The Simple But Terrifying Premise Behind Cannes' Best Horror Film

    The American indie It Follows turns a straightforward concept into something incredibly creepy. Here's why it and Argentine black comedy Wild Tales have been the Cannes Film Festival's best surprises so far.

    The Cannes Film Festival is known for its glamorous red carpets, celebrity presence, yacht parties, and parade of big directors. But that doesn't mean it doesn't also have room for some new talent. This year, that comes in the form of horror flick It Follows, the only American movie in the Critics' Week sidebar, a competition at the festival that includes films only from first- and second-time directors.

    It Follows is the second feature from David Robert Mitchell, who got his start with a dreamy suburban 2010 indie called The Myth of the American Sleepover. It has few special effects and no big stars — Keir Gilchrist, of United States of Tara and It's Kind of a Funny Story, is its most familiar face — but it's hair-raisingly creepy thanks to some masterful filmmaking and a premise so simple and effective, it deserves its own round of applause.

    The trouble starts for 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) the way it often does in horror movies — because of sex. A hookup with the guy she recently started dating turns disturbing when he tells her, post-coitus, that he's passed his curse along to her, and that if she doesn't do the same to someone else, it'll end up killing her. Soon after, she realizes that something's chasing her, something slow but implacable that no one else can see. There are shades of The Ring and Halloween to the It Follows' supernatural baddie, which is given very little backstory, and which operates on the nightmare logic of the kind of ghost story whispered in a school bathroom.

    "It" can look like a regular stranger or like someone Jay knows, making his or her expressionless way toward her and the camera. It's hard to overstate how scary this ends up being on screen, thanks to the way the movie is composed. The camera holds on shots so that we're always scanning the background for the figure marching toward Jay, or it's slowly panning in a circle and teasing the threat of "it" being just outside the frame. It doesn't matter that Jay's usually in the company of her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto), and their friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and the smitten Paul (Keir Gilchrist). She's the only one who sees the monster, and the only one it's after.

    Set in a suburban neighborhood in an era that's impossible to pin down, It Follows is not just a frightening movie, it's also quite beautiful, with thoughtful cinematography by Mike Gioulakis. And while it doesn't come to a wholly satisfying climax, it also never allows its premise to be boiled down into something as straightforward and prosaic as a metaphor for STDs or promiscuity. It holds onto its sense of mystery and lyricism, its dread ultimately feeling like a more general sort about adult life and the growing awareness of mortality that comes with it — a terrifying coming-of-age tale. The movie doesn't have a U.S. distributor yet, but will likely be picked up before the end of the festival.

    Wild Tales is Cannes' other best surprise to date, a stylish, triumphantly black comedy that's most easily described as Argentina's answer to Pulp Fiction. Made up of six short stories told in sequence, the movie presents scenarios in which a waitress is confronted with having to serve the gangster who destroyed her family, a yuppie and a local cross paths on a rural road, a wedding is disrupted by the reveal of an unfortunate secret, etc. Each installment has different characters, but they share a theme of revenge and people being pushed to cross the boundaries of civilized behavior, rarely for the better.

    Writer-director Damián Szifron may not be a familiar name, but he's no newcomer — he's the creator of several successful Argentine TV series and he made two films before this, neither of which received a theatrical release in the U.S. But with Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar on board as a producer, Wild Tales is set to be a much bigger deal for Szifron, and already has an American distributor in Sony Pictures Classics. Wild Tales features performances from Ricardo Darín (The Secret in Their Eyes ), María Onetto (The Headless Woman), and Darío Grandinetti (Talk to Her), among others, and shifts from dark social satire to outrageous punch lines effortlessly.

    The stories in Wild Tales are hard to describe without spoiling the film, but they vary in laughs delivered, starting and ending the movie on particularly high notes. The first installment, which leads into the title sequence, is a miracle of wicked efficiency that earned the film a round of applause at its first screening. The last slowly builds in lunacy until it delivers a perfectly chaotic and fitting ending. The only thing Wild Tales could use is a bit more connectivity between its segments to give it more of a sense as a whole, but that's a minor quibble. It's the most purely enjoyable movie in the main Cannes competition so far.