Sometimes, being a horror fan means bringing a lot of qualifications into your love of the genre. You start saying things like "That was good...for a stupid, bloody slasher movie." You embrace pleasant surprises and sing the praises of films that even slightly tray outside of the rigid templates that have been in place for decades. Horror buffs know when to shrug off a mediocre film's bad qualities and embrace the handful of elements that work because there are so many tired, derivative and shallow scary movies.
What's astonishing about The Babadook and It Follows, both of which played at Fantastic Fest 2014, is how they don't need your pity or your half-assed appreciation. These are two horror movies so confident in their basic storytelling that they could function as unforgettable dramatic experiences with compelling characters if they weren't singularly terrifying experiences. The fact that they're the two scariest films of 2014 is just a bonus.
Although produced in different nations by completely different creative teams, the two films have more in common than you'd expect. Both are set in the suburbs, where their female protagonists face off against unknowable supernatural forces that act as powerful metaphors for real life trauma. In the case of The Babadook, the title monster is a literal stand-in for Amelia's (Essie Davis) grief and depression, which still linger on seven years after the death of her husband on the day her son was born. In It Follows, the titular "it" is a more open-ended device and threat for Jay (Maika Monroe) -- a mysterious force that could represent everything from a sexually transmitted disease to the dread that comes from approaching adulthood.
Many filmmakers will claim that their horror movies are "about" something greater than cool monsters and gnarly gore, but this is usually well-tread ground. Man's inhumanity to man, loss of innocence, and so on and so forth. The Babadook and It Follows are so refreshing because they embrace the representative power of the horror genre while truly have something unique to say. That the films are made with exceptional craft only seals the deal.
The Babadook is writer/director Jennifer Kent's first feature film and it's one of the most confident debuts in recent memory. Kent knows her way around startling imagery and jump scares like an old pro, but it's her attention to character that makes this a frontrunner for the best horror movie of the year. Yes, Amelia does read her son an evil children's book that brings a demonic entity into her home and threaten to destroy her family, but every scare only exists to better inform us of her emotional status and her relationship with her young son.
The Babadook itself is a wonder of design and execution (evoking German expressionism with a 21st century twist), but this is not a creature feature. This a movie about the demons we bottle up, the pain we let rattle around our minds and the baggage that weighs on our souls. You don't have to have lost a husband to relate to Amelia's experiences. The Babadook itself is grief. Its mental illness. Its depression. It's trauma. It's guilt. It's everything that you keep bottled up because you know that confronting it is painful...and that it can change you. Essie Davis does brave work in this film, elevating the "strong mother" horror archetype into something primal and real and heartbreaking. It's the kind of performance that defines are career. Her and Kent have created as astonishing horror heroine in a movie with a unique feminine perspective. It's beautiful and sad and yes, genuinely terrifying. It's like someone snuck vegetables into your dessert. Or someone snuck an intense therapy session into your haunted house.
While The Babadook sneakily plays with the haunted house concept, It Follows is a deranged coming-of-age movie, a horror movie about the painful transition from childhood. The rules of the film's menacing antagonist are simple: it becomes "attached" to you after a previous victim has sex with you, it can take on any form it pleases and it will never stop pursuing you...but it will never move faster than a brisk stroll. Additional details about how "it" operates are revealed throughout the movie, but its purpose and origin are intentionally kept in the dark. It's like a campfire tale or an urban legend you heard at a slumber party -- it feels like it's been around forever.
Maika Monroe leads a cast of wonderful, naturalistic young actors and actresses, playing a horror victim worthy of our sympathy and concern. For a film with such a fantastical premise, It Follows is steeped in naturalism. The characters feel real and their world (which exists in an unspecified time) is rich and detailed. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell borrows '80s horror tropes without fetishizing them, making an experience that feels warm and familiar without resorting to horror fan wankery. There's something comforting about these characters and their Amblin-esque neighborhood, which makes the intrusion of the always-walking entity even more unsettling. And oh, it's unsettling. With a monster that moves this slow, Mitchell relies on clever framing and carefully calculated editing to build his scares. You've never seen anything like it.
The central metaphor of It Follows may be (intentionally) ill-defined, but like The Babadook, its universality makes it all the more powerful. These movies get under your skin because they're terrifying, but they get into your soul because they're as personal and character-driven and rich and thoughtful as films in a more "prestigious" genre. Horror is the redheaded stepchild of fiction, but movies like this showcase the genre's endless possibilities. Everyone wants the scary thrill ride, but they need art will ask them to confront their fears.
Horror movies simply do not get better than this. The fact that they cover such complementary ground, and are therefore ideal for a double feature, is one of 2014's greatest cinematic miracles. Watch them in the dark.
Click here for the rest of our Fantastic Fest 2014 coverage.
MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB: