Wednesday, January 16, 2019

2018 Year End Report: Horror Films

Over the past few years, I’ve had a slow dawning realization that horror may well in fact be my favorite genre. Unlike many horror fans, I didn’t really come to it in my teens – although I’d go through phases of it then – but it’s only been in my 30s that I have truly embraced the inner horror geek in me. Still, I have certain subsets of horror I like more than others (home invasion, surreal) and ones I don’t like as much (ghost stories, possession stories) – so keep that in mind as I recap the year in horror. Please note, I was a little less picky at what I consider horror this year – last year, I didn’t have mother! or The Killing of a Sacred Deer or Personal Shopper or Colossal – and I’d probably let at least a couple of them in this year (I’m not telling which ones).
But of course, even those of who like horror admit that there are a lot – A LOT – of bad horror movies, and what makes matters worse is that often you can never be sure which ones those are, because it’s a critically maligned genre – and some of the best films are the smallest, etc. So there were quite a few bad to terrible horror movies this year. The Cloverfield Paradox (Julius Onah) showed why a studio dumped it to Netflix with zero notice and little fanfare and was a major misstep for the franchise. Ghost Stories (Jeremey Dyson & Andy Nyman) was a very dull quartet of ghost stories that never really go anywhere. Inside (Miguel Angel Vivas) tried to remake an extreme French film without the extremity – and the result was predictable awful. Marrowbone (Sergio G. Sanchez) was a scareless haunted house film, with some decent style at least. The Predator (Shane Black) was sloppy and boring, and dull and not the least bit fun, which should not have been possible. The Ritual (David Bruckner) features a quartet of friends heading off into the woods and finding lots of clichés. Still/Born (Brandon Christensen) wants to be a kind of Rosemary’s Baby of its time – spoiler alert, it wasn’t. Veronica (Paco Plaza) is a standard issue possession movie, which does nothing new, and does it all very dully. Winchester (The Spireg Brothers) had a great premise and cast – and simply awful execution.
The following films were at least better than the ones above – but weren’t exactly good. Bad Samaritan (Dean Devlin) really needed to go over the top in one way or another – either into outright camp, or more gore – as it stands, it’s too slick by half, but has its moments. Downrange (Ryuhei Kitamura) has a decent premise, of teenagers literally being picked off one my one – but you don’t care for any of the characters. Insidious: The Last Key (Adam Robitel) showed its time for this once really good horror franchise to end. The Meg (Jon Turteltaub) is really more action than horror – but isn’t particularly good at either. The Night Eats the World (Dominique Rocher) is a zombie movie with a great premise – but doesn’t figure out how to pull it off. The Nun (Corin Hardy) is a mediocre entry in the very good Conjuring universe. Summer of 84 (Francois Simard & Anouk Whissell & Yoann-Karl Whissell) has a good premise, but feels like a hollow retread of It and Stranger Things – which, to be honest, are retreads themselves (loved the ending though). They Remain (Philip Gallett) has some good performances, but really doesn’t do all that much with its intriguing premise. Truth or Dare (Jeff Wadlow) is kind of goofy fun, as long as you don’t think about it – although if it wanted to be a new version of Final Destination, it ain’t happening. Unfriended: Dark Web (Stephen Susco) couldn’t quite find a way to make its characters interesting – so it failed to live up to the first one.
Finally, we’re into some good horror films – none of these are great, but they are all good. Cargo (Yolanada Ramke & Ben Howling) is an interesting zombie movie, with Martin Freeman having to find someone to care for his baby in the hours he has before he turns. The Cured (David Freyne) is about a world in zombies can be turned back into humans – and what that would look like. Let the Corpses Tan (Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani) is all style, and little substance – but what style (even if it is less horror than the filmmaker’s other films). Midnighters (Julius Ramsay) is a story of a quartet of people all making one horrible decision after another in very entertaining fashion. Mon Monsters (Giddens Ko) is what happens when the bullied gets accepted in the popular group – oh, and does features monsters – and is all over the place, but worth checking out. Upgrade (Leigh Whannell) is an action/horror hybrid which isn’t great at either, but good at both.
