It Follows (2014) – the hidden meaning of It

What is this monstrous It from this movie? Can it be that it symbolizes something more than what we see on screen? I think so. And let me say this first: for me It doesn’t stand for any physical disease.

I’m going to serve you spoiler avalanche/movie analysis here. If you really want to see It Follows, an independent American horror that both critics and viewers admire, watch it first and then return here for my take on its meaning. But if you’ve seen it or are only mildly interested in it, read the rest of this post.

This special edition poster is the best one.

My first impression wasn’t positive. The movie left me indifferent. “Good idea, but weak execution, and please, enough with these nostalgic shots,” I thought. But I kept thinking about this movie for days afterwards. It is visible that its director, David Robert Mitchell, knows the horror genre and his craft. The cinematography and the script both suggest the depth that reaches behind the simple tale of survival. Then it hit me and I invented my own theory of It. “Meh? More like brilliant!”, were my second thoughts. I’m going to divide them into sections.

Sex is deadly – but not immediately

The movie seemingly follows the familiar horror pattern: everyone who has sex, dies. Jay, a pretty and fragile-looking college student, leads a boring but seemingly satisfactory life in the suburbs of Detroit. Her days seem to consist of sitting around with her sister and close friends, drifting in a small swimming pool, and going out from time to time. Her new boyfriend, Hugh, takes her to the local vintage theater and then starts to act strangely, apparently seeing people that aren’t there. Another night they have sex and then Jay finds out about her boyfriend’s true intentions – he wanted to pass something on to her.

Hugh kidnaps her, straps her to the wheelchair and explains to the terrified girl that she wouldn’t believe him if she didn’t see It with her own eyes. They wait till a naked woman suddenly appears, heading straight towards immobile Jay. Hugh takes her from the spot and says she must sleep with someone else to pass it further, otherwise It will kill her and then return to kill him and the persons before him. This deadly chain cannot be stopped. It walks, instead of running, so you can escape. It can look like anybody, including someone you know.

Time doesn’t matter

The characters seem to exist in the strange world between different eras. We get the objects, clothes, and even hairstyles from 70s, 80s and 90s mixed with mobile devices and talk of the present. This premise isn’t explained. We don’t get to know that the main characters are, for example, collectors of vintage objects. We just have to accept this modern world as realistic when it obviously isn’t. All those time inconsistencies can be seen as tributes to horrors. Especially, Halloween (1978) keeps getting mentioned in reviews. During the interviews the director said he had wanted the movie to be difficult to place in time. My conclusion is that time doesn’t matter – It follows in the same manner in every decade.

A curious mobile device that looks like a compact mirror. The girl is reading “The Idiot” by Dostoyevsky.
A curious mobile device that looks like a compact mirror. The girl is reading “The Idiot” by Dostoyevsky.

Intentionally unrealistic

The movie begins with a familiar “we don’t know what’s happening but it’s creepy” take. I will describe it because it keeps getting omitted in other reviews, even though it sends some important clues right away. A frightened out of her wits girl runs out of her house wearing silk shorts and tank top pajamas. The scenery is a quiet suburban neighborhood in the early morning. She dismisses a neighbor’s and her father’s offers of help and looks desperately around. She runs back to her house, only to return again with car keys, jump in the car and drive ahead. When it’s dark we see her phoning her father on the desolate beach, crying and telling him that she loves him. Cut to the next morning: her mutilated corpse is lying on the same beach. Later we learn about It and may deduct that the girl knew It was chasing her and was going to kill her.

My first choice for shoewear, too.
My first choice for shoewear, too.

OK, it all sounds probable within the horror genre. Now look at her shoes. Not only are they high heels, they are stilettos (about 5 inches high at least). She would be better off running barefoot. Yes, they are very flattering. But they are also any woman’s last choice when it comes to running. Now the question remains, do we believe the director is an idiot for deciding such an outfit was appropriate? Or do we witness another objectification of female body which must look flattering at all times? I would answer “no” to both these suggestions.

Although in the movie there are numerous shots that dwell upon the beauty of Jay or her teenage sister, the camera never seems predatory. Later in the movie the director got a wonderful opportunity for exploitative shots of the protagonist, as she decides to have sex with three men on the boat she sees in the distance. Jay gets into the water. Cut: she drives a car and her hair is wet. Only this subtle clue tells us what happened. Many directors would jump on the opportunity to show a foursome, but here it is unnecessary and I’m glad Mitchell recognized that.

