What makes a New Horror Film Good in the Modern Day?
IF YOU’RE A horror junkie, you were probably counting the days until It Follows hit theaters. The indie horror flick has been the beneficiary of a creepy-whisper campaign of good buzz since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last May. But if you haven’t devoted your days to obsessively tracking the film festival circuit (how could you?), you should know this movie is worthy of every good review it’s gotten.
So to whom or what do we owe our gratitude for this horror gem? Like with every film, It Follows, which hit theaters Friday, had a talented team working in disparate roles to create one seamless work of art that looks like it born from a mist. But for this one, there were three people who did the most to chill viewers bone deep: writer/director David Robert Mitchell, his Final Girl Maika Monroe, and composer Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace). Here’s how this unholy trinity made one of the best horror films of the year.
The Director: David Robert Mitchell
Writer/director Mitchell’s first feature, The Myth of the American Sleepover, focused on a group of teens hungry for meaning and experience during their last night of summer vacation. Himself a native of Clawson, Michigan, Mitchell set Sleepover in a suburb of Detroit and even filmed scenes in the same park he frequented growing up. The cast was a collection of relatable unknowns and the movie itself drew comparisons toDazed and Confused—the kind of micro-experience coming-of-age movie people like to call “tender” or “youthful” or “dreamy” and pulls lightly on your “Remember when…” heart strings. It debuted at SXSW in 2010 and was warmly reviewed.
For It Follows, which earned its director a place on our list of Sundance Film Festival heroes, Mitchell opted for a different type of nostalgia. He went back to the outskirts of Detroit with a very under-the-radar set of actors (not quite as green as his Sleepover cast, but still largely unknown), and this time instead of recalling the follies of his youth, he summoned the deeply situated fear he felt from a childhood dream.
“I wrote the script in 2011, but I’ve had the basic idea for the film in my head for a really long time,” Mitchell says. “The sort of core idea of being followed by some sort of monster came from a recurring nightmare I had when I was like 9 or 10.”
The monster in this case is a relentless, slow moving entity with no definite form—similar in principle to the creature in one of Mitchell’s favorite movies, The Thing. And when asked which kind of monster he prefers to do the scaring in horror movies, he says he likes a “very slow, very cool” creature, which is exactly what he delivers in It Follows. The “It” can be anyone you know. Or anyone you don’t. It can fill a different vessel whenever It wants. It doesn’t speak. It doesn’t run. It just walks. It walks right towards you on a deliberate, direct path until It finally has you. And then you die. It is not personal or passionate about killing you. That’s just what It does.
The sort of core idea of being followed by some sort of monster came from a recurring nightmare I had when I was like 9 or 10.DIRECTOR DAVID ROBERT MITCHELL
Mitchell is clearly a horror fanboy, and It Follows serves as both an homage to films that inspired him, and a continuation of their tradition of favoring simmering tension over constant spikes of stimulation. “In this film there are some moments of chaos when this thing actually arrives but most of the movie is about the waiting spaces,” says Mitchell. “I like the idea of being introduced to the world. Know that something is waiting around the corner and you can milk it a little bit. That’s where some of the fun is.”
It Follows never feels like it’s aping its predecessors, but the movie’s DNA is wound tightly, and lovingly, with his filmic inspirations. Mitchell grew up loving the zombies of George Romero movies (Dawn of the Dead is his favorite), and the mindless, people harvesting drones of Invasion of the Body Snatchers(preferably the 1956 one, not the one with Jeff Goldblum from 1978). The road map for It Follows is clear, but the path Mitchell takes to reach his goal still feels fresh and unique.
As far as what comes next for Mitchell in the wake ofFollows, he says he’s got tons of thoughts, but is naturally reluctant to discuss ideas in such an early stage. He will say, though, that he’s scheming on a drama picture and a “mystery adventure,” and that he’d love to get into TV production, too. And considering the recent trend of directors hot-footing from indies to blockbusters (see: Colin Trevorrowdirecting Jurassic World, Josh Trank directingFantastic Four) it felt prudent to ask Mitchell if he’d want, like, a Star Wars spinoff movie or the like.