Finally, we come to the films that in a lesser year, may well have made the top 10 horror films of the year.  Apostle (Gareth Evans) is probably too long, but is still an interesting, brutal take on something like The Wicker Man. Calibre (Matt Palmer) has two outsiders upset a small town, and then trying to survive – and is almost unbearably tense at times. The Endless (Aaron Moorhead & Jason Benson) have a pair of brothers return to the cult they escaped from a decade before, and finding it difficult to leave. The Little Stranger (Lenny Abrahamson) is a fascinating film, that may not even be horror, but feels like it. Overlord (Julius Avery) is an entertaining, bloody B-movie about American soldiers discovering a different kind of Nazi atrocity. Pyewacket (Adam Macdonald) involves a teenage girl summoning something she doesn’t understand. Searching (Aneesh Chaganty) is a better movie that some on the top 10 – but I struggle with whether it’s horror or not – either way, it’s great and intense, and yes, scary – with a great John Cho performance. What Keeps You Alive (Colin Minihan) has a lesbian couple on their honeymoon being torn apart.
Top 10
10. Hold the Dark (Jeremy Saulnier)
Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark doesn’t quite have the visceral impact of his previous films – Green Room or Blue Ruin – and it certainly takes its time in its storytelling. But what gradually emerges from this horror thriller really is terrifying – not on a splatter level, but on something deeper and darker. Jeffrey Wright gives a great performance as a wolf expert, called to Alaska to find a small child taken by wolves – who instead gets much more than he bargained for when dealing with a veteran with PTSD (a largely silent Alexander Skarsgaard), and his wife (Riley Keough). In terms of blood and guts, the big scene in a shootout at the halfway point of the movie – but it’s really the slow, creeping sense of dread that sets in that truly makes this an unsettling film.
9. Cam (Daniel Goldhaber)
You could dismiss the Netflix original Cam as a feature length Black Mirror episode – but that ignores the fact that Black Mirror is a very good show, and this movie uses its premise to dive into some pretty scary, real world stuff. The film stars Madeline Brewer as a Cam girl, who finds herself locked out of her account, although apparently she is still doing shows for her adoring male fans. That real world panic of being locked out of her digital life is plenty scary – and then it does start to bleed into the real world as she tries to figure things out, and to her horror everyone in her life finds out what she does, and she has to cozy up to some very creepy guys to figure out her problems. The film is deeply unsettling more than scary – and its because it’s so plausible that makes the film get under your skin – and stay there.
8. The Strangers: Prey at Night (Johannes Roberts)
The original The Strangers is one of my favorite mainstream horror films of the century so far – it’s so scary, so deeply unsettling that it left me rattled when I saw it in theaters, and it took me nearly a decade to revisit it. This long gestating sequel isn’t quite up to that level – but it’s pretty damn close. Instead of an isolated house, this time, it’s an isolated trailer park that has the Strangers arrive, and one by one try and kill off an entire family. The set piece at the swimming pool is one of the very best of the year – but the whole movie delivers mainstream scares better than most other films this year. This was not just a cheapy, knock-off horror movie – but a wonderful horror film in its own right.
7. A Quiet Place (John Krasinski)
John Krasinki’s surprise early year hit works because he embraces his premise – that in order to survive in a world overrun by murderous alien bugs, you have to be quiet at all times, and built that into his film. Yes, you can nitpick some of the plot points or logic of the movie (admittedly, some of those nits get pretty big when you think about it) – but you cannot deny the skill Krasinski shows as a director, nor the power of the performances by him, Emily Blunt and Millicent Simmonds. The film really is scary and while I think its scares are more fleeting than truly great horror movies (this film won’t haunt your dreams) – it shows how to do horror at this scale, and deliver the goods.
6. Halloween (David Gordon Green)
I watched every film in the Halloween franchise in October of this year – it is my favorite of the slasher franchises – and can assure you that David Gordon Green’s direct sequel to John Carpenter’s original really is one of the best in the entire franchise (I can also assure you that I am still right, and you are still wrong – the Rob Zombie Halloween movies are great!). This film, about PTSD and inherited trauma, passed down now through two generations of Stroud women, does get to some deeper places that films like this normally go – but also, never does so at the sacrifice of scaring you. Michael Myers is still a scary presence, and they still find interesting ways to dispatch a bunch of idiot teenagers. It’s also one of the more stylish and best directed of the series since Carpenter left. No, nothing could beat the original Halloween (every time I see it, I am amazed again but how simple, and how brilliantly effective, it is) – but it’s as good as a 40-year-old sequel to a masterpiece could expect to be.
