The Best Horror films of 2013

Lucas Mangum

Lords of Salem
by Rob Zombie
While we've written extensively about this film before, I can't say enough nice things about it. As director, Zombie takes his cue from the classical, but at no point does the work feel derivative or like a mindless tribute. It's his most mature work to date, as well as his most cinematic. While it's tempting to say The Devil's Rejects is an overall superior experience, it's unfair to compare the two. Rejects was the glorious sophmore effort from a new filmmaker in which he perfected the rough edges of his "everything but the kitchen sink" debut. Lords of Salem is a confident masterwork of an artist now comfortable in his medium.

by Park Chan-Wook 
Park Chan-Wook followed up his wonderful vampire film Thirst, with this, his first English language film. A strange portrait of a damaged family, the story comes together slowly like some sort of depraved puzzle. Each character is memorable, but huge kudos is owed to Nicole Kidman for her portrayal as the tragic, alcoholic mother. Stoker does a fantastic job holding the viewer's attention and doesn't stop being interesting.

Evil Dead
by Fede Alvarez 
Like Dawn of the Dead before it, a remake seemed at its best unnecessary and at its worst blasphemous. The Dawn of the Dead remake silenced naysayers by being one of the most exciting zombie movies in years and the Evil Dead remake did the same by being one of the best horror movies in recent memory. Beginning with a fiery prologue, the story then segues into a different take on the familiar cabin-in-the-woods motif. While lacking the humor of the original, the remake wins for being a visceral journey where the main character's struggle is real, and the triumph earned. Bonus points go to the icky and glorious practical effects.

by various
V/H/S/2 is an example of a sequel that improves vastly upon the original. There isn't a weak link in this handful of shorts that make up this anthology, just soon-to-be-iconic horror moments: zombies attacking a picnic in the woods, aliens crashing a slumber party, a woman giving birth to Baphomet. While the standout is by far, "Safe Haven" (a short film that achieves more in 15-20 minutes than most horror movies do in 90), each segment has its merits and if this is the new standard for the franchise, I eagerly await the third.

The Conjuring
by James Wan
In this 1970s-set thriller, James Wan abandons his death metal music video sensibilities and delivers his most confident and effective film to date. Recalling the glories of The Amityville Horror and The Entity, he employs classical gags and a multilayered story to create horror movie magic. I don't buy the accusations that it's misogynistic or right-wing. With the collaborative solution to the big evil following the failure of the exorcism, I think it could be argued that the film is anything but. Regardless, a fun, chilling haunted house flick.

by Larry Fessenden
We both knew this would end up here for reasons we discussed in our review. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that the presence of a physical monster that you could touch adds a lot to the film's effectiveness. The film also has a lot to say about people and relationships, but does it amidst a survival crisis to make it interesting. Fassenden really outdid himself here.

You're Next
by Adam Wingard
This home invasion/survival horror sendup is a hard sell when taken too seriously. By the end credits, when the blood splashes upon the screen and forms the declaration "You're Next," it all becomes clear: the filmmakers are using the genre as a playground, much like Craven/Williamson with Scream and Whedon/Goddard with Cabin in the Woods. A fun romp through familiar territory, it's clear Wingard loves the genre and it's fun watching him have fun.

Warm Bodies
by Jonathan Levine 
This film's trailer misrepresented the work as zombies gone Twilight, when really it was closer to something like Return of the Living Dead. The jokes are genuinely funny, the bonies (zombies in advance states of decay) are genuinely scary, and the story is genuinely touching. I loved every minute of this film and I'm not ashamed to say so. With the saturation of undead media over the last ten years, I'd even go so far as to say that the subgenre was overdue for such a clever sendup.

American Mary
by Jen & Sylvia Soska 
The Soska Sisters, who are quickly becoming my favorite filmmakers, delivered this wonderful body-mod horror film and got right what countless Saw sequels got wrong. There are horrifiying things done to the human body in this film, yes, but the Soskas make this shit matter. A three-dimensional character who struggles hard sits at the center of this modern masterpiece and elevates the story to intense emotional levels.