“I would love to work on a larger scale at some point. I intend to eventually. I would love to have some more resources,” Mitchell says before adding that he’s not clamoring for a mega-franchise just yet. “I want to have a lot of control over what I’m doing. I like writing what I’m doing. My gut tells me I would get clobbered right now if I tried that.”
And while we don’t want to pigeonhole the guy, It Follows was just so good we had to know if he’s got any more scary movie scripts kicking around in his head, even if they haven’t been in gestation for decades. Sadly, but wisely, Mitchell says he wants to take on some fresh material before he gets back to scaring the hell out of us. “I intend to do another horror at some point but maybe not next,” he adds. “When you do one these movies you put yourself in that world. There’s a lot of anxiety.” Considering how much anxiety Follows gave us in the theater, we can hardly blame him.
The Final Girl: Maika Monroe
When you Google image It Follows, you probably see a pretty young blonde tied to a chair looking scared. Or a pretty young blonde in a swimming pool looking scared. That pretty young blonde is Maika Monroe, the face of fear in Follows and part of a young crop of actresses in Hollywood steadily building resumes that are atypical for most young ingénues.
“I love horror. There’s something so great about scaring the shit out of yourself,” says Monroe. “It’s important to me that it’s a challenging role. I just want to keep doing that kind of stuff.”
Monroe had a quietly spectacular 2014.Follows premiered to broad acclaim in May, then in September her second genre picture of the year, The Guest(directed by Adam Wingard), garnered huge critical praise even if it only got a narrow theatrical release. “I remember reading The Guest and thinking ‘This is going to be something!’” she says. “I feel like both movies have a kind of throwback feel to them. Both directors have such unique styles. I was just thinking ‘I want to play this role. I want to be part of it.’”
Monroe has a haunting, soft beauty on screen. She looks like the third Fanning sister and feels like she could be seamlessly swapped into any role played by Elizabeth Olsen. For It Follows, she plays Jay, an easygoing, well-adjusted teenager with a super ordinary suburban life. That sounds simple enough, but when that teen’s life is suddenly disrupted by a traumatic sexual experience and the subsequent plight of being stalked by an unstoppable malevolent force, you have to keep the audience believably engaged. As the lead in a horror movie, you are the audience, and you have to provide the nuance of real life in very unrealistic situations.
“The plan all along was to put the film together and then go and find the best actors, a group we hoped would be able to come together and form this little gang,” says Mitchell. “Maika had a really amazing audition. There’s a vulnerability in her performance that was really cool. It’s a tricky part to play, and to play it in a way that you really believe in the character, not just someone screaming and running around”
And for a film so shaped by its subtlety and attention to details (e.g. no displays of current technology or cultural references that could make it feel dated), it was the bitsy stuff that really put Monroe in Jay’s skin.
“We were able to spend like a week and a half before we started filming just sitting with David and talking about what he wanted to create here, working on the character and the look of her,” Monroe says of her prep for the role. “The hair and the wardrobe was really specific so I think that helped a lot in bringing her to life.”
The end result of Mitchell and Monroe’s commitment to presenting the middle class American average pays off big, with Jay feeling as real as any girl you asked to prom or had lazy sleepovers with. There isn’t a belaboring of backstory or sexual history or favorite snacks. Jay becomes real because Monroe inhabits her so fully, which means when she starts getting scared, you start getting real scared both for her and with her.
In addition to well-received releases in 2014, Monroe wrapped shooting on a pair of movies and just signed on to star in the drama The Tribes of Palos Verdeswith Tye Sheridan and Jennifer Garner. The 21-year-old also has two other completed projects arriving soon. The smaller of the two is called Bokeh, a Kickstarter-assisted sci-fi drama about a couple on vacation in Iceland when the rest of the world’s population disappears. And the considerably larger endeavor is The Fifth Wave, Hollywood’s next hot YA property about Earth in the aftermath of an alien invasion (she appears alongside Chloë Grace Moretz and Liev Schreiber).
But for this moment, it’s all about putting Follows out into the world after pounding the pavement on its behalf for nearly a year. (When I liken her final days on the promo campaign to a music group at the end of a tour who never want to play their hit single again, Monroe laughs pretty hard, but noticeably does not correct me.) And as she goes headlong into an even bigger year than the last, Monroe has learned two valuable lessons. One is that it’s important to live in the moment, but still stop on occasion to say “This is freaking incredible!” and the other is that she has a cap on how much she watch herself on screen.
