So to recap a bit, we’re looking at two horror movies, Don’t Breathe and IT FOLLOWS, comparing them. All of the claims, are of course, my own opinion. If you have followup points to each part defending or attacking one or the other please PLEASE do it in the comment section.
Also be warned, SPOILERS ARE AHEAD
Now in this part, we aren’t so much looking at the separate film’s stories and setting as we are the genre scares and the monsters in each movie. How do they try to scare us?
PART 2-What Makes Good Horror and Better Monsters
In looking at horror movies today, it’s pretty easy to spot which beats exist to make you jump out of your seat (at least try to make you jump out of your seat). Leads up to jump scares, musical crescendos, eerie low frequencies, all designed to surprise you or make you feel uneasy. But there is an area that a lot of horror movies neglect, which is making sure that the situation is one that makes everyone feel fear.
It Follows and Don’t Breathe one similar horror theme within both of their respective stories. That theme is-
The monster knows where you are, but you don’t know where it is.
It Follows takes a pretty direct approach by having a monster that is following you to exactly where you are. Don’t Breathe places the characters in the house of a deranged blind man who can hear and feel where you are on his home turf.
I think Don’t Breathe’s situation gives it a much more tense feel. We are finding out about this house the same as the characters, and the deranged blind man knows it by heart, feel, sound, and smell. This helps the audience relate to the characters as they explore and act surprised when the deranged blind man catches them off guard. He knows the house better, and is able to use that to his advantage. All of this, coupled with a varied and chaotic soundtrack and jump scares that felt right–
Which, just for a moment, there is a good way to do jump scares. Are they usually cheap? Yes absolutely, which is why they rely on a buildup of tension to act as a release. There is a reason people usually go “aw here comes the jump scare” right before the jump scare, it’s a predictable end. What’s the good way to do jump scares? There is a scene where Alex, one of the robbers, is coming back into the house after getting freaked out. He is walking down a hallway slowly when the blind deranged guy comes wheeling from behind the corner and passes Alex, having not seen him.
There is no lead up to the scare itself, but we as the audience knew that the blind guy was walking around. We knew that Alex was entering the house. This wasn’t a fabricated buildup using non-diegetic (outside of the film’s world) music. There was very little music in fact. It was all made tense by context clues from scenes and shots before and cut together in a way that made the eventual crossing paths inevitable but we weren’t sure when or how. Thats how you can make a jump scare feel right. Present the information in a way that builds the tension for the audience as they engage in your movie trying to anticipate for something, but they aren’t quite sure why.
-But coupled with its chaotic soundtrack and its varied jumps and frights that felt just so good, brought a huge amount of natural tension to the film which carried all the way until its end. There was no break from the unease and anxiety, which helps make it an amazingly good experience, let alone a good horror film.
It Follows‘ monster basically just has the supernatural ability to find you. Which, when I first saw the trailers for it, I was super excited! It sounds like the groundwork for immediate tension: You are being hunted and it is going to find you. What do you do?
Unfortunately and even shockingly, nothing. The film was paced in such a way as the slow to a crawl at some points then bounce to kill-fuck levels of intensity at random points. It never really kept the threat of the monster going until it was right there. There is definitely an argument that for having a shock factor the random bouts of intensity could work, but not when you show the main protagonist the fucking monster and tell them to watch out for it in the beginning of the movie. This means that the character should be a paranoid wreck throughout the film. SHE SAW THE FUCKING THING COMING FOR HER, SHE KNOWS (dun dun dun) THAT IT’S FOLLOWING HER. And she does nothing but be moody at her friends, moody at the fact that there is a monster, and then scared when it eventually shows up.
Now as a counter to my own argument, It Follows could be much scarier when viewed as the traumatic experience of getting a disease like HIV or AIDS. That parallel of something lurking around waiting to kill you is a reality for a lot of people, and could have been generally terrifying, as well as a poignant look at the emotional effects of getting a deadly STD.
