Back to the Horror roots?

In the last fifteen years or so record labels have distributed numerous horror movies, described as the “return to true horror”, the “scariest movie of the year”, the “movie that won’t let you turn off the lights”. What’s the overall result of this cheap and unoriginal Hollywood marketing? The audience, the viewers, were mostly disappointed and frustrated.

Apart from the premise (“best movie of… bla bla bla), what do have in common movies such as Session 9, The Ring, the Saw franchise, the Wrong Turn franchise, The Green Inferno and so on? Well, usually they are characterized by bad acting, cheap cinematography, disappointing photography, corny plots and jump scares. Hold on a second: I respect everyone’s opinion, but I have to say that.

Jump. Scares. Ain’t. Horror!

Jump scares don’t freak out the viewers, they just make them jump upon the sofa or on the chairs in the theatres. They shock the viewers for a short period of time (often a couple of seconds). Besides that, these cheap tweaks are worthless for the economy of plot and screenplay, usually they aren’t even entertaining because they repeat over and over schemes that the audience have already seen thousands of times.

I apologize for this digression and don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all the movies from the  two-thousand are bad: movies such as The Blair Witch Project, Insidious, Unfriended or those from the new wave of Japanese and French Horror definitely stand out due to their high level of entertainment (with or without the hated jump scares). Despite that, these well-made movies aren’t bringing anything new to the genre. You cannot compare these twisted little movies to the masterpieces of Horror, like The Shining or The Exorcist or Psycho or Rosemary’s Baby. They lack in originality. They don’t even try to overcome the borders of what has been tried and realized throughout the last forty years.

Luckily, the draught of well-made horror movies has apparently came to an end thanks to a bunch of non-Hollywood productions that came out in the last two years. Let’s take a look.

The profoundly unsettling 17th century horror

The Witch (Canada, 2015) – The novice director Robert Eggers provides a profound, creepy dread that gnaws at your bones, and which comes back to find you in the dark. Okay, it sounds like a boring commercial, but that’s what The Witch is in fact: a ninety-minutes-long horror (slash drama, slash mystery) movie which drags the viewer into a dismal and colorless world. The beautiful cinematography and the astonishing photography serve together perfectly for this purpose, by creating an overall atmosphere that’s both amazing and deeply unsettling. The music, especially its absence, is extremely useful in creating a dismal context. Another thing that I really loved in this movie is the acting: the cast members did a great job and Anya Taylor-Joy, the actress who plays Thomasin, the oldest daughter in the protagonist family of the story and the main character, was absolutely awesome, literally a star in the making. Was everything perfect in this movie? Actually, it wasn’t. I have two problems with The Witch: the first one is about the pace. I mean, it was never boring but it definitely was too slow. Sometimes, the slowness was functional to the atmosphere, some others it was simply annoying and it didn’t help in keeping the focus on the plot itself. The other problem is probably the biggest one. A movie, every single movie, is supposed to be entertaining and The Witch failed in this purpose due to the pace and the too long unnecessary scenes. In conclusion, I think that The Witch stands out among the movies of recent years thanks to the atmosphere and the cast performances, but it lacks in entertainment and that’s what makes it less enjoyable than the following titles.

Mommy has never been so creepy!

Goodnight Mommy (Austria, 2014) – What if a mother, played by Susanne Wuest, undergone plastic surgery and returning home in bandages, were not recognized by her twin boys (acting newcomers Elias and Lukas Shwarz)? That’s the simple premise of Goodnight Mommy, a psychological horror-thriller in which nothing is what it seems. The first half of the movie runs throughout an atmosphere charged of anxiety and suspicion, where the things that we don’t see are what makes us freak out. The cinematography is beautiful, the soundtrack nailed, the claustrophobic atmosphere disconcerting and the acting… wow, the acting! It is totally worth watching.  Nevertheless the movie looks good ‘till the ending, the second half of the movie (since the “mommy” gets rid of the bandages) turns a little bit into something more disgusting than disturbing, winking to the torture-horror sub-genre, which is a shame because the movie falls back into old (and abused) stereotypes. Still, Goodnight Mommy brings something new in the first half of the running and it’s highly entertaining, even though it gets a little bit disappointing at the very end. Don’t worry, I won’t spoiler anything.

Why the hell Cloverfield is in this list?

