Friday, January 8, 2016

Best Horror Movies of 2015

Unlike last year where the indie horror movie reigned, this year was all about great mainstream horror.  Quite a few of these made it to theaters, starred well-known actors, or at the very least had some strong online buzz. Which in the horror movie business, is pretty much like getting a spot in Entertainment Weekly. We take what we can get.

Part of my research when doing a best of the year post is digging into what others thought were standouts. Most years it's pretty unsurprising and many of their picks inevitably make it onto my list as well. But this year was a little perplexing. The majority of the picks that made it onto lists of other reviewers were movies that I wouldn't even consider horror.

I'm no stranger to seriously considering what makes a movie a horror movie versus a psychological thriller or a black comedy with horror themes. I keep an extensive, updated list of the horror movies I see and there are many times wherein the movie was marketed as horror (The Tall Man) but in fact was not and thus does not make it to my watched list.  The appearance of a vampire does not a horror movie make. Is Sesame Street horror because of The Count? Are Vampire in Brooklyn or Once Bitten horror movies? So what qualifies What We Do in the Shadows as horror? Why is Bone Tomahawk (a movie that I loved, by the way) considered horror when in fact it's only the last half hour of the movie that has anything resembling violence or gore. If we simply qualify a movie as horror because of violence or gore then we'd be calling Fight Club a horror movie. Or every film by Quentin Tarantino. A horror movie isn't HORROR because it has murder or blood or a funny vampire. Horror movies are an exploitation of nightmares. They are wicked intrusions into your mind and soul.  Even when they're a comedy they never lose their horror foundation of gore and scares and desperate scenarios.

Deciding what differentiates psychological thrillers from horror is extremely tricky. Both are meant to scare you but in different ways - thrillers use more realistic situations while horror uses more traditional horror elements such as the supernatural, killers with masks, creatures, extreme violence etc. The main difference between the two genres is plot. Psychological thrillers tend to use twists and misdirection in realistic scenarios to keep the viewer guessing until the big reveal. Horror is more straightforward with a sense of urgency and foreboding.  Of course some movies blur these lines completely, making it very difficult to know the difference and then, really, it's just a personal call.

The movies that made it to many Best of the Year lists that were incorrectly (in my opinion) qualified as horror were:
The Visit - more a psychological thriller
What We Do In The Shadows - just a straight up comedy with vampires
Maggie - a drama with horror themes
Krampus - a slightly more mature version of Goosebumps
Bone Tomahawk - again, not a horror movie - perhaps a drama western with a bloody cherry on top
Crimson Peak - (but there's ghosts!) a Gothic romance with a murderous fairytale heart. "It's not a ghost story, it's a story with ghosts in it." - Edith, Crimson Peak

I suppose I find the distinctions important because when considering what you're going to tout as a genre standout, the first thing you should do, aside from watching it, is to make sure it belongs in the genre.

Other horror movies that made it to the majority of Best of Lists this year were:
Creep - I found it boring and very meh
Spring - Liked it very much but was a little too slow to make it a best for me
We Are Still Here - Pretty good but a little disappointing based on the intensity of the trailer
Deathgasm - Kind of hated it
When Animals Dream - I liked it but it was too slow to make a lasting impact
Pod - Kind of hated it
Goodnight Mommy - There's one scene in the beginning that is a shameless, unexplained moment of misdirection that made an ultimately great movie lose my vote.

Aside from my #1 pick, which was EVERYONE'S #1 pick, my list looks very different any of the other lists out there. So if Krampus scared the hell out of you or Bone Tomahawk was too gory - then you might not want to watch any of these actual horror movies. Because I may like bad horror movies, but at least they're horror movies.

#15.)  Bound to Vengeance

Genre: Revenge
Director: José Manuel Cravioto
Availability: Netflix Streaming

Brutal and surprisingly inventive for your typical rape revenge movie, with an ending that was like a gut punch. It's always something special when an actor can take a repulsive character and make him likable somehow, and that's exactly what Richard Tyson did. I was never rooting for him, but I enjoyed every moment of his screen time.

