Halloween is just around the corner so I decided to torture myself with doing a little listicling for all you wannabe scared-to-go-to-sleepers out there. And Sweet Satan was this process painstaking! Like poking flaming needles in my eyes while my ankles were hobbled by a split ax. Or something like that. I flipped, back-flipped, see-sawed, hemmed and hawed.. etc. As a horror movie aficionado, whittling an entire decade of my favorite genre down to a mere two-hands-worth of selections was Sophie’s Choice after Sophie’s Choice. With no Meryl Streep to help! Which is probably why the last time I did this, I ended up with 13 entries. And though some of these may seem like obvious entries or redundancies that you’ve seen before, I really haven’t seen anyone nail the best of the decade, so this is me putting my feet to the fire and throwing the cards out there. Read More
People might tell you that 2014 was a lackluster year for horror. They would be wrong. Very, very wrong. In fact, 2014 was a superlative 365-days for the genre. So much so that piecing together a Top Ten List was exorbinately difficult as there were at a handful that may have earned a place in a lesser year but didn’t exactly have the goods to nose their way into the top slots. Among those notable contenders is Kevin Smith’s batshit walrus misadventure Tusk, superior alphabetical anthology flick The ABCs of Death 2, and a trio of delectable found footage flicks featuring werewolf realism – Wer – Altimizer’s gone demonic – The Taking of Deborah Logan – and a horrific vampiric flu – Afflicted. Cautionary internet tale The Den had a lot going for it as well, another strong contender for the year. Had I considered E.L. Katz‘ monstrously good Cheap Thrills a horror – I don’t – it might have topped the list but that’s an argument to be had in a separate space.
10. THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT
It takes little imagination to find a souring brand of daunting realism in Bobby Roe‘s grizzly found footage account (one of four on this list) of a group of Halloween thrill-seekers who stumble too far down the rabbit hole. Going above the conventions of normalcy, The Houses October Built arcs at terminal velocity into the unforgiving maw of a real hellhole, offering scares that gingerly walk the fine line between reality and invention in which it’s improbable to parse the artifice of trying to scare the sh*t out of someone with actually, you know, trying to kill them. You’ll never enter a haunted house the same again.
9. THE BABADOOK
A storybook nightmare come alive with electric performances from Essie Davis and youngster Noah Wiseman, the former of which offers a performance embedded with equal strands of motherly sacrifice and true terror, the later half-wittingly stumbling into one of the least self-aware performances from a child the year had to offer, regardless of genre. The Babadook may not present the bone-chilling frights some of the its chief pundits have claimed but its mightily well made, with fierce attention to relationships and an original enough concept to boot – an undeniably winning formula in our eyes.
8. THE BORDERLANDS
The whole descent into hell thing has been done before (even once later on this list) and anyone a fan of the genre is no stranger to priests nosing into miracles-cum-hauntings but the way in which The Borderlands builds and builds while tightening and tightening makes it a fine study of found footage done justice. The other chief victory for director Elliot Goldner comes in his writing, which keeps us surprisingly invested in the characters, offering three-dimensional beings not often found in the found footage catalog. Robin Hill‘s wisecracking Gray clashes perfectly with Gordon Kennedy‘s damaged but devoid Deacon so that when things finally come to a head, and boy oh boy do they, you’re rooting for them, not against (as is too often the case.)
2014 was a plugged full of studio misfires for the genre – a fact that has contributed to the misconception that it was a minor year for horror – what with Annabelle, The Purge: Anarchy and Ouija all being marked gaffes and The Evil Within and The Quiet Ones failing to make much noise at all – but if there was one studio released scary movie that fans and critics were able to rally around it was this. Oculus thrives on its sense of internal consistency and increasingly high-stakes games of mindf*cking, and Karen Gillan s overly committed performance didn’t hurt. For a film about a haunted mirror, Oculus is able to inject an overbearing sense of dread into what could have easily been a disaster of epic proportions. That director Mike Flanagan also managed to blend two time periods seamlessly into one, presenting a fully distorted picture that was great than the mere sum of its parts, is further evidence of his subtle mastery of the genre.
