Last year, two films from the independent horror genre saw initial releases that precipitated a lot of attention from mainstream American movie going audiences. Those two films were the Australian psychological thriller The Babadook and the American genre feature It Follows, the latter of which was finally given a wide release over the past month domestically, while the former saw its release at the tail end of November of last year. While some American horror fans may find both films to be overly long, ponderous, and entirely un-frightening, the fact that two fundamentally experimental horror genre films could generate as much hype as both films have done is something to celebrate. The larger cultural visibility of these two films speaks volumes towards the continuing relevance of original horror within the American multiplex, despite astounding financial returns bestowed upon such creatively stagnant features as last year’s Ouija, as well as the shameless James Wan spin-off Annabelle and its predecessor The Conjuring, an equally uninspired, albeit well executed, haunted house romp.
Dating back to James Wan’s original Saw feature, which was theatrically released in 2004, American movie going audiences have become dependent over the course of the past decade on a brand of horror that has less to do with scaring its audience than it does with terrifying them with obscenely graphic imagery and content. While Wan’s style does generate some genuinely visceral cinematic experiences, his visual palate is so dulled by the subdued tones of the overtly sociopathic that his films never graduate beyond the relative ingenuity of their individual premises. Insidious is generally effective, but in a way that is so often forced by jump scares and cliché narrative pitfalls of the genre that the film owes too much to the tradition in filmmaking that it invokes, The Conjuring an equally formulaic possession feature that feels more like a pastiche than an original experience.
Comparatively, both The Babadook and It Follows offer something more than mere verisimilitude with what has come before, though both borrow from their respective influences and directorial forebears heavily. In David Robert Mitchell’s latter mentioned film, the politics ascribed to the archetypical loss of innocence via sexual intercourse is given a resonance on a familial scale, the thing that devours Mitchell’s protagonists implicitly engaged in and pursued with intimacy. It Follows accordingly bears a striking resemblance to 1980s horror classics, replete with a synthesizer based soundtrack from electronic artist Disasterpeace that would feel equally well at home in any John Carpenter film of your choosing. In Mitchell’s heavy rotation of horror tropes and clichés, It Follows is just as dependent on its ode to the genre as any James Wan feature, but is possessed of a menace all its own, slowly building towards its big reveal at the film’s end, the thrills one finds in its masterfully orchestrated show less about the lurid content of its script, and more about the implications of its dialogue with the horror genre itself.
Which is not to say that there haven’t already been post-modern, self-aware, precociously meta-horror staples from the past ten plus years in American and world cinema. Perhaps most notably, Rob Zombie has been a disseminator of high decibel filth entirely dependent on exploitation feature tableaux and snuff film production aesthetics, his individual contributions to horror less about being scary than about deconstructing the very essence of morbidity. But in films like House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie is a director whose love of the form, like Wan’s, is too self-involved, his adoration for gritty, schlock entirely subjective, the objective offerings available in either one of the two aforementioned films over composed, resulting in an experience that feels sloppy, silly, and sickeningly compassionate for an overwhelmingly repellent subject.
If the trend set by The Babadook director Jennifer Kent and It Follows helmer David Robert Mitchell is to continue, however, in what direction should studio horror films take in order to retain relevance? If they want to continue to merely rake in large box office earnings, more films like Ouija may indeed be in our future. It’s not enough that The Babadook and It Follows garnered popular attention. If the American movie going audience wants to see more challenging horror genre features they’re going to have to stop going in droves to see films like Annabelle, which appears unlikely with an official Conjuring sequel currently in production, as well as a third Insidious installment on the way this June. No matter how much critical appraisal and attention It Follows garnered within the art house circuit, it is still a film without the wide range appeal of Blumhouse Productions.
No doubt there will be more films like It Follows, as there will always be directors like Mitchell and Kent who will write films reflective of their own personal experiences and interests. More precisely, such directors will pursue such projects regardless of genre, ergo the independent film movement. Perhaps what The Babadook and It Follows have in common goes deeper than genre stereotype. Perhaps Mitchell and Kent are merely two great directors who found early success within the horror genre, their individual contributions to it going forward dependent on what will come after their first features, and who might be inspired to produce more of the same. Only time will tell.
If anything can be gleaned from this recent succession of resurgent successes within independent horror, perhaps it is merely that original ideas are still out there, even within narrative canons that have long remained dormant. It’s a success in and of itself that both The Babadook and It Follows were seen as widely as they were, and hopefully some young filmmakers and screenwriters will take inspiration from these two films and pursue their own independent ideas to fruition, whatever genre their films wind up in, horror a mere label by which entertainment can be more readily sold and consumed. Perhaps, then, the topic at hand isn’t really about the state of horror, but the state of commercial entertainment, a medium dependent on tired, indecipherable modes of emotional manipulation that we may actively or passively engage with, the former giving rise to Mitchell and Kent, and the latter to Wan and Zombie.