31 Days of Fright: The Stepfather

Jerry Blake, needing a little work on his poker face.

Jerry Blake, needing a little work on his poker face.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! The penultimate movie in my January screenings is The Stepfather, directed by Joseph Ruben (Breaking Away, Sleeping with the Enemy, The Good Son). This was the final “free space” film of the viewings, and one I watched mainly due to the presence of one of my favourite character actors, Terry O’Quinn (John Locke himself!). The Stepfather was rented from Queen Video.

What happens:

Much like It Follows, The Stepfather opens on a suburban American street, though with much larger houses than that other film. A bearded man in a washroom removes his glasses and bloodstained clothing, stripping down naked. After showering, he shaves and puts in new contacts, then puts on a nice suit. As he appraises himself in the mirror, the man is revealed to be actor Terry O’Quinn. Leaving the washroom, he places a child’s toy into the proper storage box, then walks downstairs past a scene of utter carnage in the front room. An entire family has been murdered – even a little child with a teddy bear is drenched in blood. The man opens the front door, picks up the morning newspaper, and strolls whistling down the street. He boards a ferry and as soon as it enters open waters, he shoves his suitcase into the drink.

Jerry Blake, fresh from a Jaws-themed costume party, I can only assume.

Jerry Blake, fresh from a Jaws-themed costume party, I can only assume.

The film moves forward one year. In Oakridge, Washington, sixteen-year-old Stephanie Main (Jill Schoelen) bikes her way back to her large house. In the backyard, her mother, Susan (Shelley Hack), has been raking leaves. The two of them playfully engage in a leaf fight until Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn) arrives home. Jerry is Stephanie’s new stepfather (hey, that’s the name of this film!), and he greets his wife with a big sloppy kiss. He also has a surprise for Stephanie: he’s bought her a puppy. As Stephanie scratches the new dog behind his ears, Jerry pets the girl’s arm, saying, “That’s my girl.” Stephanie blanches and backs away. (I’m right there with you, Steph.)

Once Stephanie runs inside, Jerry worries aloud to Susan that Stephanie might think he’s trying to buy her love with the puppy. Susan reassures him that’s not the case. “The puppy was perfect,” she says. “You’re perfect.” Stephanie, wearing a sheep-patterned sweater, visits her therapist, Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer), while Jerry Blake leans against his car in the parking lot outside. Pacing the room like a caged jaguar, Stephanie expresses her baseless (?) fears of her new stepfather. Dr. Bondurant worries because Stephanie has been acting out in school ever since her biological father died a year ago. She’s racked up a number of suspensions in just a short amount of time. During the car ride home, Jerry suggests to his stepdaughter that they both make an effort to try to get along better, and that she make an effort to do better in school. As soon as she agrees, the film cuts to Stephanie and another girl battling each other in art class. The other students jeer until a teacher breaks up the fight and sends Stephanie to the principal’s office.

We next see Jerry Blake on the job with American Eagle Realty. He shows a house to a couple with a young daughter. Jerry pushes the girl on the swing set in the backyard and tells her about his “daughter,” Stephanie, who goes to high school. When the girl says she’s in the third grade, Jerry muses, “I remember when Jill was in third grade,” and the girl catches his inconsistency. Jerry later arrives home to find Stephanie (not Jill) has been expelled from school. At first, he’s in disbelief – “Girls don’t get expelled.” – but then he’s disappointed. Stephanie suggests that boarding school is an option, but Jerry won’t hear of it. He believes boarding school would divide the family: “It’s not a family without children.” Later on, Stephanie speaks with her friend Karen (Robyn Stevan) on the phone and describes her stepfather, “Scary Jerry,” and his obsession with being like the perfect families you see on television. (Interestingly enough, we next see Jerry enjoying an episode of Mr. Ed.) Susan enters and she and her daughter have a heart-to-heart about the loss of her dad. She pleads for Stephanie to give Jerry “a chance.”

Susan retires to her bedroom, where she and Jerry promptly get down to business. Sex business. Stephanie, in the next room, puts on her headphones, cranks the Pat Benatar (or reasonable facsimile), and sighs heavily. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen) drives reporter Al Brennan (Stephen E. Miller) in his old jalopy to the house where we saw Jerry Blake murder an entire family in the film’s introduction. Though according to Ogilvie, a “Mr. Morrison” murdered his whole family in this house. Brennan wrote the story a year ago for the Seattle Examiner. Jim Ogilvie reveals that Mrs. Morrison, the murdered wife, was his sister, and he is on the hunt for her murderous husband. Ogilvie has some evidence that Morrison couldn’t have moved too far away from Seattle, so he asks Brennan to run a follow-up story one year later, along with a photo of Morrison, in the hopes a Seattle Examiner reader will recognize him.

"I'm going to miss you gals when you're dead." "Wait, what?"

“I’m going to miss you gals when you’re dead.” “Wait, what?”