Curse of Chucky
by Don Mancini
Yes, the multiple endings were a bit much. Yes, another Chucky movie was probably unnecessary. However, to deny the sense of fun surrounding this whole project would be doing yourself a disservice. For most of the film, it starts thing with a mostly clean slate. We know what's coming, but the characters don't, and that anticipation is what drives the story for much of the film. When the action begins, it's earned and totally worth the wait. I'd recommend this to fans of any film in the franchise.

Scout Tafoya

We Are What We Are
by Jim Mickle
I'm thankful in a lot of ways that in making this list, I had to keep asking myself what qualifies as horror. Time and again I'd encounter the fantastic likes of Stoker (one of the best films of the year), Sightseers and +1 and wonder if they count. They're frightening, sure, dark and immersive trips into nightmarish worlds, but are they horror? We Are What We Are is a little more forward than some of the films I left on the fence this year. There may be better films this year but none that managed to be completely absorbing drama as well as a very effective horror film and one of the finest remakes I've ever seen. Jim Mickle's been getting better with every film and here we arrive at something on the level of Ti West's House of the Devil, though it's far closer in style to The Innkeepers. A wife and mother of three dies, leaving them to carry on in her absence as an important ritual draws nearer. Bill Sage's father is the source of the film's best scares, himself a kind of walking jump scare. Religious fervor is the subject, and the faces of children a series of reflections. It's frightening as anything in the moment when something unexpected comes into the frame without warning, but the scare lasts longer when it's against a child's hope of the life they want. The eldest daughter's dream doesn't include her father or his way of life, and in the film's most abrupt, violent outburst, he becomes the most scary force she's ever encountered. Everything she's ever believed is shattered, and yet she can't bring herself to turn away because family is all she has. Mickle's film overflows with moral conundrums but none he harps on. They merely colour the precedings as things spiral further and further out of everyone's grasp. I've still got to write more on the film and why it speaks to me the way it does because We Are What We Are was one of my favourite horror films of this decade. 

Lords of Salem / A Field In England
by Rob Zombie / Ben Wheatley
As noted above, these movies aren't films dedicated to frightening you as they are crawling inside your unconscious mind like a worm. Their images creep off the screen like a mist, long deliberate pans and zooms. They are the strongest, and derive their power not only from their directors sense of how to compose and emphasize, but from their sense of manipulating elements from cinema history. Everything from the hats to the wallpaper are callbacks to a dreamscape conjured by Michael Reeves, Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter, men who went looking for the abyss by way of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe. These films are about people unwittingly drawn into the search for an altered state, a new dimension, some place between film and nightmares. A brief note must be made for Phillippe Grandrieux's phantom trip White Epilepsy, which is a disquieting, slow-motion journey into human flesh and its navigation of more of the same. That film lays a trap for your brain. More like these please. 

The Evil Dead
by Fede Alvarez
Remakes are inevitable; they're in the water now. They can be useless, and indeed most of them are, but they do occassionally come from people with talent that can't be bested by the system that produces them. Mark Hartley, he of Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens Unleashed notoriety, redid Patrick one of the greatest films of the 70s Aussie horror boom and proved himself in line with a new tradition of warped Oz gore fiends. A wacky diversion, though I'm glad he hasn't totally given up the docs he built his home with. More my speed was the relentless retelling of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, a film I've been close with for most of my life. I understand everyone's objections, but don't care about them, because Alvarez is a fabulous director, creating a terrifying world solid and striking as a figure from Bosch rendered in marble. His colors are canyon deep, and he lights like he couldn't afford Bruno Delbonnel and needed to make it look like he showed up anyway. Craft is important, but most importantly, I had the daylights scared out of me. 

Andrés Muschietti

Muschietti is clearly also a fan of Sam Raimi and Stanley Kubrick (and maybe Ole Bornedal), and like Alvarez he's confined to a single location for most of Mama. He might not have the same way with actors or production design, but he might have an even better sense of how to scare. His monster is a fucking doozy, and he knows it. He shows her a little too much, but I forgive the impulse because she's one of the greatest beasties in recent memory. But the film wouldn't work at all were it not for a trio of performances from unreal actresses. Jessica Chastain only released one film last year (which for her counts as vanishing), but she made it count, totally entreating her goth rocker with enough spiky attitude and believable shades of compassion that she never feels less than 100% authentic. She doesn't grow more than you expect her to because a lifetime that produced that hair and those tattoos doesn't produce a secret Maria Von Trapp. And as good as le Chastain is, she almost can't compare to her young charges. Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse are stunningly assured performers, and they're both under 10. They're the heart of the film and do some of the greatest acting from children I've ever seen. They've been given no recognition that I've been able to find, which is a crime. Nevermind your definition of good horror, these girls are fantastic. 

