We’re in a golden age for horror movies, particularly the quieter kind that rely less on gore and jump scares, and more on tense explorations of our deepest insecurities. At its best, horror as a genre has always done that. The Exorcist played with the violation of innocence, the loss of faith, single parenthood, and the limits of our understanding of the human mind. Alien played with forced impregnation, isolation, and the idea that humans aren’t the smartest sentient lifeforms out there. More recently, we’ve seen movies like Cabin in the Woods playing with standard horror tropes and asking audiences to look for a deeper meaning within the patterns of our cultural narratives and the stories we tell. All of that is a round about way of saying I like horror movies, and I want to highlight a few of the recent ones that do interesting things in terms of examining fear, flipping tropes, and asking questions beyond how much blood can we throw at the screen. I’m probably one of the last people to see and discuss these movies, but in case I’m not, beware – spoilers abound.
It Follows came out in 2014. It’s been much-lauded since, and rightly so. The premise is simple: you have sex with someone who is being followed, and from that moment on, you will be followed too. The creature that does the following can look like anyone, a stranger, or someone you know. It doesn’t want anything. It cannot be reasoned with. It will walk straight at you, slowly but relentlessly. It will never stop, not until you’re dead, and then it will turn back on the person who infected you. It Follows plays on the teen slasher trope of sex getting you killed. There’s an element of shame in the standard trope – being virginal earns you safety; being promiscuous earns you a violent death. It Follows turns the trope sideways. Your risk is also your safety. Sex exposes you to the monster, but it protects you as well. Having sex with someone else passes the monster on. Like the videotape in The Ring, the more copies that are made, the more sex that occurs, the more layers there are between the you and the monster. If the standard sex-as-death trope can be read as a metaphor for sexually transmitted disease, then It Follows’ take can be read as a metaphor for life itself. Nothing is safe. There is risk in everything, but some things are worthwhile. There’s a dreamy, timelessness to It Follows. It deliberately calls back to the horror movies of the 70s and 80s with its stylistic choices. At the same time, it is set in the here and now, with prominent use of modern technology like an e-reader. And it is set outside time, with that e-reader technology divorced from any recognizable form it exists in today, instead being housed inside what is essentially a make-up compact. The group of friends who band together against the monster of It Follows give the movie the feel of films like The Goonies, E.T., and Stand By Me – a buddy film about growing up and coming of age, rather than harkening to the teen slasher model where characters are picked off one by one and only one can survive. There’s a kind of childhood innocence to it, the idea that we are stronger together than alone. Which goes back to the way the movie treats sex, not as something adversarial, but something that brings people together. The ending of the movie is beautifully ambiguous. In the last scene, two characters walk down a sidewalk, while a third follows. Perhaps the monster is still with them, or maybe it’s merely coincidence. My preferred interpretation is acceptance. The characters have chosen to let go of their fear, knowing they can’t control everything. Safety in life is never guaranteed, but you can’t let terror rule you.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is another 2014 release, similarly praised and similarly deserving. It’s an Iranian vampire film, shot in black and white, resulting in a piece that is stark, moody, and full of beautiful lighting and striking images. It plays with some of the same fears and insecurities as It Follows, but from a different angle. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes on the idea of deserved death, the idea that women putting themselves in ‘risky’ situations deserve whatever happens to them. Instead of being a cautionary tale where a girl breaking the rules is punished, thereby restoring order, the movie makes the girl alone at night the predator herself. There are shades of Let the Right One In, of innocence subverted, and those deadly supernatural beings giving protection to those who have been beaten down by life. The subversion of innocence in both movies – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Let the Right One In – also plays into the idea that there is no such thing as innocence. The people being protected are just that, people, flawed, and capable of doing terrible things in their own right. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night also deals with addiction, loneliness, and the ties that bind us to other people – money, sex, love, duty, and blood. Here monstrousness is being outside, separated from others and unable to relate to the basic elements of humanity. While the ending is less ambiguous than It Follows, the final scene of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is open-ended. Again, it calls back to Let the Right One In, with two characters leaving the familiarity of home, and surrendering themselves to possibility, uncertain of what the future might hold.
Hush, released in 2016, is quiet horror in a very literal sense. The main character is a deaf-mute author living in an isolated house in the woods. Her nearest neighbor is murdered in what appears to be a random sport killing, and she becomes the next target of the killer’s pre-murder cat and mouse game. Not being part of deaf culture, I can only give the perspective of a hearing person on the effectiveness of the movie. It doesn’t feel exploitative, but that isn’t for me to judge. From my own perspective, it primarily feels like a standard home-invasion horror movie, but ramped up to an extra degree of difficulty. The character cannot call for help, and the would-be killer cuts power – and therefore internet access – to her home, preventing her from contacting the outside world in an other way. Everything takes place in a single location, over a few hours, with nothing extraneous padding the plot. The killer is never even given any motivation for his actions, but in this case, it’s a feature not a bug. Everything extraneous is stripped away, leaving only tension, fear, and a sense of desperation. Even though there’s nothing supernatural about Hush, the blank-slate nature of the killer gives him the relentless feel of a zombie. He cannot be reasoned with and nothing will stop him. The opening scene is brilliant in its use of sound, first giving the viewer a hyper-awareness of every day noises as the main character cooks dinner, then taking those sounds away and giving them a glimpse into her world. There is very little dialogue in the movie, leaving the focus solely on action, and psychological fear. Despite all this, the main character never feels like a victim. She’s resourceful, and she refuses to give up. When one tactic doesn’t work, she tries another. What is particularly refreshing is that the protagonist is given space to experience the terror of her situation – as any human would – but she isn’t reduced to only her terror. In terms of horror tropes, Hush can be seen as taking the final girl as its starting point, and unrolling from there, showing just what someone isolated and alone can do against an unstoppable force. Despite the lack of the supernatural, Hush is an effective horror, one that takes our fears, and allows us to explore them at a safe remove through the medium of film, the way the best horror movies do.
These are just a few of the recent crop of quieter horror movies, and I have several more on my radar. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your opinion. If you’ve seen It Follows, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, or Hush, what did you think of them? What are your recent must-see horror movies? Let me know so I can add them to my list!