Jerry Blake hosts a backyard barbecue for the first five families he sold houses to in Oakridge. Jerry makes.an impassioned speech about the importance of tradition and family, and poses for a photo op with his wife and stepdaughter – an awkward moment that Stephanie can’t escape fast enough. Later, the assembled dads read a newspaper article about the Morrison murders (though it features no photograph of the killer). Blake plays dumb, asking what the murders were about, and the dads fill him in on a stepfather who butchered his entire family with knives. Jerry seems deeply affected by this news, but also concludes that “maybe they disappointed him.” (So he’s not 100% nailing this “not a murderer” act.) He takes the newspaper and folds it into a pirate hat for a neighbourhood kid. Stephanie, in the basement to find some ice cream, is startled when Jerry storms downstairs for a rage freakout, shouting “We are going to keep this family together!” When he notices his stepdaughter, Jerry explains that as a salesman he builds up a lot of stress and occasionally needs to let off some steam. (Seems reasonable.)

Post-party, Stephanie finds the discarded newspaper hat and begins to wonder if family-slayer Mr. Morrison is the same person as her unusually angry stepfather. She presents this idea to Karen, who is very dismissive. Nevertheless, Stephanie sends a letter to the Seattle Examiner requesting a photo of the murderous Morrison, as she is doing a social studies project on mass murderers. (We all remember that social studies unit.) < /p>

Speaking of photographs, Ogilvie is very upset that Brennan didn’t run one with his article. He finds Brennan and throws him up against the hood of his car. Brennan explains that, as a reporter, including the photo wasn’t his decision. Ogilvie plans his next move, obsessed with finding his sister’s killer – he’s a bit like Fox Mulder in that regard – and Brennan advises him to forget it. Ogilvie can’t forget, though: “You saw what he did them. Could you?” Stephanie floats the idea of boarding school by her therapist, who thinks it’s a fairly good idea. “What’s wrong with running away?” Bondurant asks. He thinks it will provide her and her family some much-needed breathing room. Stephanie, now clad in a unicorn / checkerboard shirt, notes that Jerry opposes the boarding school idea, so Dr. Bondurant offers to speak to him to try to persuade him otherwise. Jerry, meanwhile, has just opened the mailbox to find a letter for Stephanie Main with the Seattle Examiner as return address. He opens the letter to see a glossy headshot of himself (with full beard).

When Stephanie arrives at home, Jerry only passes her the new issue of Cosmopolitan and says nothing of the letter from the Examiner. However, all is not well. Jerry moves to his basement workshop – where he works on crafting birdhouses – and paces the room frantically while examining the photograph and mumbling about his “good little girl.” He picks up a screwdriver and knife from his tool bench, stabbing invisible enemies in mime. Only his wife’s call for dinner seems to snap him back into character as family man, Jerry Blake. The telephone rings and Susan answers. She calls down for Jerry, saying that Stephanie’s therapist wants to speak to him, but Jerry refuses to take the phone.

Back in Seattle, Ogilvie meets with Lt. Wall (Blu Mankuma) of the police and asks him about Henry Morrison. The detective confirms that Morrison was just an alias, and that he suspects the killer will strike another family before long. However, Morrison was clever and left no trace of where he might go. Wall further advises Ogilvie that if he were in his situation, he’d “get a gun and blow the sonuvabitch away.” That very sonuvabitch then visits Stephanie’s old principal and – using a bit of the old Jerry Blake charm – convinces her to reinstate Stephanie in public school. Stephanie confesses to her therapist that Jerry scares her, so Dr. Bondurant takes drastic measures. He calls Blake under false pretences, pretending to be a homebuyer seeking to view a house, to set up an in-person meeting.

On her first day back in school, Stephanie is walked home by Paul Baker (Jeff Schultz), who compliments her artistic skills. They joke and wrestle and almost kiss. Clearly some sort of romance is blossoming for young Stephanie. When Stephanie returns home, she finds an envelope from the Seattle Examiner, but the photo inside is someone she’s never seen before. (Namely because Jerry went to a photo studio and replaced the headshot.) Bondurant arrives for “Ray Martin”’s meeting with Jerry Blake, who proceeds to show him a house under renovation. Bondurant, when asked if he’s a family man, says he’s a “confirmed bachelor” (which I don’t think the makers of this film realized was code for gay). This displeases Jerry: “House like this should really have a family in it.” Bondurant also says he’s in “stress management,” then asks Jerry Blake a bunch of questions about himself. Jerry, becoming suspicious, asks, “Are you interested in buying a house or in me?” Soon after, Jerry catches Bondurant in an obvious lie – he refers to his wife, even though he mentioned he was a bachelor – so Jerry beats him to death with a stray two-by-four. Standing over Bondurant’s broken body, he shouts, “We need a little order around here!”

Dr. Bondurant was a sacrifice the island demanded.

Dr. Bondurant was a sacrifice the island demanded.

Jerry goes through the dead man’s wallet and realizes who he really was. Methodically, he wraps him and murder weapon in craft paper, puts him in the trunk of his own car, then drives that car to the edge of a cliff. Jerry puts the dead man behind the wheel of his car, then shoves a makeshift wick into the gas tank. When he drives it off the cliff, the car explodes into flame. Stephanie is hard at work on her bicycle in the garage when Jerry arrives home to deliver the bad news: Dr. Bondurant was in a car accident and has died. “He was my friend,” Stephanie cries. Jerry hugs his stepdaughter and nods. “In his own way, he brought us together.”

