Scared Senseless: The Indie Horror Boom and What Frightens Us Now

Fella Films Inc.

On Monday afternoon, I saw the new horror movie It Follows. This necessitated a trip to an actual multiplex rather than to my living room couch, since although the film had been destined for VOD — which has become the default home for most indie horror — its distributor, the Weinstein Company division Radius-TWC, suddenly feared it was leaving millions on the table after the film had an unexpectedly strong four-screen debut on March 13; it is now scheduled to open on 1,200 screens on Friday. (VOD, temporarily reclaiming its reputation as the place you go when you can’t make real money, will have to wait.)

The first showing of the day in a 25-screen multiplex in Times Square is a good, immersive venue for horror; they do not charge extra for the after-the-zombie-apocalypse ambience (halted escalators, unmanned candy counters, lots of spookily abandoned empty space, some random unaccompanied psycho staggering around — wait, sorry, that was just my reflection). It’s also a good opportunity to catch up on the genre via trailers. Before It Follows, I got to see pieces of Insidious Chapter 3 (a prequel), Poltergeist (a remake), and Before I Wake — an original, technically, although that is a perilous word to use when talking about horror, a category that is now practically defined by referentiality. In fact, all three trailers draw from the same limited and familiar ingredient list of eerie, echoey children’s voices, stricken dads, Caucasian-suburban jeopardy, the cheap eeks of sudden cuts or intrusions into the frame, and Hostel-style music cues (you know those rusty-freight-elevator-screeching-to-a-halt ka-dongggggs). There was also a trailer for another movie called Unfriended, a piece of dead-girl-seeks-revenge horror that seems to take place entirely in video and text windows on a laptop, a gimmick that probably felt more potentially frightening before it was used a few weeks ago for laughs in an entire episode of Modern Family.

To love horror movies as an adult is to resign yourself to the probability that you are not going to be scared very often unless what you fear most in the world is nostalgia. It Follows is a better-than-decent, less-than-great genre film whose most original quality is a sick-joke inversion of the premise of Friday the 13th and its ’80s-horror ilk that the teenagers who have sex are always the ones who get slaughtered. Here, the death-dealing, cleverly shape-shifting entity — the “It” that follows its targets with the intention of killing them — can be shaken off only if the victim-to-be transmits it to somebody else via sexual contact; it’s like an STD whose only cure is passing it along … except that, according to the movie’s rules, that only postpones its near-inevitable reappearance because, you know, guilt and sin and Freud’s return of the repressed. For good measure, every once in a while someone quotes from The Idiot.

Bringing in Dostoevsky is a bit of a groaner, but I’ll take it, because everything else in It Follows is steeped almost purely in the vocabulary of other horror movies — not the ’50s monster shlock that the movie’s teens are shown watching on TV throughout, but mostly the ’80s stuff that is to today as the ’50s were to the ’80s. Ominously thrumming synth score with a deep debt to John Carpenter? Check. Adolescents straight out of A Nightmare on Elm Street desperately trying not to let down their guard and go to sleep? Check. A knack for making even daylight seem uncanny that recalls Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark? Check. Playground and pool scenes that nod to a more recent horror touchstone, Let the Right One In? Check. An ending that, in terms of fulfilling the integrity of the premise, is close to yelling “Etcetera, etcetera, infinity!”? Unfortunately, check. Some things in horror — in fact, most things in horror — never change.


I don’t mean to beat up on It Follows. The movie is much better than most of what’s turned out in the genre, and it deserves the theatrical run it’s getting; as a smart dissertation on a whole array of horror memes, the film absolutely carries its weight. Its writer-director, the Detroit-based filmmaker David Robert Mitchell, is assured with his camera, sensitive with his actors, careful with his script, not especially interested in gore, and more invested in mining his premise for dread than for cheap face-behind-you-in-the-bathroom-mirror jolts. He also has a witty sense of design; he mixes in old cars, Polaroid pictures, porno magazines, bulky TV sets with antennas, and a single-screen movie theater showing Charade to place the movie in a weirdly dislocated present day that seems to have been redecorated by ghosts from 30 and 60 years ago. But those ghosts haunt the film in some unwelcome ways as well; It Follows sometimes becomes an extremely clever glossary of horror, which is not the same thing as being scary.