#14.)  Burying the Ex

Genre: Zombie; Comedy
Director: Joe Dante
Availability: Netflix Streaming

While he's been doing more TV than film these last ten years, Joe Dante (director of Gremlins and The Burbs) proves that he's still got his thumb on the pulse of horror comedy with Burying the Ex. It's gross, it's funny, it's fun and it's twisted. With solid stars like Anton Yelchin (Star Trek and Fright Night remakes), Ashley Greene (Twilight - whatever haters), and Alexandra Daddario (a ton of TV and Texas Chainsaw 3D), Dante creates something of an unusual movie that has a genuine RomCom feel with a solid horror heart. And with all of the classic horror references, and the main stars being horror geeks, well, it was a delightful perfection for that kind of mood.

#13.)  From the Dark

Genre: Vampire
Director: Conor McMahon
Country: Ireland
Availability: Netflix Streaming

Now this, this is a vampire movie. Holy hell, I think I held my breath for the entire film. Cloaked in darkness with moments of blinding light, there is always a trick of shadow, a slight movement just out of the corner of your eye, a gentle rustle of fabric or creaking of floor boards. You never let your guard down but it's no matter, it will be too late, he is always upon you, you are trapped and he can not die. Creepy as hell.

#12.)  Clown

Genre: Creature Feature; Demons
Director: Jon Watts
Availability: Not Available

If you hate clowns, can't stand body horror, and don't want to watch children die, then this movie is not for you. It is seriously screwed up and oh, so good. Since renting this last winter they have taken it off of On Demand and it's currently only on DVD for Regions 2 and 3. Lame. A directorial note of interest: Jon Watts is currently set to direct the new Spider-Man reboot, so, that's a fun resume.

#11.)  Gravy

Genre: Comedy; Slasher; Cannibals
Director: James Roday
Availability: On Demand

We watched this on Halloween and man, what a delight! It's cleverly written, superbly cast (with a quirky guest appearance of Sarah Silverman), and bloody as hell. And once the climactic third act starts to play, it gets to be a knockdown drag out shit show. It was a great year for horror comedies and Gravy is definitely one of the best.

#10.)  A Christmas Horror Story

Genre: Anthology, Christmas
Director: Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, Brett Sullivan
Availability: On Demand

I'm just as surprised as you are. But after the softcore disappointment of Krampus, I was really craving some hardcore Christmas horror to watch by the ambient light of my Christmas tree, and A Christmas Horror Story delivered. The anthology as a whole is pretty strong, with a random yet highly entertaining guest appearance of William Shatner to add a little Christmas cheer. Not all segments are total winners however, like the one about the high school kids was kind of weak, but it's no matter because the rest of them are pretty fantastic, especially the story of the rabid elves attacking Santa and then Santa and Krampus fighting well... it just doesn't get better than that. A Christmas miracle, indeed.

#9.)  #Horror

Genre: Slasher
Director: Tara Lyn Subkoff
Availability: On Demand

#Horror is one of the strangest and nontraditionally unsettling movies I've ever seen. The straightforward horror aspect of this movie is that it's simply a slasher film. And yet that's the least scary thing about it. The disconcerting elements that are the heart and soul of #Horror is the heavy use of social media. To the point where it's almost a mania. These tweens are positively obsessed with their online lives. Every moment is captured, filtered, twisted, posted, reposted, manipulated, obsessed over, gossiped about, and repeated. These girls are best friends and yet they are so incredibly cruel to each other it's doubtful that any of them would grow up into normal human beings, you know, if most of them weren't murdered by the end of the movie anyways. If you're looking for something a off kilter, this will do ya.

#8.)  Final Girls

Genre: Slasher, Comedy
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Availability: On Demand

There is no better way to pay homage to the traditional slasher movie than to poke fun at it. You know, lovingly. As any true fan of horror can tell you, sometimes the movies we love, the movies that are the foundation for the genre even, are bad, bad movies. But it's like making fun of your little brother, it's perfectly acceptable until someone else does it. Final Girls is essentially that. In a totally meta way. Chase scenes are in slow motion, sex and drugs are death sentences, flashing your boobs is totally normal, and never say I'll be right back. If there was ever a love letter to the slasher movie, this would be it.

