree shot is a night-lit rainfall and a windswept castle. But perhaps, that is why this is so much more effective.

A fun exercise moviegoers will have after leaving It Follows’ dreamlike grasp—besides looking over a shoulder—is to take a moment and try to figure out when the film is set. The beauty of the game, like so much else with this movie, is that such a detail is an ambiguous mystery. As described above, the opening shot is clearly reminiscent of the sleepy suburban shadows in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). However, this is more than an homage: it seems to be a mindset.

It Follows is not only littered with the influences of horror films from the 1970s and 1980s, it clearly evokes being of that era. All of the characters exclusively use corded-landline phones for across the street communication when they aren’t watching TV sets from at least 30 years ago. And those screens are playing sci-fi and horror films from a period of 30 years before that (much again like Carpenter’s Halloween). Taking into account that the primary mode of transportation for its central five teenagers is a beat-up station wagon from the mid-1980s, one should probably assume that this is when the film takes place.

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But upon a closer glance during my second viewing, all the leg-warmers and palm-sized earphones that background characters sport are confounded by modern cars from the 1990s and later in the edges of the frame, as well as the fact that the character Yara (Olivia Luccardi) seems to have a clam phone with some kind of touch screen—which she uses exclusively to read poetry while playing cards on the front porch. In the end, It Follows is neither period nor modern. Still, it cannot be mistaken for timeless. It Follows most definitely is set in a very specific time and place, one that just so happens to also have never existed except in late night silver screens watched by generations of horror lovers. A 1980s suburban slasher Never Never Land.

For audiences of a certain age, horror is still partially synonymous with the most recent decade where it was ubiquitious. Sure, there have been fads and subgenres, from torture porn to found footage, but horror has yet to reach the level of saturation it had during the Reagan Years. To this day, “scary movies” conjure up the image of a masked man with a knife, or a chainsaw, or a machete, or some other phallic shaped form of punishment. Half of these visions came from the 1970s, but their squels, which are still inescapable every October and Friday the 13th on cable television, came from a glut of slashers in the ’80s.

Twenty-five years on, these are more than cultural touchstones of the genre; they’re an unspoken iconography every bit as definitive as the “gothic” aesthetic for a century past. In fact, it is a new continuation of exactly that.

Since the earliest days of filmmaking, there have been horror movies, and they all shared a common trait: an adaptation of the previous century’s greatest works of horror literature. And at least for English speakers, this meant gothic literature. The first horror movie out of Thomas Edison’s studio was a brief and lumbering silent 1910 feature, Frankenstein. But even before that film, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had been adapted twice.

further reading: The Best Modern Horror Movies

Admittedly, these are two very different novels published in different 19th century periods, one of which was a nostalgic longing for a previous century’s age of Enlightenment written by a teenage girl who wasn’t there to live her parents’ golden age, and the other is a late Victorian era edition focused on the eternal demons in every man. Yet, both became lumped into the same “gothic” type that would also draw the attention of the world, including foreign auteurs like F.W. Murnau, who adapted Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula into the 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu.

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By the time horror became a quantifiable genre in American moviemaking, these films were almost exclusively being produced by Universal Studios, which birthed the first shared universe in cinema history by setting its tales in a European dreamscape. Dracula (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and even The Wolf Man (1941) are all influenced by works of “horror” literature from the previous century, even when they were original stories like that famed werewolf paterfamilias picture.

And in these war torn visions often untouched by 20th century logic, the 19th century of their source novels was maintained, even when it really wasn’t. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula lives in a castle reached only by horse and carriage, but he visits a London where 20th century automobiles can be heard as he glowers at women with 1930s bobs. In Frankenstein, the good doctor (Colin Clive) lives in an imaginary German countryside with no central government, yet when one gets past the lakes and windmills, they’ll find a barren, scarred landscape as harsh and unforgiving as the ones director James Whale saw during the Great War 15 years prior to that film.

By the time we were reaching the monster mash sequels of the 1940s, Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man is leaving an England that is certainly not at war even though it has 1940s cars, and he arrives in a German landscape with horse and buggies, as well as S.S. adorned German magistrates that want to round up gypsies.

The Universal horror movie aesthetic, which for decades inspired cinematic language from Britain’s Hammer studios to Rocky Horror Picture Show, and all the way to Scooby-Doo cartoons, continues to live on as an undying form. It isn’t really of a time or place, but of an amalgamation of anxieties that was first developed for audiences who also grew up reading Stoker, Shelley, and maybe a little bit of the Brontë sisters.

Yet, as oceans of time push those archetypes and staples further into the recesses of history, what was once considered modern and controversial now likewise has the respectability of history, and the notoriety to be considered a classic. Which brings me back to David Robert Mitchell’s second film, It Follows.

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For this unnerving thriller, Mitchell borrows heavily from the conventions of a certain type of horror story and reinvents them for a modern time without updating them. In many respects, the It in It Follows is inescapably an STD with extremely deadly consequences. The film is unafraid to let the audience see the obvious allegorical context, such as when protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe) is introduced to It after a tryst in her boyfriend’s car. There is no misunderstanding, Hugh (Jake Weary) has violated her trust and used her to his own ends. After they have sex, he chloroforms Jay, and ties her to a wheelchair so that she can see what It looks like as the supernatural creature comes to kill her. He then leaves her abandoned on the side of the road by her house in a scene every bit as disturbing as any involving this promiscuous boogeyman.

Later in the film, the first jump scare comes when Jay is exploring her own body the next day, studying the devastation of the sexually transmitted curse. Much like the horror films of the 1970s and especially the 1980s, we have returned to the quintessential slasher staple of “sex equals death.”

However, unlike many of those earlier films, especially in the Jason Voorhees wheelhouse, the film does not condemn her for having sex, but rather empathizes with a good girl who makes the kind of choices that almost all teenagers make, and the dangers hidden therein when nobody is able to teach her about the dangers in this world. Consider, also like many of these classics, parents are never present. The only time we see Jay’s father is when It takes his form for a Cat People styled showdown by an indoor swimming pool. This adds to the dreamy quality of It Follows just as much as Rich Vreeland’s lusciously surreal synthesizer score. But also like that score, it is coming out of the John Carpenter playbook.

As the film progresses, the references become more overt, including a scene where It urinates on Jay’s kitchen floor when it comes for her like Linda Blair during the “happier” moments of 1973’s The Exorcist. Similarly, Jay’s hot-headed neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto) bares a striking resemblance to Johnny Depp’s presence in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), right down to his condescending skepticism that causes him to not pick up the phone when his romantically connected neighbor is begging for him answer his landline.

There’s even a cabin in the woods.

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It Follows summons up strong emotions and environments from a specific kind of horror and a specific moment, and contextualizes them to their very core. After all, almost all of these famed scary movies are focused on teenagers (promiscuous or otherwise), and almost all of them are targeted at that same age demographic.

The reason is simple: it’s the age where life seems to go on forever, and death is a distant stranger. Horror movies are a safe way to introduce that unavoidable night caller. But in It Follows, It not only lumbers like the eternally patient Michael Myers after you, but It also is the actual boogeyman. Early in the film, Hugh admits to Jay that when he sees a young child playing with his father that he wishes he could be that age again, dreaming of the beginning of life at the ripe old age of 21-years-old. Like those suburban nightmares of 30 years ago, It Follows is lingering behind a teenage wasteland with the realization of mortality. And in that way, the film is tapping into an iconography that has become immortal for moviegoers who dream (or dread) about a time that only ever existed at the movies.

This article was first published on March 14, 2015.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.

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