It Follows Freshens Up Horror with Homage to ’80s

It Follows reminded me very much of ’80s horror movies, from the neon colors to the soundtrack that sounded eerily like Tangerine Dream. I think what I saw referenced most often was Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series, where teenagers are menaced by Freddy Krueger, the boogeyman in their dreams. It Follows opens with a damsel in distress running down the street in just a T-shirt and high heels, obviously post-coitus, trying to escape from an unknown something. She’s shown being menaced, leaving a voicemail for her dad, and then the next shot shows her in the daytime ripped to pieces. Right away it seems that the beautiful people are under attack in It Follows with ladies first.

Jay, the main character of the movie, is played by Maika Monroe, who spends a lot of time running around in underwear or swimsuits. When a person’s almost naked, they’re at their most vulnerable, and that’s what this movie plays on, the sexploitation of young women and what they can do with it. Jay is close with her sister Kelly and a group of neighborhood friends: Yara, the brainy one, who’s gaining great insight from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which she reads throughout most of the movie, and Paul, the sisters’ guy friend who kissed them both when they were younger and still pines for Jay.

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The sisters live a simple life in a suburban home, with Jay attending college classes and her younger sister working at an ice cream store. In the backyard is an aboveground pool with five-foot-tall blue plastic walls, what I’ve always seen as a symbol of lower middle class striving for something better. Jay loves the pool, to the delight of the neighborhood boys who are in lust for this dream girl, and many of the shots in the movie are from Jay’s point of view there while looking up into the open sky crabbed with a few tree branches.

She goes on a date with a guy she likes but doesn’t know very well yet. The date starts off normally, but when they go to see a movie that’s where things start to go off-kilter. While playing a game involving the people around them, Hugh, her date, is freaked out that Jay can’t see what’s clear as day to him. He gets so upset by this that they have to leave the movie theater. Later, Jay and Hugh take it to the next level and have backseat car sex and Hugh kidnaps her, bringing Jay to an abandoned parking garage where he schools her on what will happen next in a truly terrifying scene.

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Hugh’s got a terrible curse where he sees people that aren’t there—people whom he seems to love mostly—and they’re going to kill him unless he gets rid of “it” by having sex with another person and passing the curse on to them. Traumatized, Jay isn’t sure what he means after she’s returned home, abandoned at her house like a date rape victim. An STD? But soon after she starts seeing people who aren’t there, such as an old woman with knee and ankle braces who stalks her through her school, a figure that only Jay can see and react to while her behavior strikes others as that of a crazy person. This reminded me again of some of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, when characters are locked in a nightmare but nobody else can see what they are battling, just their bizarre actions. There’s even a Johnny Depp lookalike, Greg (played by Daniel Zovatto), whose family looks down on Jay’s, similar to the first installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

The movie’s scares come from not knowing who is after the infected. Sometimes a person is there and everybody can see them, or it morphs into one of the group of friends and it’s hard to tell the real apart from the threatening.

I like that the movie plays with the trope of virgins being the survivors in a horror movie, while those who have sex are goners. I think I first saw this exploited in another Wes Craven film, Scream, which had those candy colors in it as well. In It Follows, the virgins are safe unless they get caught in the crossfire of the sexually active who are duking it out with the menacing spirits out to get them.

The premise gets muddy, though, and I found myself puzzling about how the curse works during the last part of the movie rather than watching it. Hugh, the last victim who infects Jay, says that there is a chain that can’t be broken or he’ll be gone, too, but the origin is never revealed. There’s no Krueger or Samara of the Ring series to explain the how and why of the curse. It’s also hard to believe that young adults are going to explain the rules of the sex curse to their hookups when they don’t really know them, either. But maybe that’s playing on certain sexual myths that I’ve heard directly from guys’ mouths in the past, like you can’t pregnant when you’re having your period or a woman’s fertility shuts down when she’s raped.

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Not knowing where the curse is coming from just left me with a lot of questions, and then some of the original “rules” are broken. I like that the women in horror cliché is turned upside-down and the ladies in their skimpy outfits actually hold the position of real power in the story. As the lovely Jay is told by her infector, “It should be easy for you. You’re a girl.” But I still want to know the how’s and why’s of the curse, even if this is a horror movie where not everything has to make sense.

I’ve already looked up the plotline of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot on Wikipedia to see if there’s a clue there, since Yara’s reading it obsessively on her clamshell e-reader and quotes from it, but that didn’t help. And I don’t have room on my reading list to fit that book in, especially if it’s not going to help me solve the mystery of the curse. I always swore I was saving the heavy-duty Russian authors for when I was near death.

30 Years Later and Cujo Still Scares Me

I was afraid to rewatch Cujo because when I saw this movie as a kid it terrified me and holds a special place in my mind, filed under “scary.” Some of the things I was enamored with at that age don’t stand the test of time, but I’m happy to report that Cujo still scares as a movie.

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I first saw this at my next-door neighbor’s house when my family was living in Landstuhl, Germany. Our house had a color TV tuned to the military station with about twelve hours of news programming on per day; the only commercials were for recruitment—about “Be all you can be.” Certain neighbors, though, had VCRs and connections in the United States who would tape movies from the premium cable channels. That’s what I used to think was rich, walking into somebody’s living room—which was the same exact size and in the same location in every base housing apartment—and seeing a dark wood shelving unit loaded with VCR tapes and the boxy apparatus that would take them. Some people had both tape brands and equipment—Betamax and VHS. That was really rich.

Cujo takes some mundane elements and combines them brilliantly, and most of that is because of its excellent source material, Stephen King’s novel of the same name. What if the friendliest dog in the world (and one of the biggest) got bit by a rabid bat and developed rabies? What if the owner went away, but somebody came by and was trapped by the dog? What would happen? A tense little horror movie, that’s what.

 

In Cujo, there’s an American family of three—a mom (Dee Wallace), dad (Daniel Hugh Kelly), and son (Danny Pintauro as a wee boy)—and on the surface everything looks okay. But the mother is having an affair with the handyman—out of boredom it appears—threatening to destroy the family. When her husband needs quick work done on his car and goes out to see a man who’s good with engines, they run into another family. This is a country family of a different class, where everybody has a job to do, even the dog Cujo.

The mom’s affair is discovered, or rather suspected, and she chooses not to lie about it. The way this is played out is very quiet but well done—more like what an affair really does in a family, I think. There’s incredible tension between the husband and wife that the kid picks up on, and when the wife’s car is acting up before her husband has to take an emergency business trip, he’s not inclined toward helping her out any. This keeps the plot humming along, and when the mom takes her broken-down Pinto to the farm where the rabid dog lives and gets trapped with her son, the audience isn’t surprised that she’s left alone there. Her husband doesn’t freak out because he can’t get a hold of her; no red flags are sent up. After all, he’s just discovered she’s having an affair and isn’t sure what he’s going to do about it.

The music soundtrack is a bit bizarre, ranging from something that sounds like what played during the Little House on the Prairie opening credits—this is used when Cujo does his running and leaping about as a normal dog—and then when Cujo turns rabid and dangerous, the music changes to something like what the band Tangerine Dream specialized in, a particular kind of eighties soundtrack for genre movies.

I could tell during the dog-fighting scenes that some sort of a stand-in was being used, either a huge puppet or somebody dressed in a dog suit, spliced in with shots of a dog that was probably going for bologna held up behind a door. That didn’t distract me; rather it reassured me that no harm came to any dogs during the making of the movie. Standards were more lax back then, and after hearing about how the children’s classic Milo and Otis went through countless numbers of orange kitties and pug dogs to film all the stunts, I’m suspicious of animal movies.

As the mother, Dee Wallace does a great job playing the mama bear, doing everything in her power to protect her son from the monster and sometimes even snarling at him in frustration because of their situation and her fraying nerves. She is the hero in this movie, and she’s a very human hero with lots of flaws. A Pinto station wagon is a very small space to set most of a movie, but Cujo does exceedingly well with this plot device. You can feel the claustrophobia and fear, and the first time Cujo makes himself known to the mother and son—well, it still makes me jump almost thirty years later, reminding me that a car can be freedom, but sometimes it can be a trap, too.