So if the director isn’t just objectifying the female bodies, why the high heels? Notice the color. Red. They sexualize the girl’s appearance and create a stark contrast with the suburbs, her white sleepwear and daddy’s girl image. You can read this scholarly article about red shoes. The shoes point to the facts that: a) we shouldn’t trust the decorations and think rationally about the characters’ behavior (e.g. wonder who would run in high heels or try to shoot at the invisible monster) and b) the whole movie is about the conflict between characters’ personalities and their repressed subconscious feelings.

Who do you see as It? Those you don’t want to.

The whole reason I’m dealing with this movie here is the monster’s appearance which is always very grotesque and dissociated from the surroundings. Let’s look at the forms that It takes and where they appear.

  • A naked woman in the deserted building.
  • An elderly woman wearing a nightgown resembling a hospital gown in Jay’s college.
  • Jay’s best female friend, Yara, on the beach that Jay and her friends (including Yara) were enjoying themselves.
  • A woman who looks like a rape victim, with breasts half-exposed and bruised face, who pees on the floor of Jay’s kitchen.
  • A naked middle-aged man on the roof of Jay’s home.
  • An extremely tall man in Jay’s bedroom.
  • A screaming malnourished kid on the aforementioned beach.
  • A girl in a nightgown (that is probably the girl from the beginning of the movie) on the road from the beach.
  • And finally, Jay’s dad (whom we spotted previously only in a photograph) near the swimming pool.

These are the forms that It takes for Jay (these may not be all, as I could forget some of them).

One of the most terrifying scenes.
One of the most terrifying scenes.

When Jay decides to sleep with Greg to pass the curse, a few days later she witnesses two forms of It following Greg. One is Greg himself in pajamas going into his house. The second is Greg’s mother in an undone nightgown, exposing one of her breasts, knocking violently on the door of Greg’s bedroom. Greg was shown throughout the movie as a womanizer. Jay admits later on she already slept with him in high school. But we can be sure that there was one woman he wouldn’t want to see storming his bedroom at night – his mother. Jay looks mortified as It in form of Greg’s mother kills him while rubbing her crotch against his.

From these images I draw the following conclusion: what Hugh told Jay is not true (just as his name was false), It doesn’t just look like anybody. It personifies one’s deepest fears and repressed sexual desires. Truth be told, if I’m right, it can be seen as the movie’s weakness – Jay shouldn’t just be afraid of anybody passing by, only people that look familiar or/and out of place. Hugh messes up the picture because he keeps seeing girls in normal clothes (yellow dress in the theater), but that can also be a part of his fears and desires.

No one in the movie wants to tell the others what he or she sees as It. The characters subconsciously understand that this would reveal too much about themselves, about the parts of their minds that they don’t want others to know. When Jay’s sister asks “What do you see?”, Jay answers “I don’t want to tell you” while looking at their father trying to attack her.

Greg's death
Greg and It in a form of his mother. I tried to find the least graphic shot.

As to It appearing as Yara – at this moment Jay is looking at this very friend in a swim-suit. Could this mean that there exists an unwanted repressed desire on Jay’s part that It feels and feeds upon?

My interpretation is very Freudian, thus some people may reject it. But as my American Literature Professor used to say, “Freud’s ideas are dated and proved to be untrue. But they are excellent when it comes to analyzing literature and they can still be applied as a literary theory device.” I will stretch it to movies as well. It doesn’t matter if we agree with Freud, we can still spot his ideas in the works of art.

But not all forms of It are sexual. Sexual danger and rape associations appear around Jay’s home (we see both predator and victim figures). But what about the elderly lady? Does she symbolize something sexual? For me no, she is a personification of even deeper fears: the fear of aging, disease and death. No young girl wants to be reminded while wasting hours of her precious youth in the classroom that one day she may look like this. The lady appears crazy walking in a hospital-like gown. She also has knee pads. What kind of scary ghost wears knee pads? Only the one inside your head.

The only It form that I don’t know what to make of is the scary kid on the beach. I hope someone can give a possible explanation of his appearance (other than, well, failure of the script). Edit: thanks to this interesting video I found out that the boy is the kid that regularly spies on Jay. Kudos to the author for close watching, although I disagree with his main idea that It is a demon.

If It is a collection of a person’s repressed fears, one cannot escape It. You can run but It will always find you. Dare I say that the movie could be entitled “Id Follows”?”*

Jeff pointing It to Jay
Look at this jokester. Aren’t you a clever blogger?

