For a time, horror was my default genre of choice, but recently my interest has fallen somewhat by the wayside, so it was a nice coincidence that in the past couple of weeks I watched three contemporary examples that offered modern and/or alternative takes on familiar tropes. They’re not exactly linked in any way, but they rekindled my passion for spooky movies.
The most acclaimed horror film of last year, The Babadook, certainly warrants its acclaim and attention, though it is its emotional impact that has garnered most praise, and rightly so. As a mother struggling with her increasingly disruptive and seemingly disturbed son (Noah Wiseman) and burdened with grief following the tragic death of her husband, Essie Davis gives a superb performance, believable and raw in the face of unexplained events, tied to a fiendish character from a mysterious pop-up picture book, that push her to breaking point. You can certainly see how We Need To Talk About Kevin has been raised as an interesting parallel. Debut feature director and writer Jennifer Kent succeeds in conjuring an atmosphere thick with dread, playing with shadows and sound in a house designed to discomfort, and Mister Babadook himself feels like a boogeyman for the ages. Yet, the film itself is unlikely to cause much in the way of sleepless nights – my strongest reaction came when Daniel Henshall appeared in a supporting role, though that says more about how much Snowtown has stuck with me than anything (the director of which – Justin Kurzel – is married to Babadook’s Davis, fact fans). But the pervading sense of despair and melancholy is what lingers longest, setting it apart from the other monsters-in-my-closest fair. As strong a calling card as you’re likely to find.
While James Wan, Leigh Whannell, Oren Peli, Jason Blum, Scott Derrickson et al have been the key figures responsible for shaping the landscape of American horror at the box office (with the likes of Saw, Insidious, Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring, Sinister, etc. to their names), another close-knit group of writers/directors/producers/actors have been bubbling away just beneath, carving out their own identity. Often sharing DNA with ‘mumblecore’ movies (to the extent the term ‘mumblegore’ is a thing), the likes of Adam Wingard, Ti West and Joe Swanberg have been knocking out low-budget horror films together (though in Swanberg’s case more indie dramas than anything) with varying results, though still often interesting and efficiently put together. They all contributed to found-footage anthology V/H/S, Wingard directed West and Swanberg in You’re Next, West directed Swanberg in The Sacrament…you get the picture.
But it is West’s The Innkeepers from 2011 up for discussion today, with Sara Paxton and Pat Healy (who would more recently appear again together in the grimly comic Cheap Thrills) as staff in a soon-to-close hotel, waiting out their time spooking themselves silly by investigating the supposedly haunted establishment’s dark past and trying to record paranormal activity. But of course it’s all fun and games until things start to get really freaky.
Both Healy and especially Paxton excel in their roles which, while not comic, are imbued with a natural sense of humour and well-observed character traits. Their dialogue exchanges are what makes The Innkeepers feel different and enjoyable and the characters feel like living, breathing people rather than simple slasher-fodder or audience ciphers (to give you an idea of how it’s pitched, there’s even a Lena Dunham cameo). But at the same time, as nice as these moments are, they slow the pace of the story. Given the things that go bump in the night aren’t anything especially new, even if they are effective, the film starts to drag before it really gets going, failing to really satisfy either the ‘mumble’ or ‘gore’ camps, or meld the two together. Which is a shame, as there are still very good elements of both here, but had the whole film been leaner and snappier, it would be easier to recommend.
Finally, my pick of the three is a new release, the much talked-about It Follows. As with the best of its kind, it is reverential and referential, but offers a new twist or take on established horror formulae. In this case, a sexual encounter leaves Jay (Maika Monroe, last seen in Wingard’s The Guest) with an apparent curse in which she is pursued by an unknown entity that takes the form of different people, strangers and familiars alike, but only she can see what’s coming after her. And she must pass it on if she is to survive.
From the set-up to the execution, there are clear antecedents. The curse itself shares similarities with the tape from Ring, the unseen predator (and the presence of swimming pools) recalls Cat People, and the sex = life/death motif runs deep throughout so much of the genre it’s hard to know where to start. But It Follows is knowing enough to play with these influences, indulging them some times and subverting them others, without winking to camera.
Perhaps the most obvious influence is John Carpenter’s Halloween, primarily in its cinematography and music. Mike Gioulakis is responsible for the former, beautifully framing and filling each shot such that it feels like a widescreen movie with a capital WIDE. It also plays with perspective, as you are sometimes viewing the action through Jay’s P.O.V. but not always (like the phantasmagorical gimmickry of William Castle’s 13 Ghosts), but mostly the camera feels removed, dispassionate, even voyeuristic, forcing you to scan the margins for when a slowly walking presence might emerge to track down Jay. Anything that can make scenes set in broad daylight unnerving is doing something right. And with Rich Vreeland aka Disasterpeace (probably best known for the soundtrack to twisty platform-puzzle game Fez) providing a gorgeous, haunting, squelchy synth score, it feels both like a clear harking back to the late 70s/early 80s, while also feeling strangely timeless.
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell knows his horror onions and is clearly technically accomplished, but he also does a fine job at making his teenage characters sound and behave like teenagers. The cast handle the dialogue and emotional beats in a way that feels authentic, and far removed from your typical scream teens, but Mitchell also understands a balance needs to be struck, and this is a more successful melding of indie sensibilities and spooky goings-on than The Innkeepers. With its stripped back approach, it may disappoint audiences more used to the ‘boo-scared-ya’ blockbusters. And there’s a case to be made that it is the least out-and-out scary of the three. But It Follows is certainly the one that has lingered around in my mind the longest and the one I feel I will return to most often.