This was a very mixed year for horror. Attending the Boston Underground Film Festival, Fantasia, and Fantastic Fest got me pumped for all of the amazing horror and genre films that are being created by mind-blowing filmmakers. This was all unfortunately tempered by going to the local multiplex and seeing horror clunkers like Carrie and World War Z as the wide release offerings. The uneven horror options just makes me even more grateful to live in Boston, and have access to excellent independent film programmers who work on bringing these far better films around to audiences.
Now, on to the best films of the year, in no particular order:
Stoker (dir. Chan-wook Park)
Stoker is everything you want an art-house horror film to be. It is beautiful, atmospheric, and at its core a terrifying and creepy tale. The film stars Nicole Kidman as a distant mother who cannot relate to her daughter, Mia Wasikowska as the daughter who is trying to cope and live life without her recently deceased father, and Matthew Goode as the mysterious and handsome uncle who appears out of nowhere just after his brother’s death. The daughter is unsettling and unusual, but as we get deeper into family dynamics the uncle emerges as the greater unknown in the family. The sexual tension in the film is nearly suffocating, and intensifies the familial tension. Though not personally shocked by the ending, I could hear murmurings of my fellow theater goers who did not realize they were seeing a horror film.
We Are What We Are (dir. Jim Mickle)
The American remake of the Mexican cannibal film was one of my favorite films at Fantastic Fest. I am a huge fan of the Jorge Michel Grau original, and was extremely concerned when I heard that the film would be reinterpreted by an America for our finicky domestic audience. I never should have doubted director Mickle, who has a solid genre track record with Stake Land and Mulberry Street. What he has created is the perfect example of a film adapting another film’s original concepts, but becoming in insular film onto itself. Much was changed from one film to the next, and both films are stand-alone masterpieces. This version of the cannibal tale takes place in the Catskills- a far from the congested urban environment in Mexico. The film also swaps the genders of the remaining family members, with a father, two daughters and one young son rather than the mother, and two teenage sons and daughter of the original. But the most striking difference between the two films is the audience’s exposure to the family’s ritual. The original keeps the audience mostly in the dark about what their annual ritual consists of, focusing more on the sudden battle for sibling hierarchy. Mickle’s version shows the ritual in full glory. It is not done for gore, or shock-value, but rather to drive forward the emotional progression of the two daughters. We need to see what they are going through to fully appreciate where they are coming from. Mind you, Mickle does not eschew covering the delicate family dynamics of the Parker family, but sibling fighting is not the main focus here. This film is well worth your time, and will hopefully open the doors for thoughtful reinterpretation of films, rather than uninspired Hollywood regurgitation of international films that deserve a larger audience.
You’re Next (dir. Adam Wingard)
Though this film was shown to festival audiences back in 2011 it did not get a wide release until this August. This is confounding, as it was my favorite wide-release film this year and made a solid amount of money at the box office. (Mike did a great review of the film here.) The film is an excellent example of a typical horror premise that introduces original elements as the story progresses. A family reunion at their parents’ retirement house in the middle of nowhere is rudely interrupted by a ground of masked assailants who are hell bent on killing everyone there. Rather than sitting back and being picked off like sheep, the Davison family attempts to fight back against their aggressors, thanks to one son’s ass-kicking new girlfriend. As the story unravels from there, it turns out that not everything is as it seems, and this attack is anything but random. The dialogue here is realist and snippy. The animal masks of the militant attackers are downright creepy. Seeing Barbara Crampton as the family’s matriarch is uniquely satisfying. But the best part of this film is watching Sharni Vinson surprise everyone with her violent and stealthy maneuvers to try to save her boyfriend’s family.
Sightseeers (dir. Ben Wheatley) After 2012’s US release of Kill List, I was chomping at the bit to see Ben Wheatley’s next film. Much to my delight, Wheatley gave us another thoroughly original, confounding, brilliant horror film that defies convention. But unlike Kill List, Sightseers is a comedy. The film follows Chris and Tina, two socially awkward young lovers as they take a caravanning trip across the countryside and get to know each other better. These characters are offbeat and unsophisticted which makes you feel at first like you want to protect them from the world (the same affection I have for a pre-mustache Michael Cera) but as you discover their peculiarities are more markers for their psychotic impulses than naiveté, affection turns to repulsion. The manipulation of the characters’ relationship with both the audience and each other is nuanced and cannot be accredited to anything other than a director with perfect control over the film.
Jug Face (dir. Chad Crawford Kinkle) Appalachia, or any rural and misunderstood area of the country, is often the setting for horror films. Typically these films feature an outsider or group going in to an unknown culture, somehow upsetting the locals, and in turn these outsiders are punished for their actions. The formula works, and quite a few of my favorite horror films follow this pattern. Jug Face takes place in a small and isolated town in the woods, but it is an entirely different type of film. Ultimately what sets Jug Face apart from seemingly similar films is that Kinkke tells this story from the perspective of the villagers, and it is the values of their society which are upheld to be the true ones. Though the practices of this village, including their tradition of sacrificing the person whose face appears on the jug, may seem barbaric, Kinkle never looks down on the villagers. It is this perspective that makes Jug Facelike a breath of fresh air for horror films. The audience is immersed in the culture, rather than evaluating it from the outside. The fact that the film is excellently written, directed, and acted really helps too.
