Hailed by Quentin Tarantino and referenced on “The Good Wife,” David Robert Mitchell’s creepy blend of teen nostalgia and atmospheric dread marks one of the rare cases of indie horror crossing over to mainstream awareness. The last time that happened was “The Human Centipede,” and Mitchell’s movie offers a far more elegant achievement. The notion of a sexually transmitted supernatural disease isn’t entirely fresh on its own terms, but Mitchell’s delicately framed tale — in which the afflicted see ominous figures from their subconscious slowly approaching from afar — taps into a kind of primal fear rarely seen in American cinema. At its best, “It Follows” hints at the possibility that the specter haunting various characters could surface at any moment, even after the credits roll.
Forget for a moment that “Maggie” is a strange change of pace for Arnold Schwarzenegger and a more promising movie stands out: The moody debut from Henry Hobson and screenwriter John Scott III, “Maggie” develops an intimate riff on the post-apocalyptic zombie scenario, with Schwarzenegger as the conflicted father doting over his daughter (Abigail Breslin) as she gradually succumbs to a bite from the undead. Almost exclusively set within the confines of a cabin, the movie eventually becomes a two-hander focused on the moral dilemma at hand: Schwarzenegger’s character must accept his daughter’s imminent death, and has been urged to either “end it quickly” or turn her over to the authorities. At the same time, she remains an individualistic teenager willing to take matters into her own hands. Equally harrowing and poignant, “Maggie” constructs a delicate scenario out of zombie movie conventions without shortchanging the scares. It’s the rare case of a horrifying tearjerker.
Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary “Room 237” combined numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the meaning of Stephen King’s “The Shining” into a compelling portrait of obsession. “The Nightmare,” which explores the terrifying phenomena of sleep paralysis through the recollections of several people who suffer from it, takes a similar approach to unwrapping irrational fears. Cutting between various chilling anecdotes of sinister late night visions and horrifying reenactments, “The Nightmare” manages a tricky balance of visceral fright and sincere investigation. It’s a rare non-fiction achievement that earns the ability to freak you out.
This hidden gem from co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead surfaced on the festival circuit last year and slipped into theaters a few months later, but it deserves to be appreciated as a smart fusion of the movies that inspired it — namely, Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy and Cronenbergian body horror. Lou Taylor Pucci gives a career-best performance as Evan Russell, a newly orphaned young man who flees his reckless lifestyle to find solace in rural Italy — where he winds up in a passionate affair with the mysteriously seductive Louise (Nadia Hilker). Nearly an hour into the proceedings, Louise turns out to possess a bizarre disease beyond anything Evan imagined. But whereas other movies could have used that device to set up a typical monster-versus-man showdown, “Spring” uses it to catapult into its talky, philosophical third, which develops a mounting sense of dread as we begin to fear for this unlikely couple’s future. Modern romance is rarely this terrifying.
A dud in theaters and rejected by scores of critics, Kevin Smith’s outrageous tale of a hapless podcaster (Justin Long) horrifically transformed into a walrus against his will deserves a fair shake. Unlike his unclassifiable genre hybrid “Red State,” the new movie veers from a zany comedy about foul-mouthed dudes — you know, a Kevin Smith movie — into a hilariously idiosyncratic portrait of lunacy with the reliably spooky Michael Parks as a depraved riff on Victor Frankenstein. Equal parts physical comedy and monster movie, “Tusk” is at times a thrillingly eccentric change of pace for Smith, but it’s also downright scary when you really think about what happens in those closing minutes. You’ll never look at zoo animals the same way.
The spirit of horror maestro Lucio Fulci is alive and well in Ted Geoghegan’s wildly entertaining haunted house thriller, in which a middle-aged couple copes with the death of their son by moving to a remote home in the New England countryside. Naturally, the place winds up being inhabited by a demonic presence that requires fresh blood every 30 years or so. Despite a retro style that mimics the alternately awkward and menacing tone of the seventies and eighties titles it calls to mind, “We Are Still Here” still manages to deliver an enjoyable series of surprises — a “Wicker Man” style showdown with deranged locals, a seance that leads to one character’s wicked demise, and an ill-fated makeout session all contribute to the sense that anything could go wrong for the movie’s lead couple, and so it does. Plus, indie horror actor-director Larry Fessenden (“Wendigo”) surfaces in a delightfully unhinged role as one of the couple’s aging hippy pals who eventually gets possessed by deranged forces, leading to one of his best performances since his breakout vampire drama “Habit.”
Co-directed and starring Kiwi funny men Taika Waititi (aka, the director of the upcoming “Thor 3”) and Jemaine Clement, “Shadows” is the rare mockumentary that hits its cheeky entertainment value without coming across as glib. Envisioned as a reality show about a family of Wellington vampires, the movie does such an effective job of borrowing the visual style of those types of shows it almost seems like the real deal. But then the bloodsucking begins and the truth sets in: This is a seriously enjoyable satire that rejuvenates the familiar signposts of gothic horror. Witty and Clement argue that even unspeakable evil forces can whine about their boring lives. (They even turn the nuisance of neighborhood werewolves into an immensely believable threat. Because screw those guys.) Regardless of how they apply themselves — this is the same group that brought us “Eagle Vs. Shark,” “Flight of the Concords,” “Boy” and so much more — Waititi and his merry band of goofballs are among some of the best comedians working today. “What We Do in the Shadows” proves they know their horror tropes, too.