Updated: Friday, 5th June 2020 @ 4:07pm

The murky world of US indie horror: From eerie 'found footage' cinema to visceral violence

The murky world of US indie horror: From eerie 'found footage' cinema to visceral violence

By Steve Balshaw, MM & GrimmFest Film Columnist

Ahead of Grimm Up North’s screening of two slices of US scare stories – Ti West’s House of the Devil and The Innkeepers – Steve Balshaw delves into the murky world of US indie horror…

At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, something rather odd happened. A film was premiered which caused so much outrage and general controversy, that one audience member actually called for it to be ‘banned and burned’. 

Footage of the irate audience member quickly went viral online, and the film, Lucky McKee’s brutal and unflinching take on family and gender politics, THE WOMAN, quickly became the must-see movie of the year for horror fans worldwide.

The cynically-minded might feel that premiering such a violent and visceral horror film at a festival best known for championing liberal minded, character-driven, redemption-themed independent films, is asking for trouble; a deliberate act of provocation. A guaranteed way to get a film noticed and talked about; to generate acres of copy online and in the trade papers.

And of course this is exactly what happened. Which is fair enough: The film business is all about the marketing - selling the sizzle not the steak - and the horror film has always traded on offering something controversial, taboo-busting, forbidden. People coming to see THE WOMAN in the wake of the Sundance song and dance were stoked up to see something truly shocking.

Yet this situation is nothing new. As far back as 1999, there was similar fuss at the same festival over another horror movie. Remember the whole “Blair Witch” Brouhaha? How about all the fuss surrounding the first Paranormal Activities movie a few years ago? Guess where that started? You guessed it. This may come as something of a surprise, but it shouldn’t. While best known for championing such break-out hits as LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (which is, it is worth pointing out, a far darker, more disturbing film than seems to be generally remarked upon), Sundance is at heart simply a festival that supports independent film. And horror has always been the most independent of cinema genres.

Over time, however, something curious has happened. Because Sundance is such an influential festival, because so many of the films it has championed have gone on to critical and popular and award-winning success, the term “independent film” has somehow shifted meaning, at least within the US.

Rather than being a blanket description for any film produced independently of any big studio system, it now generally refers to a particular style or genre of filmmaking: The kinds of films Sundance is best known for: character-driven, liberal-minded, observational, occasionally quirky, usually (although not always) redemptive in their narrative arc. And such films are not necessarily just being made by the independents. Miramax the company most closely associated with “independent film” in the USA is not in fact an independent at all; it has been owned by Disney for nearly 20 years.

Other big studios, having recognised a market, are making such films too. The result is that those “independent” directors whose early films were so instrumental in defining what is now a genre - filmmakers such as Steven Soderberg, Gus Van Sant, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Richard Linklater, etc. - all now work with A-list talent on largely big-studio-financed productions. Their various idiosyncratic filmmaking styles have been appropriated and assimilated. They have been absorbed in short into the Hollywood mainstream.

Hardly surprising, then, that, in recent years, horror, too, has seemed in danger of going mainstream, and in the process of eating itself alive. Glossy, self-referential, tongue-in-cheek slasher movies, such as SCREAM and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER; the seemingly endless number of SAW movies, and their various knock-offs; the HOSTEL films and others by Eli Roth; the slick, polished reimaginings of such notorious genre classics as TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE; all have played their part in this.

Horror is big business now. It hasn’t cleaned up its act, exactly, but something seems in in danger of being lost along the way, as big studios get involved, with their mass-saturation marketing campaigns and their targets, and their audience demographics. Sure, the gore remains, and with bigger budgets to create it, it often looks more realistic. But that illicit thrill of seeing something forbidden, something dark, something ugly, might seem, increasingly, to be a thing of the past.

But just because a genre achieves mainstream popularity does not necessarily mean that it will become overly slick and sanitised. Certainly not when it comes to horror. Horror fans are among the most cine-literate of film buffs. They are intimately familiar with every narrative trope, every directorial flourish, every stylistic tic, every over-used cliché of the genre they love. They enjoy seeing those various elements being revisited, reworked, reimagined, reconfigured.

And they love, above all, to discover something new. The true fan will always be on the lookout for something more than what the mainstream has to offer. There will always be room on the fringes for something a little rougher, a little harsher, more challenging. And because there is such an appetite for horror, right the way across the spectrum, there will always be filmmakers trying to cater to it. Spend any time working on a horror film festival, and you quickly learn just how many horror films there are out there. Horror is the one genre of film widely believed guaranteed to turn a profit.

This results in seemingly every low-budget filmmaker, every wannabe independent producer, every fly-by-night film company and distributor cranking out horror-themed product. Some of it is terrible, a lot of it merely quickly and cheaply made cash-in knock-offs of whatever is currently popular.