Except that doesn’t happen. It could have, and you could argue it, but that isn’t what happens. Instead we get 2 hours of nothing punctuated by predictable beats of shoot to thrill with an ending that see’s our characters shoot the monster in the head with a gun.
The film’s mood is barely ever there. It says it is supposed to be scary, and there is one really well done jump scare that got me to physically lift from my seat:
In almost exactly the same vein as the one from Don’t Breathe. The Antagonist just appears unexpectedly, which creates an amazing jump scare and rise in tension. But to keep the tension going, you need an antagonist that presents a constant and ever-present threat to the main characters.
Before I move on to monsters, here is a mini section called
SOUNDTRACKS and HORROR
Hey, you know what had a great horror soundtrack of minimalist ambient noises punctuated by a truly chilling orchestral score? Well it certainly wasn’t the movie with this John Carpenter wannabe noise music trash playing in it:
Okay to be fair I actually listen to a couple of songs from this soundtrack pretty regularly. It’s really good synth/electro music at points. But at certain points the score is so overbearing with its presence that it drowns out the actions of the movie and the only thing you can focus on is the music. That’s not good horror, that’s a music video. Never have your music take center stage unless you are doing it to make a point. During no part of IT FOLLOWS did i feel like they need more than just some ambient tension music. Something the audience can hear but not immediately respond to as “Hey, music!” because the movie should be holding their attention. Don’t Breathe not only had a better score, but the way they used it made it more in compliment to the visuals and story than just standalone noise that overtook the film itself.
BACK TO MONSTERS
Many horror movies have monsters, or characters that have monstrous intentions. Don’t Breathe and IT FOLLOWS are no exceptions. I would argue that the best movie monsters are twisted versions of ourselves. The Thing had the aliens that could mimic you just about right and turn you into a monstrosity. Texas Chainsaw Massacre had Leatherface. Pontypool has a virus that spreads through language turning people into killers. And, well, all zombies.
Don’t Breathe has The Blind Man. Thats his character name, and I’m going to tell you why I’m glad. Every good movie monster has something human about them. Whether its the shape of a hand or a face that looks kind of like a person, we are able to put a little bit of humanity onto every monster, which makes it scarier in my opinion. The rest is this detached inhumanity that we can’t connect with. This detachment is what makes us, instinctually, feel fear. How did they do it in Don’t Breathe? The Blind Man’s eyes.
Now it should be said that blind people aren’t creepy, they are people with the misfortune of losing their sight by accident or by birth complications.
BUT HOLY FUCK LOOK AT THIS DUDE’S EYES
His story is that he is a veteran of the gulf war and had his eyesight taken by grenade splinters. y’know, shrapnel. After a series of events, his daughter was killed by a rich woman who was driving recklessly, and was denied justice but received a large settlement out of court to keep hush hush. He now lives alone, broken both by a war and by an unjust death.
So now I bet your like “Why the fuck are they robbing this poor dude? his life ain’t exactly been on the up and up!”
Now here is why I brought up the eyes and his name. We as people have an instinctual ability to spot changes on other people. Sometimes for the worst, but it developed to see deformities that could be harmful when we were hunter gatherers. More importantly, eyes help us connect with other people. Looking people in the eyes allows us to have a stronger connection with them. What happens when you look into The Blind Man’s Eyes? You cant connect. It removes you from being able to really connect with him because there is a physical blockage making him seem inhuman, but he is a person. His motivations make him a monster however, and his blindness prevents us from seeing him as a person, and adding severity to every act of violence and sadism he makes. Hence, he has no name. He is purely The Blind Man, less human, and more monster.
So to combat this injustice he kidnapped the woman who killed his daughter and has chained her in the basement and impregnated her. This, coupled with the trauma of his time in the war, has made him a paranoid shut in intent on getting a new child and releasing the woman once she has given him one. Yup, 180 degree change on this home boy.
Actually one of the most fucked parts of the movie is when he makes a point to explain that he didn’t rape her to impregnate her, and that he isn’t one of those filthy rapists. He then takes out a vial of frozen semen, heats it up, and sucks it into a fucking turkey baster. This took him from bad guy to immediate fucking psychopath.
