Esoteric Horror at GFF 2015

Are we going through a mini horror renaissance? Upcoming releases, including inventive slasher It Follows and allegorical animal-uprising oddity White God, suggest a resounding yes

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 10 Feb 2015

No genre is more derivative than that of horror. So rote are these scary movies that all one need do to score satirical points against them is point out their shopworn tropes. For evidence, see smart-arsed meta-horrors like Cabin in the Woods or the Scream series, where comedic oxygen is generated simply through a character's suggesting they go outside to investigate a suspicious noise or read aloud from the creepy-looking book that’s been mysteriously left in the basement.

The great horror movie paradox, however, is that, in the right hands, it can also be the most expressive and inventive of cinematic modes. The genre has given birth to its fair share of masterworks – think The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Psycho, The Shining – while it’s provided the perfect playground for some of our greatest visual filmmakers, with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma and David Lynch honing their skills while scaring us out of our wits.

Like all genres, its quality has waxed and waned over the years. The last decade or so has been particularly poor, thanks mainly to the popularity of the ‘torture porn’ movies (Saw, Hostel) in the mid 00s, which prefer explicit gore over implicit terror, and the ever-diminishing returns of the found footage subgenre, their camcorder shocks decreasing with each passing Blair Witch knockoff. But things are on the up – esoteric horror, where smarts trumps scares and atmosphere is as important as action, is on the rise. It can be seen in the work of young directors like Ti West (The House of the Devil) and Adam Wingard (The Guest), who take inspiration from the B-movies they grew up with in the 70s and 80s, and incorporate the era’s sharp social satire and stylish camerawork into their films. Scan critics' top-ten lists for 2014, meanwhile, and you'll find multiple entries for Under the Skin, Only Lovers Left Alive and The Babadook, three art house horror darlings that started life on the festival circuit. For the first time in years horror movie IQs are higher than their body counts.

Two such films arrive this month in the form of American indie It Follows and Cannes award-winner White God (those heading to Glasgow Film Festival can see them even earlier). At first glance, both seem rather different. The former is directed by movie whippersnapper David Robert Mitchell, who’s following up his delicate and little-seen coming-of-age film The Myth of the American Sleepover; the latter is the fifth film by Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó, known for his brooding literary adaptations. But both films see their respective directors using the genre in fascinating ways. 

David Robert Mitchell’s films are dreamy. A shaky camera and quick editing have become the cinematic shorthand to verisimilitude – Mitchell prefers an unsettlingly long take or the creeping dread of a graceful tracking shot. It's an aesthetic perfectly suited to the stalk-and-slash racket. When we’re dreaming, we know it can easily slip into nightmare, and that’s what keeps us on the edge of our seats. From It Follows' first frame we feel we’ve left reality and entered a kind of cinematic limbo. The film’s characters are in a kind of limbo too. “So much of this movie is about waiting,” Mitchell tells us, “it’s about quiet spaces in between moments of chaos.” 

What the film’s characters, and we the audience, are waiting for is the appearance of the eponymous 'It,' one of the most unsettling movie monsters in recent memory. Appropriately for a director who creates dreamlike worlds, the inspiration for the monster came from his own recurring nightmare. “In the dream I sort of knew it was a monster coming to kill me but it looked like different people.” In the film its many forms include a scowling old lady in a dressing gown, a little boy, and, most disturbingly, one of the victim’s parents sans clothes. “It was very slow, and it was always just walking straight towards me. In the nightmare I could get away from it very easily but that wasn’t comforting because of the fact it was always coming.” In the film too you can’t escape it. Your only hope is to pass the curse on to the next victim... by having sex with them. Think of it as a sexually transmitted haunting.

Stretching back to the teen slasher pics of the 1970s – including John Carpenter’s Halloween, which It Follows often recalls with its suburban setting, synth score, and gorgeous widescreen cinematography – “sex equals death” has been horror’s underlying theme. Has Mitchell just removed the subtext? He’s quick to shoot down such a straightforward reading. “My goal with this is not to moralise or make a puritanical statement by any means,” he says. “I like the idea that in this movie the trouble does start and the characters open themselves up to danger through sex, but it’s also the thing that allows them to free themselves of it – at least maybe temporarily.”

