This year has been a stellar year for the horror genre! There is always a certain amount of grumbling about the lack of quality in wide-release horror films every year, but with VOD indie horror is much easier to discover nowadays and it is often better than what is in the theaters. But this was also a year to see some great horror get released in major theaters too. From art-house vampires and aliens, or multiplexes screening a film about turning a guy into a walrus, horror definitely made a mark this year.
Here I present my top 10 horror films of 2014. My list last year included a few films which officially got released in 2014, and are still some of my favorite films of the year – BLUE RUIN, COHERENCE, PROXY, and NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN- but for the sake of highlighting even more great horror this year I have not included them below.
UNDER THE SKIN (dir. Jonathan Glazer) A film as terrifying as it is beautiful, UNDER THE SKIN left me with my jaw wide open throughout. It is the story of an alien who comes to earth to entice young men back to its liar, which looks like a regular shabby shack, and remove their skin. The film’s running time is largely divided between actual footage of Scarlett Johansson trying to get strangers to come home with her and then seeing exactly why it was a bad idea for these men to come home with her. It is visceral, but not gory, and instead uses visuals that I have never before seen on film to show the disassembling of the human body. The film moves slowly through its story, and carefully feeds the audience information about the physical dissection of its victims. The understanding of gender and performance add to the depth of the film, which gives these kills more of an impact than if the plot had been rushed.
CHEAP THRILLS (dir. E.L. Katz) I first reviewed CHEAP THRILLS back in April 2013 and was certainly worth the wait. The film’s battle of affluent boredom versus working class wanting still carries the same weight as it did when I first saw it. Through the events of one fated night in Craig (Pat Healy) and Vince’s (Ethan Embry) lives we get to see how far each of them would go for money. Everyone has a price they can be bought and sold for, and watching these old friends get pushed to find what their prices are is fascinating and revolting. A really well balanced and self-aware film.
THE BABADOOK (dir. Jennifer Kent) Easily the most hyped horror film of the year, and with good reason. THE BABADOOK premiered at Sundance in January 2014 and made waves across the rest of the festival circuit all through the year. By the time it was officially released in November horror fans were clamoring to see what had been called the scariest horror film in years. The film focuses on the strange appearance of a ghastly children’s book. The tired widow mother and tiring son had no memory of the book before they decided to read it at bedtime one night. The images in the book of the Babadook – a boogie man – quickly give way to images of the mother herself turning into a monster. She tries to destroy the book, but after the Babadook has been released there is no turning back. The film’s titular monster is a good one. He moves quickly and hides in shadows, but even with a monster like the Babadook he is not the scariest part of the film. THE BABADOOK breathed new life into the horror genre this year by bringing us a classic horror film that still feels fresh.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (dir. Jim Jarmusch) Jarmusch has always been the king of cool. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE continues his reign by showing us the day to day lives of vampires. Eve (Tilda Swinton) loves every minute of her existence. She is using her immortality to read, listen to music, dance, and feed her appetite for everything the world has to offer, including blood. Her partner and complement is Adam (Tom Hiddleston). Adam takes no joy in existing. Living in a rundown Detroit house he creates music that the world loves. He loves music and instruments, but treats every other aspect of the world as tedium. The film focuses on Adam and Eve’s relationship and their contrary ways. The mere presence of vampires does not make a film a horror movie, but it is the unpredictability of these two which make the film horror. We never quite know what each of them is capable of. It is nourishing to spend time with Adam and Eve in their world, but even with their casualness you are never afforded relaxation with their company. They are monsters.
TUSK (dir. Kevin Smith) TUSK’s premise is almost too good to be true: A crazy Canadian entraps a douchey hipster and turns him into a walrus. Kevin Smith’s second entry square into the horror genre takes this premise and runs with it, and the end product is a campy, unapologetic film that is indeed about turning a hipster into a walrus. TUSK’s biggest strength is that it knows what the audience’s expectations are and it exceeds each of them. It is preposterous, disgusting, and hilarious. It is destined to be a classic, and was a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
OCCULUS (dir. Mike Flanagan) Director Mike Flanagan’s previous film ABSENTIA is one of the best horror films released in the last ten years. Because of this, my expectations for OCULUS were sky high. Imagine my relief when OCULUS not only met, but effortlessly surpassed those expectations. The film’s story initially seems straight forward. After the violent death of their parents, two siblings are separated for eleven years while the younger brother is institutionalized to process the experience. The film begins with their reconciliation and the sister’s insistence on investigating the circumstances of their family’s degeneration. She believes that the antique mirror in her father’s study is to blame for their tragedy, and understandably the psychologically focused brother is not so sure. Even with natural performances and inventive story structure OCULUS makes no secret of the fact that is a proper horror film. It has effective jump scares scattered throughout the running time, though it does not telegraph them with the musical cues with have been inundated with lately. And the complexity of the interpersonal relationships is not at the cost of beautifully gory and startling visual effects. The story will stay with the audience long after the screening, and the images burned on their retinas.
AFFLICTED (dirs. Derek Lee & Clif Prowse) By all accounts, AFFLICTED should not have been a successful film. A found-footage film of two bro-dudes trapesing across Europe, screwing anyone they can, sounds like a cliché and uninspired film that all of us have already seen ten times over. But even with these strikes against it AFFLICTED somehow manages to be one of the more inventive retellings of a vampire film that I have ever seen. Both directors star in the film of a trip gone horribly wrong when Derek becomes stricken with a mysterious illness. Miraculously, Derek’s illness is joined by a blessing of super human strength and other delights. The glee they have in discovering Derek’s new found abilities s quickly thwarted when they realize that there is a high cost to these gifts. The film plays out like a horror version of 2012’s CHRONICLE and it completely baffles me that AFFLICTED did not get the same amount of attention. It deserves more.
THE SACRAMENT (dir. Ti West) Ti West has a deserved reputation of making creepy, atmospheric, slow-burn horror films. Both THE INNKEEPERS and THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL are two of the best examples of subtle horror that we have seen in some time. It is clear that he is adept at building suspense and maintaining throughout the length of a feature. With THE SACRAMENT, West shows us that he can also create horrors that are fast, sustained, and nothing like what he has shown us so far. THE SACRAMENT is a found-footage mockumentary of a Vice magazine crew looking for one of their photographer’s sisters. She was living on a commune, only to be transported out of the country to live in a more insular community. When her brother tries to contact her, he is told by an intermediary that he can go visit her at the new commune if he wishes. He tells his editor at Vice, and they grab a camera man and all take off on an adventure together. To no one’s surprise, the commune seems harmonious on the inside, but there is something a little off about it. Perhaps it is the armed guards at the gates? Or their creepy leader who is dripping with superficial Southern charm and the unwavering devotion from his followers, who call him “Father.” Bringing outsiders in to this commune is quite the disruption, and the ripple effects of their presence there are soon turned into the catalyst for the community to come to a violent and crashing halt. The film is a welcome example of nearly flawless, original horror, and I am even more excited to follow West’s career as a now well-rounded genre director.
DEAD SNOW 2: RED VS. DEAD (dir. Tommy Wirkola) Sequels tend to make fans anxious. How could the sequel possibly capture everything that they loved about the original film and amplify it, without losing the originality of it? I am happy to report that DEAD SNOW: RED VS. DEAD not only meets expectations, but completely blows the original away (and this is coming from an enormous fan of DEAD SNOW). The film picks up the moment that the original leaves us. And what a way to start! On a speeding car with the Nazi zombie hanging out of the window while our only survivor races into the snow. Martin (Vegar Hoel) has returned the Nazi zombies their last piece of gold- what else could they be after? It turns out that this particular battalion of Nazis had one last mission of unfinished business which they need to carry out. It is up to Martin and his zombie fighting sidekicks (including the delightful perpetual nerd Martin Starr) to stop the Nazi zombies in the quest to finish their battle in the Führer’s name. While the first film was a send-up of EVIL DEAD this film takes on a form of its own. What comes next is much more unpredictable, but the laughs and gore are consistent and so freaking fun.
STARRY EYES (dirs. Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer) Filmmakers have strong history of turning the cameras back onto filmmaking. And who can blame them? They know that film is a shared interest with their captive audience, and it must be satisfying to write what you know. STARRY EYES is a horror film, about the horror of an actress trying to get a part in a film, which is about making a horror film. Though these layers do not confuse, it goes to show the extent to which filmmakers love navel gazing. After briefly acknowledging the inherent narcissism here, I will tell you that STARRY EYES is dark film that successfully convinces me to never move to Hollywood. The film’s score, cinematography, and supporting performances give it a nuanced feel that is clearly very stylized and intentional. This world is a glimpse into Hollywood today for those who are outsiders themselves. And the frequent mentions of the millennial generation in the film highlight that the clash of old and new is not an accident. The characters also have very real and complicated relationships. Nothing is one-dimensional which adds to the feeling of immersion in their world.
Want to see my top ten films of the year overall? They are posted on the Boston Online Film Critics Association‘s website.