Sam Raimi accidentally invented the horror-comedy in 1981, almost stumbling upon a wheelhouse hungry subcultures didn’t yet know they wanted, his whacked-out formula later taken by a young, tooth-cutting Peter Jackson to further extremes in the celebrated messterpiece Braindead. In the great tradition of wily horror-gone-funny, New Zealand’s very own Housebound jettisons the zany hallmarks of past horror-comedy successes – all the while very intentionally tipping their hat to them – giving it space to hone in on its very own import of yuck-horror and bloodspolsions. This tongue-in-cheek haunter may be bratty, puerile and claustrophobic but, most importantly, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
Mark Duplass has always played something of an everyman. Even on The League – an FX comedy deliciously overstuffed with caricatures of characters – his Pete is snarky but believably human. Perhaps that’s what makes his turn in the delightfully eerie Creep so, uh, creepy. Starring opposite him is (first time) director Patrick Brice, playing a man who’s just responded to a mysterious Craigslist ad that enlists him as a cohort of sorts to Duplass’ increasingly odd asks. Never quite going the direction you expect, Creep relies sternly on the ever captivating presence of its two leads – who never disappoint – and their slightly askew developing relationship.
Rose Leslie melted many snowy hearts north of The Wall as Ygritte on HBO‘s winning Game of Thrones series but seeing her stripped of that throaty accent, her hoary nightgown and, eventually, her personality in Honeymoon showed a new side to her, one hemmed with dimensionality and rich with ambiguity. She was, in a phrase, a nightmarish panorama. Less a conventional antagonist than a harbinger of uncertainly and unease, Leslie’s Bea was one of the more interesting characters additions from 2014 and director Leigh Janiak knows just how to manipulate her stalwart tendencies and flip them on their head. In a film that’s all about marital bliss gobbled up, Honeymoon is one savagely appetizing gaze at alien femme fatality.
3. AS ABOVE/SO BELOW
Critically dismantled, criminally underseen, As Above/So Below was dealt a losing hand upon its unceremonious theatrical dumping. To get an idea of how little confidence Universal had in their picture, they screened the film at 7 PM the night of its official release. Meaning, they screening it a mere 3 hours before they started showing it to general audiences. Of all the entries on the list, this suffered the biggest blowback for its critical panning in the eyes of the suits – coming in with a shabby 21 million off an estimated 5 million production budget – but the true loss came on behalf of the audiences who skipped it assuming ineptitude. From the truly inspired Paris Catacomb settings to its litany of diabolical lore, As Above/So Below is stuffed with arcana and welcome scares, like a giddy, terrifying adventure of Legends of the Hidden Temple with an improved upon Laura Croft as your host.
2. STARRY EYES
If there is one consistency from the year, it’s that 2014 was a moment for the woman in horror. From As Above/So Below‘s kickass Perdita Weeks to Honeymoon‘s subterfuging Rose Leslie, Oculus‘ exceedingly zealous Karen Gillan, The Babadook‘s sublime Essie Davis, Housebound‘s ever-angsty Morgana O’Reilly and It Follow‘s perfect casting in Maika Monroe, the stars have not shone brighter on the fairer gender within our beloved genre. But no entry on the list had as big an ask of their actress as Starry Eyes, a bone-dry, humorless waxing on the pitfalls of ambition. Alexandra Esso literally buried herself in the role and you won’t find another who chick on this list or any another that undergoes such a shocking 360. An absolutely blood-curdling series of dispatches – a barbell tops the gruesome weapons list – in the midst of Essoe’s particular brand of body dysmorphia makes it an unforgettable genre entry that’s slowly been earning a deserved cult following.
1. IT FOLLOWS
The urban legend of the STDemon seems like one that’s been whispered amongst circles of throbbing-genitialed teenagers forever. Debuting at Cannes and making a hell of a festival circuit run, It Follows spins its own Are You Afraid of the Dark type mythos of a sexually transmitted entity that never stops, never sleeps, never reasons. Just follows. Brilliant in its simplicity, It Follows doesn’t squander time with getting to know you’s. Rather, it’s a raw, dirty, brilliant orgy of nail-crunching tension, rich with pregnant silences and offscreen moments of self-sacrificing, proving that sometimes the simplest of ideas are the best of them.
It’s been a long week – a final homestretch towards officially calling 2014 – that capped off in a very long flight, so this weekly is as stuffed as ever. After screenings of Into the Woods (review to follow) and Top Five, I watched a few films at home that I’d been meaning to get around to and a few that I had only heard of when the studio reached out to see if I wanted to review them. Included in this category is Tayla Lavie‘s excellent Zero Motivation. A 22 hour flight afforded me the chance to take in Expendables 3, Let’s Be Cops and The Hundred-Foot Journey (none of which I’d seen) as well as rewatches of Guardians of the Galaxy and Edge of Tomorrow (both of which I enjoyed almost as much the second time.) So let’s boogie down and Weekly Review.
ZERO MOTIVATION (2014)
An Israeli take on Joseph Conrad‘s seminal novel “Catch 22”, Zero Motivation looks at the hijinks of a female unit inside a Tzahal military base. Directed with zany aplomb by female Israeli director Tayla Lavie, this chaptered saga of woman in uniform vs. ennui is characterized by a soaring sense of voice and sees stars Dana Ivgy and Nelly Tagar face down the clock as they Minesweep their way through their deafeningly dull military assignment – paperwork. A dark comedy with as many barbs as points, Zero Motivation is a delicious and original vision, percolating with purpose. (B+)
LET’S BE COPS (2014)
I was expecting some horrendous abortion of a comedy with Let’s Be Cops after Fox canned our press screening back in August but what I encountered was an earnest, though underwritten, nugget of an idea. Though as untimely as can be – has there ever been a worse time to glorify copwork? – Cops potential is never fully realized even when it’s defined by an almost boundless sense of commitment from its leads. Riffing on the buddy cop subgenre, this perfectly affable comedy throwback may be short of laugh out loud moments but it kept afloat by the goodwill and easy chemistry of stars Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. With a smarter edit. a more joke-heavy script and better timing, this could have actually been something special. (C-)
IT FOLLOWS (2014)
One of 2014’s best horror films, It Follows imagines a STD unlike any other, one that claims the life of its victims not by whacking blood cells but by pathogenic haunting. You see, whomever the curse is passed onto is “followed” by a mysterious supernatural being sans discrimination. Like the leisurely-trotting slasher baddies of yore, the titular “it” is a beast of slow-footed intention, always marching towards its victim with its idle cadence. Director David Robert Mitchell deals in wild abstractions while still managing a very real grip on reality, allowing his characters to live on a plane of existence parallel to ours, rightfully ripe with many of the same headaches. Teenage angst and sexual frustration are equally important to the doubtlessly endeavored antagonist in It Follows making a horror film that’s largely inspired by the genre’s past and yet not quite like anything else before it. (A-)
A pretty costume drama dealing with ugly subject matter, Belle tells the true story of a mixed-race daughter of an aristocrat, with enviable fortunes and unenviable skin tone. Even with wealth beyond measure to her name, Dido Elizabeth Belle deals with upper-class racism like 1.) not being able to dine with her family when guests were present 2.) dealing with a handsy Draco Malfoy 3.) carriage rides. My greatest issue with the film is the territory left unexplored. For instance, the dichotomy of being too “low” to dine with the aristocrats but too “high” to dine with the maid staff. Or further exploring that dynamic between those employees of fellow race and her. Alas, Belle deals its Dark Equality Rising card with cliche, overly perfumed turns between fine performances and brusque costumery. (C)
Wild tells the true story of Cheryl Strayed, a wildly unprepared woman who embarks on the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) in search of her salvation. Following her mother passes away, a bout with freebased heroine and a nether-region looseness even a porn star wouldn’t envy, Strayed has alienated her way to middle-class pariah status and seeks a kind of fool’s gold redemption out amongst the wilderness. Her transformation is Kafkaesque in nature, with nightmarish reality checks that make us cringe and an sense of her own evils floating just outside the screen. Busy editing keeps us engaged as does Jean-MarcVallée’s adroit eye for drama, even when the Malicky whisperings almost get out of hand, but it’s a fine performance from Reese Witherspoon that anchors it all together and makes it great. Humming with spirit and sure to leave even the grumpiest humbuggers somewhat inspired, Wild is a powerful tale of reclaiming the soul. (B)
THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014)
Somewhat entertaining although completely and totally lacking in art, The Expendables 3 represents the most base of PG-13 action fare. With a cast of names that would have been awesome in the 80s, this star-studded third take on New Year’s Eve for dudes is a bloodless, often ball-less affair with weightless violence and fair measures of dumb fun. A committed Wesley Snipes, a batshit Antonio Banderas and a scenery-smacking Mel Gibson try to make matters worthwhile as Sly Stallone grunts and bellows amidst a sea of washed up wash-boarders like Randy Couture and Dolph Lundgren. Mindless and frustratingly soulless – though still just the kind of mind-numbing inflight entertainment it purports itself as – at least this third Expendables film shows off Terry Crews‘ absolutely inhuman muscle mass. (D+)
THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014)
Lasse Hallström, he of the reckless sentiment, takes on food porn in The Hundred-Foot Journey, a foodie movie more interested in relationships than it is in cuisine. The director of two too many Nicholas Sparks adaptation finds romance amidst good eats as hungry Indian cook Hassan (Manish Dayal) scales the great wall of Michelin stars while courting sous chef compatriot Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), all the while battling off the fervor of rival restaurateur Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren.) It’s hokey, predictable and totally unbelievable – essentially Ratatouille without the rat – but its not without its flavorful perks. As far as comfort food, it’s as easy to consume as mac and cheese, even if it does contain the equivalent artistry and is as easy on the eyes – and just as old fashion – as its headlining British actress. (C)