Except, of course, if you’ve never seen a horror movie before. For moviegoers between, say, 12 and 24 — the age when a higher percentage of what you see onscreen feels new — maybe It Follows will be their primal scare, their first time, the thrill they keep trying to reexperience by returning to theaters. Perhaps it’s unfair for those of us who are, ahem, considerably older to sigh about what is and isn’t scary — if you’ve indiscriminately slept around in the genre for decades, of course you’re going to feel “Is that all there is?”

But there are signs that the films themselves feel that ennui. At least It Follows scavenges the detritus of the genre in search of fresh ways to be frightening, not just as a way of creating wry commentary about it. That makes it an exception to current ruling sensibilities. When I tried to make a list of the screen experiences that scared me in the last year, I was startled to realize that I still get scared a lot — and that almost none of the things that do it for me are in horror movies. (That may be because one really scary thing is suddenly realizing you’re in a horror movie when you thought you weren’t.) What got to me? The last minute of the last episode of The Jinx. Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. The woods and the water in the moody French gay erotic drama Stranger by the Lake. The last minute of the second-to-last episode of The Jinx.1 By contrast, the mainstays of horror — vampires, zombies, werewolves — are now mostly appropriated to bring drollery or meta-commentary to other genres. The recent surprise hit What We Do in the Shadows mines vampires for comedy; A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (an Iranian-language movie shot in Bakersfield about vampires in chadors, just in case you thought there were no new ideas) is more interested in merging Sergio Leone with Jim Jarmusch than in actually frightening you; and Jarmusch’s own Only Lovers Left Alive treats vampirism as European coffee-table-book stylishness and boredom advanced just one step further than his other movies have pushed it. If “horror” itself is now all but impossible to take straight, we’re left at an intriguing fork in the road: Horror that isn’t interested in scaring you, or non-horror that is.

For evidence of the split, you can check out two new indies that, unlike It Follows, did end up on VOD last weekend. Both are by young filmmakers and both are adjuncts to the indie subcategory informally known as mumblegore. That’s blurrily defined, but it’s a nice catchall for movies that tend to take time with characterization, concern themselves more with the internal weaknesses of basically nice people than with malevolence, and — appropriately for a generation raised on social media — depict horror in the destabilization of relationships rather than in the destabilization of personality or coherence.

SpringDrafthouse Films

Spring, by the directing team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, takes a good half-hour even to tell you what kind of a movie it might be. From its opening shot, of a 25-ish guy named Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) sitting at his dying mother’s bedside, wondering where his life goes from here, it’s not clear that the movie, with its requisite bearded sidekick and awkward sex and mood of despairingly comic post-college anomie and gentle earnestness, belongs to any particular genre other than Sundance. Spoiler follows. I said spoiler follows! Right now! I am going to ruin the plot. For god’s sake, get out of this paragraph while you still can!! Evan, who really needs a fresh start, goes to Italy, where, long story short, he falls for a beautiful woman with a secret, which is that she is actually a 2,000-year-old morphing werevampiremermaidmonster who needs to kill to survive. Even then, it’s not clear whether Spring is going to be (a) scary, (b) funny, or (c) as the promo quote from Richard Linklater has it, “a beautiful and unique love story.”

The answer is (b) and (c), but not, despite some gross-out special effects, (a). Spring is a study of an American guy who falls in love in Europe (no wonder Linklater dug it), a romance that uses the visual syntax of horror more than a film that wants to traffic in fear. It’s about relationship dread — how much do you want or need to know about the history of the person you’re dating? Its “horror” is so overtly metaphorical (“Gimme a minute!” Evan snaps after learning his girlfriend’s secret) that it’s impossible to take even the outré, slither-and-slime special effects as anything but a wink. Modern horror movies often out themselves as comedies, busting out the air quotes long before the end credits roll — the Scream legacy thrives, even if the franchise itself lies dormant awaiting the impending moment when ’90s nostalgia becomes commodifiable — and I confess I usually feel slightly let down when they do. It’s as if they’re confirming my suspicion that scary is impossible. Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching Spring play dress-up with different genres before it finally decided to settle on one.

On the other hand, Backcountry, a first feature by Canadian director Adam MacDonald, wanted to scare me, and did. It’s about a nice couple who go away for a weekend in the woods: Alex is a landscaper, sweet if a little overconfident (he declines a trail map, which in horror is the equivalent of shouting “Please kill me!”); Jenn is a lawyer, funny but a little uptight and always texting. The movie begins with the title “Based on a true story” — and unless the true story is that high-achieving professional women occasionally date dudes who can’t quite get it together, those five words are as useless a piece of information as I have ever seen in a horror movie (we don’t care!). As with most good horror, you sort of know where this is going and also sort of don’t. From the opening scenes, in which Jenn idly takes an are-you-in-the-right-relationship magazine quiz while he drives, it’s pretty clear that all the ways in which they are not quite right for each other are going to go from No Big Deal to Very Big Deal by the time the weekend is over.

Backcountry, like It Follows and Spring, is one kind of movie if you’ve seen a lot of horror, another if you haven’t. I think it works either way. We all have particular things that scare us, and high on my list are Nature, Tents, Camping, Getting Lost, Being Outdoors, Large Animals, and Placing My Fate in the Hands of a Complete Dope. Your phobias may vary. In movies like Backcountry, I am more than comfortable identifying with the woman — the one who explodes, as Jenn does here, “You f-​-​-​ed it up! You always f-​-​-​ it up! You’re such a f-​-​-​ing loser! This stupid lake! Why did we have to come here?”

MacDonald is, in an appealing way, a sadist, and for a while he has a very good time putting his couple through the paces of a very ill-advised weekend and making you wonder when and how the horror is going to land. Is this the one where impromptu skinny-dipping turns out to be the worst imaginable thing you can do? Or, no, maybe it’s the one where you should absolutely not be friendly to that spooky, swaggering guy who suddenly appears out of the dark while you build your fire? Is one of these scenes going to reveal the bad thing in the woods, or will something else? Backcountry takes its time, which is always good for a horror movie. It also, for the most part, manages not to succumb to the “Don’t go into the basement, dumb-ass!” syndrome of horror movies whose characters are so stupid they deserve their fates, because Alex’s proclivity for doing the wrong thing emerges gently, as a product of his insecurity, his stubbornness, and his desire to show his girlfriend his idea of a good time. To the extent that he’s a trope, he’s a charmingly self-aware trope. Anyway: Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; tones get testier; moods fray. The horror, it seems, is the fragility of their relationship — how quickly it can disintegrate in the face of nothing more than a perceived threat from nature.

And then shit gets real. There isn’t much MacDonald can do with the last half-hour of Backcountry that hasn’t been done again and again and again, all the way back to Halloween and Alien — The Girl Versus The Thing-Against-The-Girl is hard to make fresh. Ultimately, the film’s best trick is the way it riffles through genre possibilities; it’s about a couple who think they’re in one kind of scary movie and turn out to be in another. And, like Spring and It Follows, it trades on the timeless lessons that these movies (and life) always teach us: Dating is a bitch. Don’t open the door/leave the group/turn your back/get too cocky. Choose your partner wisely. And always know the location of the nearest exit.

Filed Under: Movies, it follows, The Jinx, nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal, foxcatcher, Steve Carrell, stranger by the lake, What We Do In the Shadows, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, only lovers left alive, Backcountry, The Babadook, Under the Skin, Proxy, Unfriended, Before I Wake, Poltergeist