Seven years ago today (or thereabouts), a seven years younger version of myself embarked upon a journey, a journey not of space but of...well, generally, a lot of terrible movies. But sometimes, when not beholden to sexy early ‘90s TV domestic thrillers or anything involving murderous appliances, I stumble upon actual quality.
As is tradition around these parts, I celebrate my blogiversary with nothing less than a roundup of the best films I’ve covered over the past year. Put on your fancy monocles and let’s get to it!
17. The Happy House
More comedy than horror, The Happy House was easily one of the oddest films I watched this year, and that in itself merits it with a place on this list. An irritable New York couple heads upstate to an out of the way bed and breakfast run by a cheerful and conservative widow with a skill for baking and intolerance of bad language. At a certain point, The Happy House switches gears into a very, very different style of film. While it never quite finds the balance in its horror/comedy setup, it remains a surprising little movie that felt like nothing else.
16. Cruel & Unusual
Less horror than philosophy, Merlin Dervisevic’s Cruel & Unusual (note: without the ampersand, it’s nearly impossible to find on IMDB) is a strange little post-life drama about a miserable ESL teacher named Edgar (David Richmond-Peck) who loves his Philippine wife far more than she loves him. When he ends up in either hell or purgatory, Edgar is forced to relive his last day until he comes to some sort of peace. Cruel & Unusual isn’t a perfect film, but it’s not afraid to explore some big ideas through believably flawed characters that go on quite a journey.
50 strangers wake up in a strange room standing on lighted areas that will emit fatal electric shocks if they try to move. Also in the rules? Every two minutes, someone will be executed, and that someone can be decided via group voting. Circle has a neat Twilight Zone-esque premise and understands that 90 minutes is just the right amount of time to explore it.
14. The Canal
After losing his wife, a film archivist raises his young son in a house that by the titular and possibly haunted waterway. Like many a new horror film streaming on Netflix, The Canal has terrible cover art that comes nowhere close to capturing its earnest tone. This is a film about a good man and father trying to do his best, and something far older and deeper making that impossible. Filled with heart and good scares, this is a ‘turn the lights out’ watch.
Essentially an Americanized version of Man Bites Dog, Random Acts of Violence follows an entitled but unremarkable British snob killing his way through New York City with all the self-importance of your average hipster. While Malcolm buys his own hype, the movie (written and directed by its star, Ashley Cahill) understands that he’s far more pathetic than his ideas. Like Man Bites Dog, this is a cruel film, but because it’s self-aware, it never feels exploitive.
12. The Guest
Adam Wingard’s followup to You’re Next offers the same strengths: believable family dynamic, incredibly watchable actors, and a fast pace that never lets up. Dan Stevens charms his way into the family of his alleged fallen war buddy, with only the teenage daughter (played by It Follows Maika Monroe) sensing any doubts about his ultimate intentions. While the film is a little marred by its messy military complex subplot, The Guest remains an outstanding example of how to make an action/horror film that does nothing but entertain its audience.
There are many horror fans out there who hated Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon, and while I can understand how some of it didn’t click (yes, the main couple is Brooklyn hipsters at their most cloying) I still found it a worthy accomplishment and rather heartbreaking film. Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway (both good, even if hiding their British accents seemed a larger challenge than it should have been) play newlyweds about to confront some very dark, very gross mysteries. Made on a small budget, Honeymoon smartly balances what it can show and when. It has its flaws, but it also left me feeling sadder than almost any other film I’ve seen this year.
Craig Zobel’s dramatization of one of America’s ickiest, most disturbing, and sadly not unbelievable crime stories of recent years is not an easy or pleasant film to watch. Ann Dowd (outstanding) plays the manager of a fast food restaurant who has the ill luck of answering the phone on a busy Friday night. On the other line is an alleged detective reporting that a young cashier has stolen some money, and it’s now Dowd’s responsibility to help with the investigation. What follows is a horrifying mind game into just how little a person might question authority, and just how far he or she might go to please it.
Look, I didn’t say these were GOOD films. But, you know, ten years from now, I’ll probably remember more about Rats: Nights of Terror than I possibly could about The Canal (which is a far superior film but...you know, doesn’t have the Bruno Mattei touch that generally involves a lot of headbands). SO number 9 Is Rats. Want to fight about it?
If I could give an award for best first hour of a film, The Taking of Deborah Logan would easily win. This found footage docu-horror starts off so strong and heartbreaking with a terrific, Oscar-worthy performance by Jill Larson playing the titular senior citizen now battling Alzheimer’s with the help of her frustrated daughter (a fine Anne Ramsay). Unfortunately, the film’s ghost story backdrop doesn’t quite connect with the far more interesting human story inherent in Deborah’s condition. That being said, it remains a hearty recommend, primarily for its incredible cast.
I recorded this ‘50s sci-fi goodie expecting a goofy good time, and was therefore almost disappointed to discover an actual excellent early zombie tale made by Edward Cahn. When aliens invade the United States, they take over the corpses of the recently deceased and announce their plans of world domination. Where Cahn gets even more interesting is with his human characters, an assorted collection of scientists and soldiers still recovering from the moral questions asked by their participation in World War II. The film is a worthy watch for anyone interested in zombie history (as George Romero was clearly influenced by some of its themes) but also makes for a truly strong 67 minutes of post-war horror.
Joan Crawford romances a younger man and leads a poodle parade in a circus. I really don’t think you need to know any more.
An adorable talking gorilla drinks a martini, an awesomely independent Laura Linney kicks ass, a game and cheerful Ernie Hudson gets the starring role he deserves, and Tim Curry dares to eat Delroy Lindo’s sesame cake. From start to finish, Congo is just a damn good time.
Mike Flanagan wowed me with Oculus (which gets even better on second viewing) so I was eager to see his first foray into horror. Absentia wears its low budget and inexperience on its sleeve, but also bears the mark of an incredibly promising filmmaker with excellent instincts. The story follows Tricia, a pregnant women whose husband vanished seven years earlier, and Callie, her younger sister who’s recovering from a drug addiction. With a low budget but outstanding cast, Flanagan creates a fascinating collection of small mysteries that add up to something far more terrifying.
3. Starry Eyes
With a fresh premise and brilliant lead, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes was one of those great little horror films that helps optimists like me proudly prove that the genre is far from dead. The fantastic Alex Essoe stars as Sarah, a struggling young actress dealing with constant rejection and competition from her “friends”. When a Hammer-esque studio offers her the chance to audition for the lead role in a new high profile horror film, Sarah must decide whether a deal with what might be the devil is worth the career she’s always dreamed of. Plainly and simply, Starry Eyes is a very good horror movie. Isn’t that nice to say in this day and age?
Not quite a horror movie, but still worthy of its place, The Sisterhood of Night is the rare film that cares about, explores, and understands the very unique experience that is being a teenage girl. First-time director Caryin Waechter rounds up an outstanding young cast (including Chronicles of Narnia’s magnetic Georgie Henley, Moonrise Kingdom’s Kara Howard, the unique and awesome Willa Cuthrell, and a a pre-The Visit’s Olivia DeJonge) to explore the complicated waters of middle school friendship. It’s far more fascinating than such a premise might sound.
1. Dark Touch
Marina de Van is not a boring woman. The actress/writer/director has carved out a rather unique niche in genre filmmaking, with the bizarre body horror In My Skin remaining, to my knowledge, the only movie that includes a scene of a woman eating dinner in a fancy restaurant while her disembodied arm sits nonchalantly on the table. With Dark Touch, de Van tells an achingly intense tale of a young girl whose telekinetic powers probably come from a short but deep lifetime of abuse. That the film never actually comes out and says these things makes it even more powerful. On its surface, this is a mere baby Carrie tale, but as soon as you start to really consider what it might all mean, the film becomes something very else entirely. You can still find it streaming on Netflix, and I can’t recommend it enough.