Ogilvie returns to the Morrison murder house to search for any clues he may have missed. In a basement workshop eerily similar to the workshop Jerry Blake uses to make birdhouses, Ogilvie finds a copy of Travel & Leisure with several pages cut out. Ogilvie rushes to the public library, barreling through it like he’s on an episode of Supermarket Sweep. He finds the copy of Travel & Leisure with the other periodicals and realizes the missing section is a story on the best towns in America to raise families. One of them is Oakridge, Washington, not that far from Seattle. Jerry, meanwhile, finishes his latest birdhouse, and Stephanie offers to help him erect it in the front yard. She attempts to reconnect, apologizing for the way she’s been acting. Jerry accepts her apology, noting that he had a difficult time growing up, as well, though he refuses to speak further about his mysterious past.

Over Thanksgiving dinner, Jerry gets all weepy about how warmly the family has accepted him, and Susan wears an outfit more apropos of the Victorian era than 1987. Stephanie later goes for a few sodas at the local teen hangout. She leaves and her classmate, Paul Baker, rolls up on a moped and offers her a ride home. “Only if I get to drive,” she agrees. On the moped ride he wins over his beloved, mainly by insulting other girls. “Cathy Lombardo is a stuck-up bitch,” he says of his ex-girlfriend. (Who wouldn’t want to date this guy?) On Stephanie’s front step, the two kiss, but are interrupted by one very angry stepdad. “You!” he shouts. “You could go to jail! This girl is sixteen years old!” Baker protests, “So am I!” But Jerry doesn’t care. He claims Baker was attempting to rape Stephanie and scares him off. Susan comes downstairs to see what’s happening, and Stephanie complains to her about Jerry. “He’s not my father,” she shouts. “He’s just some crazy creep. How can you even bear to let him touch you?!” Susan slaps Stephanie, who runs off into the night.

It's a bit more threatening to argue curfew with man who's just brained your therapist with a block of wood.

It’s a bit more threatening to argue curfew with man who’s just brained your therapist with a block of wood.

However, Susan isn’t happy with Jerry either, and claims that his overprotective actions have damaged any progress she’d made in bonding with her daughter. Something sprigs inside Jerry and his eyes pop manically. The next day, Jerry quits from American Eagle Realty and says his goodbyes to his coworkers. Ogilvie presents his case to a detective in Oakridge, explaining that he merely needs access to marriage licences issued in the past year to find the assumed name a murderer has taken. The detective, believing this to be a cockamamie fabrication, refuses. But the overly handsome Ogilvie is able to charm the clerk, Ms. Barnes (Gillian Barber), into helping him in his quest. A day or so later, Susan drops Stephanie off for an appointment with a new therapist. Stephanie decides she can’t start things over with someone new, and instead sneaks into Bondurant’s unoccupied office. (The two therapists are in the same building.) Stephanie discovers an intriguing message on his desk notepad – one that seems to detail the location and timing of a meeting with “J. Blake.”

Ogilvie begins canvassing Oakridge, going door-to-door to meet all the recent husbands in town to see if they look like his former brother-in-law. Jerry, meanwhile, has boarded another ferry. In the washroom, he removes his contacts, dons new glasses, and takes off his (convincing) hairpiece, revealing male pattern baldness underneath. With his new look, he attends a job interview for insurance sales in Rosedale, Washington, under a new name: Bill Hodgkins.

Jerry (or Bill or Henry or whoever) goes for a little constitutional, during which he spies one of his client families moving into their new home. Seeing an actual happy family, devoid of any murderous tendencies, he looks sorrowful. Ogilvie visits the Blake residence, but Jerry’s not home. Susan mentions he’s out showing homes to clients. Which is not entirely the truth, as Jerry is, in fact, looking at houses in Rosedale, and, as Bill Hodgkins, introducing himself to the local single moms. (He acts fast!) Susan calls into Jerry’s work to let him know someone came calling for him, but American Eagle Realty says that Jerry no longer works there. He quit a few days ago. Ogilvie, meanwhile, visits another couple on his list of newlyweds. Trouble in paradise abounds as the young couple yell at each other, on the verge of a separation. However, they take time out of their domestic quarrel to look at Ogilvie’s photograph of Morrison. They note the beard doesn’t fit, but he looks a lot like the guy who sold them this house.

When Jerry returns home, whistling “Camptown Races,” Susan confronts him: why didn’t he tell her he quit his job? Jerry insists he still works at the realtors, and that the incompetent new receptionist must have been confused. “How hard a name to remember is Hodgkins?” he asks, not realizing he’s jumped one identity ahead. Susan is confused, especially when Jerry seems lost after his mistake, asking himself, “Who am I here?” (A phrase featured prominently on the film poster and on the trailer.) Susan reminds him his name is Jerry Blake, and Jerry thanks her by smashing her across the face with a telephone. Jerry then chokes his bleeding wife and tosses her into the basement. He returns to the kitchen, sorting through the knives, then calls the family dog to him. When Stephanie arrives, he’s playing with the dog on the floor of the kitchen, a large butcher knife in one hand. Hearing his stepdaughter arrive, he growls, “You’re a very bad girl.”