To quote the trivia section of IMDb, the director clarified that “the ‘monster’ could potentially board a plane in order to follow the cursed person” and “neither a condom nor same-gender sex would stop the monster and the curse would still be passed.” It suits my theory well.

If the curse is your own mind, you obviously cannot escape it.

What others think

One interpretation I found (read here) is close to mine, but it states that Jay’s father and Greg’s mother appearances suggest previous sexual abuse of their children. While it is possible (Greg recognizes the angry knocking as his mother’s!), I would say that imaginative fear can be as strong as real trauma.

I see others interpreting It as STD (come on, so simple?), fear of sex, reminder of sexual abuse or even adulthood that the movie characters fear (interesting thought). Others see It as simply the personification of death or rather Death that follows us all. Many think that It takes its form after its own victims. That’s why they are often wearing sleepwear – they got attacked at night.

Conclusion

I think it shows the movie strength that we are allowed numerous interpretations that may not even contradict each other. Maybe It is a demon that takes form of one’s subconscious fears and desires? Or maybe It stands just for STD and I am writing the longest post on my blog about the movie that just warns teenagers against sex with strangers? Even if the director is a skillful manipulator that tricked me into believing that his artsy movie is something more, I would still recommend seeing the film.

Any movie that forces you to think and wonder is worth your time. Even if I have to stand another cinematography based mostly on wide-angle camera lenses or another electronic score that “builds an atmosphere” (what it really does for me: it precedes It with basses just like The Imperial March signalized Darth Vader’s appearance)**, I would still watch something similar to It Follows just because it made me think so much about its premise.

*Muahahaha! … *cough* You know, just like Freud’s concept of Id? *exits smoothly*
** Half-serious appeal to filmmakers: there is only one “Drive.” Only one.

“Nightcrawler” (2014)

ightcrawler 2014 Jake Gyllenhaal cafe scene

Finally I get to write about the movie that is so recent it may still be playing next to you. And it uses grotesque successfully! Yay!

I don’t know if “Nightcrawler” is a perfect movie. But it’s the best movie I saw in cinema this year. This doesn’t actually say much as I watched few movies in theater and most of them were disappointments. So let me put it differently. I compared it in my mind to great American movies of the 1970s (which is my favorite decade of cinema in general). It belongs to a different era and I love it.

Both Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom and Riz Ahmed as Rick give very believable performances.
Both Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom and Riz Ahmed as Rick give very believable performances.

In one sentence: Lou Bloom is a scumbag. He steals, robs and deceives. He proves throughout the movie that he respects no moral boundaries. Nothing can stop him from getting what he wants. He lives in L.A., so it seems he is in the right place. His lack of empathy is greatly appreciated as he becomes a self-employed freelance filmmaker who films accidents, shootings and fires that break out at nighttime. Nina (Rene Russo), a TV-news veteran, pays him for each material that he brings to her TV station. His shots usually get broadcasted in the morning. The anchormen always warn the audience that viewer discretion is advised. Lou Bloom watches it happily while ironing his cheap shirts. He is persistent.

Now I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. What I believe is that good things come to those who work their asses off. And that, good people, who reach the top of the mountain, didn’t just fall there.

Imagine this told by a person with piercing puppy eyes on a starving but smiling face.

Nightcrawler 2014 Jake Gyllenhaal
“My motto is if you want to win the lottery you’ve got to make money to get a ticket.”

Honestly, Lou Bloom’s English is so polished that it is terrifying in itself. Even the first sentence he utters is meaningful: “I’m under the opinion that this is a detour.”

Obviously the movie is a satire on newsroom/capitalism/today’s job market crisis/ideology of success (which Lou Bloom knows by heart). Choose what you like, you will find all of that.

It is also grotesque. This movie made the audience in my theater quiet at one moment and laughing at another. There are lots of funny scenes in this gripping film! Lou Bloom’s pep talks are highlights of the movie. When we contrast their pomposity and naïve optimism with the harsh reality the only reaction can be laughter. Especially when these “pursuit of happiness” words are spoken by the most despicable person in the movie. Pure grotesque.

Lou Bloom gets compared by reviewers to Norman Bates, but I’m getting Alex DeLarge vibe here. To be more specific, Malcolm McDowell as Alex in “A Clockwork Orange”. These piercing blue eyes! Another, less-known, actor who sports this look is Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes in “Wise Blood” (extremely underrated actor in an underrated movie adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel). What all these three characters have in common is their alienation from those that surround them and, partly, from the audience. We do not sympathize with them, but we watch them performing all these weird and drastic actions with constant fascination. All the time having in mind these innocent-looking blue eyes.

