Thursday, February 2, 2017

2016 Year End Report: Best Horror Films

Horror films have always struggled to get the respect they deserve – this is true even of me, who was sometimes harder on horror films than I should have been. In the past few years though, I have certainly put some horror films on my top 10 lists (The Guest, The Babadook, It Follows) – and think 2016 was a fine year for horror as well. I also think it’s about to get better for horror films – which have always the genre that most immediately adapts to darker political times – and America has certainly entered that with the election of Trump. I may not have been a big fan of the torture porn movies that dominated the genre during the Bush years – but they were among the only films that actually did show torture, that we heard about on the news day in and day out (the so-called New French Extremity did it better than America did). So, in that spirit, for the first time, I figured I’d give my own little rundown of my year in horror films. I saw 27 of them this year – and would LOVE to hear about some of the smaller ones I may have missed.
Of course, they cannot all be good. Emelie (Michel Thelin) has a great central performance by Sarah Bolger, and some good moments early – but unravels once it starts solving its mysteries. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Burr Steers) isn’t really gory enough for horror fans, nor romantic enough for Jane Austen fans (or gory and romantic enough for both) – so I cannot think of anyone who won’t be disappointed by this one. Shrew’s Nest (Juanfer Andres & Esteban Roel) is a stylish film that never really goes anywhere, isn’t scary – but at least does have a lot of blood. Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone) has some interesting moments in isolation, and some good old school special effects, but drags on too long, and ends up going nowhere. I loved his previous film, The Strangers, and think Zoe Kazan is wonderful in the film, but The Monster (Bryan Bertino) is too obvious too be truly scary. 31 (Rob Zombie) is far and away his worst film – and perhaps the worst horror film I saw this year.
Slightly better were the following films: Blair Witch (Adam Wingard) is a decent enough sequel to the original – although I had hoped for more from Wingard, one of the best horror directors working today. Evolution (Lucile Hadzihalilovic) is only sort of a horror film, and while visually it’s brilliant, it never really connected with me. Hush (Mike Flanagan) proves that Flanagan is a talented horror craftsmen – the film works like clockwork, no matter how thin it ultimately is. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (Oz Perkins) is stylistically quite good – but there isn’t much to the story, and moves too slowly. Ouija: Origin of Evil (Mike Flanagan) is, like Flanagan’s other film this year, proves he is a fine craftsman – but does need to dig a little deeper if he’s ever going to truly terrify us. The Purge: Election Year (James DeMonaco) seemed more and more like a documentary the further into the election cycle we got, yet is also the weakest of the trilogy films.
A step above that was films like: The Conjuring 2 (James Wan) was an effective follow-up to the wonderful original – although perhaps I was expecting a little more from James Wan and company. The Eyes of My Mother (Nicolas Pesce) is perhaps a little stylized in terms of its storytelling, but its one hell of a creepy film.  Lights Out (David F. Sandberg) is a very well made horror film, with genuine scares, even if it feels predictable. Southbound (Various) was a very good omnibus film, with only one bad segment, and some really creepy ones. The Shallows (Jaume Collet-Serra) was cheesy good fun as Blake Lively battled a very fake looking CGI shark for 90 glorious minutes. The Wailing (Hong-jin Na) has a lot of great moments – but at two and half hours, the sum isn’t as good as the individual parts – what works though is brilliant.
10. Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho)
Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan is one of the year’s great entertainments. It is a very basic horror film – workaholic father and his young daughter are on a train to Busan to drop off the daughter with her mother, when the zombie apocalypse breaks out. For the next two hours, they fight their way from one car to the next, get off briefly, get back on, and do the same thing again – as everyone around them eventually dies in one bloody way after another. I watched the film late in 2016 – which was perhaps the best time for me, because I was suffering through the most recent half season of Walking Dead, which has grown so nihilistic and dull, that this movie, which doesn’t take itself seriously at all, was a breath of fresh air. No, it wasn’t the least bit scary – but it wasn’t really going for that (it’s almost more of an action movie than a horror film). For pure escapism, Train to Busan is tough to beat.
9. Darling (Mickey Keating)
Mickey Keating’s Darling – starring Lauren Ashley Carter as the title character, a single woman in New York, housesitting, who starts to go slowly crazy (and then, not so slowly) is a film that steals from the best – as there are moments that seem inspired by Kubrick’s The Shining, Bergman’s Persona and especially Polanski’s Repulsion – which are three of the greatest films ever made. Darling isn’t quite in their league (obviously), but it is an effective, creepy horror film – shot in beautiful black and white, and anchored by a wonderful performance by Carter. The movie perhaps a little too ambiguous at times, but overall, it is does a fine job mirroring its protagonists increasingly unstable mental state – until she completely snaps. Keating and Carter mark them both as people to watch for no matter what they do next.
8. Demon (Marcin Wrona)
The farther away I get from Marcin Wrona’s Demon, the more I like it, as it just keeps coming back into my thoughts. The movie is about a foreigner, coming to a small Polish town to get married – who, on the day before the wedding, stumbles around in the dark, and is possessed by a dyybuk – something that makes his wedding day get worse and worse – as his new family tries to assure their guests that everything is fine, even when it’s clear they are not. Wrona is clearly diving into his country’s past sins, and forcing some sort of reconciliation with it (it’s not all that far away from something like Ida). The film does kind of repeat itself a little as it goes along, and perhaps goes on too long – but it completely redeems itself with its last few scenes, were are disturbing and ambiguous. Wrona is a filmmaker I wish we had more to see from him – but sadly, we never will.
7. The Invitation (Karyn Kusama)
A man heads to his ex-wife’s house for a dinner party with old friends. He has his new girlfriend along – his ex-wife has remarried, but still live at the house they once shared. His ex and her husband went incommunicado for a while – but now they want everyone they know back together again – and happy. It sounds like a New Age cult – because it probably is – until darker, more sinister secrets emerge. Directed by Karyn Kusama, The Invitation is the type of movie that flies under the radar, but will build a cult following over the years – it’s not too scary, not too bloody, but its creepy as hell, and effectively twists and turns its story throughout its runtime right up until one of the most memorable final shots of any movie this year.
6. Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari)
This movie takes place in the 1980s, during the Iran/Iraq war – and focuses on a mother and daughter, alone in their Tehran apartment building (their husband/father has been called away) during a particularly heavy period of bombing. There is enough death and destruction all around them to begin with – but is there really some sort of ghost haunting them as well – is that why the girls beloved doll has gone missing. The film effectively makes a political statement – but never gets overt or preachy about it, but rather keeps the focus on the characters. The film wants to be the new Babadook, and while it doesn’t reach the levels of Jennifer Kent’s masterful horror film, it comes closer than some other films that try the same thing.
5. The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
I thought that Nicolas Winding Refn’s masterpiece Drive was basically a fairy tale – a very violent to be sure, but a fairy tale nonetheless. With The Neon Demon, Winding Refn pushes that fairy tale element even further – starting with a shot of our main character covered in blood, presumably dead – but not really. What follows is a story of the fashion industry – that has no real relationship to reality, as Ellen Fanning’s character gets sucked deeper and deeper into the world, where everyone finds her irresistible, which of course is her undoing. The film is dark, violent disturbing – and while I’m not sure I would classify it as scary, I would certainly classify it as horror (among other things) – especially considering where the story winds up. It is a deeply unsettling film that goes over-the-top from the start – many (most?) will hate it – but for those of us who don’t, it is a special film.
4. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
For much of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the film is an effective, chilling horror film about a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) being held captive by a man (John Goodman), who may or may not be crazy – because he says America has been attacked, so they have to stay in underground bunker or die. There is someone else with them in the bunker (John Gallagher), but he is so casual that he’s of no real use. In these scenes, debut director Dan Trachtenberg does a brilliant job escalating the tension, and making the audience question everything we are seeing and hearing – going back and forth. It really is a Hitchcock-ain thriller, brilliantly well made. And then, the ending happens. You can love or hate the ending – I don’t care which, but to me, it works just about perfectly – or at least as good as any other ending could have. There are only so many ways to end a film like this – all of them we’ve seen before, so this leftfield twist worked for me. Even if it didn’t, the first 90% of the movie is so good, who cares?
3. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
It takes a little bit to get on the wavelength of Robert Eggers The Witch – a film that takes place in 1600s America (before it was America) – mainly because the family that makes up all of the characters in the film speak in thee Olde English, something we are quite clearly not used to hearing. Still, because of a stunner of an opening, we’re already on edge – and once we get used to the language, The Witch just keeps ratcheting up the suspense more and more. The main character is a teenage girl (Anya Taylor Joy) – blamed for the disappearance of her baby brother by her religious fanatic parents, who will use this as an excuse to go off the deep end. And yet, we do know there is something in the woods, something out to get the children – one way or another. The Witch has a few flaws (many people seem to like the performance of a younger brother, which I think goes so far over-the-top that it becomes a distraction at a key point, so perhaps I’m wrong) – but mainly this is a slow burn horror film that genuinely terrifies as it moves along – and has a great ending.