Unaware that her stepfather has shown his true colours, Stephanie takes a shower. Jerry stalks up the stairs toward the washroom. At the very same moment, Ogilvie speeds toward their house in his old beater, waylaid by a nun and Catholic students crossing the road. When he finally arrives, he lets himself in. Jerry is hiding behind the door, and is surprised to see someone he knows from a lifetime ago: his former brother-in-law, Jim Ogilvie. Ogilvie notices Jerry is spattered with blood and reaches for the gun in his pocket, but the stepfather is too quick, and stabs him in the stomach before he can fire. Meanwhile, Stephanie completes her shower and dresses. Jerry finds her in the upstairs hallway, and lunges at her with the knife. She screams and locks herself in the bathroom.

As her stepfather pounds on the door, breaking the mirror hanging on the inside, Stephanie desperately looks for a means of escape. Instead, she picks up a shard of broken mirror with a towel, so when Jerry eventually smashes through the door and mirror, she stabs him in the shoulder and flees. Stephanie makes a break for the attic, but Jerry grabs her ankle and nearly manages to drag her down. But instead, he has to follow her up into the attic. He chases her around, then falls through a weak spot in the floor, plummeting through the insulation and hitting the second floor below.

Stephanie attempts to sneak out of the house, but sees her wounded mom crawling up the stairs. Jerry revives and knocks Stephanie to the ground, but Susan has taken the dead Ogilvie’s gun and shoots her husband the back. He tumbles down the stairs, but staggers back up. Susan shoots him again, in the butt cheek, but still, he crawls to the second floor. At the ledge, he and Stephanie struggle for the butcher knife, but the daughter prevails and stabs her stepfather in the heart. His final words are “I love you.” Following the harrowing ordeal, Stephanie saws down the birdhouse Jerry built, and her mother embraces her. Both women return to the house.

When your stepfather objects to being treated like a human knife block.

When your stepfather objects to being treated like a human knife block.

Takeaway points:

  • The Stepfather is nearly a fairy tale in its grim(m) depiction of evil stepfathers. (Yes, typically evil stepmothers are featured in fairy tales, but I’m sure there must be at least one or two stepfathers in all of European folklore.) Stephanie expresses the fears of many children whose parents remarry – that the new parent will be awful in comparison to her biological father. In this case, she’s completely right: not only is he awful, he’s legitimately homicidal. With divorce rates on a steady incline throughout the 1980s, this would have been a very relevant fear. In fact, the movie itself is loosely based on the story of a man named John List, who killed his family in 1971 and remained on the lam until two years after this movie was released. (Though unlike the stepfather in the film, List was the biological father to three children. Three children whom he killed – along with his wife and mother – then disappeared.)
  • In addition to serving as a realization of millions of stepchildren’s fears of their step-parents, the movie is also a prescient warning that those people who seem like the perfect fathers, the perfect husbands – who quite overtly aim to make that “goodness” their identity – may not be who they seem. I hate to bring up the spectre of Bill Cosby again, but this was a comedian who built a career of being the understanding dad, who – both in his television shows and speaking engagements – called for a return to more traditional values of family and respect. He even dressed somewhat similar to the stepfather in this film. And yet, lurking under the surface was a man capable of (allegedly) raping countless women. A colourful sweater can hide a black heart.
  • Director Joseph Ruben has made quite a name for himself making thrillers that turn intimate violence into riveting entertainment. Not only did he exaggerate a tale of domestic abuse to the nth degree for The Stepfather, he revisited a similar concept in Sleeping with the Enemy, and looked at the idea of an evil child (or brother) in The Good Son. Ruben seems to specialize in exploiting fears we have of our closest family members. Fears that crime statistics demonstrate are not unfounded. Ruben takes the very real violence between loved ones and ramps it up into potboiler thrillers.
  • The Stepfather improbably spawned two sequels, and while only one of them features Terry O’Quinn, both of them feature the same stepfather character, who somehow survived being shot twice and stabbed in the heart to torment other unsuspecting families in the later movies. His will to create a perfect, Father Knows Best family is stronger than mortal wounds.
  • I appreciated the subversion seen in the depiction of Jim Ogilvie. Throughout the film, he is set up as the lone crusader – the one person who knows what Jerry Blake is – and – as we seem him race toward a crisis situation in his dilapidated vehicle – the hero who will save Stephanie and her mother. But despite that, he’s unceremoniously murdered by the villain. Like Samuel Jackson eaten by the shark in Deep Blue Sea. His story builds, but his revenge is thwarted by a man with a knife just a little bit faster than him. This turnabout is stellar; a much weaker film would have had Ogilvie save the day, but in The Stepfather, Stephanie and mother, like the sisters in the song, are doing it for themselves.
  • Not an important question, but did anybody else find it strange that the family has a taxidermied roadrunner in their dining room?

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: The Stepfather is not great cinema. Instead, it’s a tight, trashy little thriller that rises above its station, thanks to some solid directing and great acting, especially from O’Quinn. The movie certainly has a palpable sense of realistic menace. Not the scariest thing you’ll ever see, but certainly worth watching.

When you can't decide between a sweater vest and suit jacket? Why not wear both?

When you can’t decide between a sweater vest and suit jacket? Why not wear both?

Best outfit: That’s a difficult decision because, for the most part, The Stepfather looks like it was costumed by Northern Reflections. While Stephanie Main has some nice graphic sweaters and shirts featuring sheep and unicorns (just to name some of the standouts), Jerry Blake’s wardrobe, clearly inspired by Mr. Rogers, is the real standout. His clothing adheres to a black, white, gray, and red colour scheme (which probably has some deeper meaning), and he looks like a television father at every moment. The best look is when he pairs an argyle sweater with a full suit and tie.