Resolution (dirs. Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead) It worries me when films ask questions, though you can tell throughout the film that the director not only has no intention of answer the question, but worse yet, does not know the answers themselves. I love ambiguous endings, but only when you can tell that the director themselves actually knows the answer. Resolution clearly knows both the questions, and the answers, but never quite tells you which is which, instead taking you on a horrifying plot that barely keeps up with itself. If this all sounds too vague, that is intentional. What I can tell you is that Michael (Peter Cilella) tears himself away from his lovely home and his wife to try to forcefully detox his buddy Chris (Vinny Curran) from crack. Handcuffing Chris to a pipe in the shed Chris calls home, the men settle in for what will be a tense week. The beauty in the premise of the film is that the tension is built in. Rather than sending the men out for a weekend of male bonding and arguing about incidents from their childhood, here we have a caring friend and a man who needs help. While in the cabin they have run ins with the local crack heads, Native land owners, and a dope smoking Frenchman. The film takes a great turn when someone, or something, begins leaving Michael little presents of folk lore. The film quick spirals from there with adept pacing, and undeniable chemistry between the two leads.
Proxy (dir. Zack Parker) At the Fantastic Fest screening of Proxy director/writer Zack Parker stated that the less you know about Proxy before seeing it the better. I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiment, which explains this vague review. I can tell you that the film focuses on the complex relationship that two women have. Parker wanted to explore his ability to control the audience’s sympathies (which he skillfully did in 2011’s Scalene) and show a story that continues beyond where the audience is expecting the story to stop. Unfortunately this intentional meandering can be felt in the film’s pacing. It feels much longer than its actual running time, and often has long stretches that drag along. Also, the film’s score is melodramatic and over the top at times. It is good that Parker understands the gravity of the situations he is placing his characters in, but these over the top orchestrations did get a few unintended laughs from the audience. Even with these flaws, Proxy is a fascinating film. The complexity of the characters and their unique backgrounds make the film stay in your thoughts for long after the screening.
Blue Ruin (dir. Jeremy Saulnier) this film is not yet released, but it made the festival circuit in 2013 and deserves recognition. The film is a revenge flick at its core. Given the prevalence of these films, I hoped to find this as a solid entry into the sub-genre. What Blue Ruin turned out to be was a brilliant portrayal of a man enacting his revenge on his parents’ killer and the fallout that occurs in his life after that. Macon Blair’s portrayal of Dwight, the vengeful son, is subtle and nuanced, and it completely blew me away. The character clearly has a long history, and has ended up in a complicated place in his life when he finds out that the murder is released from prison. Blair takes us through Dwight’s arc as a hurt, broken down man psychologically forced into trying to commit crimes of his own. He is lost and confused, but passionate. The quiet character shows us his journey, rather than having dialogue tell us. A well-paced, well written, and poignant film.
Nothing Bad Can Happen (dir. Katrin Gebbe) The title of this film is incredibly misleading. Many bad, terrible things happen in this outstanding German film. It follows Tore, a sweet but naïve “Jesus freak.” Tore is trusting, and believes in following everything that his extreme Christian friends preach. He doesn’t have a place of his own, and is couch hopping with his fellow freaks when he bumps in to a vacationing family. Tore is socially awkward, and constantly bringing up the majesty of the Lord doesn’t help, yet he is clearly yearning for closeness. He loves people, and trusts them blindly, but most people are put off by his overly eager friendliness. When his friend, whose couch he has been sleeping on, shows that he is not as Christian are Tore once believed, Tore takes up the friendly family he met earlier of their offer of a place to sleep. The family is welcoming and friendly at first, but contrary to the title, this honeymoon does not last long. As Tore gets more involved in the family’s life, their true nature emerges and Tore is subjected to abuse that he never deserved. The peculiar thing about the film is that Tore stays with the family, and continues to return to them. They are not his family, and he only just met them. He is not being held captive. There is no real motivation for him to keep returning, and yet he comes back again and again. This logical gap is one of the character himself, and not a shortsighted mistake by the filmmakers. It makes sense for Tore to not know better, and to put in faith in Jesus above all else. Director Gebbe told the audience at Fantastic Fest that this is actually based on a real case in Germany, where the victim irrationally returns to his abusers. This film is beautiful, haunting, and downright disturbing.
Coherence (dir. James Ward Byrkit) This is another thoughtful, inspired made with little to no money that easily surpasses most larger budget, and more largely distributed films. Director Byrkit shot the film over five nights in his own house. All eight actors in it are his close friends, and there was no script- everything was improvised. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the film is brilliant. I would hate to give away too much of the plot, but you should know that it takes place over a single dinner party with old friends. They are catching up and enjoying the company, and making light talk of the comet that is passing overhead that night. As you can guess, the comet affects the night more than they could have guessed. The film shows alliances being created and broken, mind games, and alternative realities crashing together, all from Byrkit’s living room. The film never loses you in the complicated story, but it does come together in such a way that will make you want to re-watch the film as soon as it is over. The film assumes the audience is intelligent, and it also shows characters acting intelligently. The approach to filmmaking and storytelling is a needed refreshment in cinema today. I cannot wait for the opportunity to re-immerse myself in Coherence.