Pope Paul VI Makes a Horror Movie

A review of "It Follows"

MPAA Rating, R

USCCB Rating, O – see postscript for commentary

Reel Rating,       (5 out of 5)

The last decade has not been especially kind to horror movies. From Saw to Hostel to Insidious to The Human Centipede, there is currently an overdependence on unnecessary gore—usually at the expense of women—and scaring audiences through sudden cuts rather than constructing a compelling narrative. The Babadook and Cabin in the Woods finally broke through the filth and now It Follows brings the genre to its zenith—a totally original project that builds on the past and moves into the future. From start to finish, It Follows is a nerve -wrenching masterpiece that will follow you long after you leave the theater.

Most Catholics—especially parents like myself—have a natural suspicion of the horror genre, which is understandable as excessive violence, graphic sexuality, coarse language, and the occult are commonplace in horror films. Yet these elements are not the goal of horror, only unfortunate yet honest (albeit commonly abused) byproducts of its subject matter. At its roots, horror is about dealing with sin in a cathartic manner. The American theologian Peter Kreeft pointed out that although FDR believes “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Jesus says, “I will show you whom you should fear. Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into Hell.” We should have a healthy fear of God’s justice and Satan’s lies. In this sense, the book of Job could be interpreted as a horror novel. Not only are there murderous Sabeans, houses that collapse leaving almost no one alive, and hideous, disfiguring boils, but Job must deal with the spiritual anguish of trusting in God amidst terrible, seemingly unjust suffering. Humans “enjoy” being scared and consuming such literature because it is a safe way to “prepare for real danger,” as apologist Jimmy Akin explains so well in a vlog on Halloween.

It Follows is a prime example of how to use this genre effectively. It should be said that this film does contain a good deal of violence and strong sexual content, including full nudity, so viewers may want to take that into account before heading out to the theater.

Jay (Maika Monroe in her first big role) is a normal girl dating an older man named Hugh (Jake Weary). One night they have sex in his car. As she plays with a flower and reminisces about her lost innocence, he drugs her and takes her a building where he explains that he is being stalked by “something” that he has now “passed on” to her via fornication. Despite the strange nature of his story, Jay soon begins noticing random people following her, slowly closing in, and quickly begins looking for an easy lay. However, even if she manages to seduce an unsuspecting victim, the nightmare isn’t over.

It must be said before going into the many layers of this film that, most of all, It Follows is a ton of midnight fun. Rather than shock the audience with blood and gore, newbie writer-director David Robert Mitchell (great horror director name) builds intense suspense with great pacing and slowly revealing elements of the mythology. He also uses the camera brilliantly with pans and zooms from below and all around to create an eerie, unearthly sense of space. The art direction evokes earlier horror films from the 80s; although set in the present day, Jay and her friends use corded phones, box televisions, and typewriters. Even the haunting score is produced by a synthesizer. All that’s missing is Jazzercise and leg warmers. Oh, wait. There’s that too.

The plot’s use of tainted sex is profoundly potent. Early in the film, one of Jay’s friends asks if she and Hugh have had sex yet. Jay smiles and shakes her head as if someone asked if she like chocolate ice cream. Yet this causal attitude proves deadly; characters use others to save themselves, fully knowing it will prove lethal. One hears the prophetic voice of Blessed Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae:

A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

Sin begets sin from Adam and Eve through the generations, and it is now possible to see the full flowering of lust’s demonic fruits. In 1930, the Anglican Communion became the first major Christian group to allow contraception in marriage under limited circumstances. Within the next few decades, divorce and teen pregnancy rates would skyrocket, and abortion was legalized. Today, same-sex marriage is legal in more than half the US (almost always through tyrannical court decisions) and nearly 25 percent of women on college campuses will experience sexual assault.

A striking aspect of It Follows is the complete lack of adult presence. It’s hard to grasp whether these young people are in high school or college as they freely drive around the city, coming and going at odd hours. Their parents are relegated to the sidelines, often talking to each other while ignoring their children, frequently difficult to hear and blurry, like the nameless grown-ups in Charlie Brown cartoons. “Won’t your mom be upset?” one teen asks another as they go up to his mother’s cabin. “She won’t even know I’m gone,” he sighs. This thing is able to roam free because the previous generation has neglected its responsibilities.

The supernatural entity Jay encounters is never named, only referred to as “it” or “something,” yet it has all the symptoms of a demonic spirit. It can have an effect on the physical world, but is not itself bound by physical laws—being shot point-blank several times only manages to slow it a little. While exaggerated in this film, such creatures are real. Oddly enough, horror films seem to be the last place in American cinema where faith is taken seriously. Rather than try to deal with this evil, Jay only keeps passing it on, but Jesus asserts “these spirits can only be cast out through prayer and fasting,” meaning spiritual good. Pope Francis has been very explicit about the pressing need for deliverance ministry, and, should you find yourself in such an unfortunate situation, don’t be a hero. Call a priest.

It Follows is terrific fun, but also sends an important message loud and clear. The Sexual Revolution was supposed to set humanity free, but it further enslaved this culture to its passions, killing us softly. Something in our society is very, very wrong, and selfishness is no longer an option.

Post Script: The Catholic News Service (a branch of the USCCB) has rated this film morally objectionable, their most severe category. It is important to understand that these reviews are written by a single person, reflecting his or her personal opinion, and almost never a cleric. To my knowledge, they are not scrutinized by any committee or board. While usually an excellent guideline, this system does not carry the weight of an ecclesial or moral directive.

Kurt Jensen, the author of the CNS review, spent less than 250 words coming to the conclusion that It Follows was “sloppy in execution, ambiguous in story line, and [ultimately a] dumb horror movie.” The only thing more horrific than It Follows was Mr. Jensen’s assessment of its merits.

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About Nick Olszyk 201 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".