10 Cloverfield Lane (USA, 2016) – Don’t get mad too early. Here we’re talking about the somewhat-sequel of the famous found footage called Cloverfield (not that bad though, despite it’s shot in the overrated found footage style), a sequel that’s completely different from the first of the franchise. First of all, 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t shot in found footage style (thanks God!) and apparently (again, I won’t spoiler the plot or the ending) it belongs to a different kind of sub-genre than Cloverfield.  10 Cloverfield Lane, starring John GoodmanMary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher, Jr, is a psychological-claustrophobic thriller rather than a Sci-fi horror film and, as you can imagine looking at the cast, is the only Hollywood production (distributed by Paramount Pictures) in this list. The budget for this movie is much higher than that used for other films involved in this analysis and I’d say that it was worth it making a charge of 15 million bucks: mostly because it served to hire a great cast, especially John Goodman who did great in the shoes of the controversial figure of Howard. Great cast performances, claustrophobic atmosphere and characters slowly slipping into madness are the ingredients perfectly cooked together to create the delicious  recipe called 10 Cloverfield Lane. Unfortunately, the final result is a dish difficult to digest. In fact, the last fifteen-twenty minutes of the movie ruined (or, at least, weakened) what would have been an awesome movie. Without spoiler too much, I’d say that in its last scenes 10 Cloverfield Lane turns into another genre leaving the viewer puzzled and disappointed. I’m not pointing out that the ending sucks. It doesn’t; it’s still pretty badass. But in a certain way, those last minutes don’t fit the rest of the movie as they could have been. Let’s just say that  the real charm of the film lay in the invisible threat that, once revealed, no longer seems so inevitable and scary.

“They said that the monsters came from under the bed, I say the monsters are inside my head”

The Babadook (Australia, 2014) – Is this another boring movie about the boogieman? First: no, it isn’t. Secondly: stop making cheap films about the boogieman, please! They ain’t scary, they ain’t entertaining at all! Luckily, The Babadook is an independent Australian movie that doesn’t match at all with these kind of trashy movies. Basically it tells the story of Amelia, a troubled widow who has raised her six-year-old son Sam alone after her husband Oskar’s death. Sam begins displaying erratic behavior: he becomes insomniac and is worried about an imaginary monster, which he has built weapons to fight against. This simple premise gives life to one of the most well-made villains in the history of horror cinema. Why? Because Babadook isn’t a concrete monsters, it doesn’t live in the real world: it lives in people’s mind. It’s quite obvious (I don’t think I’m spoilering anything) that Babadook is a metaphor for depression (or any mental illness you can think of, it doesn’t matter). What’s more terrifying than a monster inside the head? Thanks to the performances of Essie Davis (who masterfully portraits Amelia) and Noah Wiseman (the kid-actor who plays the role of Sam) the Babadook is getting more and more real throughout the whole movie. I’ve read numerous critiques to the acting of the young Wiseman, because he’s too annoying: well, in my opinion he has to be annoying in order to represent better his character and increase his mother’s disorders. In that way, he did an astonishing job! The acting is great, but the cinematography, the soundtrack and the photography are even better in making such a gothic and dismal atmosphere. In particular, the range of colors and the camera angles match superlatively with the tone of the movie.

It’s hard to find something in this movie I personally dislike, but if I have to choose I would say that it would have been better to show less of the Babadook itself. The less, the better, in this case. However, this drama slash psychological slash mystery, slash horror movie is definitely worth checking out. And it should be thanked for giving new life to the genre.

The modern horror classic – back to the Horror roots

It Follows (USA, 2014) – Here we are! Last but not least, It Follows, an American independent movie which plot follows a girl pursued by a supernatural entity after a sexual encounter. At first I have to disclaim a reductive explanation of the movie meaning: the entity, let’s call this thing simply “IT”, is not a metaphor for HIV virus, otherwise it wouldn’t explain why the victim could get rid of IT just passing it on another person. Because that’s what basically happens in this sublime pure horror movie: you are pursued by IT that only you can see, IT can take the appearance of any person. Although IT only moves at a walking pace, if IT catches you, IT will kill you and pursue the previous person to have passed it on. And beware: «it’s slow, but it’s not stupid».

Despite a simple premise and plot, It Follows offers perhaps the most unique and refreshing concept in horror films in the last years. The film deserts jump scares almost entirely, preferring long shots that increase in stomach-dropping suspense with every second that goes by. And unlike most studio offerings, it’s nearly bloodless, deriving its frights instead from the grotesque and the uncanny. That happens thanks to a set of factors.

Mainly, the setting. The suburbs where the characters drive around at night, blurry from lack of sleep, are smartly timeless and teeming with perils: there are almost no adult figures, the cars are old-fashioned, there are no electronic devices except from a shell-shaped mirror through which one of the characters read The Idiot by Dostoevsky! The great cinematography and the accurate photography contribute to set the tone of the movie, which is mournful and unsettling. The final classy touch in offering a creepy setting is given by the soundtrack by Disasterpeace that perfectly fits with the other elements. As I said, there are almost no adults in the movie, and the characters are the average American teenagers. What?! Again? Don’t be hasty because the cast, literally made by a bunch of unknown, pull off an amazing performance while the screenplay, masterfully written by David Robert Mitchell (who’s also the director), set them apart from the cliché. Jaime, the protagonist, played by Maika Monroe (who’s only 23-years-old), deserves a special mention: the viewer can feel her same emotions throughout the all movie, he can feel her own confusion and impotency as he was in her shoes. Great acting!

At the end, the villain. Awesome. IT basically follows you in every single freaking scene. I had to watch the movie several times in order to understand that. It follows the characters even if the viewer isn’t aware of and, at the very end, the facts about the “monster” seem to contradict what we’ve learned about IT earlier. That’s what is really disturbing and creepy about this great movie: your “enemy” has no name, no concreteness. IT just follows you. It’s inevitable.