Best line: “Next time, Jim, call before you stop by.” – Jerry Blake, with a pretty good one-liner to the corpse of his one-time brother-in-law

Best kill: Jerry Blake beating the therapist to death with a two-by-four is pretty vicious. All the more so because Jerry literally has no idea who the man is before he kills him. All he knows is that he threatens the carefully constructed house of lies he has built.

Unexpected cameo: Blu Mankuma, who plays Lt. Wall, has been in almost every movie and television show made in the past few decades. (He was even in an episode of Danger Bay!) Most notably, he was a recurring character on 21 Jump Street, even appearing in the pilot episode.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Never trust a man who builds birdhouses as a hobby. Avoid marriage to someone if they have no friends or family that they’ve known for over a year.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: American Eagle Realty

Next up (and last!): The Beyond (1981).

31 Days of Fright: It Follows

Photo that accurately depicts what I was *told* happens in the Church of Scientology.

Photo that accurately depicts what I was *told* happens in the Church of Scientology.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Last night, I watched the only horror movie this month that I’d seen once before: the impressive It Follows, directed by David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover). Good friend Marielle Pawson donated a generous amount to this fundraiser on behalf of her mother. I previously watched The Exorcist III on her mother’s behalf, but Marielle’s real wish was to watch It Follows with friends. See, Marielle was really curious about last year’s indie hit It Follows, but was afraid to watch it on her own. A joint screening with Marielle and Meg was arranged. I rented a copy of It Follows from my friends at Queen Video, who were very excited about my rental.

What happens:

It Follows, which – spoiler alert – is one of the better new horror movies I’ve seen in years, opens with some spooky Carpenter-esque music and a quiet suburban American street. (We find out later this is set in the suburbs of Detroit.) A teenage girls runs out of a house in her pyjamas and heels, looking haunted. The neighbour loading groceries asks if she needs help, which she refuses. Then her dad goes to the door and asks what the matter is. She again says she’s fine, and runs back into her house. A few seconds later, however, she rushes back out of the house, into her car, and speeds off. When we next see her, she’s at the beach in the dead of night, seated with her back to the water. The headlights of the car illuminate her as she calls her dad on a cell phone, expresses her love for him, then apologizes for being a brat sometimes.

The film smash cuts to the beach on the morning. The girl is now dead, her leg broken backward and body contorted in a disturbing manner.

We are then introduced to our protagonist, college-aged Jay (Maika Monroe), who lounges in the aboveground pool at her parents’ home. Her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), arrives home, and calls Jay inside. Kelly watches some ’50s B-movies with their family friends: the slightly awkward Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and bespectacled Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who always seems to have her nose in her clamshell-shaped e-reader. She’s reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, but has yet to determine if it’s any good. (Stay tuned, literature fans!) Jay goes upstairs to prepare for her date with a new guy she’s been seeing, Hugh (Jake Weary).

Jay goes to the movies with Hugh, who looks a bit like a dime-store Pacey from Dawson’s Creek. While waiting in line, she tells him about “the trade game” she used to play with her sister, where you choose one person in a crowd you’d like to trade places with, and other people have to try to guess who you chose. When they play, Jay is perplexed by Hugh’s choice, a small boy at the movies with his parents. Hugh looks wistful and expresses envy that the boy has his whole life ahead of him. “You’re only twenty-one,” Jay says. Taking their seats, Hugh tries to guess her choice. “The girl in the yellow dress?” he guesses. But Jay has no idea who he’s talking about; she can’t see any girl in a yellow dress. Hugh makes them leave the theatre immediately, saying he feels ill and needs to be outside. Jay, however, worries he spotted a past girlfriend.

The real question is which of the couple's lives does the marquee's title refer to?

The real question is which of the couple’s lives does the marquee’s title refer to?

Kelly and Jay walk through their neighbourhood, talking about Hugh, and we learn that Jay and Hugh have yet to sleep together. Across the street from Jay and Kelly’s house, we see local cool dude Greg (Daniel Zovatto), a Jeremy London type washing his car in his driveway. Hugh and Jay go on another date, taking some beer to the water, then adjoining to his car’s backseat to make love for the first time in an abandoned parking lot. Afterwards, Hugh goes to his trunk while Jay spreads out on the backseat and reminisces about what her concept of dating was like when she was younger. Hugh then slides up behind Jay and presses a chloroformed cloth to her face, rendering her unconscious. (The rendering takes way longer than almost any other movie featuring chloroform, so I’m going to assume it’s more realistic.)

Jay wakes up bound to a wheelchair that’s been placed in an abandoned aboveground parking garage. Hugh appears behind her and apologizes, assuring her he won’t hurt her. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he’s “given” her something – something someone gave to him through sex and now he’s given it to her. A thing will follow her, and it could look like anyone – someone she knows well or a total stranger. “Sometimes I think it looks like people you love, just to hurt you,” he says. Hugh sees something approaching, so he wheels Jay in her chair to the edge of the garage, where they can see a naked woman slowly climbing up the hill. This, he hopes, will demonstrate that what he is saying is true. Hugh advises Jay sleep with someone as soon as possible to pass it along. For if she is killed by the thing, it will come for him next, then all the way down the line. He offers some advice on avoiding it: never enter a room with only one exit. “It’s very slow, but it’s not dumb.”