The “found footage” horror film, which actually dates back at least as far as 1980 and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, first achieved widespread attention in 1999 with BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, but really came into vogue with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, has proved particularly popular with the low-budget filmmaker, because the fact that a film is shot cheaply on a low-res camera can be made to look like a deliberate stylistic choice rather than a financial necessity. But amid much catchpenny and cynical bandwagon-jumping, there can also still be found films that are boundary-pushing, challenging to preconceptions, genuinely upsetting in content.

In America, a lot of the most interesting horror films currently being made are those which, while displaying intimate familiarity with the various expectations of the genre, are also looking for inspiration to non-genre “independent” films in their shooting and editing styles, production design, casting decisions, even in their use of music.

And in doing so, they have managed to offer some genuinely jarring, disquieting pieces of cinema. Lucky McKee ruffled a lot of feathers with THE WOMAN, but he’s been startling audiences since his first film, MAY (2002), which starts out very much in “independent film” mode, as a quirky, low-key study of a lonely, alienated young woman in small-town America, with something of the flatly observational style of early Richard Linklater or Gus Van Sant, and ends in a gory nightmare of dismemberment and body horror.

The shift in style and tone only adds to its potency and power to disturb. Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Habel accomplish something similar with the haunting DEADGIRL (2008), a pitch-black comedy about two alienated teenagers who find a well-preserved zombie girl and decide to keep her as a sex toy.

Playing like a horrible twist on indie classic, RIVER’S EDGE (1986), Tim Hunter’s seminal study of blank-eyed Gen-Xers who cover up a murder to protect one of their number, with occasional bursts of the stylised satiric bite of Michael Lehrman’s 1988 cult high school comedy HEATHERS (with whom it shares Exec Producer Christopher Webster), DEADGIRL offers a truly stomach-churning commentary on contemporary misogyny, by taking a truism of zombie movies to its darkest place: Zombies are not alive, so it doesn’t really matter what you do to them. In most zombie movies, this allows the director to present the viewer with gleeful, guilt-free mayhem. In DEADGIRL, the viewer is instead forced to think about the sociopathic attitudes behind such thinking. 

More recently, this fusion of the tropes of “indie” film and horror film has been taken to new levels - and indeed new extremes - by a loose collective of talent, which includes directors Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, and Ti West, writer Simon Barrett, and actors AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, and Anessa Ramsey. Wingard and Barrett’s A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, plays like a cross between HENRY PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANY MORE. The wife of a former serial killer (Seimetz) tries to rebuild her life in a new town.

Meantime, her ex-husband (Bowen) escapes from prison and cuts a bloody swathe across the country as he journeys to find her. The film has the understated, icy precision of Lodge Kerrigan’s nightmarish CLEAN, SHAVEN, unshowy naturalistic performances and dialogue that suggest the influence of the recent so-called “mumblecore” school of filmmakers (within which the film‘s third star, actor / director Joe Swanberg is a leading figure), and a shooting style - handheld, lots of focus pulling and lens flare - reminiscent of classic early 70s films such as TWO LANE BLACKTOP. The film’s depictions of quiet desperation and desperate violence build towards an inevitable, possibly controversial final twist, which takes the film finally into more familiar horror territory, but in a cruelly ironic manner.

Ti West’s HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, being screen on May 24 in Manchester, by comparison, might seem to take a more conventional approach. A retro-styled homage to the “satanic panic” movies of the 70s and early 80s, it replicates near-perfectly the look and feel of the period in which it is set - not simply in its production design, and choice of music, but in camera movement, editing, filmstock, casting.

The film’s star, Jocelin Donahue has a face which manages to resemble, simultaneously, several actresses associated with genre films of the era - Karen Allen, Margot Kidder, Lynn Lowry, Brooke Adams - depending on the camera angle. Elsewhere, iconic 80s genre stalwarts such as Dee Wallace, Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov rub shoulders with mumblecore actress Greta Gerwig and contemporary indie horror stalwart AJ Bowen.

The film revels in the kind of fetishistic attention to detail that Quentin Tarantino can only dream of, but divorced from his knowing, nudge-wink postmodernism. So that when the film finally explodes into very modern-looking gory violence in the final third, and the shooting and editing style shift and mutate accordingly, the effect is all the more disquieting; jarring - oddly familiar, yet somehow wrong. Like rediscovering a lost film from the period, only to find out that it is not at all what you thought it was.

Both films share a desire to offer the familiar in unfamiliar terms, and by so doing force the viewer to rethink what they see and what they understand. They do, in other words, what horror does so often - take established tics and tropes and reimagine them until they come up fresh and new. And this is exactly what genre fans love to see the most.

This year will see West, Wingard, Swanberg, Bruckner, Barrett, and others collaborate on the portmanteau film V/H/S, which aims to reinvent that most over-used of current horror subgenres, the “found footage” film. If anyone can do it, they can…

Make sure you catch Grimm Up North’s Ti West double bill of House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, in Manchester on May 24. Visit here to book your place.