Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Best Horror Movies of 2016

For as shitty a year as it was in 2016, both worldly and personally, it was a pretty damn fine year for horror movies. Below are my top ten favorites, as well as a slew of honorable mentions.

10.) The Shallows


Genre: Creature Feature
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Country: USA

The ol' trapped in the water with a shark movie, after all these years, after all the bigger boat jokes, it's still a terrifying concept. Ignoring boring comparisons to Open Water and The Reef, I'm just going to plow ahead and say that The Shallows just might be the best shark movie in years. The CGI is impressive, the performances by both Blake Lively and Steven Seagull are outstanding, and the tension is edge of your seat material. I could have done without some of the body horror but hey, gross outs are gross, and gross is part of the genre so I get it. The ending is a little too Hollywood for my tastes but still manages to be impressively bad-ass so I forgive it.

9.) Lake Nowhere


Genre: Slasher; Supernatural
Director:  Christopher Phelps, Maxim Van Scoy
Country: USA

For the last fifteen or so years there's been a slew of contemporary movie throwbacks to the golden age of VHS and late-night horror. Ti West's 2005 The Roost is the earliest one I can think of, and still one of the best, followed by the near-perfect House of the Devil in 2009. There have been many who have tried their hand at this niche subgenre, some to moderate success, but Lake Nowhere is the first in ages to be original in content and authentic in feel. The likability of the characters, the impressive kill scenes, the artistic camerawork, and the unique ending, quickly put this one in my top ten. And for the impatient movie watcher that I am, the 50 minute running length was the blood-soaked cherry on top.

8.) Satanic 


Genre: Supernatural
Director:  Jeffrey G. Hunt
Country: USA

There is a small part of me that feels silly for putting Satanic in my top ten. But try as I might, it just couldn't be usurped. Maybe it's the work of the devil. A little more sense was made for my love for Satanic when looking it up on IMDB and discovering that it was written by Anthony Jaswinski - the writer of The Shallows and Kristy, two recent favorites! (Kristy was on my honorable mentions list this year but according to IMDB it was a 2015 release.) Satanic won me over right from the start with a group of four characters who are obsessed with real murder cases and supernatural stories. I have a soft spot for the horror movie that is somewhat a love letter to horror itself, so I was an easy mark. But Satanic's real strength is its unpredictability. The movie is just this path of random, weird shit that keeps happening until it ultimately leads us to the final act, and it's there that all bets are off. The script is great and the actors are top notch, all in all the most unexpected movie of the year for me.

7.) Under The Shadow


Genre: Supernatural
Director: Babak Anvari
Country: Iranian

Under the Shadow is a truly impressive movie on so many levels. It's a fantastic character study, a terrifying observation of war, a harrowing glance at a woman's life in Iran in the 1980's, and also a pretty scary horror movie about a Djinn. Themes of oppression, abandonment, desperation and the sometimes negative impacts of archaic beliefs, makes this a complex, gratifying movie experience.

6.) Neon Demon


Genre: Psycological; Slasher
Director:  Nicolas Winding Refn
Country: USA

The Neon Demon, you either love it or you hate it. I think the majority will fall into the latter two camps but for me, it was a beautiful, dream-like movie. It walks this fine line of being artistic and being a caricature of itself, with an obscene amount of self-reflection that either makes it pompous or adds to its surreal brilliance. I think it's all of these strange qualities that won me over as I was completely captivated and ultimately horrified once things started to go off the rails. And while Elle Fanning was the star, Jena Malone gave a chilling, unforgettable performance.

5.) The Monster


Genre: Creature Feature
Director:  Bryan Bertino
Country: USA

The thought that occurred to me while watching The Monster was, "this is like what if The Babadook was actually good".  (oh no she didn't!) Both share the theme of "the creature" representing some kind of fracture in the character's lives, of which they must defeat in order to redeem themselves. The Monster is a little more straightforward than The Babadook's bells and whistles, but it's a more powerful representation of that theme, with a more devastating conclusion. I'm a big fan of Zoe Kazan so it was a thrill to get to see her in such a dark role, and her supporting cast mate, Ella Ballentine, played a difficult part brilliantly.


4.) Green Room


Genre: Slasher
Director:  Jeremy Saulnier
Country: USA

I had known about Green Room for a long time before its release but hadn't ever watched a trailer, so I was pleasantly surprised at how brutal it ended up being, how violent and bleak and utterly unforgiving. It was one hell of a thrill ride and I was glad that such hype turned out to be for such a straight up horror movie. So many theatrical releases these days are for horror movies that end up being supernatural thrillers more than anything. And if not for the Star Trek stars in it, it may have remained relatively unknown to the masses. Patrick Stewart, of course, made waves with such a dark role but honestly his character was completely underwhelming. It was Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots, once again sharing the horror movie stage that was the most fun, (they played sweethearts in the Fright Night remake), and his death shortly after this movie's release was all the more sad because of it.

3.) Blair Witch


Genre: Supernatural
Director:   Adam Wingard

Country: USA

Yes, we're all tired of the shaky cam movies, and we know it's not real found footage, you fooled us once, shame on you. But I'll be damned if occasionally one comes along, seemingly out of the blue, and just blows me away (like 2014's Willow Creek). Such was the case for Blair Witch. Shot and initially promoted under the fake title, The Woods, it was already gaining buzz by its scary teaser trailer. When news hit that the creepy The Woods movie was actually a Blair Witch direct sequel, most people lost their shit. Me? I was disappointed. I may be the only person on the planet who actually didn't like 1999's The Blair Witch. The camera work made me want to vomit and the constant bickering and crying of the characters made me wish the witch would just kill them already. So I had my reservations when trudging to the theater to watch another found footage witch movie. And then, holy shit. I haven't felt so uneasy during a movie since I saw Event Horizon in theater by myself. I was crazy scared with my legs tucked beneath me so nothing could grab me from under the seat. I kept thinking, why am I here? I just want to go home to where it's safe and well lit. You know that saying, "crawl out of my skin"? I have never truly understood that phrase until I watched Blair Witch. Just. Awesome.

2.) The Witch


Genre: Supernatural
Director:  Robert Eggers
Country: USA / UK

Speaking of witches... oh my god The Witch. A tension-drenched, weighty slog through a harsh, unforgiving terrain of superstition, dread, and isolation. I saw it twice in the theater and it was even better the second time. Everything about this film is perfection. It's too bad that the Oscars are so prejudice against horror movies because The Witch would sweep - Best Actor, Best Costumes, Best Musical Score, Best Original Screenplay, Best Evil Goat.

And it would have been my number one movie of the year if not for the recently released...

1.) Train to Busan


Genre: Zombies
Director:  Sang-ho Yeon
Country: South Korean

Zombies! I love zombies. Oh, how I love the zombies. Slow zombies, fast zombies, zom-coms, undead zombies, virus zombies, animal zombies, not in love with the talking zombies (Dead Snow) but I'll take 'em. And since The Walking Dead continues to be such a huge success, zombies remain more popular than ever. Which means we have a gluttony of about a dozen zombie movies a year - with one of them actually being, maybe, somewhat good!? Well, sliding into a late December 2016 VOD release, Train to Busan gets that honor of being the one good zombie movie of the year. Lucky for us, that it just so happens to be an EXCELLENT one. It's got great character development, a Korean Jon Favreau, inventive zombie action, thrilling train sequences, and realistic makeup and gore. And the ending is just perfect. Go South Korea!

***

Best Worst Movie: Beyond the Gates

Honorable Mentions
Hush
The Invitation
Southbound
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Siren
Nina Forever
The Boy
Jack Goes Home
Don't Breathe
Lights Out

Biggest Disappointments
31
Baskin
Martyrs remake
Cabin Fever remake
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Flight 7500
The Other Side of the Door
The Conjuring 2
The Darkness
The Disappointment Room

***

Here's to another year of horror movies! Don't forget to watch them - in the dark.

~Doll

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Lights Out (2016)


Genre: Supernatural
Director: David F. Sandberg
Availability: In Theaters

One of the greatest failings of any story is laziness.

In horror movies we rely on the fact that a big part of fear comes from what we don't know - The Big Unknown - it looms over us and the shadow that it casts is wide and dark. The journey that we go on to unearth the How and Why is just as important as the jump scares and the creepy imagery. Granted, this is a horror movie and not a murder mystery, I get that, but there's still an art to gradually unveiling relevant information instead of, oh say, discovering a box full of photos, recordings (that happens to play at the perfect spot when you press play) and confidential case files in literally the first place that you look. It's lazy storytelling and it's unforgivable.

And it wasn't the only instance of such a sin in Lights Out. What was the "experimental treatment" and are we going to talk about the fact that she can "get inside your mind"? No. We're just supposed to take these things at face value and continue to scream at the obscene amount of jump scares?

These glaring issues aside, Lights Out was a more competent horror movie than many. Its concept was unique, the jump scares were effective, and the ending was bold. It will most certainly be touted as one of the best of 2016 by critics, no doubt. I had fun watching it but I fear that it will prove itself to be a forgettable movie. It lacked a memorable journey and its atmosphere was generic. Even the title - Lights Out - I keep wanting to call it Don't Turn Out The Lights, or Lights Off, or That movie about the light switch.

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Best New Horror on Netflix

To date I've watched roughly 1,040 horror movies. I often struggle with finding a new horror movie to watch that I'm excited about or that even looks halfway decent. I imagine I'm not the only one with this struggle, whether it's because you've seen all of the horror movies ever, or because you think every horror movie that pops up on Netflix looks stupid and you've been burned too many times to keep taking chances. In any case, I've put together a small list of new horror on Netflix (or horror that's new to Netflix) that I think is worth a watch.

Top 10

The Girl in the Photographs (2016)

A fun slasher with a mix of mystery and "art". It'll keep you guessing until all your guesses start to get brutally murdered and then you're left with a killer of an ending.

Hush (2016)

The premise is simple. Killer shows up to girl's remotely located house and plays cat and mouse with her. But there's nothing simple about the execution, which is truly inspired. If you want an intense, straightforward horror movie, look no further.

Kristy (2015)

Another excellent cat and mouse horror movie. There are multiple, very brutal killers and one, terrified girl that they've set their sights on. She has to start getting inventive if she wants to live because no one who will try to help her will live to tell the tale. The ending has a nice little twist as well.

Final Girl (2015)

One of the greatest pleasures of horror movies for me is the moment when the Final Girl stops being the victim and starts kicking some ass. In the case of the movie Final Girl, our FG is never the victim, instead she is raised to kick the asses of the Killers who create the Final Girl. It's a refreshing take on the genre with some awesome fight scenes in the third act.

Curse of Chucky (2013)

Forget the campy Chucky movies we all grew up with - they've got their time and place sure, but it's not when you're craving something scary. Curse of Chucky however is putting some weight behind the franchise with its new polished, scary, and yes, serious take on the infamous killer doll. Surprisingly good.

The Hallow (2015)

The Hallow, not to be confused with The Hollow, which were both released in 2015 and have similar looking covers. One is very good, the other is very not. The Hallow is what happens when you move to a foreign country and don't listen to the locals about staying out of the cursed woods. The creatures are terrifying and the action is intense. You may never go into nature again (it belongs to them).

#Horror (2015)

#Horror isn't for everyone. It's kind of like being in a casino targeted at teenage girls. But I loved how weird it was - I'd never seen anything like it. And teenage girls are terrifying, even when they aren't trying to kill people. It's a pretty surreal watch so strap in for a WTF kind of night.

We Are Still Here (2015)

We Are Still Here is kind of an throwback to the late '70s slow burns paired with an early '80s paranormal creature feature. Everything about this movie feels like it belongs in another time, which makes for a strange and unique movie experience.

They Look Like People (2015)

A creepy slow burn that is surprisingly funny when it's not busy screwing with your mind. I love it when low budget indies score terrific actors and a great script. I take a chance on a lot of crap that I regret, but when it pays off with a gem it really reinvigorates my love of small horror flicks. You are a mountain...

The Invitation (2015)

Perhaps qualified more as a psychological thriller than a horror movie, but I'm still going to throw this one in here because it's really damn good and it ends pretty bloody. Another film that subtly builds the dread, making for an uneasy watch that will keep you wondering what the hell is really going on. The final scene is a brilliant addition to an already solid piece. Good stuff.