Jay, in the halcyon days before she'd ever heard of "it."

Jay, in the halcyon days before she’d ever heard of “it.”

Kelly, Paul, and Yara are busy playing cards on Kelly’s front porch when Hugh’s car rolls up, dumping her in her underpants on the curb, then drives off. (Hugh could have at least given her clothes back!) Greg and his mom see the police situation that unfolds across the street and wonder about Jay’s family. “Those people are such a mess,” his mom says. The police interview Jay to get her information about this consensual, but bizarre sexual encounter that, legally, they can do very little about. Jay is depressed for a few days later, spending much of her time in bed, inspecting her body in the bathroom mirror – she doesn’t look infected, but she feels it. During one of Jay’s college English classes (in which they’re studying “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“), an old woman slowly crosses the campus outside. As she begins to approach the window, Jay hastily leaves class. The old woman pursues her through the hallway and Jay runs to her car to drive away. Realizing that Hugh wasn’t just messing with her head, Jay finds her sister Kelly and friend Paul where they work at the local ice cream store to talk about her unusual condition.

In the ice cream stock room, the three young adults discuss whether what Hugh told Jay was real. Jay tells them about the old woman in her pyjamas, but Kelly is still convinced Hugh was lying. However, they make a plan to all sleep over at Jay’s, with Paul (who is obviously madly in love with Jay) staying downstairs on the couch as guard. During the sleepover, Jay has trouble sleeping, so visits Paul, watching B-movies downstairs. They reminisce about past sleepovers when they were much younger, and about the time the four of them found a stash of pornographic magazines, then brazenly read them while lounging on Greg’s front lawn, not realizing what they were doing. The window in the kitchen shatters and Paul runs to investigate. He returns to say the window has been broken, but whoever broke it must have fled. Paul leaves to find Kelly, and as soon as he does, Jay begins to hear a banging in the other room. Unwisely, she enters the kitchen to see a young woman, topless, only one sock on, who is peeing herself and creeping toward her. It’s following her again!

Jay races upstairs and locks herself in the bedroom. Kelly and Paul knock at the door, asking to be let in, assuring her there’s nothing outside. She lets them in and Jay begins to break down: “There’s something wrong with me.” Someone begins to try the doorknob of the bedroom, so Paul grabs a nearby broom as a weapon. Yara identifies herself from the other side of the door, but when they allow her in, a tall man walks in right behind her. (Clearly, only the infected can see the followers.) Jay screams and flees out the bedroom window. She descends from a ledge and takes her bicycle through the night, ending her journey in a creepy playground. Eventually, her friends find her on the swings in the darkened playground. Greg shows up, too, having overheard the broken window and ensuing ruckus across the street. Jay decides she needs to find Hugh and get some answers, so Greg offers to drive them.

The five arrive at a boarded-up house, apparently the address Hugh have Jay. Inside, they find homemade alarm systems of tin cans and a wealth of medications. In the attic, Paul and Jay find the mattress where he slept, along with a wealth of porno mags and balled-up Kleenex (which he didn’t even bother to throw away). Leafing through a copy of Playpen, Paul finds a photo of Hugh in his letterman jacket, which identifies him as a former student of Dawson High School. Someone there must know his real name! Jay and Greg speak to someone in the school’s office and return to the car with his real name: “Jeff.” They find his house fairly easily and have a very calm chat with him.

Greg and Jay enjoy a soda while discussing the unrelenting demon following her.

Greg and Jay enjoy a soda while discussing the unrelenting demon following her.

While they’re all seated on his lawn, Jeff (formerly Hugh) tries to detail further how to handle this thing that follows you – he says he got if from a one-night stand (he thinks), and the only way to be rid of it is to pass it along. “Should be easy for you,” he says. “You’re a girl.” How Hugh knows so much about this thing, despite not clearly knowing how he contracted it from, is beyond me. A soccer player walks up to their group and Jeff is spooked, but it turns out to be an actual person. He says that Jay and he shouldn’t be in such close proximity. Greg comes up with an idea: to stay at his family’s cottage, situated in a more remote area. As they drove out to the sticks, Marielle, Meg, and I devised various plans as to how we would attempt to forestall “it.” (See the Takeaway Points below for more on that.)

At the cottage, Greg finds his dad’s gun in the boathouse and they begin to practice with it. They have a morose beach party during which no one is entirely able to speak. Greg runs off to urinate while Yara lounges in the water in an innertube. But, strangely, Yara also appears to be walking towards them from the woods. Before any of them can realize what’s happening, they see Jay’s hair being pulled up into the air. Jay is then thrown to the ground. Paul picks up a beach chair and swings it at where the invisible assailant is, but the thing knocks him back. Jay, Kelly, Paul, and Yara run to the boathouse, pursued by the thing. Jay scrambles for the hidden gun. Paul, meanwhile, inspects his body where the thing touched him, and it’s covered in a hand-shaped bruise. As the thing approaches the doorway, Jay fires the gun, nearly shooting Greg in the distance, but then hits it square in the forehead. But the entity lifts itself up after a second and continues to follow. They lock the boathouse door.

