I find that one of the most appealing aspects of the horror genre is its versatility. You can have horror films set in a time and a place that we may never see, that we think we know everything about, that we live in currently. Because fear is a condition of the human experience, horror creeps into everything. It persists no matter the time or place, lurking behind scraggly trees, crawls between the thin walls of a dilapidated house, and stares back us from the faces of our loved ones.
Them That Follow, which recently enjoyed its Texas premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, exemplifies that same kind of quiet, inescapable horror. It’s the kind of scary movie that isn’t interested in crescendos of blood and agony. Instead, Them That Follow focuses on more abstract questions about the personal beliefs and instincts that anchor our lives, the questioning of which leads to quiet but crushing moments of horror.
Set in a backwoods community in Appalachia, Them That Follow is the story of Mara (Alice Englert), the only daughter of a snake-handling preacher (the incendiary Walton Goggins). She’s the picture of dutiful, chaste daughter: cleaning the house, cooking her father’s meals, tending to his snakes, and generally being an obedient follower of their community’s unique brand of Christianity. Her proud father has agreed to give her hand in marriage to Garrett (Lewis Pullman), a newcomer who has worked to gain her father’s trust. But Mara also has a dark secret—a forbidden relationship with Augie (Thomas Mann), who left the religion despite his mother Hope’s (Olivia Colman) insistence that he return. Caught between her duty and her yearning to be independent, Mara’s secret tears at the community’s bonds, revealing the ugliness simmering behind hardened exteriors.
That synopsis doesn’t sound much like a horror movie, I’ll grant you. Honestly, I was unsure that this film was horror at all, which is why I didn’t include it in my coverage of this year’s Sundance Festival, where it premiered. But upon further research, I had to consider that this was a very different kind of horror film, reminiscent of The Witch (2016). Despite a meandering first third, Them That Follow is an insightful study of the fear and darkness that motivates its characters. As much a coming of age story as one about parenthood, Them That Follows captures the struggle between the heart and the mind, instinct and belief, and is anchored by magnificent performances.
Them That Follows could have taken the easy way out with its snake-handling premise. It could have been an exploitation film of the first order, sensationalizing this community’s religion as a cult and taking full advantage of how creepy snakes are. Through its richly detailed portrayal, Them The Follows invites the viewer into a world that’s at once alien and familiar.
The archaic order of the community coupled with their frightening style of worship doesn’t change the fact that they face the same kind of toxic masculinity, restrictive social mores, and self-serving stubbornness that pervades society at large. This is part of what makes the community so compelling—these are people who have endured great hardship, and being hardened by the world, they crave a special connection to God, to each other, to themselves. They are in endless pursuit of a belief system that will make them feel like they are in control. They want to feel infallible.
But they are neither in control nor infallible, of course. As the events of the film unfold and the tension begins to build steadily, each of the primary characters finds their core beliefs challenged. Not surprisingly, they react badly, either doubling down or lashing out or internalizing their anger or worse. In fact, the film’s most memorable and horrific scenes are a direct result of these people being challenged in a way that threatens their world view. What they choose to risk to maintain that world view is far more chilling than any gory set piece about snakes (though don’t worry, there’s definitely a hard-to-watch scene or two about the snakes).
Thus, Them That Follow centers on moments of profound, individual horror. It’s about these people being forced to confront where their religion refuses to give them the answers they seek, where their devotion fails to make them into the pure believers they so desperately want to be. There are so many striking instances where a character experiences a terrifying, devastating realization that maybe they’ve fucked it all up. That they will never outrun the darkness and doubt that plague them.
Them That Follows will no doubt divide audiences, though I encourage viewers of all persuasions to pay attention to the film. Pay attention to the performances, the cinematography, the climactic and squirm-inducing snake-handling scene. You will find a very sophisticated argument that, though one must not be a slave to one’s beliefs, it’s sometimes impossible to distinguish between instinct and belief, right and wrong.