2018 Film Essays

Sensual Synths and Death Drones: Listening to ‘It Follows’

“In this vast sonic aquarium the image is sometimes swimming around like just another fish.”

— Michel Chion, “The Return of the Sensorial”

There is no indication of when David Robert Mitchell‘s 2014 film It Follows takes place. Downtown Detroit is still dilapidated, shell e-readers take the place of cell phones and the synth music that accompanies the visuals suggests a time between the 80s, the present day and the future ala The Twilight Zone. The film begins in the quiet suburbs where a teenage girl is pictured running out of her home at the break of dawn. She’s scantily clad in silk pajama shorts, a tanktop and red stilettos. As the camera follows her, there is a discernible layering of sounds: the diegetic sound, (e.g. wind blowing, heels hitting the asphalt, the opening of the front door and a father calling out to his daughter), and the film’s non-diegetic sound (e.g. the low drone that mimics the rhythm of the girl’s footsteps and a higher note that functions as a metronome, guiding the spectator’s every breath). As the girl runs from some unknown, invisible entity, the tempos of the synth and drone accelerate, and another electronic beat weaves through them. Is this additional, weaving sound the film’s heart beat? As the tempo speeds up, the young girl gets into the Nissan Versa parked in her driveway and these non-diegetic sounds create the illusion that the audience is in the car with her, and that they are too being followed.

In the world of It Follows, this heterogeneity of sounds should not be ignored; if the sounds are ignored, there is the possibility that the very point of the story will be lost on the spectator entirely. In the direction of Michel Chion, the film should be viewed as a collective of sounds and images rather than a hierarchy. Here, the diegetic and non-diegetic sounds are equally as important as the images.

The film’s protagonist is revealed only after the gruesome death of Annie (Bailey Spry), the girl in the red stilettos. From then on, the story follows Jay (Maika Monroe), a girl that is ostensibly the same age as the film’s introductory victim. In the beginning, Jay is out on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a 21-year-old guy with ashy blonde hair and light eyes. While waiting in line at a movie theatre, Jay challenges Hugh to the trade game, a people watching game where one person picks a stranger in the crowd to trade places with while the other player guesses who was picked and why. As Hugh scopes out the theatre, he guesses that Jay picked a woman in a yellow dress. But when he points to what he sees, there’s no one there. In a swift but obvious panic, Hugh grabs Jay’s hand and directs her out of the theatre. The humming drone that played in the beginning of the film emerges again and the spectator takes the backseat once more, now accompanying Hugh in the horrifying journey of being followed by something that is apparently only visible to him.

The scene cuts to the couple sitting and talking in a diner; however, something is missing. The spectator is restricted from hearing diegetic sound, i.e. any of the couple’s conversation. Their lips move but only the humming drone of the score and its increasing volume are audible, now with more static than ever. The absence of diegetic sound punctuates the presence of “it,” a stranger walking slowly towards a window the couple is sitting by. This oscillation between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, a silencing of the conversation and amplifying of the soundtrack, does not necessarily mean that Jay and Hugh’s conversation isn’t important. Rather the “it” that follows Hugh is meant to detach him and the spectator from the enjoyment one might feel participating in/watching a date. When “it” is a physical disruption to Hugh’s experiences, the fear of being followed translates to a sonic disruption for the spectator.

In other words, the combination of haunting drones paired with the wavering of the camera’s focus posits the spectator in the constant fear that distracts and isolates the person being followed. This is how Hugh feels in the movie theatre, and how Katie felt walking backwards in her red stilettos. It doesn’t matter if Jay or Katie’s dad wants to provide comfort to the people being followed, the sensorial experience in the diner indicates the way It’s lurking can drown out diegetic sound, leaving the followed subject feeling constantly threatened and simultaneously alone. The quickening tempo of non-diegetic, alienating sounds should not be simply viewed as part of a film score, but as an access point into the fear-induced perspectives of the victims within this film world.

However, these unnerving sounds go away when Jay and Hugh have sex. In that particular duration of time, Hugh and the spectator are, in a rare moment, put at ease. When the couple finishes, Hugh sedates Jay with a rag of chloroform. In the next scene, Jay wakes up bound to a wheelchair, and Hugh begins explaining the rules of what seems to be a sexually transmitted demon.

“This thing, it’s going to follow you. Somebody gave it to me, and I passed it to you,” Hugh tells Jay as he paces around an abandoned parking garage looking for “it.” The “it” takes on a human form, but it can resemble anyone. It walks slowly, so outrunning it is always an option, or the victim can pass it onto another lover who must outrun it as well.

When Jay decides to pass it on, she chooses to have sex with one of her nextdoor neighbors. In this intimate scene, the non-diegetic sounds are almost muted. There’s the sound of static, but the volume of this static doesn’t compare to the loud drone that’s paired with Jay, Hugh and Katie’s experience of running away from “it.” In fact, whenever Jay is having sex, the “it” is never present. If these disturbing non-diegetic sounds are meant to prohibit the victims and spectators from enjoying this diegesis, it’s the absence of these noises that marks the moments when the victims and spectators are able to experience a sense of joy.

It’s too easy to leave the theatre thinking sex equals sexually transmitted disease. Through sound, the spectator can appreciate that sex does not cause death in this world, but reveals its presence. The “it” is only a visualization of death that comes to the forefront after the characters participate in sex. The moments during sex are le petit morte that brings the human subject closer to growing up, and to realizing that the eternal Footman is always looming. And if the only way to not be caught by “it” is to pass “it” on through more sex, then it’s very possible that the underlying idea of It Follows is not to abstain from sex but, instead, have sex if only to forget the fact that mortality will eventually catch up to you anyways.

Brooke Sonenreich (@BSonenreich) is a film critic from Miami, Florida. She has a BA in creative writing with a minor in film studies from Florida State University. She is currently a Master’s candidate in the Moving Image Studies program at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia.