Welcome to The Last Horror Blog, a biweekly column on all things horror.
The year 2012 was not a banner one for horror cinema – a list compiling the worst titles of the past 365 days would dwarf even the most positive-thinking person’s record of the year’s best – but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Amongst all the mainstream studio dreck and found-footage cash-ins were several good and creepy flicks – you just had to be willing to dig a bit to find them. And, to be fair, two of the best horror films of 2012 did come from the studio system – so maybe there’s hope moving forward.
We’ve already looked ahead to 2013 in the previous Last Horror Blog entry (and I’m ashamed I forgot Alexandre Aja’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s Horns on that list…), so we know there’s good stuff looming on the horizon in the next 12 months – but join me now for a look back at the best of 2012. As always feel free to leave your picks in the comment section below -- and keep in mind that these are presented in no particular order. Now, on with the show.
We kick things off with Scott Derrickson’s creepy supernatural thriller Sinister. Ethan Hawke stars as a true-crime writer who puts his family in some seriously spooky danger when he discovers an old box of twisted home movies.
Sinister is at its best in those moments when it’s showcasing the found footage on the discovered videos -- and Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargill deserve credit for the way they’ve blended found footage with more traditional film techniques (it’s sort of reminiscent of Cannibal Holocaust in that regard). The formula proved to be a hit with audiences as the film grossed over $80 million at the box office (quite a profit given its $3 million budget) and earned a spot on countless Year’s Best lists. If you missed it at the theater, you’ll want to be sure and catch the DVD release this February.
While most people have grown a bit weary of the whole “found footage” phenomenon, several films on the list this year prove that the narrative format is still viable – it just requires a director with vision to really pull it off. Barry Levinson fits that bill quite nicely.
Levinson’s eco-chiller The Bay didn’t get much in the way of promotion when it released in the latter stages of 2012, which is unfortunate, because it’s a found-footage faux documentary that stands head and shoulders above many of its brethren.
The film chillingly chronicles the decimation of a small Maryland town by mutated fish parasites. Drawing on real-life possibilities and spinning them to horrific ends helps make The Bay feel frighteningly plausible. Trust me, you won’t want to go swimming or even drink a glass of water after this one ends.
Keeping with the found-footage theme, we come to V/H/S – which has the distinction of not only being a found-footage film, but also an anthology.
I’ll admit to really liking anthology films and wishing we saw more of them. The downside is that since they feature different stories it makes them hard to grade overall. That’s also true here – as V/H/S offers five tales from different filmmakers – all of varying quality. That being said, the hits outweigh the misses with this one. V/H/S might feature a pointless framing story (poor Adam Wingard – he deserved better), but entries from Ti West, Joe Swanberg and the collective known as Radio Silence make up for the stories that don’t quite hit the mark.
Richard Bates gives us a sort of female-focused riff on We Need to Talk About Kevin in his difficult-to-classify film Excision.
AnnaLynn McCord musses herself up to play Pauline – a troubled and antisocial teen with delusions of grandeur struggling to get through high school. Like Kevin, Pauline lives a good middle class life with a decent family – and yet for some reason, she goes off the rails in a genuinely horrifying way late in the film. Like Lynne Ramsay’s feature, Excision is not a horror film in the traditional sense of the term – it’s a twisted domestic drama with moments of black comedy, extreme gore and, yes, genuine horror. The most disturbing part is the way we tend to root for Pauline at various narrative junctures (particularly against her frustrated, but well-meaning mother – played with glee by Traci Lords) and willingly forgive her for her transgressions and awful behavior.
The Loved Ones
Speaking of strong female villains, no discussion of 2012 is complete without a mention of Robin McLeavy’s terrifying turn as Lola in The Loved Ones.
Sean Byrne’s high school horror flick came out several years ago, but because of various issues we’re only finally seeing it in America in 2012. That’s incredibly unfortunate, because The Loved Ones is excellent and deserved a wider and more timely release.