“We wanted to show that society creates its own monsters” – Kornél Mundruczó

The themes of White God are far less ambiguous. Set in Budapest, Mundruczó’s film initially takes the form of a realist melodrama, and follows a young girl as she tries to reunite with her loveable mutt, Hagen, after her brutish father dumps the dog on the side of the motorway. It looks like we’re in for a four-legged version of The Bicycle Thieves or a canine Kes, but then there’s a switch, in point-of-view and tone. The camera moves to Hagen’s low-angle perspective and the film becomes about the dog’s mistreatment at the hands of his human oppressors. He’s kicked and brutalised, bought and sold. He’s starved, thrown into dog fights and eventually locked up in the pound. Just as Hagen and his fellow inmates look doomed there’s a final twist of genre and the film enters full-on animal-apocalypse mode as the strays take back the streets of Budapest from their two-legged overlords. 

“It’s alright that it begins as a child’s story, because from there it was not far for me to build it as a fairytale – it works like a parable,” says White God’s screenwriter Kata Wéber, who’s sat next to director Mundruczó. “Specifically, the street dogs represent Hungary’s minority groups.”

The world of art house cinema doesn’t want for more movies about minority oppression, but White God doesn’t go the typically tasteful, earnest route. Like its furry hero, it has bite – and goes straight for the jugular. “We felt there are a lot of movies about minorities,” says Wéber. “They can work but we wanted to make it in a broader sense, we wanted to open up a bit…”

“In a politically incorrect way,” interrupts Mundruczó. Wéber elucidates: “We felt that when we deal with minorities we don’t really think about them as equal members of society, but more like under-races, so we felt that it’s much stronger to talk about it that way. More effective and more truthful. Our common fear is that the masses will attack, but the fear is not of other people, it’s about brutal monsters. That’s why we found it more interesting to make this picture of a dog.”

“Exactly,” adds Mundruczó. “We wanted to show that society creates its own monsters.”

What links both White God and It Follows is an innate understanding of horror’s unique powers. For Mitchell, the genre gives him room to experiment with cinematic form. “I think audiences are more open with horror in terms of doing some interesting things that maybe you don’t see in other films – doing surprising things with music, with the editing, all of that,” he suggests. “You have a little bit of space to play.”

For Mundruczó, who worked in a more highbrow mode for his first four features, horror allows his cinema to be more direct. “I felt there’s not so much interest any more in the kind of films I made previously,” he explains. “Europe has changed a lot in the last five years, but Eastern Europe has changed absolutely. The old topics are not the same. There is no slowness for example: it’s really fast, faster than the West. There’s no melancholy, it’s a much more aggressive life, so these topics are simply not working any more. I wanted to use a cinema language that uses a lot of genre elements, to try and make the bridge with the audience. I don’t want to be an elite artist.”

More esoteric horror at GFF

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
Welcome to Bad City, a black-and-white phantasm of American and Iranian pop culture, where the streets are being cleaned up by the girl of the title, a gamine blood-sucker in black chador and hipster striped T. [27 & 28 Feb]

The Samurai (Till Kleinert)
The werewolf myth gets a queer makeover in this nightmarish thriller in which a novice cop accidentally unleashes a samurai sword-wielding, cross-dressing maniac on his rural community. [27 & 28 Feb]

The Falling (Carol Morley)
A mysterious outbreak of mass hysterical fainting breaks out at a girls’ school in the late 1960s. Comparisons to Peter Weir’s masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock suggest this psychological drama is going to continue this esoteric horror wave. [26 & 27 Feb]

It Follows screens 20 & 21 Feb at GFF (director David Robert Mitchell be in attendance for a Q&A on 20 Feb) and is released across the UK by Icon on 27 Feb

White God screens 22 & 23 Feb at GFF and is released across the UK by Metrodome on 27 Feb