Trial: What is the best horror film of the past 5 years?
*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*
This week’s question: What is the most effective horror film of the past 5 years?
Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Sanjay Nimmagudda
Judge: Kyle Kizu
*Warning: Spoilers for ‘The VVitch’ and for ‘It Follows.’*
Contemporary horror movies are burdened with the stigma of excess. Whether it be excess in the form of jump scares, clichéd storylines or, more often than not, gore, recent scary movies fail to make a lasting impression of pure terror on the minds of their viewers. This is the cinematic landscape into which writer-director David Robert Mitchell introduced his 2014 horror sleeper hit, It Follows, simultaneously reinvigorating the genre while cementing the film’s place as certified nightmare fuel.
What sets It Follows apart is the film’s ability to gradually instill dread into its audience through sheer simplicity. Mitchell builds suspense and conjures up uneasiness via a basic narrative that has far-reaching real-world applicability. Gone are the chainsaw-wielding rednecks, demonic poltergeists and invincible masked killers, but the terror their histories carry with them is here in buckets. The film brilliantly supplants the cheap, and non-lasting, scares that these horror archetypes induce with a more primal and intrinsic fear present in every man, woman and child at some point in his or her life.
By simply having the ostensible ‘final girl’ Jay (Maika Monroe) relentlessly stalked by an indescribable force of evil, It Follows engages audiences on a more personable, and relatable, level. ‘When was the last time you felt as though someone or something was following you?’ the film posits. This inherently natural and ubiquitous fear is more effective and lingering because it can happen to and overcome anyone. Mitchell does not bog the film down with backstory or pad the runtime with a high body count, no. Instead, both director and production progress with the confidence that the most terrifying things in life are the inexplicable.
That’s not to say It Follows is without its subplots — a staple of the horror movie game — but the fashion in which it incorporates its motifs anxiously underscores the terror which the main narrative produces. The young adults who comprise the main cast are not trite caricatures of teenagers as audiences have come to expect within the genre, but rather, they act naturalistically, organically so to speak, and subtly convey moments of grief, trauma, sexual repression and mental illness on screen as actual teenagers would.
They are shameful, scared and unsure of what to do, but concurrently, they are not just bodies on the screen waiting to be picked off one by one. The realism in their portrayals as well as how well the film intertwines these socially taboo subjects creates an atmosphere of shame and guilt which only serves to emphasize the weight of the situation these people have found themselves in. Mitchell makes these kids likeable, empathetic and real, rendering their predicament all the more personally horrific.
What’s more, It Follows understands that what makes a horror film truly frighteningly is not simply what’s onscreen (though that is a large part of it), but rather the atmosphere established about the entire film. With a score that is both unbelievably disturbing and a beautiful callback to the iconic sinister tracks in films like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, composer Disasterpiece constructs an auditory dialogue between new age synthetic tones and classic horror film melodies which unsettles, intrigues and works beautifully in cohesion with DP Mike Gioulakis’ minimalist cinematographic style. Gioulakis boils down each shot to the bare essentials whether it be a simple car parked in an abandoned lot or the frequent, but no less harrowing, extreme long-shot of a small figure slowly inching its way toward the foreground. This is horror filmmaking without the frills and ostentatiousness of its contemporary counterparts and more terrifying because of it.
By excising the excess of modern horror while ameliorating the trope-ish tendencies of horror past, It Follows manages to deliver an innovative and, necessarily, simple story which harks on the fears and insecurities present in all of us, that never truly leave. It is the best horror film of not just the past 5 years, but of the 21st century.
Robert Eggers’ The VVitch isn’t scary in the traditional sense. But everything about it is unsettling. It is a film that is meticulously designed to flay one’s nerves for 93 minutes by any means possible, right down to the spelling of the title, an aesthetic choice that elicits existential dread from my computer’s spell check software.