Malcolm McDowell A Clockwork Orange Alex eyes
Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge in “A Clockwork Orange”
Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes in "Wise Blood"
Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes in “Wise Blood”

Jake Gyllenhaal really did a great job transforming for this movie. It’s not all about the weight loss. His face totally changed. We no longer see this adorable lost depressed boyish man from “Donnie Darko”. Here we observe a total creep who we would likely avoid in real life but on the cinematic screen he captivates our attention more than the aforementioned pretty boy.

ightcrawler 2014 Jake Gyllenhaal cafe scene
I’m not exaggerating the eyes motif.

During his developing career Lou realizes that cinematography matters. That’s why I described him as a filmmaker, not a news videographer. He discovers the relation between the right shots and the desirable emotional reaction from future TV viewers. He starts to direct the scene, does not just roll with it. Therefore I would suggest that “Nightcrawler” is all about making movies. Filmmakers know tricks that will sell their product to the audience. Rene Russo’s character symbolizes a producer who is both in power and powerless. My theory can be perhaps more easily applied to horror genre (the more blood, the better; the same goes for accidents), but I would say that the whole cinema works this way. Maybe even the whole art? Lou Bloom is creepy? What about artists who know how to appeal to the audience? He is creepy? What about us, the viewers, who enjoy being entertained that way?

Source of the grotesque?
Source of the grotesque?

I just realized it’s the fifth time that I blog about the movie/novel which takes place in Los Angeles or nearby. Either this city (or, more often, Hollywood) attracts grotesque or artists working there are more prone to noticing it. I suppose both options can be correct.

Returning to the 1970s feel I just searched for interviews with the director Dan Gilroy and I found out one where he comments on it. His comment is worth reading:

One of the things about the ’70s films I love—the films Nightcrawler is being compared to, like Taxi Driver—is that they never put their flawed characters into any one box. To call someone a sociopath or a psychopath is misrepresentative. On one level, yes, their behavior makes them diagnostically and accurately sociopathic, but a sociopath is not just black-and-white. You can’t see them from far away; they’re not rare creatures. All of us have a bit of a sociopath inside of us, and it’s wrong to think that somebody is just clearly sociopathic, because they’re not. It’s interesting to explore the shadings and nuances within a person. Those feelings exist within more human beings than people may want to acknowledge.

You can read the whole interview here (it contains some spoilers though).

As you may have noticed, I tried not to spoil much in this review, so my analysis is rather general. However, the point I am trying to prove is that such a thought-provoking movie  doesn’t happen often. Go see it. It’s not just a movie about a sociopath/psychopath. Or about L.A. Or about television. It’s about all that and more.

5 Creepy and Grotesque Christmas Movies

Christmas movies are usually supposed to make you feel good while presenting kind and warm image of families joined by the Christmas spirit. It is the idea that is imprinted in our minds by the media, advertisements, and commercial tradition. We encourage it ourselves, gathering together at this time of the year and trying to fulfill the ideal of “Merry Christmas. ” But what all this sweetness just asks for are exaggeration and satire. When traditional Christmas imagery gets distorted it leaves us puzzled or even uneasy. Here I give you 5 entertaining  movies that present a grotesque picture of Christmas.

1. Christmas Evil (1980)

"Christmas Evil" poster

A man obsessed with Santa Claus, toys, and children in his neighborhood, decides that in the world devoid of true Christmas spirit, he will be the perfect Santa Claus that will make good children happy and punish adult non-believers. With a knife and an axe.

Probably the best of horrors featuring Santa Claus killer (there are many more movies with such a character, if you want more, I recommend Bloody Disgusting list: http://bloody-disgusting.com/news/18511/), Christmas Evil is a great B movie which presents a truly disturbed individual who nevertheless earns our sympathy. After all, he tries to help neglected children from the hospital or reward nice kids with beautiful toys he makes. He says: “I only have good intentions” and we want to believe him. At the same time, he remains infantile and wants others to remain such, in order to repair his childhood memories, damaged by sexual trauma.

Brandon Maggart in "Christmas Evil"
Brandon Maggart in “Christmas Evil”

An unsure man, he gains confidence only when in the red-and-white costume. Brandon Maggart’s acting reaches far beyond usual B movie stuff, believably presenting increasing madness of the protagonist.

2.  The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" poster

I have a love-hate attitude towards Tim Burton’s movies, but I love this one. It has all wonderful qualities that make Burton’s universe original, engaging and fascinatingly creepy. It tells the story of Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town, who gets bored with doing the same performance every year for Halloween. But when he discovers Christmas Town, he decides that all monstrous (or even dead) citizens of Halloween Town should try to celebrate a new holiday. With their usual scary approach towards decoration and gifts.

Jack Skellington as Santa Claus
Jack Skellington as Santa Claus

When you want a perfectly animated mix of comedy, horror, and musical, choose this movie. There is also a nod towards Bride of Frankenstein and the result is Sally, a character truly beloved by fans of the movie. Paradoxically, though monsters of Halloween Town get a very incorrect notion of Christmas décor, the movie reaches the spirit of Christmas all right.

3. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972)

"Whoever Slew Auntie Roo" 1971 poster

This is a bizarre take on Hansel and Gretel story. Auntie Roo, an American widow, gives an annual lavish Christmas party in her Gothic mansion. Good children from the local orphanage are chosen to go there. But this year, naughty brother and sister, Christopher and Katy, sneak into the party uninvited. They will be the ones that discover the secrets of the old house and its inhabitants. Moreover, Katy reminds Auntie Roo of her dead daughter. And nobody knows what exactly happened to the daughter…

Christopher and Katy vs. the evil witch
Christopher and Katy vs. the evil witch

If you like old-fashioned plots where children are the only ones who know the truth, and no adult person believes them (think “The Night of the Hunter” *) , you will love this movie. The setting is creepy and Shelley Winters is marvelously over-the-top as the title character who is mentally unstable but at the same time pitiful. Child actors also do their best, the boy (played by child star Mark Lester) is clever and caring, the girl sweet and adorable. At the same time, the movie is ambiguous in the same way as Hansel and Gretel story is. If you want a horror movie that is appropriate for children, I suggest this flick.

*interestingly, that movie also starred Shelley Winters, but as an innocent victim, not a villain

4. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Rare Exports, 2010)

"Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" poster

A harsh climate of the Korvatunturi mountains in Finland hides the old secret of Christmas. American expedition comes to dig it up. They soon find out what they were looking for and, apparently, disappear. Finnish reindeer hunters living nearby face a series of strange events. The only person who knows what’s going on is a small son of one of the hunters who reads some interesting legends about the real, monstrous, Santa Claus. Tagline of the movie: “This Christmas Everyone Will Believe In Santa Claus.” Ho ho ho.

"Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" - Illustration
An illustration that suggests the truth about Santa

A weird movie if there ever was one. And not for children, even though the main character is a very clever boy, played convincingly by Onni Tommila (who also stars in the upcoming movie “Big Game” with Samuel L. Jackson http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2088003/?ref_=nmmd_ph_tt1). Weird, because it mixes many genres: family movie, adventure film, horror, and comedy. There are also a few really grotesque scenes. This mixture does not always work, nevertheless the movie is really entertaining and worth watching. It will make you reconsider the character of Santa Claus for sure.

5. The Day of the Beast (El día de la bestia, 1995)

"The Day of the Beast" Spanish poster

The most grotesque of all five movies, it won’t suit everyone. And it certainly does not try to. Its creator, Álex de la Iglesia, is one of my favorite living directors. He makes truly original black comedies mixed with horror and lots of cultural (and pop cultural) references. This is one of his best works. And, after all, it is a Christmas-themed movie. About the forthcoming birth of the Antichrist.

An idealistic and modest priest finds by means of a study of the Apocalypse that the Antichrist is going to be born on Christmas day in Madrid. With the help of a sweaty long-haired heavy-metal fan and a stylish TV showman of a TV esoteric program, he will try to invoke the devil to find out the place of birth and kill the baby. He also decides that he must do all the evil possible to do so.

"The Day of the Beast" main characters
Three main characters

If you enjoy ridiculous and violent scenes that are accompanied by dramatic music, you will love this movie. It is outrageously funny at times, while some motifs (e.g. the “cleaning” movement) are genuinely terrifying. It also possesses a delightful ambiguity that leaves you questioning everything that happens in the story. For me this film is a “Big Lebowski” of occult horror.

So here you have it, 5 creepy movies to enjoy during your holidays. These movies ultimately prove that the good and the evil lies in the choices we make, not in our appearances. Remember that and enjoy your Christmas, in whatever way you want to spend them.

Happy Holidays! :)