5. Revenge (Coralie Fargeat)
The rape-revenge subgenre of horror has certainly had good entries before – but for the most part, it’s been a fairly odious one – an excuse to titillate viewers with sexual violence under the guise of the female lead getting her revenge later. Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge is a corrective of all those films before it – with a great performance by Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz at its core. When she first enters the movie, she looks like the typical gold digger type, hooking up with a married, rich guy at his secluded hunting lodge – when his two (much creepier) buddies show up earlier. But as the film progresses – and she finds out just how horrible they all are – she is given more depth, more strength, more smarts (and, presumably because of all the blood, goes from blonde to brunette). Revenge doesn’t skimp on the blood – it is probably the bloodiest film on this list – and gives genre fans all the gore they could ask for and more. But it gives more than that as well – announcing Fargeat as a major new horror movie talent. I cannot wait to see what she does next.
4. Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)
Mandy is undeniably the most insane movie of the year – and I mean that in the best possible way. The film is about Nicolas Cage taking on a renegade group of bikers who, well, aren’t really just bikers but more of the Manson family on bikes, after they kill his beloved wife. Cage has a well-earned reputation for going over the top in his performances – he has certainly ruined a few films that way – but here it works brilliantly, and actually does up the emotional level of the film. The two halves of the film are distinct from each other – with different tones, different styles, different everything – but they come together in a brilliantly effective mixture of insanity. Mandy became a cult hit this year – even after the distributer decided to mainly go direct to VOD with it – and it deserved to. This is going to be a cult film for the ages.
3. Suspiria (Luca Guadanino)
You have to hand it to Luca Guadanino – he really, truly took the bare bones of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and turned it into something entirely his own. Guadanino takes seriously the historical time and place the film exists in, and merges it with a story that doesn’t try to fool the viewer in terms of what precisely is going on at this ballet school full of witches. He does stage some excellent horror movie sequences – the dance, where Dakota Johnson does things in one room, and another dancer is tortured in another is one of the best sequences of any kind this year, and its insane climax – which is the only time he really embraces Argento’s, over the top, colorful style, are great. As are the performances – Dakota Johnson continues to be a fascinating, enigmatic actresses when she wants to be. Tilda Swinton, playing three roles, is great in each and every one – shaming people with her ambition and skill. Does it all hold together? Is it ambiguous or confused? I’m not sure – but I really don’t care – I loved it.
2. Annihilation (Alex Garland)
Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a horror movie about depression and anxiety – and it reveals itself as being one only over time. There are some traditional horror movie elements – that horrific creature at around the halfway point of the film – but this is more about horror from inside, and confronting that horror. It is about the growing sense of unease in the movie – something isn’t right from the start of the movie, but that feeling – masterfully sustained by Garland throughout (thanks, in part, to great performances by its female led cast) grows right up until its final moments. This isn’t a traditional horror movie in many ways (which is perhaps why while I think it’s a better film than the top spot on this list, it’s only the second best horror film of the year) – but its as unsettling as the best horror can be – and gets under your skin and stays there like them as well.
1. Hereditary (Ari Aster)
Hereditary is a horror movie about a family living through trauma – although they don’t realize just how traumatic everything is while they are living there. Toni Collette gives one of the performances of the year as a wife, mother and daughter – at first grieving her mother, who she pretty much hated, and then having to go through more and more as they film piles it on her. Her strange daughter and stoner son don’t help much – neither does her husband, who just wants to keep the peace, and ignores everything going on around them. This is a film with some dynamite, stand out sequences – but like most of the films on this list, it’s all about a growing sense of unease – a sense that gets shattered with the biggest, and best moments in it. Does the ending completely work? I’m not sure – but it’s an appropriate, and appropriately shocking finale. This was a great year for horror films in general – and Hereditary is clearly the year’s best.

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