This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
2015 seems to experience a slight downturn in horror movie density, compared to the years on either side of it, given that 2014 and 2016 are two of the densest years for the genre that this decade has to offer. However, with so many avenues for horror movies to be seen in the streaming era, there’s almost never a shortage of high-quality films, and this is true of 2015 as well. The overall profile for the year strikes a balance between brutal realism (‘ala Bone Tomahawk and Creep), supernatural terrors, lively horror comedies and even a particularly frightening venture into documentary.
Even among the brutal, Bone Tomahawk certainly registers high on the “ick” scale, depicting some of the most wincing scenes of gore and violence seen in the 2010s. A Western horror story set during the dying days of the Old West, it lifts some of the “frontier days coming to an end” theming seen in so many later-era westerns while injecting it with the kind of terrorizing antagonistic force you might expect to see in Aliens. This time around, it’s no xenomorph, however—instead, it’s a tribe of troglodytic cannibals who beset Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson (this guy is in a lot of 2010s horror movies) and Matthew Fox, forcing them to fight for their lives in a mission to rescue the kidnapped townsfolk. It’s a simple setup, but the grueling, slow-burn of buildup toward the climactic orgy of bloodletting ranks among the best of this decade.
Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare, meanwhile, is a film I’d like to highlight for proving that documentaries can be not only actively frightening, but downright terrifying. The director of Room 237, which delved into the crazy conspiracy theories held by certain obsessed fans of The Shining, delivers here with a documentary on the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, as told through the perspectives of those who have regularly suffered from it. The descriptions of nightly horror experienced by these unlucky souls terrifies as only truth can, because for all you know, it could be you who experiences these unsettling visions next. The fact that one interviewee says his first experience with sleep paralysis came immediately after being told about sleep paralysis will likely make you want to shut The Nightmare off and forget you ever saw it. It’s like being told that reading about heart attacks can potentially cause heart attacks.
Supernatural horror likewise gets a few notable entries here in 2015, including Guillermo del Toro’s incredibly lush and sumptuous gothic romance/ghost story Crimson Peak, which largely prioritizes eye-popping grandeur over “boo!” material, and Ted Geoghegan’s comparatively stripped down We Are Still Here, which welcomes 1980s horror icon Barbara Crampton back to the screen as a woman grappling with the charred ghosts of a cursed domicile.
Finally, for the lovers of horror comedy, The Final Girls provides a particularly cheeky, lighthearted, meta slasher alternative to the more sober material above, telling a silly story about a young woman who is magically sucked into a cliche-laden 1980s slasher movie, wherein one of the characters is played by her deceased actor mother. It’s a premise that sounds ridiculous on paper, and is equally ridiculous on screen.
2015 Honorable Mentions:
Bone Tomahawk, The Nightmare, Creep, They Look Like People, Crimson Peak, We Are Still Here, The Final Girls, Spring, The Visit, Deathgasm, Krampus, When Animals Dream
Director: David Robert Mitchell
There’s an urban legend quality to the premise of It Follows that seems both mysterious and familiar, like a campfire story you were told as a kid and are now struggling to remember in full. There’s a primal potency to it; a simplicity in how “it” operates that immediately makes this being a captivating force of evil. It’s not necessary for us to ever witness the “true form” of “it,” assuming that one exists, nor do we lose anything in not exploring the being’s origins. Like a true urban legend, we’re hearing this story not from its original source, but from someone who heard it from the friend of a friend of a friend. It’s morphed and changed along the way, with a genesis that has been completely forgotten. “It” may as well be entropy itself, for how inescapable and unknowable as it proves to be.
We only know what college student Jay (Maika Monroe) knows: She had sex for the first time with the mysterious young man she’s been seeing, and now there’s a malevolent force shadowing her every step. Film monsters are often made out to be inhumanly determined or unstoppable, but “it” takes these traits to the extreme, while also regulating them in strangely compelling ways. “It” can only be seen by the people it has stalked, who are all part of the same sexual chain of transmission. “It” never stops moving, and continually plods toward its future victim, albeit at a very slow rate. The being behaves as if beholden to some sort of magical rules system or code of conduct—with a few unfortunate lapses in internal logic, I will freely admit—and yet, there’s a strange intelligence to the entity as well. As the boy who passed on the curse describes the situation, “it’s slow, but it’s not stupid.” It’s an enthralling central conceit, and one that invites armchair speculation on how you would most efficiently handle the situation yourself: “Let’s see, if the East and West coasts are 2,600 miles apart, and I move from one to the other once a month, I can perpetually keep ‘it’ safely walking around in flyover country!” Or “If I move to Japan, will ‘it’ have to walk to me along the ocean floor? Can ‘it’ escape from the Mariana Trench?’”
All jokes aside, and despite some gripes from horror fans who slightly overstated the importance of the film’s occasional logical lapses, It Follows is both genuinely frightening and an impressive directorial achievement from David Robert Mitchell, whose use of beautifully composed wide-angle lens shots evokes a sense of enhanced peripheral vision—only sensible, when the audience is frantically scanning the horizon for “it” in almost every scene. Mitchell knows as much, and teases the viewer with several instances of a slow, 360 degree pan, which allows us to see action developing in several directions at once in real time, while adding tension generated by the steady advance of “it” every time the camera again shifts away. It’s a simple but extremely effective tool of suspense.
So too does It Follows stand out for its understated but fascinating production design, which seems meant to both evoke the director’s biggest inspirations (George Romero and John Carpenter, especially in the synthy, dreamy score) and create the impression of a story that has come unstuck from any sense of linear time. In this world, seemingly taking place in “the present day,” both old and new bits of technology appear alongside each other. Every television and car is ancient. Every film the teens watch is half a century old. Cellphones, with one exception, seem to be nonexistent. But simultaneously, one character carries around a peculiar E-reader that is unlike anything currently existing. The bombed-out urban grid of Detroit, meanwhile, suggests a post-apocalyptic landscape as imagined by Roger Corman in 1985. Every instance of design seems to suggest this setting takes place in a reality all its own.
In the end, It Follows is a film that, even as it entertains with a never-dull monster jaunt in crumbling metro Detroit, begs us to consider our ultimate, cosmic insignificance in the face of our own existential boogeymen, who can never be outrun. As Paste’s own Dom Sinacola put it, in our ranking of the 100 best horror films of all time: “It Follows is a film that thrives in the borders, not so much about the horror that leaps out in front of you, but the deeper anxiety that waits at the verge of consciousness—until, one day soon, it’s there, reminding you that your time is limited, and that you will never be safe. Forget the risks of teenage sex, It Follows is a penetrating metaphor for growing up.”
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.