Magic Magic
by Sebastián Silva
The first film that successfully makes American entitlement (circa the recent past) a ghoul on par with anything in the Dario Argento playbook. Updating one of Roman Polanski's isolationist psychodramas to the present wanderlust culture and finding that the old cure for exhaustion, a change of climate and a little rest, aren't nearly as soothing as they used to be. Silva turns tiny moments into exploded agony, expressionistic renderings of anxiety that are as unseasonably pretty as they are chilling. Juno Temple gives if not her best then maybe my favourite performance she's ever given. though she's matched in every way by the cosmic obnoxiousness of Michael Cera, turning up the anti-charm to 11 in ways few other people could hope to know. An exquisite portrait of someone coming off the rails.  

Beneath/The Jungle
by Larry Fessenden / by Andrew Traucki
Two old school monster films, one a tribute to Jaws, the other a very clear homage to The Blair Witch Project, going back to the root of movements as we understand them and trying to appreciate why we still look to them for answers. I think the Fessenden is the more unique of the two, and a fine addition to his catalog of things that go bump in the night (and under the boat), but both are great for scares both unconventional and reliable as a well-built house. 

by various
Here's the thing. The V/H/S movies are not created equally. There are two great segments and everything else is a waste of time. Last time David Bruckner and Radio Silence walked away with the film handily. This time the night belongs to Gareth Evans, he of Indonesian martial arts gangbang The Raid: Redemption. If you haven't seen that, you're gonna wanna do that right now. Then come back and watch his segment (co-directed with up-and-comer Timo Tjahjanto) "Safe Haven". A camera crew visits the homebase of what turns out very quickly to be a death cult with Satan's direct line. Few features have this kind of gory intensity and ingenuity. You'll laugh and scream and want to do it again. Jason Eisener's concluding segment "Alien Abduction Slumber Party" ain't half bad either. I like Eisener and think he's a great short film director, typically balancing the grim and the cute with something like aplomb. Wish he hadn't killed the dog, but, it is all in good fun, and that counts for something. 

Dark Touch
by Marina de Van
When the makers of the newest Carrie went into production they might have known they were engaged in a futile exercise far more successful in lining Stephen King's pockets than adding anything to the horror canon, but they couldn't have guessed that Marina de Van was going to make their efforts completely hollow and meaningless. Her version of Carrie, Dark Touch, is far more painful than anything King's ever written. It means to shed blood, to make you feel bad. It's a take no prisoners account of an abused orphan whose parents were killed under mysterious circumstances. Her foster parents discover a few shocking insights into the crime as they get to know Niamh, played by Missy Keating. She's got powers she can't control that make themselves known whenever she feels threatened. We are taken prisoner in the unformed understanding of a child who's both bullied, as you'd expect from a kid with self-esteem issues in a horror film, and punished by parents who thought themselves more adept at parenting than they turned out to be. A truly blistering exercise in sympathy. This one stays with you. 

Honorable Mention: Other than the footnotes scattered throughout mine, I want to give props to World War Z for introducing the coolest character in any boilerplate disaster movie: Daniella Kertesz's bald soldier Segen. She redeems whatever the movie got wrong, though I don't think it's an utter disaster. I enjoyed Europa Report, specifically Sharlto Copley's excellent performance as an American astronaut, putting George Clooney in Gravity to fucking shame. And lastly Frankenstein's Army, which is a very dimwitted movie, but there is a nightmare logic to its visuals and monsters that I greatly admire. Things just kind of appear in frame, descending from nowhere, killing at random. It's sort of like someone turned In The Fog into a videogame. It's callous, dumb and misanthropic, but directed in a kinetic, enjoyably lunatic fashion. 

No comments: