One minute the horror genre is dead. The next is it reinvigorated and thriving. The reality is somewhere in between. What remains undeniable is that horror has gone mainstream – at least in terms of box-office among younger demographics.
Critics still (mostly) loathe and overlook the genre, but as with everything there are small nuggets of gold to be found among the endless rivers of silt and muck. You just need to have an eye for shiny things and a fair amount of patience.
Might I introduce myself as your intrepid prospector, who after years of painful late nights, beer stained carpets and Twistie stained fingers, have sieved the following fifteen titles that I would stake (varying degrees of my) reputation on.
If you like horror, and have the stomach for all of the things that go along with it, I would venture these films as worth checking out.
Just Missed: Love Grabbers, but it is not a horror film. Ditto John Dies at the End. Deliver us from Evil is better than you think (but not quite good enough). World War Z is too pretty. Fright Night too obvious.
Let’s get it.
Essentially here to satisfy my wish that it be everywhere. Piranha 3D is sloppy, silly, flawed and perfect. It has genuinely competent actors standing alongside shirtless extras holding various severed body parts, and makes no apologies for doing so. It has a sequence where a crazy scientist tries to explain how super-strong ancient piranhas have been released into a giant inland lake to wreak havoc, and it is just the right mix of insane and plausible. It has bikinis full of gratuitous boobs, and buckets full of gratuitous gore, and makes no apologies for them either. And the more I watch it the more I appreciate everything about it. Also, my obligatory plug for the best Z grade movie ever; Mega-Piranha. (Sharknado can suck it.)
The Dead appears to have been made with someone’s pocket change, so it sensibly decides to embrace the lo-fi roots of the genre, namely slow moving zombies stumbling about in the eternal search for human flesh. It is perhaps because the genre has tried so very hard to wring every last ounce of entertainment from the zombie genre, that a film that doesn’t seek to be new or different stands out. The Dead is simple and deliberate, with a no name cast that denies you the predictability star power provides (“well you know Brad Pitt isn’t dying here”). It is said that the simple things in life are often the best. It seems this is never more evident than where the ungrateful undead are concerned.
The Last Exorcism is the result of ‘right place / right time’. It arrived hot on the heels of the demonic possession era and right at the commencement of the found footage era, so it became one of the first to combine the two. As with all possession films, the key is the integrity of the possessed individual(s), and it seems their gymnastic abilities. Here lies the strength of the film; poor Nell is not only a meek and deathly shy young woman, but she is capable of twisting herself into a pretzel shape and screaming blood curdling threats at the top of her lungs – when appropriately ‘possessed’ of course. Funnily enough the right place / right time window of opportunity had already evaporated once The Last Exorcism 2 (which would make this the ‘second-last exorcism’ if I’m not mistaken?) arrived only two and a bit years later…
Stake Land would nearly top this list were it not for a short – but incredibly disappointing – couple minutes where they betray everything the film worked so hard to build for a cheap John Carpenter’s Vampires type showdown that even now has me shaking my head. Where Zombieland surmised that the arrival of the walking dead would be cause for much mirth and pithy dialogue, this is the gritty and non-flashy side of the vampiric takeover of much of the United States. No one liners or clever set pieces here, only the daily exhaustion of warding off beings that will eventually kill you. This stands a small step below Lovely Molly as perhaps the least teen-friendly film on this list.
Another found footage flick – but one I couldn’t cut from the list because it works so damn well; a remarkable effort seeing as everything suggests it should have sunk without a trace. Made on a shoestring and without too much in the way of original ideas, Grave Encounters pays its way by nailing every ‘boo’ and leaving sufficient dead time between them so that the tension builds. The plot won’t help sell it, a reality TV crew who stage fake haunted house stories are shocked when the old tricks and ruses aren’t required in an abandoned psychiatric facility. Just know that this film does nothing – and I mean nothing – that you don’t expect it to, but it does it well. Again, as with The Last Exorcism, don’t bother with the sequel.
It was a frankly stupid move to try to ride the coat tails of Shaun of the Dead by coming up with a silly similar title. All SotD fans smile and think ‘nice try’ and move on, safe in the knowledge that this couldn’t possibly trump their fave. All those curious of the SotD rep would likely just be convinced to track the Pegg/Frost/Wright collabo down. And they would be right in doing so. … But… But on this rare case they would also be wrong. Juan of the Dead is also fiercely funny and visually original, with a few new tricks to bring to the zombie genre that were previously missed. My advice would still be; watch Shaun of the Dead. Then after a week or two, check this out also. Think of it like beer, you may well love one, but there is likely a similar one out there that is nearly as good.
Hands down the nastiest, and perhaps the weirdest, film on this list. An uncompromising film that breaks pacing and editing rules in favour of building uncertainty and genuine tension. The less you know the better, but it is fair to assume that some form of ‘Kill List’ is involved, and the characters tasked with completing the list attack their job with fervour and great intensity. Kill List was followed up by Sightseers, a similarly black tale that in my opinion missed the mark by a fair margin. There are undoubtedly better horror films made, and more than a few of them above, but few have the impact or striking originality of this one.
Not your typical horror film, Lovely Molly is a portrait of a crumbling psyche, with the peripheral characters as unprepared and unable to solve the problem as you are. At least they weren’t as oblivious to the situation. Molly unravels in front of us all – the film and the character. It is a slow burn though full of deliberately slow moments and build ups that end abruptly just as we feel like a breakthrough is coming… Oh it’s coming. You bet it’s coming. You can know. But you can’t be truly ready.
I have read an article about the filmmakers behind ‘You’re Next’ which suggests that they delight in combining genres that generally have no business so-mingling. A Horrible Way to Die had, somewhat predictably, mixed results. The Guest uniformly sucked from start to finish though. But You’re Next works, primarily thanks to a no holds barred bloodletting that closes the film. Commencing with the familiar family gathering (with surly and reluctant partners), You’re Next quickly veers into The Strangers (itself an effective, albeit more nasty, piece of work) when the home is beset upon by nasty violent types. This is all well and good, and done to death, but as mentioned is salvaged by the last quarter hour, which keeps ratcheting up both the stakes and the body count. You’re Next is like five flights of stairs that end up at the ice cream shop. You’re not always sure that the journey is worth the effort, but the destination makes it all worth it.
The Pact is almost two films, and it’s fair to say that either the two films don’t really jell, or that I simply don’t ‘get’ a couple of key developments in the film. That despite watching it three times. Merging the haunted house motif with something of a real life serial killer twist, The Pact is a sometimes confusing and muddled concoction, nonetheless carrying the promise of better things to come, and a couple moments that already work very well. The early sequences work best, as a young woman arrives to her childhood home to deal with the aftermath of her mother’s recent passing – and the subsequent disappearance of her sister. Her first night at the home crackles with trepidation and an intensity that is seldom matched by films that prefer a steady stream of ‘boo’ releases. For the record; while I haven’t included it here, The Pact 2 is also better than you would expect.
I am such a sucker for the hissy audiotape or the grainy home video, especially the foreboding ones. The Exorcist started it. The Conjuring did it well (it pulled off all the cliches well). The Sixth Sense had you lean in despite the increased heart rate, and Session 9 built a brilliant film around some old interview reels. Sinister tries the same feat, only with spools of home video to set the scene. Fortunately it does this effectively; what should be the target of mockery manages to raise the hairs on the arms. In fact even the ridiculously foreboding Skype sessions manage to avoid scorn, despite the fact that they essentially ruin every potential surprise for the viewer. Maybe have the explanation after the task of thinking? Teenager friendly spoiler alerts aside, Sinister boasts enough solid moment s to justify the time. And it filled a few days in Ethan Hawke’s schedule.
Not long ago Clown proved that our harlequin friends aren’t automatically fearsome or menacing. In fact that film proved they can be as boring as shit… Stitches doesn’t go for the big screams, but settles, sensibly, for a steady stream of chuckles, most derived from dark moments and the occasional patent silliness. The moment Stitches the clown picks up his trikey in disgust will never be not funny. Stitches invents nothing, but it earns humour from well thought out clown-related set pieces and the patent silliness of it all. In my review of the film I said you can’t spell ‘slaughter’ without ‘laughter’. I should also have mentioned you can’t spell ‘scare’ without ‘care’. Stitches knew it wasn’t going to get a Kardashian or an ex-Nickelodeon kid wanting to bust their image, so they just made the best film they could.
A while back I sketched out a bunch of tried and true horror movie cliches, perhaps enabling bored viewers with the chance to play bingo, should a movie be formulaic or plain lazy enough to work its way through them. The Conjuring is a movie rife with so many cliches that a ‘bingo’ exclamation is all but assured, however it carries out these set pieces and obvious developments with such assuredness and care that you might have to wait to catch your breath first. The Conjuring took the haunted house and made it scary again. It took the plinking piano, the open and shut doors, the disembodied hands and the menacing figure in the gloom, and through attention to detail and painstaking craftsmanship, made it work. There has already been a stupid spin-off featuring the stupid doll that I will never watch because it is stupid. Stupid. And a Conjuring sequel is imminent that will likely be a pale imitation. But The Conjuring is proof that commercial horror needn’t be gory, silly or even original to set the pulse pounding.
