- A slight thing, but i'ts the craft that brings this up to snuff. It's a small thing, but the score makes such a difference; a rich and beautiful thing that lends weight that might otherwise have slipped through the film's fingers. Not that it's not a harrowing experience, but horror movies made on the cheap need all the help they can get, because honestly, I've seen much of this before. Philip Ridley's very fine film Heartless covers the same territory, if perhaps less claustrophobically. Citadel doesn't reinvent the wheel, but you feel every blow, scrape and fall that our terrified hero encounters. And the ending is boss enough to make up for an underlying cruel streak I wasn't entirely on board with.
9. Theatre Bizarre
- Rarely do horror films have teeth like this. Rarer still do you find an anthology worth watching back to front. Theatre Bizarre sustains its grim, unsparing tone throughout its many segments and never relents for a moment. It builds slowly until the things it shows you are well beyond decency and taste and exist on a sublime plateau of disgust, bile and otherworldly beauty. As a fan of Ken Russell and having nearly fainted after watching The Girl With The Golden Breasts, his contribution to the decent omnibus film Trapped Ashes, I'm well aware that portmanteau films are often forces to be reckoned with. I wasn't at all shocked to hear about the fainting spells and walkouts that greeted this movie wherever it played and even if those stories are apocryphal, be aware: Theatre Bizarre takes no prisoners. Standouts include those by fellow Emerson alum Jeremy Kasten, whose host segments are endearingly warped, and David Gregory, whose finale segment is gorgeously composed and, pun intended, more than a little sweet.
- Now look, I'm no fan of Scott Derricksen. His last two films were abominable and I've skipped his work on direct-to-dvd sequels because, well do I really have to explain that? And in truth he still fucks up an awful lot in this, which still must be his best film: the performances range from whatever to bad, the script is a classic example of a Roger Ebert 'idiot plot,' and I didn't give a goddamn about anyone in this movie and thus could neither enjoy nor lament the fate of its lead characters. That said, this film can be incredibly scary when it gets out of its own way. The demon at the core of the story is a terrifying creation and largely he's handled very well (a last-minute jolt appearance is really mishandled and dumb) and the ghostly children who enter the story at around the halfway point get some great moments. But what makes this worth watching is the found footage portion of the movie. I was supremely bummed out to discover that almost no part of V/H/S even pretends to be shot on VHS, but when I saw that this movie featured haunted Super 8 footage and they actually put in the effort to make it look the genuine article, I got real forgiving of the dumb shit making the plot happen. The opening shot of four hanged bodies is fantastic, a scene involving a lawnmower is far more terrifying than it ought to be, and any film that posits a hidden unearthly magic contained in celluloid's got my respect. If the film ever approaches art, it's in the making of those murder films.
7. The Bay
- Barry Levinson started his career right as disaster movies were coming to a close. The Irwin Allen school of "replace dayplayers with football players and blow shit up around gone-to-seed icons"filmmaking was on its way out. Levinson was, for a time, more interested in three dimensional characters. So leave it to the man who made Diner to make one of the most comprehensive horror movies about people ever made. Levinson is one of the few people to do a found-footage movie right by treating every denizen of a town who ever passes in front of one of the many cameras he pulls from as a real person. No one is there to get killed, which makes them dying wholesale all the more horrifying. Best of all, he works the scares organically into his concept.
6. The Awakening
- Rebecca Hall and Dominic West in the same movie, you say? I'm listening... It's a post-war anxiety ghost story set in a boarding school? Stop drilling you've hit oil! It could have a few more scares, sure, but between the tender performances, angrily broiling subtext and splendid period recreation, I had a fantastic time solving this mystery.
