'It Follows,' 'The Babadook,' 'You're Next,' and more adventurous horror films built to last
Go see It Follows: That’s the short version. The new film by director David Robert Mitchell is scary, funny, romantic, sexy—shot like a dream and a nightmare and then a dream again. It Follows stars Maika Monroe as a teen in the suburbs, beset upon by unimaginable horror.
Monroe’s a direct descendant from Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween and Neve Campbell in Scream, and plenty of people are calling It Follows “retro.” The synth score might vibe ’80s John Carpenter. The suburban-nowhere set design approximates Spielberg’s ET. The film’s heart is old-fashioned: At one point, two teenagers go on a date to a straight-up Movie Palace. (Nothing’s more symbolic in movies than old movie theaters.)
But the movie’s more than just homage. I don’t want to spoil too much of It Follows; I’d rather just tell you to go see it again. (Nashawaty liked it, too; JOIN US.) Suffice it to say that Mitchell has hit on one of the catchiest scare-concepts in years: An idea so immediately powerful that it infuses the whole film with dread. The horror is everywhere in It Follows: It’s there even when it’s not onscreen.
There aren’t really any grown-ups in It Follows; even if there were, you feel like the teenaged characters couldn’t even explain what ails them. The danger in It Follows is related to sexuality—every teen horror movie is about sex. But It Follows isn’t anti-sex, per se. Monroe’s character is neither an angelic Jamie Lee Curtis, nor a soon-to-be-sliced-open sexualized she-devil. When we first meet her, she’s lying in her backyard pool, literally adrift. Just 19, she seems much older. She has sex with her boyfriend, and that’s when the problems start. An earlier horror movie might’ve tied the terror to a loss of virginity; It Follows suggests that the more basic problem is having sex with the wrong person.
Ludicrous theory-jump: Is It Followssecretly about the Internet? I’m not a teenager right now; I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering just how weird it must be, being a high school student in the age of social media. Every generation thinks things were better when they were young, but doesn’t it seem like things must be different now—different in a baseline-existence way, different like there’s no way parents could even possibly understand? There have always been bullies; now, the bullies live in the cloud. High school was always hell, but at least you could go home at the end of the day; at least it ended eventually. Now, the terror is everywhere; now, if you’re not careful, there’s a record of every wrong thing you’ve ever done, walking slowly behind you, waiting to strike.
Everything’s a renaissance now. The word has started to lose all meaning; in the hyperbolic hyperbaric chamber of Internetspeak, “Renaissance” just means “trend,” or even “one good thing from an actor who hasn’t done good things in a few years.” But something’s happening in the horror genre right now. You know it if you saw The Babadook, the Aussie stunner from last year. Not everyone saw the movie, but if you saw it, you had to talk about it. You could recognize filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s influences—The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, haunted houses and spooky creatures—but The Babadook went way beyond the hip referentiality of the mid-’90s, and found something much scarier than the hip gorefests of the mid-’00s.
These new horror movies tend to have low budgets. One branch of this horror wave sprung loosely out of the mumblecore movement; back in 2013, my buddy Clark Collis wrote an excellent investigation into what was then vaguely referred to as “mumblegore.” And there’s always that word, “retro.” Ti West’s House of the Devil was the tip of the spear, set in the ’80s with a soundtrack to match. Saw director James Wan found a whole new life with the more restrained supernatural terror of Insidious, before delivering the ’70s period piece The Conjuring.
I wonder if the “retro” signifier is too easy. House of the Devil was shot on 16mm film; shooting anything on film feels vaguely “retro” now. It shouldn’t. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that House of the Devil is an actual goddamn film in that it is literally shot on film—not a “movie” shot on digital video that is perfect in every way and will never be film.
When Frank Darabont shot the pilot for The Walking Dead, he used 16mm: An unusual idea that gave the zombie series a subtly different look. Television shows have never looked more “stylish,” whatever that means: The epic sweep of Game of Thrones, the bright peppy HD colors of single-camera sitcoms, the brutal nowhere-scapes outside Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque. Walking Dead doesn’t have the same screensaver-ready pop, but the show has gotten steadily more confident in its ability to tell a story just with visuals. As the show has gotten more popular, it’s gotten quieter. One of last year’s standout episodes, The Grove, was filled with insidious imagery: A distant plume of smoke, stumbling undead burnt beyond recognition, a dead little girl and the live one that killed her.
Does The Walking Dead partly explain this new horror-movie renaissance? Has that show’s success helped to normalize the horror genre—while simultaneously forcing young filmmakers to raise their game? (If you’re ever hankering for more zombie action after one episode, check out The Battery, a no-budget zombie flick with one of the most harrowing, Hitchcock-tense single takes I’ve ever seen.)
I’ve loved the last couple seasons, but Walking Dead can still be a bit colorless: It’s a world of fitted jeans and khaki shirts and mournful people getting bummed out. Maybe that explains why big-screen horror has gotten more adventurous. Back in 2013, the director-writer duo of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett released You’re Next, a home-invasion thriller that starts off as an indie family dramedy, then becomes a ridiculously scary frightfest, and then takes a hard left-turn into something funnier, wilder, and more thrilling. I’m sure there were better movies released in 2013, but I can’t remember them. There’s a lot happening under the surface of You’re Next—it’s a downfall-of-the-American-Family saga, right up there with The Sound and the Fury and Arrested Development—but the surface is pure enjoyment.
Everyone’s servicing a franchise now: Movies and television, superhero sagas and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Horror, historically, was a genre of shameless franchising. (Wan is pushing forward on Insidious 3 and The Conjuring 2.) So it’s striking that so many of these movies seem to glory in the unfiltered potential of not having a sequel. It’s retro only to the degree that modernity sucks. There could absolutely be a sequel to It Follows—the concept isn’t miles away from Final Destination—but you don’t get that weird vibe (unique to post-Marvel cinema) that the filmmakers are saving the good stuff for later.
Wingard and Barrett are prepping another horror movie right now. Last year they released The Guest, a spectacular film that is either definitely a horror movie or definitely not a horror movie. Like It Follows, it’s got a John Carpenter-ian synth soundtrack and it’s set in the Halloween suburbs; it also features a bloody climax at a Halloween dance, which if nothing else means it’s not a romantic comedy. And like It Follows, The Guest stars Maika Monroe. In The Guest, Monroe was spiky; in It Follows, she’s more melancholy. But there’s an old-fashioned romanticism to both Monroe’s characters: They’re yearning for something else, something beyond.
That’s the weirdest thing about a lot of new horror movies. For a genre that makes its bones off jump scares, they all circle back around to the all-encompassing fear that the good times are over. The Babadook‘s Essie Davis dreams of her dead husband; The Guest‘s family lost a son in the Middle East; on The Walking Dead, everyone lost everything. “I used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates,” Monroe says in It Follows. “I had this image of myself holding hands with a really cute guy, driving along some pretty road. It was never about going anywhere, really.” This new horror wave might look nostalgic, but there’s a tough message: Maybe things were never as good as we thought they were.