“I have a rule now that I can only watch a movie twice,” Monroe explains. “By the third time I was watching The Guest I was hating everything about it, but the first time I loved it. The first time you watch it, you watch it as a whole. And the second time I think you can learn a lot. By the third time you are just picking everything apart.”
You just keep going after interesting scripts, Ms. Monroe. We’ll do the watching for you.
The Secret Star: Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace)
Even if you don’t read a stitch of material about It Follows before seeing it, Mitchell’s love of John Carpenter reads strong enough to render explanation superfluous, and nowhere in the film is that more apparent than its pulsating, synth-heavy soundtrack.
“I definitely wanted something really bold. Everything had to be a strong choice,” says Mitchell. “Everything was about being very specific and very clear and very deliberate. We wanted that balance between beautiful melodies and controlled noise, almost something that would assault the audience.”
And really, the director could not have chosen a better word than “assault.” If Carpenter had Trent Reznor around to score Halloween back in 1978 (one of Mitchell’s other favorite movies), the end result would have been a lot like It Follows. And to manufacture the controlled sonic chaos of the movie, Mitchell sought out the help of Berkeley-based composer Rich Vreeland, who records under the moniker Disasterpeace.
“I wanted to dive in with David after I saw his last film. I knew he was masterful at bringing out a sense of humanity in his characters,” says Vreeland. “The first cut I saw was silent, but even so I knew right away that this was going to be something great. I found David’s deliberate style opened up a lot of space to explore as a composer.”
If Mitchell is the brains behind Follows and Monroe is the beating heart, Vreeland is its nervous system, relaying the impulses that make your body spaz uncontrollably when the music crescendos and It appears on screen. It’s now-invaluable contribution that almost didn’t happen.
“I had a lot of work underway and did not have much time,” Vreeland explains. “I turned him down at first, but he could tell that I wanted to work on the film. After much discussion, I gave in to his persistence. I’m glad I did!”
Mitchell first discovered Vreeland when he heard the music in a puzzle game called Fez. (The entire Fezsoundtrack is streamable on Vreeland’s website and shows a clear framework for what would become It Follows.) The director and composer started out discussing guitars and other acoustic instruments, but ultimately decided that the synthesizer possessed the versatility necessary for the movie’s undulating moods. The two didn’t see eye-to-eye on every decision, but that kind of artistic push and pull resulted in a fantastically layered and dynamic ambient experience throughout the movie.
“I tried to be loud, wild and unpredictable,” says Vreeland. “We had some creative disagreements at times, but that’s a routine part of collaborating. I wanted the sounds to be warmer and rounder in certain spots. He sometimes yearned for brighter, more digital tones. I think we are both quite content with how things turned out, though.”
But how does the experience stack up against scoring videogames, which until this point has been Vreeland’s primary soundtracking medium? Vreeland calls music design for games a rewarding but intense process. It’s a brain teaser as much as it is an artistic endeavor, and since his work on Follows, he considers composing for narrative projects a more “zen” process by comparison.
“Scoring film is in some ways a nice reprieve from working on games,” Vreeland says. “I’m coding, play-testing, and doing lots of logistical problem-solving. I’m trying to make each interaction between the game and the sound symbiotic. … The structure of a film is more of a known quantity, and I can just get on with it. The linearity of scoring film makes it easier for me to perceive the outer limits.”
Much like any creative pursuit, refining a piece of music or a piece of art or a piece of writing can be an infinite process. There’s always one more thing to be fixed, but Vreeland knew he was done with It Follows when the sound was was “satisfying and gruesome,” which seems like the best set of adjectives to apply to a horror movie from any standpoint. It’s also funny, considering Vreeland had “straight up avoided horror films until recently,” and grew up shying away from most all things scary.
“As a kid I was a total chicken,” Vreeland admits. “I wouldn’t even go on the Snow White ride at Disney World because of the witch. But working on It Followshas invigorated my appetite for scarier films.”
You won’t find us casting aspersions on your cred, Rich. The score for Follows deserved its own credit alongside the cast of the movie, and besides, you had us at “perceive the outer limits.”