~

No, I didn't forget The Babadook. The Babadook can bite me.

There's a ton more great horror on Netflix worth checking out. Just because you've never heard of it before or the cover looks silly doesn't mean it won't be great. Sometimes you have to take a chance in order to find those hidden gems, so don't be afraid to dig for them!

Frightful watching!

~H

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Neon Demon (2016)


Genre: Psychological
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Availability: Still in Theaters

"Beauty isn't everything. It's the only thing."

And while director Nicolas Winding Refn worked on establishing deeper meanings in the subtext to his gorgeously surreal frames, that sentence could probably be applied to The Neon Demon as well. The movie doesn't work as a statement on Hollywood or Beauty or Female Expectation or Jealousy or Envy or Power or Innocence or Corruption - all themes which are explored and dissected. Instead it works as a powerhouse of beauty. Every scene is a surreal, extraordinary photograph that whispers to you, seducing your senses. The horror movie aspect comes in rivulets. A little here - some blood licking, a cougar in the room, a sexual predator / A little there - a scene with a dead body that will make you OMG. Until the finale of course, that just rides the horror wave to crazy town, while looking posh in heels all the way.

Now that I've told you what it is (and isn't), let me tell you that I absolutely loved it. I'm not above a pointless yet pretty movie that shocks me with its brazen gross out factors. It dazzled me, like a pretty face, I couldn't help but stare and smile and think to myself, I want that. And who knows, maybe that was the point all along.

4 out of 5 stars

The Conjuring 2 (2016)


Genre: Ghosts; Supernatural
Director: James Wan
Availability: Still in Theaters

When I saw The Conjuring in theaters back in 2013 it scared the shit out of me. I sat there with my knees tucked up to my chin, leaning into the side of my best friend, and screaming so loudly at the jump scares that I started to become embarrassed. Three years and multiple viewings later it still scares me silly. But as much as I love The Conjuring I don't want to watch it again under the guise of another name, such as, oh I don't know, The Conjuring 2.

And when I say it's the same movie I exaggerate. It is of course an entirely different movie. They both just happen to share: an old dingy house, young jovial kids, a stressed out but loving mom, spooky things that start to happen to one kid while she's sleeping in bed, then everyone's a target and they all start sleeping in the living room together, then someone gets possessed, the Warrens come along and offer them kindness and neighborly normalcy while sympathizing and being helpful, a kid hides in the wall, they find a creepy spinning toy that plays music, there's pale gangly ghosties with terrible skin and dark eyes, there's the mystery of discovering what actually happened, there's the misleading answer, the evil things follow the Warrens back home, the kids go stay in a different place while the house gets cleaned, everyone is saved by love. If my life shared that many qualities with someone else's life they'd put us on Unsolved Mysteries and we'd be famous.

I guess my expectations were too high in that I wanted like, some new ideas in a new movie.

Griping aside, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are as delightful as ever as the loving, supernaturally inclined husband and wife team. And there's some really great, creepy imagery throughout that has stayed with me. It's not a bad movie, it's actually a good movie, and for many fans it will be just as good as or even better than the first (so say some critics). But I remain disappointed and will pout about it for a little while longer.

2 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Witch (2016)


Genre: Witches
Director: Robert Eggers
Availability: Still in theaters

In the past, horror movies seemed marked by the decade they were made. When having a conversation about genre and appeal, many can state that they're drawn to a certain period of time which is reflective of the style of movie they tend to like. The gore and camp of the '80s. The psychological and Gothic horror of the '60s. The science fiction horror of the '50s. The teen screams of the '90s. The story-driven slow burners of the '70s. And it's this latter one that The Witch so harkens back to. Dripping with atmosphere, tension and dread, The Witch is a movie out of time, belonging stylistically in the past and thematically in the present, it is not only a complex piece of cinema for today's horror genre, but an important one.

The Witch never tries to be something its not. Instead its understated in almost every way. A sexuality runs through the veins of it without being salacious. There's a sense of impending doom in almost every scene, every wide angled shot that lords over the family, hovering with menace but never shouting in your face for a cheap jump scare. There is some blood and violence but it feels as necessary and natural as the violence of nature itself. And then there's the hysteria, which is the true terror of The Witch.

