Anyway you look at it, 2013 was a fantastic year for horror. Genre fare has taken over the small screen with The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Bates Motel, The Following, and Game of Thrones pulling in record numbers of viewers while delivering carnage, pathos and camp unheard of on the small screen. Still, movies are where my heart is, and this year delivered in a big way. I’ll admit there’s no accounting for taste, but despite the uneven quality of Mama, The Purge, Texas Chainsaw 3-D (my least favorite film of the year), and Evil Dead, audiences turned out in massive numbers. Meanwhile James Wan dominated the year with the back to back punch of The Conjuring and Insidious 2, demonstrating that there’s a hunger for horror at the box office.
Still, the best films of the year were the smaller titles that found their niche through the festival circuit first. Smaller, more personal films are pushing the envelope in terms of story, character and creativity, and they’re being rewarded with an audience. When we look back on 2013, we may call it the year that VOD officially replaced VHS as the way horror fans desperate for something new got their fix. What’s even better is the proliferation of genre festivals, special screening events along with an online culture that pushing conversation towards these smaller titles means they’re getting more attention now than they would have at any other point in history. On Demand and Netflix means the movies horror fans should be watching are finding larger audiences and acceptance, rather than being relegated to the cool kids club.
This might have been the most difficult list I’ve put together yet, with a number of titles just missing the cut. Honorable mentions go out to The Last Will & Testament of Rosalind Leigh, Nailbiter, Jug Face, Stoker, Bad Milo, Exhumed, Antiviral and John Dies At The End.
10. AMERICAN MARY (dir. Jen & Sylvia Soska) For their sophomore effort, the twin sisters reduce the boiled over, manic energy they brought to Dead Hooker In A Trunk to a simmer with a quieter character study of a damaged and lonely young woman. Katherine Isabelle gives a brilliant performance as the titular Mary, a brilliant medical student that forgoes the harsh glare of fluorescent hospital lights for a more sinister job doing the dirty work of the local criminal element using what Liam Neeson might call “a very special set of skills”. Admittedly, it’s a film that has a few kinks to work out-it’s light on plot and the last ten minutes rush by in an attempt to wrap the proceedings up-but there’s not a moment that Isabelle is on screen that she doesn’t totally and completely captivate the viewer. There were better films this year but none that I discussed more with friends after watching it with them. (Mike’s Review)
9. THE CONJURING (dir. James Wan) Yes, Wan is far too kind to the shysters known as Ed and Lorraine Warren and yes Patrick Wilson continues to be a charisma-free black hole that sucks the energy off screen whenever he appears, but hot damn otherwise this was a fun haunted house movie. Part of the reason for its inclusion is for what The Conjuring represents. Releasing a medium budget ($20 million) horror movie in the middle of summer blockbuster season, when the cinema landscape is overrun superhero, tentpole and spectacle films that cost hundreds of millions of dollars isn’t something that’s done. The fact that the film not only succeeded but crushed most of its competition, pulling in $316,000,000 worldwide demonstrates that there’s an audience for smart, well crafted supernatural horror no matter the time of year. (Mike’s Review)
8. SIGHTSEERS (dir Ben Wheatley) Kill List marked Wheatley as a director to pay attention to, and his Black-As-Satan’s-Soul Comedy proved he may be the most essential director working in genre films today. The movie has two lonely souls finding kinship as they take the most mundane holiday in recorded history. Imagine if you will a Natural Born Killers for the Lawrence Welk set and you have a good idea as to what you’ve stumbled upon. Sightseers draws its humor from the mundane, while taking tremendous pleasure in offing its victims for the most banal and trivial of offenses. It serves as a warning message for those who find rudeness a natural state of being. While we’ve all experienced moments we’ve wanted to wring someone’s neck for being a jerk, our deadly duo here have no problem taking matters into their own hands. Plus, I don’t believe I’ve ever laughed harder or clapped with appreciation longer than I did after the closing moments of this film, which perfectly encapsulate everything I loved about it. (Mike’s Review)
7. MANIAC (dir. Franck Khalfoun) The smartest thing the film does in updating the William Lustig and Joe Spinelli exploitation masterpiece is change the setting from a New York City that no longer exists to the plastic and botox capital of the world Los Angeles. Elijah Wood is fantastic as the unhinged, psychologically devastated serial killer, with his inner monologues exposing just how far gone he is. While he doesn’t have Spinelli’s layer of filth sweat and grime, he has a nervous energy that makes you forget all about Frodo moments after he scalps his first victim. With most of the film playing out from Woods’ point of view, Khalfoun makes the audience complicit in the kill scenes which are staggering in their number and brutality. Comparisons to Funny Games are apt, yet Maniac manages to avoids the smirking antagonism of Haneke scolding his audience, an aspect of his work that leaves me cold. Special mention has to go to the synth driven soundtrack, which feels like a perfect holdover from the era that gave birth to the original film. (Mike’s Review)
6. WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (dir. Jim Mickle) Another example of how to get a remake right. Mickle takes the core concept of Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 film and then puts his own spin on the material, crafting a wholly original, standout piece of cinema. Mickle’s changes run deeper than the cosmetic flipping of gender roles and moving the action from an overcrowded urban setting to the rural landscape of the Adirondacks. Mickle offers a deeper examination of faith-not just in the religious sense of a higher power but in the way children put blind trust in the idea that parents know what is best for them and will follow along even when the gnawing feeling in the pit of their stomach transcends mere hunger pangs, blossoming into the realization that things just aren’t right. Mickle downplays the sensational aspects of the story until the last ten minutes, which allows for one of the most out there, ballsiest climaxes in horror cinema of the year. (Mike’s Review)
5. THE DIRTIES (dir. Matt Johnson) This film attempts the near impossible and succeeds by asking the audience to feel sympathy for the perpetrator of a mass school shooting. Matt Johnson writes, stars and directs as a young boy who retreats into the fantasy world of film, starring in the movies that run constantly in his head as a means to escape the constant torment and bullying inflicted on him by his peers. The Dirties serves as a harsh indictment of the school system and laissez faire parenting that refuse to see a problem manifesting itself right in front of their eyes. It dares to point out that maybe the reason for the rash of school shootings runs deeper than “he was crazy” or “he was a bad kid”. As the most socially relevant genre film of the year, The Dirties should be (but won’t) essential viewing for every teacher, school administrator and high school student in the country. (Mike’s Review)
4. RESOLUTION (dir. Justin Benson & Aaron Morehead) While most films shove actors actors together and force you to buy the lie that they’re best friends despite spending every moment on screen at one anothers throats, the chemistry between Peter Ciella and Vinnie Curran is so apparent, that five minutes in to Resolution you’re sold on two decades of history between the two of them. Resolution might be the smartest genre film of the year, and it’s anchored by a pair of standout performances about a smack addict and a best friend dead set on saving him. More than a buddy film, Resolution explores the art of storytelling, and it does it in a way that gets right under your skin. It’s transposes the classic “haunted house” story into the great outdoors. Along the way Benson and Morehead cram their film with red herrings, hints and “blink and you’ll miss it” clues as to what’s really going on that the film works even better with each subsequent viewing. When a friend recently asked “I just watched Resolution and loved it. What should I watch next?” The only answer that fit was “Watch it again”. (Mike’s Review)
3. V/H/S 2 (dir. Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Eduardo Sanchez, Greg Hale, Gareth Evans, Timo Tjahjanto & Jason Eisener) The rare sequel that improves on the original in every possible way, V/H/S 2 vies with You’re Next as the movie that best film of the year to see in a crowded theater with a liquored up audience for maximum effect. The film moves faster than the languid first entry, with each segment building on the momentum of the preceding one. V/H/S 2 would have made the list if only for the last two segments. Evans and Tjahjanto team up for the story of an investigative journalism crew that get far more than they bargained for when they penetrate a religious cult. “Safe Haven” has all the manic energy of Evens’ “The Raid: Redemption” except now the energy is focused on dead eyed cultists worshipping The Beast. Jason Eisener continues to mine his childhood with an alien invasion short that would feel right at home with Amblin Entertainment if Speilberg wanted to create a generation of kids that shit their pants in terror every time they closed their eyes at night. (Mike’s Review)
2. YOU’RE NEXT (dir. Adam Wingard) Even more than Cabin In The Woods, You’re Next takes all those late night, hours long discussions between horror fans about all the “problems” of the genre and turns them on their head, crafting something wholly original out of tried, true and overdone conventions. More than anything else, Wingard along with his writing partner Simon Barrett reminded audiences that we go to these movies in order to have FUN! Sharni Vision might be the final girl to end all final girls and the premise is so simple: What would happen if a group of home invaders came up against someone who knew how to fight back? Whether it’s setting up any number of stand up and applaud kill sequences (including an over the top beatdown so horrific you have to laugh and a tripwire sequence that left me checking my doorway for a week before exiting the house), the best death by blender moment of the year or just the simple pleasure of watching Joe Swanberg getting killed on screen,You’re Next never failed to deliver kick ass entertainment. On top of that, any film that allows indie horror stalwart AJ Bowen and his beard to deliver a killer monologue is aces in my book. (Mike’s Review)
1. THE BATTERY (dir. Jeremy Gardner) I have an irrational amount of love for this movie. It goes beyond it being my favorite film of the year to the point where I’d like to rip out my eyeballs and insert new ones just do I could see it for the first time over and over again. OK, maybe that’s a little bit extreme, but The Battery is a triumph. The Battery plays like The Odd Couple set in post apocalyptic times, with Gardner playing the part of a man giddy at the chance to unmoor from polite society while his counterpart Adam Croheim’s takes a more reserved role, clinging to the last vestiges of the life left long behind.While Gardner gets the lion’s share of commentary for sinking his teeth into the wildman routine with a ton of gusto, it’s Croheim’s performance as the timid tagalong that I’ve come to appreciate more with each viewing. His performance is equal parts fear, hope and despair, displaying the range of emotions any of us might feel in a similar predicament. The Battery is a zombie movie for people that hate zombie movies as it tackles the question of how people might really act if they were left to their own devices rather than manufacture drama. The Battery gets the little details right, whether its the way clothes subtle hang off Gardener and Croheim as the film progresses, marking the passage of time and scarcity of resources or the act of pouring the packed water from canned tuna into gallon jugs for when the supply runs out. The Battery fully invests in its characters, to the point that by the time Gardner is stranded, surrounded and alone in the back of a station wagon, you feel every torturous second of a thirteen minute plus single take shot along with him. For the year 2013, no other film embodied the idea that smart storytelling, the willingness to take risks and palpable on screen chemistry will films that have hundreds of times the budget, but not an iota of heart. (Mike’s Review)