In an era where every semi-decent 70s and 80s horror film has been gussied up and watered down, it seemed perilous to even bother watching the Evil Dead reboot. Perilous and destined for disappointment. And while the young victims of the nefarious woodland spirits are indeed far more easy on the eye (Jessica Lucas especially), on the immortal words of Moe Syszlak ‘they don’t stay pretty for long’. This is suitably nasty, and occasionally even more nasty than it needed to be. Given that horror is meant to elicit a response somewhere between shock and abhorrence, this is an exceedingly welcome and unexpected development. Evil Dead 2013 will certainly not replace Evil Dead 1981 (or Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. Or Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness) from your blu-Ray collection, but it will not look out of place along side them.
The life of a mother is thankless and tiring, especially once you’re dead. At least that is what this film will have you believe. It’s hard enough raising two kids with no help. Imagine having to jump out and scare random people multiple times per day! Mama might end up a non-stop blur of boos and jumps, but it earns the extreme silliness by crafting an intricate framework upon which to drape this frenzied undead matriarch. It probably also helps that the early scenes of the film set the viewer up for a different, altogether repulsive and disturbing, theme, before bringing in the scary shadowy sheet.
Quite possibly here because I settled on 20 titles… Maniac is nonetheless good at what it does, namely showing a portrait of a deeply unstable man who constantly confuses department store mannequins with nubile young women, and takes his frustrations out on the world with a big knife and eye-opening abandon. A passion project for Elijah Wood – apparently a big horror fan – that doesn’t dilute, apologise or shy away from the viscera of the genre, Maniac is a pure slasher. While not normally my cup of tea, when you compare this with tripe like the Scream films you can clearly see why some really get into this stuff. If you like your retro stylings laced with blood and Hard R action, look no further.
There were not one, but two films called ‘Mirrors’ that didn’t use their titular device nearly as effectively as this film does. By laying both the cards and the stakes on the table early, Oculus sets out boldly to not only avoid the cliches that litter your initial expectations, but dispel the unavoidable concern that it will head down a familiar path. It does this by repeatedly setting up scenarios and outcomes and ignoring them, cutting a swathe through your horror knowledge in mostly original ways. The lengthy sequence where the goals are discussed is initially cumbersome, but grows more taut and tense with each new idea. Oculus suffers from a non-commercial title, a familiar premise (on paper) and a lack of name actors, but it stands he’d and shoulders above most modern day horror pretenders.
To Hell with the critics. Yes it was uneven and riddled with cliche, but I found my throat occasionally becoming dry, the hairs on my arms rose up intermittently, and I sporadically found it fit to check how much time remained in the film – a sure sign that it is working is when you take comfort from knowing there are ‘only x minutes left. I can handle that’. A small group of Indiana Jones via the Da Vinci Code types venture – go-pros mounted – into the vast system of tunnels beneath Paris in search of… things. Of course they find other… things. Though at least this time around reasonably new things from a similar but different region to your standard haunted and tortured souls. Let’s just say that these guys are far more ‘pure’ of origin, but not in a nice way.
Part psychological horror, part potential parent prevention, The Babadook is a scary and disturbing descent into suburban hell. The tale of a widowed mother to a frankly disturbed young son, the film might take place in someone’s head, someone’s run down home, or in the more typical shadows of the night. Whatever the reality, The Babadook is unsettling and perplexing, with a pair of great performances and a plot that dares not to spell itself out. Reading time with the kids has never been this macabre since Jack and Jill decided to ascend a small mountain…
The most recent film in the list is the most over-rated, but still a worthwhile experience. I still don’t think I was far off base when I described it as The Ring via The Terminator, as the pursuer of our young heroes is equally determined and driven by forces best unexplained. The setpieces here are the strength, there is little more creepy than an expressionless killer who simply will not let anything stand in the way between them and their prey. We are yet to see a better horror film this year, but the fact that nothing else has been any good shouldn’t elevate this to greatness.
The fact that there are only three films from the past couple years, with only The Babadook as truly worthy of ‘Just check it out’ status, should be concerning. But in my experience horror remains as unkillable as all of the 80s icons like Freddy, Mike Myers and Jason. Just when you thing ‘they cant possibly come back from that one’, out they pop to chill another generation to the bone.
I sincerely hope that this year doesn’t end with It Follows as the reigning horror champ, but if that eventuates so be it. More greatness will come. More teenagers will shriek and grab the arm of their partner, and until that happens, we can kill time in the most worthwhile way possible by revisiting the titles above.