Before we dig in, let’s take a second to discuss horror as a movie genre. Not horror comedy like Evil Dead 2 or The Cabin in the Woods. I am talking about pure, unadulterated, piss-your-pants, terrifying horror movies. I don’t think I have to go into extended detail about how the state of modern horror on the big studio scale is pretty shitty across the board. That complaint is old enough to drive at this point. Sure, you have some good stuff sneak out out like the recent Evil Dead remake and Oculus but they represent a minority in a movie group that is largely beginning to be defined by an overload of shitty titles. At times my hopes are raised when movies like The Conjuring start off strong, but more often than not, they fall back to the same old tired troupes and jump scares that have almost come to define the genre to a point where a horror movie isn’t even considered a horror movie if it isn’t constantly screaming at you.
The two biggest recurring problems I have with horror films released over the past 15 years are as follows:
1) General audiences have been trained to believe that an endless stream of jump scares equal genuine scares.
Like comedy, scary stuff is largely going to be a subjective topic. What I find frightening may be completely laughable to another person, but one misconception that I need to clear up is that a loud noise is not scary i.e. you aren’t scared when something makes you jump during a movie. It’s your “fight or flight” instincts carrying over from when our great, great, great, great, great, great, great ancestors lived in the wild and needed to be prepared for sabertooth cat attacks.
When a movie constantly relies on going “BOO!” in order to amass scares and/or relevancy, it’s the cinematic equivalent of peek-a-boo.
Now please don’t mistake this as a case for movies like Paranormal Activity that actually have the exact opposite problem and move at a snail’s pace.
To me, horror is something that needs to be earned. It shouldn’t be spoon fed to you with an overflow of jump scares and it should equate to a Where’s Waldo book that makes you wait for what feels like hours to see a chair move slightly. What I think is truly scary can be best highlighted by this scene from The Babadook for example:
Not a single jump scare to be found, and it was perfectly terrifying. Why? A large part of it has to do with lighting and sound. These build tension which leads to a general uncomfortableness. Tension is the horror movie’s biggest and most important weapon. If you make a scene like the one above work, you’ll have your audience talking a lot longer than just doing the old mirror scare cliche. A scene like this makes the viewer scared to turn the lights off at night.
The main reason this scene (and the film as a whole) works however has to do with my second point which is…
2) We, as an audience, must know the backstory of the monster/ghost/killer/etc.
It’s not exactly a bombshell to say that the horror genre is cannibalizing itself that is to say a great portion of horror films today are remakes and/or reimaginings of movies that came before. Horror icons like Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, and the like are getting makeovers and with these makeovers come new backstories that give us “insight” as to how they became the monsters we know and love today.
I personally don’t need to know how or why a monster became a monster for the most part. Something I have only the vaguest idea about is infinitely more frightening because it allows my imagination to fill in the gaps. In other words, I don’t care why Michael Meyers became a mass murdering, immortal hulk. I don’t want to sympathize with him because I get all the information I need from Dr. Loomis. We don’t need 30 minutes explaining how he had an abuse father and how he was an annoying little shit. All that does is deflate any terror we had about the character i.e. the main reason we are supposed to be scared during this HORROR movie. Time after time I see a horror movie go out of its way to explain the source of evil. While you need to explain some things (otherwise you end up with an overly vague pile of shit -coughPrometheuscough-), you don’t need to give the audience everything. True horror isn’t seeing what’s actually under the bed; it’s sitting in bed, stressing out about what may be underneath waiting to get you.
Suffice to say, as long as major studios like Fox or Lionsgate continue to look at horror films as quick and easy cash grabs, they will continue to be as such. In the meantime, a great majority of the best stuff in horror films are off the beaten path. Recent winners include the aforementioned Babadook, Late Phases, Starry Eyes, The Guest, and Maniac. Any writer or screenwriter looking to make a name for his or herself really should start with horror as it is one of the hardest types of films to get right. Not all of the movies I listed are from first-time directors, but none of them are household names yet and I’m excited to see where the go in the future now that they have at least one solid horror film in their catalogue.
I went into It Follows almost completely blind. It’s something I am trying to do more of these days so I can go into movies with a little bit of mystery still in the air. All I really had to go with was the 95% it currently has on Rotten Tomatoes and the good word of mouth from some friends of mine that had seen it.
“For nineteen-year-old Jay, Autumn should be about school, boys and week-ends out at the lake. But after a seemingly innocent sexual encounter, she finds herself plagued by strange visions and the inescapable sense that someone, something, is following her. Faced with this burden, Jay and her friends must find a way to escape the horrors that seem to be only a few steps behind.”
Right off the bat, this film nails down classic horror movie dread almost perfectly. It achieves this through often steady, wide-angle camera work (none of the shaky cam “found footage” bullshit) and a phenomenal 80’s throwback soundtrack. Both go hand-in-hand in creating a completely tense and unnerving movie experience. It reminded me of a movie Wes Craven, George Romero or John Carpenter would have made in their prime in the early 1980s. I’m honestly surprised to see this movie get as wide a release as it did. A common complaint I expect to hear is that it was boring and honestly I understand (not agree) where it’s coming from. Just look at this trailer for the….-sigh-….remake of Poltergeist.
There is like a jump scare every few seconds here, and I expect the movie to follow suit. This is what mass audiences have come to expect from horror.
Like many other recent quality horror flicks, It Follows subverts a classic horror staple. This time it takes the rule that sex equates to instant death and flips it around. Here, you must have sex or you will die horrifically. An abridged version would be: there is a curse that has been passed around from person to person through sexual intercourse. The cursed person is then followed by an entity that manifests itself in the form of a person that then follows said cursed person. This entity may look like a person the cursed individual knows or a complete stranger, and only the cursed person can see this form. The cursed person must have sex with another person to pass off the curse and be safe however if the entity catches them, it will kill them and and then go back the line of cursed individuals. It’s a fairly simple set up that is orchestrated fairly effectively. We don’t know what “it” exactly is. It could be a giant parable about the dangers of STDs or even society’s growing anxiety over intimacy. Regardless, the sheer fact that their is that room for interpretation only strengthens the film as a conversation piece and gives it a renewed relevancy with each subsequent viewing or discussion.
Now let’s talk about the “it” What is “it” exactly?
“It” follows the grand tradition of being a slow mover, and it’s of course a lot smarter than its prey. I loved just how simple the monster was. It reminded me of Jason Vorhees or Michael Meyers. Its goal is to kill. Nothing more. Nothing less. There is no higher agenda for “it.” “It” also plays to universal fear that I believe a lot of us share and that is the feeling of being watched and/or followed by someone or something. How many times have you looked out into the dark at night and swore you felt something was there? It happens to me to this day. It’s an anxiety that is often exploited in movies but always to a degree that often hurts the movie in the long run. So the amount of restraint the filmmakers show here by using “it” in the ways that they do is rather impressive. “It” never runs, and really only screams once. For the most part, “it” just walks and combined with the score the scenes in which “it” appears are butthole-clenchingly tense.
One of the biggest compliments I can give the film are the sheer amount of little things they did right that added to my overall enjoyment. For instance, whenever the main characters are talking things out the situations felt real. When our heroes track down an important character they have an almost roundtable discussion outside in a backyard, with the main heroine playing with grass while the others talk. A good word for the movie is naturalistic. From the actors to the locations, everything just feels authentic. The neighborhoods the film takes place in feel lived in because they are probably actual suburbs in Detroit. It’s small details like this I appreciate more and more in a growing market for sets and green screens.
Most of the actors are unknowns with only lead actress Maika Monroe being familiar to me. She was also in last year’s surprise gem The Guest. In both that and this, she plays characters that could have easily been annoying and unlikeable in lesser hands. Luckily she is a very capable actress (and has been in two movies with solid writing), and elevates both respective roles into characters we actually sympathize and care about over the course of the films they appear in.
There were a couple of issues I had with the film, most of which related back to the script. I said before how horror movies should avoid over explaining things. For the most part this movie does a perfect job at giving us just the right amount of information (the rules of “it” and so on) but towards the end it almost becomes almost too ambiguous. Like almost confusingly ambiguous given how strait forward everything was beforehand. The kids come up with a way to fight “it” that has almost no reasoning behind it in that they decide to try and lure “it” to a pool and electrocute “it.” There was nothing really beforehand that would lead them to the conclusion that this would work. Then at the very end, we get open ending cliche that many horror films find themselves falling into. I have an idea of what the filmmakers may have been going for but it is none the less frustrating. It doesn’t drop the ball in the way movies like Tusk and The Last Exorcism did, but is it so much to ask for a horror movie to actually end with some finality?
My problems aside, this was a very solid entry in the “Indie Horror is the Best Horror” movement of the past few years. It certainly unnerved me, and I’m going to be paranoid about slow moving people walking towards me for a good long while now.