The thing bangs at the door, eventually smashing a hole in the bottom. Greg yells at them from the outside, overly concerned about what they’ve done to the door. (He cannot see the thing causing the damage, naturally.) Jay crawls up to the hole to see if the coast is clear, but a redheaded boy leaps out and hisses at her. Jay runs out through the water exit of the boathouse, then finds Greg’s station wagon and speeds away from the cottage, leaving all her friends behind. She drives so recklessly, she doesn’t notice a truck reversing into the street, and has to swerve to avoid it, crashing in some farmer’s cornfield. When she awakes, she’s resting in a hospital bed with a head wound. Her friends are seated in the room beside her, all fast asleep. She waits there, helpless, listening to the nurses walk up and down the hospital halls, wondering if one of them is really “it.”

That night, in the hospital bed, Greg, true American hero, agrees to have sex with Jay to rid her of her demonic stalker. They solemnly make love, but Jay keeps her eyes on the door the entire time. (Paul, obviously, is super-jealous.) Three days later, Greg visits Jay in the hospital again to report that he hasn’t seen it – he doesn’t think it’s following him. (Such hubris!) Despite passing the affliction on, Jay still suffers from intense depression, hiding in her bedroom, refusing to open the door. Greg talks with Jay’s three friends, and they ask if he’s really never seen anything. “She didn’t make it up,” Paul insists. Greg, however, is dubious. That night, Jay stares out her window during her self-imposed sequestration. She sees Greg, in his undershirt and long underwear, walk down the block to his house, then attempt to open his own door. Failing, he resorts to throwing a rock through the window and climbing inside. Jay realizes that this may not be Greg at all!

When the sweathog next door doesn't believe you, it's good your friends have your back.

When the sweathog next door doesn’t believe you, it’s good your friends have your back.

She frantically calls Greg’s phone, but he doesn’t answer. So she runs across the street and climbs in through the broken window, as well. At the top of the stairs, she sees Greg’s mom, half-undressed, banging robotically at Greg’s door. Greg opens it and says, “What the fuck, Mom?” Moments after, his mom attacks him, pushing him back into the bedroom. Jay runs into the room and sees it (in the guise of Greg’s mom) seemingly “sexing” Greg to death. Electricity fires around the two of them and Greg is killed. Jay runs to her car and weepily drives away from her neighbourhood. She parks in a remote spot near the water and falls asleep on the hood of her car. (Meg asked, at this point, whether there was a rule that it couldn’t get you when you’re asleep, which is a very good question. It seems to need to have you aware of its presence to kill you.) When she awakes, she sees a leisure craft on the water, during which a few guys seem to be having an early morning boat party. She strips down to her underwear and enters the water, though viewers have no idea what happens next.

Later, Jay and Paul sit in her barricaded bedroom. Paul suggests that she could pass it on – to him, that is. Paul, clearly hurt that Jay decided to give Greg a death sentence instead of him, asks why she picked Greg. She notes that he didn’t seem scared, and she refuses to subject Paul to the same fate. Paul, looking around Jay’s room, spots a photo of her swimming and develops an idea. The four friends go to 8 Mile (a.k.a. Eminem’s home turf) and talk about how scared their parents were of their children ever visiting Detroit. (“That’s a weird class element to introduce,” Meg noted, given the movie was entering its final act.) They break into a massive university swimming pool, totally unattended but well maintained. They plug in an assemblage of electrical appliances and set them up poolside. Their plan is to lure it into the water, with Jay as bait, then dump in the devices to electrocute it.

Jay treads water for a while until her relentless pursuer arrives. He has taken the form (I think) of her father (who we’ve only seen in photographs to this point), and she begins to freak out. She points at the thing – invisible to everyone else – and says it’s just staring at her. Then it, unseen, doesn’t enter the water but instead begins tossing in the electrical equipment at Jay. He manages to wing Jay with a typewriter. Their plan is totally backfiring, but at least Jay doesn’t get electrocuted. Paul takes the gun and begins to fire at where the thing seems to be. Instead, he accidentally shoots Yara in the leg. Finally, Kelly – clearly the only one who’s ever seen an episode of Scooby-Doo – tosses a blanket over the entity, which provides Paul with a clear target. He shoots it in the back of the head and it falls into the pool.

TFW you regret being bait for the murderous entity that's taken the form of your estranged father.

TFW you regret being bait for the murderous entity that’s taken the form of your estranged father.

Jay tries to swim out of the pool, but the thing isn’t dead. The creature that looks like her father swims after her and grabs her ankle. Paul begins to shoot wildly into the pool – who put him in charge of the gun? – finally hitting the thing in the head. It sinks to the pool’s bottom and Jay clambers out of the water. Her ankle is seriously bruised. Paul asks Jay if she can tell whether it’s dead. Jay cautiously crawls over to the pool, but only sees a massive amount of blood pooling and mushrooming in the water. On the rainy night that follows, Paul and Jay decide to have fairly grim sex. “Do you feel any different?” he asks her afterward. Neither of them do.

Paul is later seen driving past a couple of sex workers. The gang visits Yara, recuperating from her gunshot wound in the hospital, and she regales them – through a mouth full of sandwich – with a passage from The Idiot about the inevitability of death. Paul dozes in his chair, possibly exhausted by a bunch of sex-having. The final shot of the film shows Jay and Paul, walking hand-in-hand, down their street, with someone trailing behind who may or may not be following them.