#7.)  Backcountry

Genre: Creature Feature, Nature
Director: Adam MacDonald
Availability: On Demand

Sometimes you don't need a lot of bells and whistles to make for a compelling, and terrifying, movie. Sometimes all you need is the wilderness, a tent, and a bear. And as an avid camper myself, I can tell you it's movies like these that truly scare the shit out of me. Simple, direct, and utterly brutal, Backcountry will make you think twice about that next camping trip.

#6.)  Cooties

Genre: Comedy, Zombies, Infection, Apocalypse
Director: Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion
Availability: On Demand

Historically I haven't been the biggest fan of horror comedy. There are of course exceptions to the rules, but in general I've found most to be too silly to be taken seriously. They lack scares and sufficient gore or shock value. But this past year has been winning me over with some brutal, clever, hilarious, creepy horror comedies. Cooties takes the helm with its no-holds-barred zombie kids and the odd-ball teachers that have to hack and slash their way to freedom. The cast is brimming with great comedic actors and the writers have serious credits under their belts such as multiple Saw movies and Scream Queens. This one is not to miss.

#5.)  The Hive

Genre: Virus, Apocalypse
Director: David Yarovesky
Availability: On Demand

I'm putting this one at #5 but there's a big part of this movie that's #1 in my heart. I seriously loved it. Every aspect of this movie won me over - the music, actors, gore, mystery, story, ending - it's a near perfect horror movie for me. The only reason it's not number one is because, while I fell in love with it, it just didn't scare me (though it's creepy, for sure). And a movie that can scare me goes right to the top of the list. Otherwise, it's a pretty brilliant arthouse horror movie. A treasure.

#4.)  Unfriended

Genre: Supernatural, Ghosts, Bully Revenge
Director: Levan Gabriadze
Availability: On Demand

Here's a movie I had absolutely no interest in. I'm really over Cam movies (aren't we all?) so a movie that takes place entirely through Skype screens (while unique) sounded like unnecessary torture. In fact the only reason I saw this was because the horror movie we were watching at home was so terrible that it drove us to the theater in hopes for a fraction of fun. And wow, Unfriended completely surprised! A new trend in horror right now is bullying revenge. I'm totally serious. So the story seemed fresh and relevant, the method of filming unique, and the tension riveting. The irony of Unfriended is that it probably gained a ton of friends on Facebook.

#3.)  Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Genre: Comedy, Zombies, Virus, Apocalypse
Director: Christopher Landon
Availability: On Demand

This movie won me over in the first opening minutes with a lip sync scene of an Iggy Azalea song. From that moment I was sold. The rest of the film fell into place with spectacular gore, gross out gags, a badass hot chick, horny teenagers, hordes of zombies, Dolly Pardon, undead cats, and a Britney Spears singalong. If none of these things do it for you then, well, you have no soul.

#2.)  Insidious 3

Genre: Supernatural, Demons
Director: Leigh Whannell
Availability: On Demand

Let me qualify this review by stating that I'm not a fan of the Insidious movies. The first one was okay. The second one was pretty terrible. But the idea of a prequel appealed to me and the trailer looked scary as hell so, why not. And holy shit. I must've screamed in the theater a dozen times. I was sitting in a ball clutching my best friend's arm and smiling from ear to ear because I was terrified. Even now, thinking of certain scenes gives me chills. Insidious 3 took everything that was cheesy about the first two movies and got rid of it. Here lies a bare boned, white knuckle horror movie that will make you sleep with the lights on.

#1.)  It Follows

Genre: Supernatural, Creature Feature, Slut Shame
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Availability: On Demand

It Follows is simply magical. It blends a timeless, contemporary, vintage, arthouse, drama, love story, horror movie with an unsubtle subtext of slut shaming, contamination, friendship, and damnation. All while you float in a dreamy, warm, tension-filled dread. And the score is outstanding. Anyone familiar with Goblin and what they did for '70s & '80s Italian horror will appreciate the influence they had on cinema like this. An outstanding accomplishment.  

Here's to more fantastic horror in 2016!

~ Doll