In a time where the whisper of witchcraft was enough to hang innocent young women, a family is struggling with loss, isolation, and starvation, and the only thing holding the threads of their humanity together is their fervent beliefs. Their damnation is real because they believe it to be, and so do you, and you fear for them. They pray with power, with urgency, with conviction. And any misstep in their day, in their manner, in their speech, is enough to offend God and shake their entire foundation of existence. And so after tragedy befalls them again, and again, there is a whisper of witchcraft in the form of a child's malicious musings, and it's enough to damn them all.

Stylistically The Witch is brilliant. Wide shots of the forest and of the family in prayer build the importance of both elements, while narrow shots of suffering and suspicion add to the claustrophobia that surrounds them as they are trapped by their own inability to survive. The music here is full of strings and vocal crescendos that was so prevalent in the Italian giallo horror of the '70s. This method of music has a way of filling a scene so completely with dread that it's a relief when the inevitable terrible thing that follows finally happens.

There is a strong theme of female empowerment that seems to supersede its witchcraft origin, and that is of a young girl slowly owning her womanhood and realizing there's a power and freedom that she may seize if only she has the will to. The father, who starts out tall and strong with a ruling fist and a voice like velvety gravel, slowly loses both his authority over his children and the love of his wife. The women here rule. With their grief, with their manipulation, with their disobedience, and finally with the sheer magnitude of their will. Breaking every shackle imposed upon them. Even with the small twin siblings, the boy twin seems as dull as background furniture as the girl twin sends chills up our spines with her taunts and her creepy nursery rhymes. It is only Caleb, the eldest boy, who is strong and good even though he is damned by his nature.

The entire cast here is outstanding. Performances that are so good you feel like you're catching a glimpse of the past, as it happened. The set, as simple as it is, is soaked in despair with mud and failing crops and the dark, looming wood that surrounds them. It is a movie that makes you wonder why genre movies aren't ever (or extremely rarely) nominated for the prestigious awards. It is that good.

Oh God my Lord I now begin. Oh help me and I'll leave my sin.
For I repent and thou shall be. Thru evil I will turn to thee.
Whom ever shall destroy my faith. For I repent and thou shall be.
Oh God my Lord I now begin. Oh help me and I'll leave my sin.
For I repent and thou shall be.
Thru evil I will turn to thee.

bah bah bah

5 out of 5 stars

Cabin Fever (2016)


Genre: Virus
Director: Travis Zariwny
Availability: VOD

Remakes. For good or evil they are as popular as ever. Sometimes we luck out and get a great re-imagining, like Evil Dead or Fright Night. Other times we end up with absolute garbage, like The Omen, or The Fog. And then there's the remakes that just seem completely pointless, they aren't good, they aren't bad, they aren't a new vision, and especially in Cabin Fever's case, they aren't a new voice. They just exist because. Because, Cabin Fever 4: Outbreak, fell through and so a remake was the next best thing.

But they couldn't even be bothered to write a new script, so they used Eli Roth's original script. Seriously. They used the same script. Well, a trimmed down 92 page version of the 134 page original script. Which makes sense because the one thing that made the remake different from the original is that it was lacking any sense of humor. Gone is the bizarre scene at the local store with the weird kid doing karate moves. Roth's original was not only gory and terrifying but it had an odd sense of humor to its characters, "the local color" as you will. There was also a tenderness to the romance angle, a very real sense of fear and doom with the virus angle, and a heart-wrenching feel to the abandonment and killing of friends scenes. The remake is just as gory with some solid young actors filling the spots but the spirit of the original is not there. It feels soulless. A resurrected, walking dead version of a classic, iconic movie.

And what's with The Shining nod at the beginning? (The Shining theme song plays briefly as the camera follows the car from above winding around the side of the mountain.) Maybe if the whole movie was peppered with classic movie fodder it would have made a kind of sense but just the one scene? Ugh, stop it. You're not some meta movie, you're a shameless unoriginal remake that is doing nothing for the genre aside from filling a slot on the metaphorical shelf.

Give me another cheesy Cabin Fever sequel any day of the week. I mean, did you see Patient Zero? That fight scene on the beach at the end... good stuff.

2 out of 5 stars