Someone should tell the mature student that university kids no longer show up to class in their pyjamas.

Someone should tell the mature student that university kids no longer show up to class in their pyjamas.

Takeaway points:

  • It Follows, in which our characters sexually transmit an unstoppable pursuer who follows you until you die, is very obviously a metaphor for STIs, but also, of death in general. Much has been made of the STI parallels, and there’s no shortage of dread around sex in the movie. But the filmmakers – with their references to The Idiot and “J. Alfred Prufrock” – seem to be suggesting that “it” is more like death than an STI. Your really can’t avoid death. Even if you pass it along to someone else, it will eventually come back to you. Perhaps this is partially why It Follows is so scary – it’s a horror movie that is also our reality.
  • Or is It Follows really a PSA about best practices regarding sex when you have an STI? Obviously, the meanest thing would be to have sex and pass this thing along without telling your partner. (In this case, your partner would die relatively soon, and the “STI” would come back to kill you in no time.) A better practice, the film seems to suggest, is to do as Hugh did – have sex with this STI, then inform your partner what has happened and what to expect. This allows him to live a bit longer – he is not punished as severely in this scenario. But he still tells Jay after the fact. The most humane practice would be to do as Jay and Paul do – go into it with the foreknowledge that you will be infected. In this case, they can both watch out for each other. As Marielle pointed out during the screening, there seems to be strength in numbers. Whether this is or isn’t a tacit endorsement of polyamorous relationships can’t be definitively proven.
  • The big question of It Follows is: when does this take place? The vehicles look like they’re from the 1960s. The movies they watch are from the 1950s. The clothing they wear reads mostly as 1980s. But the compact e-reader Yara uses is clearly modern – even futuristic – and the girl from the opening calls her father on a mobile phone. It Follows consciously establishes its setting as outside of time, giving it a dream-like quality. You are not supposed to be able to identify the year.
  • During a slower portion of the film, Marielle, Meg, and I devised our best practices for avoiding “it.” Suggestions included: having sex with someone relatively promiscuous just before they board an international flight, having sex with an astronaut just before he/she departs for space, having sex with a cheetah (?), attempting to trap it in a well, and possibly filling that well with concrete. But we are open to other suggestions.
  • It Follows is yet another horror film that benefits greatly from a killer soundtrack. The score, composed and performed by Disasterpiece, is a collection of eerie and ominous electronic songs reminiscent of John Carpenter’s best work. It’s one of the best, most effective horror soundtracks in years.
  • Perhaps the most clever part of It Follows is how it uses pre-established rules of pacing and framing from other horror movies to create its sense of dread. The camera is constantly either in slow-zoom or slow-pan, making viewers glance around the frame uneasily. In horror movies, when the cinematography takes on a certain feeling or pace, viewers know to be wary, for something unfortunate is about to happen. The genius of It Follows is that after Jay is infected, literally every scene is one of those scenes. Whenever Jay is conscious, we are on alert that something bad might happen, as is Jay herself. The nail-biting suspense can be almost too much to handle in some scenes.
  • I have yet to parse what this means, but every thing that follows Jay is either completely naked or in some kind of sleepwear. Given that it also seems to be inactive while the victims are asleep, I feel like there’s a very distinct reason for this.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: It Follows is great. Just one of the best horror films made in the past decade. Not only is it high-concept, it’s incredibly creepy. You’ll feel paranoid for days afterward about anyone walking toward you at a certain pace. The very concept seems culled from a nightmare of our collective unconscious. It Follows also really exploits my personal fear of things happening at a distance. In horror movies, I find disturbing / scary things happening in close-up far less unsettling than things that happen at a bit of a distance to the camera. Thinking of scary moments – the bat-guy from Jeepers Creepers jumping into his truck, the filmmaker facing a corner in The Blair Witch Project, the cloaked lopper attacking the nurse in The Exorcist III – these all happen at some distance from the camera. It Follows is almost entirely scenes like that.

Legwarmers at the beach? Choose a style, Kelly! Just kidding; keep doing what you're doing.

Legwarmers at the beach? Choose a style, Kelly! Just kidding; keep doing what you’re doing.

Best outfit: Who wears leg warmers to the beach? Jay’s sister Kelly does, along with a floral bikini top and jean shorts. It doesn’t seem like it would work together, and I’m not sure it does, but I certainly applaud the effort.

Best line: “Not Hugh?” – a perplexed Paul, upon learning Jay’s it-infected boyfriend’s real name is “Jeff”

Best kill: Not too many people die in It Follows. The post-murder scene of the film’s introduction is pretty striking, though – backward leg and all. So while the murder doesn’t happen on-screen, it manages to be the most memorable in it’s artistic, Hannibal-like aftermath.

Unexpected cameo: Paul is played by Keir Gilchrist, who may be known to many viewers as Marshall Gregson, Tara’s film-obsessed son on United States of Tara. When the entity takes the form of a very tall man who barges into Jay’s bedroom, he’s portrayed by Mike Lanier, a 7′ 7″ gentleman who also happens to be one of the world’s largest twins.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Despite their devastated economy, Detroit still manages to keep the lights on in their massive-yet-empty swimming complexes throughout the entire night.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Clamshell E-Reader

Next up: The Stepfather (1987).