It’s October again which means I’ve spent the entire month watching as many Horror movies as I could make time for. Seeing that I’m occasionally asked for recommendations, because it’s been a couple years since I’ve done a proper list, I thought it was time for a little update. Some of these straddle the line between horror and something else and most are obvious but they’re also honest. If you’re looking for something to watch (or rewatch) over the next few days, you could do a lot worse. Here are my favorite horror films from the last few years.
1. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky) Natalie Portman gives an Oscar-winning tour-de-force performance as a ballet dancer driven to the brink in the best psychological horror film that Roman Polanski never made. Aronofsky combines the go for broke theatricality of The Fountain with the intimate scale of The Wrestler for the best-of-both-worlds. [Rent on iTunes]
2. Attack The Block (Joe Cornish) Edgar Wright-produced sci-fi/horror/comedy focuses on a group of young teens in South London fighting off an alien invasion. A natural blend of the 80s cinema of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg, for once these influences feel lived in and genuine, as if they’d been absorbed naturally rather than studied. [Rent from Netflix, Buy on iTunes]
3. Cabin In The Woods (Drew Goddard) A group of teens awake an ancient evil in this smart, playful stab at horror films made by and for those that love them. Though it works better as a comedy than as a horror film, it’s also a ton of fun that only gets better with repeat viewings and the last act is every horror nerd’s wet dream. [Stream on Netflix]
4. Kill List (Ben Wheatley) Don’t read anything, just watch it. [Stream on Netflix]
5. The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne) Lola asks Brent to the school dance, he politely declines, she kidnaps and tortures him. Violent but it’s not gratuitous and definitely for the adventurous, the film goes to some extremely fucked up places — when you figure out what the title is referring to, you can’t help but smile. [Rent from Netflix, Buy on iTunes]
Honorable Mention: Safe Haven (short, Gareth Evans & Timo Tjahjanto) A small documentary crew goes inside an Indonesian cult and all hell breaks loose. From the director of “The Raid,” at 20 minutes long, this short from mixed bag anthology V/H/S/2 is still the best horror film I’ve seen all year. Fingers crossed he’ll do a feature. [Stream on Netflix]
Runners-Up: The first half of Insidious (James Wan), The Conjuring (James Wan), Frozen (Adam Green).
There’s no CGI in the movie. Everything you will see is real, which was really demanding. There’s a reason people use CGI it’s cheaper and faster, I hate that. We researched a lot of magic tricks and illusion tricks. [Like] how you would make someone’s arm disappear.
A group of kids are headed out to an uncle’s cabin in the woods. They stop at a gas station along the road to ask for directions and the attendant is a creepy old codger who warns ominously, “getting there isn’t a problem, but getting back might be.” There’s the jock (“Thor” himself, Chris Hemsworth), the slut (Anna Hutchison), the virgin (Kristen Connolly), the nice guy (Jesse Williams) and the stoner (Fran Kranz) and before you know it these kids are being picked off one by one in the cabin by some unseen evil forces. Sure, you think you’ve seen this before. A bunch of kids getting stranded in the wilderness while bad things happen to them has been a staple of horror films for decades in everything from “Friday the 13th” to “The Evil Dead.” But like “Scream” before it, the filmmakers behind “Cabin In The Woods” are taking these conventions and playing with them, gleefully dashing the expectations of audiences who think they know what they’re getting into. Unlike the self-referential “Scream,” the characters in ‘Cabin’ play it straight, they haven’t seen their cinematic forebearers so they don’t have the opportunity to comment on what they’re getting into.