The only argument I would have against The Blind Man was that he talked. It was like it was trying to make it so that we could see his reasoning for his actions, but it would have been much scarier if he just performed his actions in the same way without words. Just carrying out his awful, terrible deed like a machine, never once needing to justify himself.
IT FOLLOWS has a much more supernatural entity who, as I’ve described before, is a sexually transmitted demon thing that follows you and eventually kills you. It can disguise itself as anyone just to get closer to you, and not matter how far you run it will find you.
That is a super scary concept! You know what is the opposite of scary? This:
Walking at you at the speed of a molasses covered turd. In the movie, the monster transforms into a bunch of different forms. Here is a list of some of them, and go ahead and let me know if any of them sound like “can disguise as anyone to get close to you”:
An old lady in a high-school
The same old lady on a street corner
A beat up girl peeing herself in the main character’s kitchen
A really tall guy
A small child with holes for eyes
A dad I think?
And exactly NONE of these things were previously shown to indicate any kind of similarity to someone the main character knew. The ONLY TIME it was someone one of the characters knew, the monster disguised itself as the mom of one of the girl’s friends that she passed it on to. Thats also the only time we actually see it do anything.
If you are going to have a monster with those powers, fuck with our heads a little bit. Create an atmosphere of distrust leaving the audience just as confused as the main character. And for god sakes, who the fuck thought it was a good idea to have those as the forms of the monster?! The most immediately noticeable people are the monster, which not only kills any tension but is just fucking lazy. Put a little love into your story and make it harder to spot the fucking thing, that way the scares can be genuinely shocking as trust breaks down for the main character as she tries to piece together who is her friend, and who the monster is mimicking just to get closer to her.
IT FOLLOWS suffers from a very common problem with a lot of lazy horror movies, in that it never has any established constraints. The Entity from it follows starts out with a loose couple of monster rules: It going to follow you, it is going to take the shape of anyone, and it isn’t going to stop until you are dead. It then proceeds to take only a handful of forms during the movie (all of which stick out like a sore fucking thumb), walk at the pace of a molasses covered snail, and it isn’t very good at killing people. The rules they do have are scary in a base way, but without putting care into how your monster uses these rules means you have to keep creating reasons for it to be scary and for the heroes to be threatened.
The Blind Man on the other hand is pretty well rounded. He never does any cliche teleporting that you often see movie murderers do, or at least it doesn’t feel like he does because It’s his goddamn house, he knows it better than the heroes. He feels like a threat because he is continuously threatening, being an army veteran and also crazy, and also he is really good at killing people. But he’s still a person, so they can’t just add or subtract abilities that he can do. He’s blind, so his advantages are his hearing, olfactory senses, military training, and home field familiarity. He becomes threatening because his advantages outweigh our heroes advantage of sight.
IT FOLLOWS’s monster suffered from the same laziness as it’s setting. With all the teasing promises of a thrill ride being replaced with wooden mood, acting, setting, and even atmosphere. The monster in It follows could have been scary, and there were even one or two parts of the movie where it was and could have continued to be, but instead it just fell straight flat without even being interesting.
Don’t Breathe had a dynamic villain who was equal parts terrifying but human, a dark mirror of what a sane person is. His slip into the darkness, although insane, seems all to possible for anyone now after getting details on his life. IT FOLLOWS has a lackluster demon who is only there because the plot said so and the music needed a monster to go to.
So a fun tidbit, one actor is in both of these films and dies in both of them. He is Daniel Zovatto, he plays Greg in IT FOLLOWS (who dies) and Money in Don’t Breathe (who dies). The characters themselves are polar opposites, which like, kudos to him, kid’s got range. I just thought it was kinda kooky how he’s played different characters in two horror movies set in Detroit.
Next, I’ll be talking about crafting an ending to a horror film in PART 3-Escape and Cliffhangers