2. Don’t Breathe (Fede Alvarez)
Don’t Breathe has a very simple premise, that is so-well executed that it doesn’t really matter that’s you’ve seen a version of this before, many times over. A trio of robbers (either in their late teens or early 20s), including Rocky (Jane Levy) break into the house of a blind man (Stephen Lang) said to keep lots of money in safe. It turns out that the blind guy isn’t going to be a pushover – and thus starts a game of cat and mouse, in which the house becomes a prison – trapping everyone inside without hope for escape. Directed by Fede Alvarez, Don’t Breathe is so well directed – making expert use of space, of sound design, and cinematography – that you are completely at its mercy from early on, and follow it along, even if some of the twists are little hard to swallow (they work in the moment – and you can justify them on a thematic level if you so choose). Levy is wonderful as the heroine trying her best to survive – and Lang is even better (this is physical acting at its finest). This is a truly great horror film.
1. Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
In Green Room, a young punk band goes to perform a show for neo-Nazis, decides to antagonize them, and then ends up locked in a back room, with a dead body, with a lot of neo-Nazis outside waiting to kill them. On a pure, visceral, horror movie level, Green Room is brilliant – Saulnier has made an incredibly tense, cinematic movie, even if we are trapped in one location for the majority of the runtime. When I saw it the first time – when it first came in the spring, I saw it as a film about young people who think they know about the world, and being completely, and totally wrong – which it still is – but also a film about two groups of people embracing something for the past – be it punk music or neo-Nazis. With the election of Trump however, and the “White Nationalism” that got him there, the film becomes an allegory for America itself – you’re know all that band, just trying to survive, as people are outside the door wanting to kill them. The film, always brilliant, has become even more so – and even scarier. Saulnier has quickly become one of the most interesting directors in indie genre film working – and I cannot wait to see what he does next. Green Room is the year’s best horror film – and one of the best films of any kind, this year.

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