The film is the creation of director/co-writer Drew Goddard (a veteran writer on ‘Buffy,’ “Alias” and “LOST”) and co-writer Joss Whedon (creator of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” writer/director for the upcoming “The Avengers”) and the two share a real love of the genre. The film’s genesis was a “wouldn’t it be cool if…” brainstorm by the filmmakers who are playing with the cliches because they’ve seen enough of these films to know them inside and out. While it builds good tension in the first act (I was gripping my seat during a scene involving one of the ladies and a mounted wolf’s head on the wall) the real scares dissipate as soon as shit really starts hitting the fan. The greatest disappointment me is there were far more solid laughs than scares, and the horror scenes themselves don’t necessarily satisfy the needs of an audience looking for a scary movie. Reviews for the film have gotten a little out of hand but the film is a ton of fun overall and the batshit everything-and-the-kitchen-sink last third in particular just guaranteed to hit any genre fan in the pleasure center of their brain. It did feel like the perfect film to open SXSW but to talk about it much more is to ruin the fun, just go see it.
More than ever it seems harder to walk into a movie and truly be surprised. Trailers, reviews and advance buzz make it almost impossible to watch a film without bringing in a set of expectations that can sometimes be hard to live up to. It’s hard to say if I would have felt differently about “Drive” (still my favorite film of 2011) had I not avoided all the spoiler-filled trailers which gave away many of the most surprising moments which made the initial viewing so thrilling. I tried to recreate that experience for as many people as I could telling friends, “Avoid all the trailers, just see the movie.” I find myself in a similar position with “Kill List,” a curious British film I saw a few weeks ago at a BAM screening.
The film had first come onto my radar after its SXSW debut where I read a few snippets that made it a must-see for me. The only bits I retained were “hit man drama,” “disturbing” and that it literally made one of the other writers at The Playlist feel sick afterwards. Like “Drive,” I decided to avoid the trailer until after I’d seen the film but unlike that film, the “Kill List” trailer is completely safe and even encouraged to view before seeing the film. It completely conveys the off-kilter, menacing tone without really giving anything away. The basic premise, without spoiling anything (promise), centers on a former soldier Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) also a former soldier who are strapped for cash raising their young son.
Possibly because of his experience in the military (or possibly because he might be a bit sociopathic) Jay now takes the occasional job as a contract killer with his buddy Gal (Michael Smiley). The couple’s financial situation motivates him to take another job even after their employer seems a bit off. The job has multiple targets, (hence “kill list”) and begins smoothly but become increasingly hairy as they enter further into this world. From there the story goes places you would never dream of from the outset. It’s violent without being gratuitous, (there are a few brutal moments but they’re well placed), the score is ominous and extremely creepy and the performances are all naturalistic and pitch perfect.
Writer/director Ben Wheatley has made such a confidently well crafted chiller that it’s hard to even describe the genre without giving something away. If you’re a fan of thrillers or horror movies it’s definitely one of the most distinctive and indelible genre efforts I’ve seen in some time. Watch the trailer. Mark your calendars. Prepare yourself.
The “Paranormal Activity” franchise has become a genuine phenomenon in the last few years. The first one was a breakout hit that no one involved with the film could have predicted. But by the time most people saw it (myself included) you couldn’t help but be a little let down. Not “the scariest movie of all time” by a long shot, the film had however successfully updated the “Blair Witch Project” found footage aesthetic for a new decade of kids who wanted to see things jump out at them in the dark. I liked the original film for what it was but wasn’t interested in returning to the well with either sequel which reeked of cash grabs, that is until some friends of mine wanted to go.
I decided to catch up on the previous installment before seeing the latest one. I joked that I might be lost watching the third film having not seen the second one but I was shocked to find out that it was actually true. The most impressive thing about the two sequels is the way they’ve attempted to reverse engineer an entire mythology into these films while keeping the original characters at the core. The first film was obviously never intended to be a continuing story or thought about any more deeply than the creepiness hinted at onscreen and it would have been easy to have each film be a standalone tale of evil spirits and new families leaving few survivors, so credit the writers of the sequels for ingeniously inventing a throughline for the series.
Even credit the trailers for hiding that the second one was indeed, a prequel focusing on Katie’s sister with creepy appearances by the original cast as the timelines overlapped. The third one explores the two sisters as they were young children exploring some troubling events that occured in their childhood as hinted at in the second. I appreciated the films suburban 1988 setting, some of the period details are great, especially since I can remember many of them from growing up. Unfortunately, as a gimmick, once you’ve seen it, it’s increasingly difficult to stay effective as it’s essentially the same format over and over.