The VVitch barely has any jump scares (the ones in the film are damn effective though), preferring instead to escalate the viewer’s sense of unease through the language of cinema. Immediately, we’re introduced to a world drenched in darkness; cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s use of only natural light (or lack thereof) suggests that there is neither a shred of brightness to be found nor hoped for. The visual aesthetic of The VVitch instantly communicates dreariness to the viewer, establishing the unease of what’s to come. This sense of unease is continued when we’re introduced to the farm where the main characters reside. It’s in an open field, completely vulnerable to the sinister, hungry maw of the surrounding forests. We’re constantly worrying that the titular witch will emerge from the woods and descend upon the exposed farm. Additionally, the farm is completely cutoff from society, and the isolation that imbues the film is akin to films like The Shining. In this sense, the world of the film is one that constantly and inherently invites tension.
Of course, setting alone can’t invite the full-scale unease that the film achieves, and that’s where the characters come in. The film centers around a family of 17th century New England Puritans, who experience typical household troubles, which ground them in reality. So when that sense of reality is swept away by the supernatural — literally, when baby Samuel is snatched by a witch and ground to bits — we’re invested in the well-being of the family. Mostly though, we’re most invested in the character of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s eldest daughter, who may or may not be the supernatural source of the family’s troubles. As the film progresses, we see how Thomasin is simply caught up in a family that is slowly caving into itself through their isolation, seemingly without any help from the supernatural. Thomasin never intends her family harm, and when she is consistently getting blamed for the family’s misfortunes, our unease stems from the sense that disaster is looming, despite Thomasin’s innocence.
Then, there’s the music, composed by Mark Korven. Whereas most horror films are content to blast pounding waves of noise, Korven crafts a signature sound for The VVitch by turning to period-accurate instruments such as the nyckelharpa. The string melody of “What Went We” is at once beautiful, but also intuitively evil — not unlike the film’s depiction of Satan himself. The vocal chanting of “Witch’s Coven” likewise bears an inherently sinister quality. This isn’t “avada kedavra,” but something that feels real, as if the sharp, angry chanting comes from a real coven of witches. The music of The VVitch turns an already tense film into an utterly bone-chilling one.
Regarding the religious horror on which The VVitch is based on, there’s something tactile and authentic in the way that the film approaches witches and satanic lore. It certainly comes as no small sign of approval when real Satanists lend their support to the film. The film posits the threat of Satan as a constant one for Thomasin and her family — present in the mundane, the extraordinary and everything in between — which also makes such a threat feel salient for the viewer. When Satan’s influence is posited as inevitable, maybe even condonable, that’s when the viewer truly becomes unnerved.
Ultimately, The VVitch is a thoroughly unsettling experience, one which leverages filmic language and storytelling to create an aesthetic experience of pure dread. If nothing else, the film deserves all of its plaudits for launching the career of Black Phillip, the most talented, savvy and charismatic actor of his generation.
I have to concede to Harrison that Eggers does implement painstaking detail in recreating the puritanical homestead upon which The VVitch takes place. The mood evoked by the film’s fixation on isolation, familial disputes and the unpredictability of the eponymous witch does contribute to an overwhelming amount of tension that envelops the film as a whole. It’s clear that the film’s existence as a period piece sets it apart from cinematic peers, but I would argue that said peers are not of the horror genre. What the movie accomplishes with the aforementioned plot beats, aesthetic and auditory choices and overall unnerving atmosphere is not necessarily indicative of horror so much as a drama or even thriller. The VVitch is most informed by how it captures the trial of Thomasin as a victim of historical patriarchal oppression.
Thomasin’s ascension to fully-realized autonomy is what drives the film as she is constantly belittled, disparaged and generally disregarded by her family. The film relies on her perpetual disenfranchisement as a woman in Puritan society and a daughter to a distrustful family to achieve its ultimate conclusion. I would assert that the “dreariness” and “uneas[iness]” of the movie, while undoubtedly generating fear, is not primarily meant to do so in service of fear, but rather to elicit sympathy for Thomasin’s plight.
Therein lies the delineation between classifying The VVitch as horror or drama/thriller, while a film may contain all the tell-tale signs of your run-of-the-mill scary movie, those signs are just a means to an end. And unless that end is to frighten, to horrify, to scare an audience, then that film cannot fully be classified as a horror film. The VVitch appropriates elements of horror which Harrison describes, such as Blaschke’s specific use of natural light and Korven’s string-based score, not to directly terrify but rather to emphasize the severity of Thomasin’s indescribably traumatic life.