5. Kill List
- Anyone who's seen Kill List will probably shutter at first mention of "the hammer scene."It's about a half hour or so in and at this point we know very well that our two in-name-only heroes are dangerous, unhinged and very bad company. What we don't quite know is what director Ben Wheatley's going to do to make sure we know how far down the blood-soaked rabbit hole we'll be going. They've tied some poor bastard to a chair and you know it's going to end poorly for him but we don't know how poorly until one of them grabs a hammer. In a feat of special effects I haven't been able to parse out (as it should be), his kneecaps are smashed before a quick cut to black saves our eyes from eternal damnation. The film is horror from this point on. It ends up going on a truly wild tangent that puts us in Wicker Man territory, but that visceral feeling of watching someone apparently beaten to death in front of our eyes for a split second never diminishes. Ben Wheatley's clinical viewpoint never gives into the violence he depicts, making it all the harder to watch because he's so firmly in control; he wants you to see everything. This film has guts to spare.
4. Livide: Blood of the Ballerinas
- A slight affair, to be sure, and one limited by what was surely a tiny budget, Livide is nevertheless a stunning piece of filmmaking. I went on at length about how much I hated the directing duo Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo's last film, Inside, for featuring egregious violence to a baby (they later went on record as having had that thrust on them by producers, but that really wouldn't have saved the movie from being a pointless wallowing), but for whatever reason I was willing to give them a second chance. As we'll see below as well, this paid off handsomely. A riff on Suspiria that actually does something about its fixation on motherhood (albeit just as diffusely), Livide has an otherworldly story-within-a-story that makes it something like the horror film's answer to Tabu. Strange and dreamlike and because it doesn't invest its framing device with all that much intrigue, you don't mind when it goes deliciously off the rails and into the surreal and impressionistic.
3. The Tall Man
- Speaking of second chances, the only french horror film I hated more than Inside may have been Martyrs, an artless slog through misery whose point was just that. Granted I'm not a huge fan of New French Extremism as a whole but I was really unfavorably inclined toward those two - the movements' best films are the ones that unimaginative critics lumped in there because they didn't know what else to do with them (I'm sorry but works of art like La Vie Nouvelle and Pola X do not belong in the same company as cinematic hatefucks like Martyrs and Irreversible, thank you very much!). The movie I enjoyed the most from this groundswell of French horror was probably Frontiere(s), for sheer lunkheaded entertainment value. So when these enfants terrible started turning in sophomore efforts, I paid attention to see what maturity might look like from the world's pre-eminent shock hawkers. The man behind Frontiere(s) went Hollywood with his risible adaptation of Hitman and then the truly abysmal and nihilistic The Divide. Bustillo and Maury tightened up with Livide, but the real evolution was in Pascal Laughier, director of Martyrs. His newest film, and English-language debut, The Tall Man starts off already feeling like a major aesthetic improvement. The camera work is heavy, strange and fleet. You can feel the despair in every footstep its lead characters take and every piece of debris littering the lawns of the pacific northwest town it's set in. Then the story takes off: someone or something called The Tall Man is stealing children from the destitute parents of this town. And just when you get a fix on who or what it might be, the story begins doing logical gymnastics until you're no longer sure what kind of movie you're watching. I was first intrigued, than captivated, then thoroughly impressed. This was no longer just a horror film in the traditional sense but a beastly morality play with no easy answers. Laughier finally found something worth saying and a sure-footed way to say it. My hat is off to you, sir, and I ask your forgiveness for doubting you.
2. Berberian Sound Studio
- I'll save most of my breathless praise for this film in my master best of the year list, because believe me this movie is special, and simply say that as a horror movie about the making of horror movies, it's both incredibly cine-literate and genuinely unsettling. No other film like it this year.
1. The Woman In Black
-I could go on and on about the resurgence of Hammer Horror and this being the first true example of a return to form for the company (what with the lavish art direction and period set design and so on and so forth); that they got everything so right for their return that they even found someone who looks like a cross between Ralph Bates and Shane Briant to play the lead. But really the reason this is my favourite horror film of the year is a matter of mechanics. Daniel Radcliffe walks into a room and a rocking chair is moving on its own. At this point the seasoned horror fan knows exactly what's going to happen - he's going to approach the chair, at which point it will stop rocking and something will then jump out and surprise him. Knowing this, the anticipation builds. What will be the thing that jumps out? From where? The waiting is sweet agony. It's stop being disingenuous - it's easy to jump out of a closet and scare someone and director James Watkins isn't going to deny that there's a man in the closet, he's just going to punish you for knowing about him by making you wait. You see the set-up, you know what must happen, and then it does and it's more frightening than you could have imagined. This is a horror film with all the gears exposed; I knew when and how I'd be scared, but I was still completely flattened by those moments when they happened. That is what I call great filmmaking.
