Welcome to The Last Horror Blog, a biweekly column on all things horror.
The year 2013 was a weird one for horror movies. Hollywood continued to churn out remakes (Evil Dead, Carrie, Maniac) and sequels (Texas Chainsaw 3D, Insidious:Chapter 2), but did find time (and money) for a few new IPs as well. Indie filmmakers continued creating original tales of terror on tiny budgets, and the anthology film was back in a big way – thanks to the success of The ABCs of Death and V/H/S. Oh yeah, and zombies were still popular – because pop culture just loves them to no end.
Yet, while there were certainly a lot of horror films in 2013, the ratio of wheat to chaff seemed skewed to the chaff side of the ledger. There were a lot of forgettable films released in the past 12 months – and picking 10 for a year’s best list proved more difficult than I anticipated. Granted, I didn’t get to see some of the heavy hitters of the past year (Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are being but one example – unfortunately it doesn’t hit DVD until next month), but even with missing a few titles, I’ve managed to come up with 10 fright flicks that seem to really capture what 2013 was like for horror fans. So, without further ado, here’s the list – presented in no particular order.
John Dies at the End
One of the recurring themes of this year's list is the way that many of the films sort of blur the line of what we think of as traditional horror cinema. I’ve long felt that horror is more than just the typical slasher and ghost films – and even movies that aren’t marketed as horror films can fit into the category quite nicely. Such is the case with Don Coscarelli’s adaptation of David Wong’s cult novel.
John Dies at the End isn’t a horror film in the traditional sense, but it does feature monsters (including one made of various cuts of meat from a freezer), Lovecraftian overtones, and other horror-film tropes. Coscarelli takes all the stuff from the novel, trims and tucks things to make them fit the film format, and gives us one of the trippiest titles in recent memory.
I am not the biggest fan of Hollywood’s fascination with remaking classic genre films, and I was incredibly skeptical of Fede Alvarez’ gory reimagining of Sam Raimi’s beloved Evil Dead long before it hit theaters. Only the fact that Raimi and Bruce Campbell gave the film their blessing (and backing) gave me hope.
As far as remakes go, The Evil Dead is surprisingly decent. Alvarez manages to pay homage to the original while also not being chained to it (something Rob Zombie struggled to overcome when remaking the iconic Halloween a few years ago) and it's incredibly gory for a mainstream feature. The lack of an Ash character is still disappointing, but it was the right choice – no one was going to replace Campbell. The enterprise as a whole manages to nail the key notes (the visuals, the FX work and the setting) in a way that made me overlook some of the shortcomings (the film feels a bit long in spots). I’d certainly be open to seeing where Alvarez takes things from here (particularly after the postcredits sequence), and maybe that will actually happen at some point in the near future.
Don’t look now, but Ethan Hawke is suddenly a scream king. After appearing in 2012’s creepy Sinister, Mr. Hawke is back to headline the home-invasion film The Purge. Oddly enough, I’d be okay with Hawke getting typecast as a horror star.
James DeMonaco’s film has a great high concept – one night a year, the cops close shop and all crime is legal. Rich folks like Hawke and his family just batten down the hatches and hope for the best – but trouble finds its way into their humble abode when one of their offspring lets a stranger into the fortress. Next thing you know, there are people in masks on the doorstep wanting this stranger – and they’re not taking no for an answer.
The Purge is one of those films that probably wouldn’t have made the cut in a stronger year – because while the high-concept pitch of a night when crime is legal is excellent, it’s really just window dressing for a typical home-invasion story – and we had a better home-invasion story this year, which we’ll be getting to shortly. That being said, The Purge is not without its charms. It’s popcorn horror, but sometimes you just want to kick back and eat junk food. This film will satisfy that urge.
Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook is best known for his Vengeance trilogy (which includes the classic Oldboy), but he branches out a bit in the sumptuous and mesmerizing Stoker.
Another title that isn’t entirely a horror film (marketing folks like to call it a psychological thriller – which is the buzzword for a lot of genre flicks with aspirations to be something bigger), Stoker is haunting enough to make the list anyway. An elaborate family mystery lies at the center of this twisted tale, and unraveling it (and uncovering all of the symbolism along the way) will keep your brain working double time.
The film features countless ties to Hitchcock (most notably, Shadow of a Doubt), beautiful cinematography, and great performances from Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode. Save this one for a night when you’re in the mood for something a little more cerebral than your standard stalk-and-kill flick.
Arguably the most obscure film on this year’s list, The Battery had a lot of hurdles to overcome to be here. First, it’s an indie film that played on the festival circuit, and with the abundance of indie films out there these days, you have to be really good to get noticed. Second, it’s a zombie film, and I think we reached critical mass with zombie flicks about five years ago.
Somehow, though, this scrappy little feature from Jeremy Gardner managed to rise above the competition and find an appreciative cult audience.
