The Unexpected Empathy of “It Follows” and “Under the Skin”
Empathy is important. That’s not a statement many would disagree with. But think for a minute: how often do you not really abide by it? How often do we presume the worst about perfect strangers, to judge them for bothering us and nothing else? A person who takes too long at the ATM is clearly an inconsiderate asshole, not someone harried and flustered by the very fact that they’re holding up a line. A terse waitress is unprofessional and mean, and not simply at her wits end after a long day with little sleep. A friend who doesn’t immediately respond to a text is flaky, not genuinely busy with worries that supersede your conversation. Everyone has moments like these, myself included. We pick and choose when to walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s easier not to be curious.
Stories about empathy fascinate me because they have to, by design, be curious. They have to be about human beings and why they do things, not simply the things they do. I have often described horror as my favorite genre because, well, I love scary things. But horror is rarely described as a genre that relies on empathy. But… well… isn’t it? Horror movies essentially rely on the audience being scared for the sake of the characters. Most horror films get this wrong. They aim to shock, not stoke empathy. The best ones are often those that go out of their way to get the audience to relate to the characters’ feelings, to have more investment in the film than startled responses to jarring stimuli. In recent weeks I’ve seen two films; It Follows and Under the Skin; that burrowed into my mind and never left. They unsettled and intrigued and hypnotized me, and they wouldn’t have done so without their deep wells of empathy.
Under the Skin* takes the most original approach to a story about empathy that I’ve seen. It isn’t about a human being at all, but an alien who kills people. Why? To understand them. As the film progresses, she learns empathy. And as in real life it’s not always pleasant.
*Some might object to my calling Under the Skin as a horror film, but I think it clearly contains horror in its multitudes; horror is a much broader and more varied genre than many give it credit for.
A cursory look at the plot of Under the Skin makes it sound like a sleazy exploitation film. An alien played by Scarlett Johannson picks up men, seduces them, and then kills them. But what a strange, hypnotizing story lies within. The pulpy veneer vanishes in the opening moments, as Scarlett Johannson’s nameless character undresses an apparently dead woman’s body on a stage that consists entirely of a white void. She changes into the woman’s clothes, and finally stands over the body, regarding her face. She sees a tear roll down the woman’s face. She studies it, her face blank, and she moves on. She goes around Scotland picking up men and luring them to a dark room where they sink into black liquid, where they are suspended for… well, the purpose isn’t clear, but there’s a rhyme and reason to it. A man on a motorcycle follows the woman around, cleaning up any evidence of her actions. The moment we see the fate of the men under the liquid is horrifying and raises as many questions about these odd aliens as it answers.
The woman eventually has an encounter that is… different. She can’t shake it the way she usually does; she gains a desire to actually understand what is to be a person, instead of experimenting from afar. Her efforts to engage in human behavior make up the second act of the film. Some of the moments are oddly touching, while some are deeply disturbing. The woman learns the scope of human behavior first hand, both good and bad. We’ve seen material like this before in movies, but never from the perspective of someone trying earnestly to learn empathy. It’s jarring in its simplicity. By the end I was shaken, not just from the events on screen, but because I found myself wanting this character to succeed, for everything she’d done to amount to something. And then I remembered that she was, in effect, a serial killer at the film’s outset. And then I remembered that she was, from her perspective, a researcher, not actively doing wrong. And then I realized that director Jonathan Glazer had, in making a film about a character learning empathy, also made me deeply empathize with her. Under the Skin isn’t a film that makes you feel good, but there’s something astonishing about it. It’s like looking down and realizing you’re walking on a high wire.
It Follows is much more a traditional horror film than Under the Skin. Directed by David Robert Mitchell, its story is an inversion of one of the most well-known horror tropes: death by sex. Slasher films, starting with Halloween, established the trend of characters dying shortly after having sex. It was a sort of weird, toxic brand of hypocritical puritanism within the genre; offering women’s bodies up for titillation and then immediate slaughter. It Follows appears to be a clever nod to the trope on its surface. It’s about a slow-walking, shapeshifting demon who relentlessly pursues its target until they have sex. Then it pursues their partner until they pass it on; otherwise, it kills them and pursues its previous target again. The film’s protagonist is Jay (Maika Monroe), a college student whose first sexual encounter with her new boyfriend leaves her running for her life.
The portrayal of the demon is both a nod to and a twist on classic horror movie killers. Michael Myers popularized the slow-walking, relentless killer. However, the shapeshifting nature of the killer in It Follows prevents it from taking on any larger-than-life image. Most slasher movies turn their killers into icons. It Follows leaves its killer perpetually in the background. As a result, we’re forced to focus on Jay, and it’s here that its sendup of the slasher genre reveals its depths. Most horror films provide numerous bodies for the killer to slaughter, and one screaming girl who makes it to the end. The characters are archetypes and cardboard cutouts for a reason: the action is the point, and the director’s skill is what makes the film scary. Many good horror films fit this bill. My favorite horror film of all-time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is not a showcase of deep character writing. And although It Follows won’t remind anyone of a Richard Linklater film, it does force us to spend ample time with its main character as she reckons with her horrifying fate.
It Follows teases an exploitative premise and ends up being about just how nightmarish this scenario would be, and how arbitrary and unfair it is for Jay to go through it. The film could have branched into many other directions with its premise; Mitchell chose the correct one to make the most narrative impact. In a genre that usually cares so little for on-screen victims, he forced us to reckon with the experience of being chased by an unstoppable killer. Perhaps the end result is less scary than it could have been, but it is also much more gripping.