There’s one thing common between the directors of the Spider-Man reboot (Jon Watts), Aquaman (James Wan), Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson) and Star Wars: Rogue One (Gareth Edwards), some of the biggest upcoming summer films of the next few years: they started out with indie horror.
Watts debuted with gore-laden Clown, Edwards’s first film was a horror film titled Monsters, while Wan and Derrickson are scare-a-thon legends now, with Wan having helmed the Saw series, Insidious and Conjuring, and Derrickson having kickstarted the Sinister franchise as well as directing a bunch of other horror films like Deliver Us From Evil and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The four of them aren’t exceptions to a rule, in fact, they are the new rule – the offsprings of the ‘rise and rise of indie horror’ trend.
Directors with an indie horror background are now being picked to helm money-spinning, extravagant franchises because of their proven track record with low-budget, high-concept horror, even as new directors are readily filling those places with fresh and terrifying takes on a genre as old as the movies itself.
Take some of the biggest successes of the last few years, purely based on return of investment, and it is only original takes on horror that stand out – from home invasion thriller The Purge (cost $3 million, grossed $83 million) to supernatural horror Mama (cost $15 million, grossed $146 million) to haunted house The Conjuring (cost $20 million, grossed $318 million). There’s been no better time to experiment with unique, edgy horror, and no better time to be a horror movie fan.
The genre’s most successful producer, James Blum, whose production house Blumhouse Productions is behind everything from The Paranormal Activity to Insidious to The Purge, in a Nerdist.com interview reveals that indie horror has worked so well recently because as compared to old school tropes of VFX trickery, his films have been ‘grounded’ and ‘reel-feeling’. He’s got three main reasons on why indie horror is booming: “Horror is scarier without special effects, you don’t need movie stars in it and you need locations where you feel vulnerable, like your house or particularly, your bedroom. The more claustrophobic it is, the scarier it is.”
Blum’s methodology is just that simple: smart, inexpensive filmmaking, with legitimate ‘filmmakers’. That’s also why indie horror has been moving away from werewolves, vampires and zombies or slasher, splatter and body horror, and has recently gifted us arthouse horror, helmed by auteur directors of the future, with the focus just as much on nuances, details and superior filmmaking, as it has been on thrills. These are the very same directors who are now getting picked up to showcase their artistry on the big screen.
Take the example of last year’s most buzzed about indie horror, ‘It Follows’. Sitting at a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 96% ‘Fresh’ (contrast it with The Shining, that’s at 91%!), it was counted among several critics’ year end list of 2014’s Best Films. In an interview with Indiewire.com, RADiUS-TWC CEO Tom Quinn reveals how director David Robert Mitchell – who is Hollywood hot property now – had put together a book of visual references and had a strong sense of style, character and place. Quinn decided to produce the film because it’s a horror film that’s “character driven” and “has a real director’s point of view, which is so rare.”
Australian writer-director’s Jennifer Kent is a similar story. Her strong storytelling in last year’s The Babadook, won over Hollywood to the extent that she was in the running to direct DC Entertainment’s ‘Wonder Woman’. And then there’s this year’s The Witch. One of the first indie horror films to have got its director (Robert Eggers) a Sundance Film Festival Award for Best Direction in the Dramatic category, The Witch, scheduled for release in 2016, has had distributors lining up to bask in its reflected glory, for the spooks its offers as well as the meticulousness with which director Eggers created 1630s’ New England, where the film is set.
This trend has now resulted in several genre movie fests coming up all across the world, with Texas’ Fantastic Fest, being a horror movie fan favourite. There’s also Canada’s ‘Toronto After Dark Film Festival, UK’s ‘Fright Fest’ and LA’s ‘Screamfest’. India also jumped into the mix with the Mumbai Film Festival announcing an ‘After Dark’ section in this year’s edition, which will screen films post 11 pm and is being curated by Jongsuk Thomas Nam, a veteran curator of genre films.
With Anurag Kashyap’s Phantom Films having made a deal with Blumhouse Productions last year for a multi-year and multi-film deal, exciting times are ahead for Indian horror film buffs as well, even as they continue lapping up international indie horror films each month. As horror movie specialist Raven Banner Entertainment’s James Fler puts it in an Indiewire conversation, “What’s funny in the US might not be funny in Asia — but scary is scary everywhere.”
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Note: This piece first appeared in The Juice in the December 2015 issue. An edited version can be found here: http://www.jabong.com/juicestyle/magazine/film-indie-horror/
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