Gardner and producer Adam Cronheim star as two distinctly different baseball players forced to work together to survive the zombie apocalypse – and each other – in the film. Scott Weinberg calls it “more of a droll New England mixture of The Walking Dead and Waiting for Godot than an action-horror flick with dry humor…” which is a pretty perfect description.
It’s also a description that highlights why some won’t take to this $6,000 feature. Rather than make another gory action-packed zombie apocalypse film, The Battery is more of a character study – but the writing and the characters are interesting enough that patient viewers will never mind the rather aimless plot and lack of gruesome zombie kills. If you’re looking for something other than just another Dawn of the Dead clone, The Battery is definitely worth a look
Last year, the microbudgeted anthology film V/H/S made a lot of year-end lists (including mine) – and its success sparked something of a mini-renaissance for horror-anthology flicks. Naturally, the guys behind the first film were eager to make a sequel (and it originally had a much better title – S-VHS) and we were treated to more creepy tales in the follow-up.
Like its progenitor, V/H/S/2 is an uneven affair – but when an entry works, it really works. The Raid director Gareth Evans provides the best short by far with Safe Haven. This story finds a group of reporters interviewing a cult leader at his jungle compound when things go completely crazy. It’s a genuinely frightening piece of cinema that really reaches a fever pitch in the last 15 or so minutes, before ending with a really nifty final shot.
The rest of V/H/S/2 struggles to live up to that level, but there’s fun to be had in tales of zombies with GoPro cameras mounted on one's head and an alien invasion recorded from the perspective of the family pooch.
Home-invasion films have been popular for ages, no doubt because there are few things more horrifying than becoming a victim inside what should be your one safe place. From Ils to The Strangers to Fight for Your Life, this subgenre has endured and mutated.
However, few films do the whole home-invasion thing quite as well as Adam Wingard’s You’re Next – which twists the formula in an interesting way I won’t reveal here. Couple that twist with some gory deaths and creepy animal masks (what’s with home-invasion films featuring creepy masks, anyway?) and you wind up with what is arguably the best genre film of 2013. Catch it on DVD and Blu-ray next month.
Berberian Sound Studio
Our next film is another feature that is a horror film even though it doesn’t resemble what most people think of as horror films.
Berberian Sound Studio is a trippy little movie from Peter Strickland wherein Toby Jones plays a sound engineer summoned to Italy to do work on an Italian horror film. While there, strange things begin to happen as the film works its way into his conscious and subconscious mind.
A slow burner in the vein of the best work from Ti West, Berberian Sound Studio is not a gory stalk-and-kill film or even a supernaturally tinged chiller. Instead, it’s sort of a hazy, dreamlike film that’s as much a behind-the-scenes look at Italian horror-film industry and the art of sound design as it is a straight genre narrative. It mimics the nightmarish (and occasionally absurd) plot conventions of the best spaghetti chillers in the third act, but it’s certainly not for everyone. However, those who came of age loving the films of men like Lenzi and Deodato will almost assuredly love what Strickland has accomplished here.
The Soska sisters prove that horror is not just a boy’s club with this fascinating – if flawed – character study about a young surgeon in training (Katherine Isabelle) who finds herself moonlighting in the body-mod culture.
A beautiful merging of Cronenberg and Lucky Mckee (with a nod or two to Kei Fujiwara’s rarely seen film Organ worked in for good measure), American Mary works amazingly well – until the last act, where it just sort of ends. Those final minutes are a letdown, but they don’t diminish what the Soska’s achieved in the first two acts of their film – and it’s easy to look at this and see the potential these ladies have as filmmakers. They’re going to get even better – and when that happens, we’ll look back at American Mary and say this was where it all started.
James Wan’s The Conjuring had some pretty big hills to climb with me before making this list. First off, I’m not a big fan of horror films based on “real-life hauntings” – I tend to find them sort of dull and predictable. Second, I’ve never been a big fan of the “work” of noted “demonologists” Ed and Lorraine Warren. In fact, I found a lot of what they do dubious at best and flat-out fraudulent at worst. Knowing that The Conjuring would feature the husband-and-wife duo on one of their most famous cases was enough to convince me I didn’t even want to see the film.
However, Wan is a great horror-film director – and thanks to some excellent casting (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are infinitely more likable and less kooky than the real-life Warrens) and genuine frights, The Conjuring finds itself not only on my list, but right near the very top of the best of 2013.
The plot is deceptively simple – family buys house, strange things start happening, the Warrens investigate, and there’s a supernatural showdown – but Wan infuses it all with a genuine sense of menace and dread. There’s really nothing here we haven’t seen before (and in lesser films), but sometimes style trumps substance – or at the very least helps create it. That’s what happened here.
Spooky and intense, The Conjuring serves a perfect blueprint of what haunted-house films based on purportedly true events should aspire to. Even if you don’t believe anything at all happened in this house, there’s no denying Wan and his partners have made a damn fine ghost film that now stands amongst the genre’s all-time greats.
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