While the winter and spring offerings at the multiplex continue to disappoint, consider looking to these smaller-budget, independent films at your local art house or on Video On Demand. In particular, it seems as though indie productions are beginning to cater more to audiences looking for smart, adult-themed genre films like thrillers, mysteries and horror films. It may be becoming harder and harder to finance films like these—that is, without a built-in audience from novel or comic book sales—but they’re beginning to grace Apple TVs and Rokus more frequently.
Thanks to overwhelmingly positive reviews and word-of-mouth from genre film festivals, It Follows has been plucked from its planned VOD released and tapped to roll out in limited release to screens throughout the country. It’s a good thing too, because the film is one of the freshest, liveliest and most technically assured horror movies in years.
It Follows is about the suburban teenager Jay, who must outrun a curse she “contracts” after having sex with a new boyfriend. The rules are simple, but terrifying: ghostly figures only Jay can see will continue to follow her—slowly, but tirelessly—unless she’s passes on the curse by sleeping with someone else.
There may or may not be much substantive cultural criticism to unpack about the the psychological effects of promiscuity, but the central metaphor of STDs as an inexorable curse makes for a potent horror setup. Director David Robert Mitchell masterfully wrings dread from the scenario, creating some genuinely creepy and memorable sequences by foregrounding the space both on- and off-screen.
He fills his impeccably-framed widescreen canvases with menace, preferring the suspense of a known, approaching threat to the cheap surprise of an unseen one. Though never resorting to the laziness of the trendy “shaky-cam,” Mitchell’s camera is often mobile, employing circular pans to emphasize the claustrophobia of knowing the next attack could come from anywhere. Unsettling stuff.
A sort of updating of Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, the Brooklyn-set Wild Canaries follows a couple unwittingly drawn into amateur espionage when their elderly neighbor dies under mysterious circumstances. Like Allen’s film, however, Wild Canaries recognizes that the fraying relationship of its well-drawn couple is both funnier and more dramatic than the shady goings-on and uses the spying as a chance to both drive a wedge between the two and help them reconnect.
Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine and starring himself and his real-life wife Sophia Takal, Wild Canaries is winning thanks to its wit and low-key charm. A supporting performance from Arrested Development alumna Alia Shawkat in particular points to the naturalism and humanity the film finds in these likeably unlikeable characters.
Like Wild Canaries, Backcountry uses a familiar genre scenario to crawl under the skin of a quietly dysfunctional relationship. In both cases, the couples are outwardly happy; they talk and laugh and aren’t outwardly hostile towards each other, but this complacency hides resentments and festering mistrust.
Backcountry is a smaller and more narrow film, but it too communicates with the audience in familiar ways thanks its genre: the wilderness survival thriller. Alex and Jenn travel into the woods for their first camping trip together. Alex fancies himself an expert outdoorsman, but Jenn is a novice and not sure how much of Alex’s confidence is empty braggadocio. Soon the pair are lost and running low on supplies, but there’s a bigger, furrier threat lurking in the woods.
Adam MacDonald makes the most of a limited budget and some formal constraints (a small cast, a wordless last act) to deliver a scrappy and satisfying thriller. There are few surprises—its events are foreshadowed early, which only makes the buildup more tense and fun—but Backcountry follows through on its promises.