The first film builds dread hanging on each corner for the frame each time the couple goes to sleep but the sequels think more is more as each room of the house has security cam footage and it ends up diluting the scares as you wait for the camera that’ll actually show the action. ‘PA2’ is a watered down version of the original, though it does dispense a few interesting bits of mythology. ‘PA3’ is best in the third act where it moves away from the spirits moving household objects and into some unexplored territory but it comes too little too late. The “Paranormal Activity” films are more like haunted houses than films, you may want to visit once a year but once you’ve gone through it once you’ve probably gotten most of your scares out.
Remakes don’t always have to be a terrible idea. Outside of certain unimpeachable classics there isn’t anything inherently wrong with taking the premise from a film a few decades old and giving it a new spin that might even enhance the original material. This has been especially true of genre films where budgetary or technological effects might have been a constraint on the native production and in fact, two of the best horror films of the ’80s are remakes: John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and David Cronenberg’s “The Fly.” Each film came about 30 years after its predecessor and managed to improve upon the originals. I didn’t have especially high hopes for the update of the 1985 vampire-lives-next-door tale “Fright Night” but thought there was certainly potential to make something worthwhile out of this redo and reviews were surprisingly strong.
Written by Marti Noxon (a vet of “Mad Men” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”) and directed by “Lars & The Real Girl” helmer Craig Gillespie making his first foray into Hollywood (he’s slated to direct the adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies” next), “Fright Night” unfortunately does not stack up to the original. The remake updates Charley Brewster from an every-teen to a kind of brooding social ladder climber as played by Anton Yelchin. Likewise his girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots, my God) here is improbably hot and way out of his league. Toni Colette steps in as the single mother, Christopher Mintz-Plasse is his former best friend “Evil” Ed and Colin Farrell subs in for the vampire who moves next door, Jerry Dandridge.
The opening credits are stylish and first scene holds promise but it’s all downhill from there. The original really hinges on the boy who cried wolf scenario and after all, who would really believe a teenager that vampires exist, he can hardly believe it himself. The new version dispenses with all of that “story” nonsense and gets right into it. Within the opening minutes of the film Ed is telling Charley that vampires exist, he’s tracking one and that’s why their friend is missing. Charley more or less goes along with this right away and so do the rest of the characters in the film. As much as we might be sick of characters onscreen wrestling with the improbability of a fantastic situation (“vampires don’t exist!”) it’s sort of necessary if you’re trying to approximate characters that live on Earth.
Farrell is totally miscast and miscalculates his role. In addition to prowling around sniffing at the air trying to act menacing (and keeping his American accent in tact) we’re not really sure what his character wants. He kills his neighbors in broad daylight in the middle of the street, isn’t he the least concerned with it being traced back to him? Also not clear why he would go out of his way to terrorize Charley in particular when he seems content to eat just about anybody, why go through the effort? It’s hard to watch the film without spending half the time talking back to the screen with these kinds of logic issues. (Why isn’t Charley telling his girlfriend, mom, anyone about what’s going on? We’re never really given a slightly plausible reason.) The use of CG on the vampire faces is really distracting and drains any possible suspense that might have been taking shape.
The original, dated as it may be, was funny and scary and cool (at the time, anyway). The 2011 version is none of those things. Director Gillespie just doesn’t seem to get how to build the tension in any of the scenes and the script is devoid of the wit that made the original a low-key genre classic. Moved from the suburbs to the desolate outskirts of Las Vegas, the remake is unnecessary and only makes the original look even more accomplished in retrospect. It’s not the worst movie in the world, recent remakes of more established classics “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday The 13th,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and “Halloween” were all far, far worse but it’s underwhelming and a botched opportunity.
Also worth noting is that the film, which I saw in 2D, has a handful of ridiculous “stuff flying at the camera” shots clearly intended for 3D but distract from the flat version.