10. Deer Crossing
– While much more of a crime thriller than a horror film, it has a pervasive darkness to the overall film that will really appeal to horror fans. Somewhere between Bad Day at Black Rock and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, writer/director Christian Grillo offers up the contents of his subconscious. And it ain’t pretty. Big props especially go to K.J. Linhein as the deranged Lukas Walton.
9. Paranormal Activity 4
– Is the franchise getting a little old? Yes. However, in this entry, the filmmakers seem to recognize this. In addition to the usual jumps that we’ve come to expect, this entry is given a much needed sense of humor and self-awareness that keeps it from being tired. It’s on par with the third and more interesting than the second.
8. Amateur Night
– V/H/S was a highly anticipated found footage anthology horror film that came out this year. There was a lot to love, but it just wasn’t the game changer I was hoping it would be. Maybe it was my fault for overhyping the film in my own mind. That said, it does feature some of the best work in horror this year. Case in point, Amateur Night from director David Bruckner. It’s a great execution of a wild night gone wrong and I dare anyone to watch it and not hear Hannah Fierman saying, “I like you,” in your nightmares for months to come.
7. Lovely Molly
– After thirteen years Eduardo Sanchez (one half of the team that created The Blair Witch Project) gave us this atmospheric, creepy possession flick. The real star here is definitely Gretchen Lodge as the titular character. She manages to be both beautiful and threatening.
6. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
– I know what you’re thinking. "What the fuck is a Van Damme movie doing on a horror movies list?" Hear me out. Director John Hyams took a lot of risks with this film. While it is a continuation of the franchise (sixth if you count the two made-for-cable sequels), he takes it in a dramatically different direction and ends up with the best film in the series. Relying on horror movie aesthetic and cringe-worthy realism to the fight scenes, he crafted what is essentially a twisted hero’s journey. By the end the viewer is left with a sentiment not unlike what he or she would feel after watching most contemporary horror films.
– Yep, a part of V/H/S lands on this list twice. This time it’s the segment directed by filmmaking collective Radio Silence. You just can’t go wrong with this piece. It has characters that you give a shit about and is mostly set within a truly scary haunted house. I loved the hands coming out of the walls.
4. The Innkeepers
– For some reason, I didn’t remember that this one came out this year. With The Innkeepers, Ti West knocks another out of the park with his brand of subtle, atmospheric horror.
– Evan Dickson over at Bloody Disgusting described Detention as something like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World meets Scream. I’d probably add meth into the equation. This one has to be seen to be believed.
– I saw a clip of this early in the year and was intrigued, but almost forgot about it until I saw it on Netflix one day. This film deserved better than it got. Relying on subtlety instead of in-your-face gore, Absentia recalls atmospheric greats like Phantasm and Jacob’s Ladder. Very little is seen of the monsters, the characters are achingly realistic and the film insists on taking itself seriously even as the outlandish details develop. I can’t say enough nice things about this film.
1. Cabin in the Woods
– Anything I can say about this film has probably already been said. It is not just a study in the tropes that populate the genre; it recognizes the need for the genre to evolve, then demands that it happens. My hope is that every horror filmmaker or aspiring horror filmmaker has watched this and will take it as a challenge. The genre must try new things and the age of remakes must come to an end. Amen and amen.
**Disclaimer: I haven’t seen John Dies at the End, Kill List or Chained yet, so come February, don’t be surprised if my Facebook status update says something about one of them being the best of this year.**