McLeavy carries the film as Lola, a spoiled princess with a very questionable relationship with her father, who has dear old dad kidnap a local boy after he turns down her prom invite. Lots of torture and unpleasantness follow, but writing The Loved Ones off as “just another torture-porn movie” isn’t fair or accurate. There’s genuine tension in this one – it’s disturbing and totally worth tracking down now that it’s available on home video.
Ti West continues to cement his reputation as a horror filmmaker worth watching with this follow-up to House of the Devil, the paranormal chiller The Innkeepers.
Sara Paxton and Pat Healy star as two hotel clerks/paranormal investigators spending the last long weekend at their hotel before it shutters its doors for good. It’s a mostly empty house, save for the two counter folks, a former actress turned psychic (Kelly McGillis), and a strange old man – but things soon take a turn toward the spooky when unexplainable events start to occur.
Like West’s earlier work, The Innkeepers is a “slow burn” horror film. We spend more time getting to know the mundane lives of the characters than being scared, but when the spooky stuff finally starts happening in the final act, it’s mostly worth the wait.
Foreign countries provided some of the best horror films in 2012 – and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is England’s entry on this year’s list.
Two contract killers run afoul of dark and supernatural forces while carrying out a series of hits that take them across Europe in this moody chiller that’s sure to get under your skin. Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley turn in fantastic performance in a film that featured loads of improvised dialogue. There’s a genuinely unsettling atmosphere that permeates every frame of Kill List – and only a disappointingly ambiguous ending kept this from being my favorite horror film of the year. Despite that, this is a legitimately disturbing film that should appeal to anyone who loves horror cinema.
The Cabin in the Woods
Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods was a bit of a revelation for horror fans in 2012 – it proved that not only could Hollywood still do horror right (if, of course, you enlist talent like Joss Whedon…), but also that you could take tired genre tropes, spin them on their ear, and come out with something new and different in the process.
For a film that starts out looking an awful lot like an Evil Dead rip-off, Cabin in the Woods closes as one on of the most original and unique horror films not only of 2012, but of recent memory. College students head to the titular cabin, wake up zombie monsters, get picked off one by one, and then it all goes off the rails.
Whedon’s script mixes comedy and gore and a love of horror cinema into a heady concoction that is arguably the best horror film of the year. If only Hollywood would make more movies like this one and less microbudgeted knockoffs…
While not a horror film in the traditional sense (no one dies, there’s nothing supernatural happening, and the monsters are merely humans), Craig Zobel’s Compliance earns a spot on the list for highlighting the banality of real life evil.
Based on a true story, a young woman (Dreama Walker) is wrongfully imprisoned at her job at a fast-food restaurant when her boss (Ann Dowd) is manipulated into restraining her by a man on a phone claiming to be a cop.
A modern day reminder of the Milgram Experiment (which showcased how people would do things that went against their morals if an authority figure instructed them to do so), Zobel’s film pushes buttons and raises uncomfortable questions for everyone who watches it. Would we react differently if we were in this position? Our gut says yes – science says, “not so fast…”
Disturbing, at least a little bit divisive (the Sundance Q&A inspired some heated exchanges), and marvelously acted, Compliance is easily one of the year’s best regardless of what genre you place it in.
As a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick and The Shining, I was excited to check out Rodney Ascher’s documentary about some of the crazy theories the master’s adaptation of King’s haunted-hotel novel spawned over the years... and it didn’t disappoint.
Ascher talks to numerous film fans who’ve dissected the tale of Danny Torrance and the Overlook Hotel to extreme degrees – and while doing so, uncovers their theories about all the hidden meanings buried in the film.
While some of these ideas are kooky (the “hidden admission” with Kubrick copping to filming a fake moon landing for the U.S. government is fascinating but totally bonkers), others are just plausible enough to make the viewer stop and think. Kubrick was a meticulous artist and a brilliant man, which makes many of the ideas explored in Room 237 seem possible. Even if they’re not, you’ll never look at The Shining in the same light after seeing this fascinating documentary.
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