Today's is going to be a long post. Instead of just writing independent reviews of the two hot-topic films, I want to talk about them in relation to each other. If you haven’t gotten to them yet, I won’t spoil the third act of either. But Under the Skin and It Follows are very interesting Horror movies to have come out so close to each other – they’re both films about victimization, but from opposite sides of it. They’re both about predators hijacking sexuality for their own unknowable ends.
But most people I know like one and loathe the other. When they condemn whichever of the two they dislike, they label it sex-negative. I disagree with that reading for either film. Rather, both feel rooted in Horror’s history of finding something desirable and finding a way to make it terrifying. Friday the 13th did that with cabin vacations; Jaws did it for swimming; and it’s easy to forget, having grown up with John Carpenter’s Halloween, that the holiday wasn’t always so blood-soaked, but rather that movie helmed a change in cultural attitudes around the holiday.
Unfortunately Halloween also helped cement tropes about sexuality in Horror. The tropes are unhealthy, and even baffling when you find the liberal attitudes of their screen writers and directors. John Carpenter and Wes Craven were startled when people confronted them about things latent in their work. It's why Craven went out of his way to subvert some of those tropes in Scream.
So when Horror turns sex into an actual theme, it has to be mindful. Slasher Movies didn’t originally intend to punish teen sexuality, but it became a tradition, and one that It Follows deliberately fights back against. Under the Skin goes for something weirder.
Under the Skin (streaming on Amazon Prime)
Scarlett Johansson plays an unnamed woman who lures men to their deaths. She’ll park her van on a street corner and just wait for someone to hit on her, and if that doesn’t work, throw a smile out a window and chat someone up for directions. In these scenes she’s the most evil fisher, and they’re shot on film, in real locations, usually near dusk. Her targets don’t look like film stars; they dress and stammer like average people. As soon as she’s got one, though, the movie changes.
We cut to a lake of black tar, with a featureless black sky, nothing else in sight. This realm is ultra-slick, like we’ve stepped inside a metaphor. Johansson walks across the tar as though it’s utterly solid, casually taking off her clothes and leading the man to follow. But the men, fixated on her, sink into the tar as they walk. No one survives following her. There’s little dialogue in the movie, and they never explain where we are in these scenes, merely showing more of it with each victim until we piece her nature together.
It’s a patient, nervous movie, going long stretches without dialogue. Johansson looks right through men as they try to chat her up, as though even those words are meaningless. The movie cares as little about what they say as she does. Is she an alien in human form? An android? A succubus? She won’t answer you, so instead you watch her work until one encounter breaks her routine. Our first big insight into what she was is watching her change.
With a similar lack of exposition, she starts to meander, and you have to wonder if she’ll return to the hunt, and if not, what she’s changing into. Can someone soulless change? In a Horror movie? Well…
It’d be very easy to make the movie misogynistic, profiling a violent seductress, especially with a cast predominantly of male victims. Her character growth isn’t the only challenge to this. There’s a wonderful scene where she tries to back out of a hunt near a night club, only to be swallowed by a group of party girls. We get a decent period around normal women, in scenes accentuating that Johansson is an aberration. She is a classic Horror entity, taking advantage of something that makes other people vulnerable.
The true star of the movie is the ambiance playing around her performance. Often she’ll spend a long stretch simply sitting in her truck, barely moving, knowing her next victim will come. But the director deploys unusual camera angles, either inside her vehicle or jarringly wide shots of the street, while pouring the uncanny soundtrack over it. Her blank expression becomes a cinematic canvas over which the soundtrack paints intent. It never ceases to be eerie, all the way to the end of the movie, when the same songs play over very different circumstances. Just when you think Under the Skin can’t transgress further, it transgresses against itself.
It Follows (streaming on Showtime Anytime)
Where Under the Skin is follows a predator, It Follows is about a girl evading a predator. It’s a curse in the form of an STD; it takes human form and stalks you until you sleep with someone else, at which point it stalks them. If it kills them, it’ll come back for you.
It’s like The Ring, but with banging.