Though scares do exist within its runtime, The VVitch functions best as a portrayal of the hardships and eventual retrieval of agency of its main character. The frights and scares, while very real, exist as tools to support and accent the journey of its central protagonist. While one might try and accuse It Follows of a similar feat, the difference is, It Follows’ narrative and thematic through lines of sex, disease etc. never overpower the film’s scares. Thomasin’s arc, on the other hand, becomes more compelling and deserving of our attention as the film progresses. It surpasses even the looming threat of the titular witch, that is, until Thomasin becomes her. In fact, when compared to It Follows’ straight-forward narrative, the intricacy of The VVitch’s storyline and the stark lens it casts on the familial dynamic as well as Thomasin’s identity make it a better film. Just not a better or scarier horror film.
Arguing that The VVitch is a better horror film than It Follows is no easy task, especially when Sanjay makes his point as thoroughly as he did. I can’t deny that It Follows is one of my favorite recent films, not least because its simple, atmospheric scares capture the anxiety of being followed, and of teenage sexuality.
Still, I would argue that the scares in The VVitch work in the same ways that those of It Follows do, but more effectively. It Follows leverages Mike Gioulakis camera work to create scares, in particular through the long takes that create a sense of anxiety for the viewer. But The VVitch makes the same play. The final scene of Thomasin walking into the woods lingers on her slow departure, going further and further away from the camera. This shot follows the same methodology as the cinematography in It Follows, but the anxiety of the shot is heightened because of the way that the film consistently escalates tension. The VVitch allows its viewer no time to breathe, no escape from the film’s ever tightening grasp on the viewer. Quite frankly, there’s hope for the characters in It Follows; they have the chance to pass on the specter of death that follows them. Thomasin, in The VVitch, has no such luxury. Her entire world crumbles away, and the shot of her walking into the forest — a climactic moment — only serves to highlight this fact. Sure, she might be better off with the witch’s coven, but nowhere in the film does the viewer not feel tense.
In regard to atmosphere, The VVitch is arguably more hauntingly atmospheric than It Follows. Robert Eggers’ experience as a production designer comes out in full force: the film’s color palette, eerie music, blunt but mysterious approach to the supernatural and utilization of 17th-century aesthetics all create an atmosphere that coalesces to haunt and unnerve the viewer. In this sense, the atmosphere of The VVitch is more unified and purposeful than that of It Follows.
Ultimately though, both It Follows and The VVitch are two of the best recent horror films. Yet, the constant tension and unique aesthetic atmosphere of The VVitch give it an edge that It Follows lacks.
The arguments are exactly what I hoped for out of this specific trial. They’re rather different. Harrison focuses on the complexity of production and the viscerally unsettling experience, while Sanjay focuses on the incredibly efficient, effective and simple story. Both are cases made well, cases that show how incredible the horror genre can be and, if all to base a judgment off of, impossible to pick between.
But there’s a clear winner, and it’s because someone shot themselves in the foot in the rebuttals. Sanjay seems to take the route of arguing for why The VVitch isn’t even primarily a horror film in the first place. It’s a bold strategy, but it doesn’t pay off. He makes the case for how the tension and unease are in service of a dramatic idea in regard to the film’s main character, which he believes makes it more of a dramatic film than a horror one. It’s an idea, sure. But I never understood why that meant that The VVitch‘s scares and fright aren’t indicative of horror, of rather good horror. Wouldn’t that make it a better horror film? That its scares and frights are in service of story and character and not just there for horror’s sake? Isn’t that the very idea you present in your own argument for It Follows? That it isn’t cheap? And if It Follow‘s themes are in service of the horror, and not the other way around, wouldn’t that make it cheap?
It was too bold of an attempt, and not one that had to be made.
In Harrison’s rebuttal, he uses the angle that Sanjay does in his very own argument for It Follows to take down that film — talk about effectivity, and how The VVitch is more so.
Do you agree with Kyle’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different horror film as the best of recent years? Sound off in the comments.
Harrison Tunggal: 3-1
Levi Hill: 1-0
Kyle Kizu: 0-2
Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-1
Featured image via Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/A24.