How directors craft some of the most frightening movies
David Robert Mitchell’s latest film “It Follows” has received critical acclaim for its smart premise and overwhelming sense of terror and dread. This acclaim is well-deserved, as the film is one of the scariest and most ingenious horror flicks of the last decade and possibly of the last 15 years. But with all the attention “It Follows” has received, one must consider why it is a good horror film, and more importantly, what makes a horror film good?
Mitchell’s film is a classic piece of horror canon: girl is chased by entity that threatens to kill her, and scares everyone along the way. But despite this basic structure, the film adds a lot more to its palate. This entity is passed on through sexual intercourse, and the film suggests that it occurs mostly in teenagers, some encountering sex for the first time. This adds another layer of horror to this story, that a common and pleasureable action can essentially kill you if you aren’t careful. It’s like an STD, only worse, but that’s not the allegory Mitchell is trying to achieve.
His scope is larger: leaving the suburbs, being followed by the last threat to your adolescence before becoming an adult. It’s a coming of age film inside of a horror film, and it’s ingenious. This entity is also relentless; it will only stop chasing its prey if it is passed on to another human. It cannot be seen by those it hasn’t already been chasing, so help from others isn’t an option. And for those afflicted, it takes the form of a stranger in a crowd, or worse, someone they already know.
For the main character Jay (Maika Monroe), this entire concept is a jarring and completely unnerving experience, and Mitchell passes that to his audience with a punch to the gut. He presents many of his scenes in a flourishing wide shot, full of people, forcing his audience to constantly scan the screen and wonder which of these people is chasing Jay. And when her friends enter the frame, are they really her friends?
It works to his advantage, and keeps viewers on the edge of their seat until Jay finally notices the next follower. Finally, Mitchell also sets his tale in the suburbs, a place that hits close to home for many, and one that oftentimes feels safe.
In this respect, it draws comparisons to John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978), another film set in the suburbs with a seemingly unstoppable entity on the loose as it chases a teenage girl. This setting is an ingenious way to rack up tension and potentially scare an audience because of the familiarity, and because it’s not often one has felt afraid living there. What the films of Mitchell and Carpenter succeed in is creating an atmosphere that slowly builds into something unexpectedly threatening.
Familiarity can be a filmmaker’s greatest strength or greatest weakness. In the cases of more recent horror outings, the latter tends to preside.
Franchises such as “Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious” and “REC” all rely on the familiarity of jump scares and a setting that lets the audience know something bad is going to happen (in the case of all three, an enclosed house or apartment). What hurts franchises is that even by the end of the first film, the idea becomes stale or just not scary. Overusing jump scares allows the audience to become used to them, and by the second or third film that uses them, the idea just becomes expected.
Why films like “It Follows,” “Halloween,” and even “The Descent” (2006) work is because they take common settings or tropes and defy expectations. The first two take the idea that something could be following you at anytime in the comfort of your own town, and you have no idea how to stop it, and the last pairs mutant stalkers and a claustrophobic cave.
But horror films don’t just need villains and unlikely settings; they need characters with whom the audience can emphasize. So many horror films introduce characters that will be killed off in a moments notice, leaving no opportunity to know them or care for them: they’re cannon fodder.
Character development gives the audience reason to root for them and to feel an impending sense of dread when something goes wrong. This inevitably makes a film scarier. As an audience we feel as they feel. When they’re scared, we’re scared with them.
The majority of horror films will never stop being predictable and uniformly disappointing. However, “It Follows” shows promise with the direction horror might be taking. With a fresh script, developed characters and a setting that both defies expectations and proves to be endlessly creepy, Mitchell’s foray into horror uses the successful conventions of the genre to its advantage.