Our heroine, Jay, has totally consensual sex with her boyfriend, who afterward drugs her, ties to her a chair, and rolls her around a dilapidated building explaining the rules of the movie. A naked girl appears and starts walking toward her, while her boyfriend explains that this girl is the curse, and that she better go sleep with someone else to pass it on. Immediately I saw why my liberal friends said I had to give the movie a chance, because that sounds like a punishment plot.
It Follows is fundamentally about having sex stolen from Jay, not sex as a thing that punishes people. She finds a guy she likes and wishes she could get together with, but this predator is looming over her. The curse is robbing her of the ability to have sex, not a universal punishment for having it, and that’s why she gathers a crew to fight it. In the background, other people have the privilege of hook-ups that go unpunished; even the heroine’s friends are free to flirt. This curse is awful, and wrong, and Jay wants to fight it.
The strongest part of the movie is its cinematography, particularly in the opening third wherein the camera finds so many camera angles that feel like we shouldn't be there. We stand just behind the fence to see the heroine walk into her backyard; we watch someone swimming in their pool from directly overhead, where no human could be, but the camera lingers like we're physically there, lurking. The movie gives you points of view that make you feel like you’re transgressing for being there, even when it’s going through mundane trope scenes. It’s camera work that could improve the whole genre if directors study it.
With all its themes of invasion, It Follows is a healthy rebuttal to some bad cinematic traditions. My problem with the movie was that I’d be way more scared of that boyfriend than the curse, and this taints the first half of the movie until that curse gets really serious. Jay doesn’t see the curse do anything that should scare her nearly as badly as her boyfriend drugging and assaulting her. If you were going to be terrified of someone here, would it be the dead-eyed lady who walks toward you, or this guy?
But Jay barely talks about her ex-boyfriend attacker, and spends the movie terrified of her magical stalker, who takes different forms. The Follower is sometimes a decrepit old lady, to a girl peeing herself, to a scrawny boy my friend called "Zombie Steve Rogers." That they do nothing but makes faces and walk forward, making them the least threatening antagonist in any Horror movie I've watched in this marathon.
Jay’s response is to panic, scream, and trip over herself running from the phantom. She convinces four friends to drive her around 24/7 to avoid this thing that… walks at her. Mid-movie the thing (in the guise of a fourteen-year-old boy) knocks through part of a door to yell at her, and she collapses in the fetal position surrounded by her friends. I never once understood why she was so afraid of this thing.
Could it have been a metaphor for sexual assault and trauma? Jay’s sex is shown very explicitly to be consensual. Later in the movie they track down her ex-boyfriend for answers and he’s never treated as an antagonist; we never even get a moment of them being pissed at him. He just dolls out sage advice and is scared.
Horror doesn't work when the tension is rooted in overreaction. Films about paranoia work on slow build, simultaneously bringing the point-of-view character and the audience into suspicions of danger. But It Follows is not a paranoid thriller. It's a Monster Movie where we're supposed to flee from the horror. The horror... of a bored looking ghost walking two miles an hour.
Mind you, by the third act the Follower does get hands-on and it’s very bad for you. The finale where her remaining friends stand by her to try to fight the thing is great. The movie also opens with a scene suggesting how brutally it kills its prey, but it would’ve helped if any of the characters had seen it.
What do we make of these?
My knee-jerk reaction was wishing these movies would fight, ala Freddy Vs. Jason and The Ring Vs. The Grudge. I’d love to see Johnasson’s predator pick up the wrong guy and get stuck with the Follower curse, or to see the two self-destruct vying for the same victim. They’re two movies with such similar themes, coming to them from opposing directions. Seeing both together enhanced the experience.
Put in the context of problematic sex tropes in Horror, It Follows is obviously not participatory. Sex is not the criminal act; withholding information from Jay and deceiving her is what puts her in peril, and she uses her agency to reclaim that. Meanwhile Under the Skin is a breathless character piece, much less interested in tropes than in dissecting a bizarre predator. It’s ultimately touching how much the latter movie disdains where it came from. Neither film ends agreeing with the status quo of old Horror.
Yet if these heralded a new wave of Horror films in which deaths were tied to sex over and over, they’d be part of a problematic tradition. A singular idea is seldom that toxic. Patterns that come from them are trouble. Putting these two into the water supply is probably for the best, because they’re thoughtful about what they’re doing, rather than just repeating punishment narratives, even if not everything they did succeeded.