Monday, January 25, 2021

Best of the Year, 2020!

Having made it through the roughest 365—nay, 366! days in recent history, we continue the Doll’s House TWELVE YEAR and counting tradition of celebrating the blog’s actual birthday with a roundup of my favorite movies covered over the last 12 months. 

Have at it! 

12. Necromancer

Necromancer is the kind of ‘80s horror most of us wrote off as a memorable VHS cover from our days prowling video stores. Imagine my surprise to discover that in an era of the genre rarely thought of in the same sentence as feminism, Necromancer proved to be a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the kind of PTSD a woman might experience after sexual assault. Yes, there are vengeance demons in garage sheds and gooey monster murders, but the horror comes from a very human place, and one rarely taken with the serious heft it needs. Necromancer isn’t a great film, but it taps into something important, and that means something.

11. Annabelle Comes Home

The Annabelle series doesn’t hold a candle to Chucky’s saga in my heart, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all three installments. The third film nails its PG-13 slumber party tone with effective scares, sympathetic young characters, and some emotional stakes that make it the perfect one spooky night story. 

10. Season of the Witch 

George Romero will always be known as the founder of the modern zombie, but in between his Dead series, he made some interesting genre-adjacent films. As Martin put a spin on vampirism, Season of the Witch does some fascinating exploration of what a modern witch might look like amid ‘70s suburbia. There are apparently multiple cuts of this film and none that Romero ever really felt nailed what he wanted to do, but the one streaming on Amazon Prime is filled with some neat touches that make for something different.

9. Parasomnia

This past year, my podcast, The Feminine Critique, devoted most of spring to covering each episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror. The results were pretty disappointing, reminding my cohost Christine and me of just how much early 2000s horror seemed to hate women. Thankfully, the silver lining was finding a few great installments, including William Malone’s The Fair-Haired Child. This led me to check out The House On Haunted Hill director’s other works, including the disappointingly dull (but attractive) His 2008 labor of love is something far more interesting, pulling in Malone’s trademark visual style with a deep heart at its center. While it follows some supernatural serial killer beats, Parasomnia feels truly fresh, making it well worth anybody’s time.

8. Witch-Hunt

I stumbled upon this micro-budget thriller on Amazon Prime and spent the first 20 minutes thinking I’d be making Mystery Science Theater 3000-esque quips at its Lifetime style only to finish and declare it some of the smartest storytelling I’d ever seen in a tiny genre picture. A tiny cast composed entirely of women gather for a party game, unleashing some sort of mysterious force that might be connected to their participation in the satanic panic of the ‘80s. Writer/director Philip Schaeffer has nothing to work with but a single location, and he manages to weave together a film that had me on the edge of my seat. I would love to see what he could do with bigger resources, and highly recommend anyone with an appreciation of independent filmmaking takes a look.

7. Into the Dark: Culture Shock

I’ve yet to be disappointed by the handful of Hulu’s Into the Dark features that I’ve watched, but Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Culture Shock is the first one that I can easily call great. Its first half is a heartbreaking look at what it means to cross the Mexican/U.S. border, while its second part takes such a surprise but ultimately, very meaningful direction. It calls to mind plenty of other film properties while also feeling completely new, all anchored by an excellent performance by lead Martha Higareda. Like several of the newer films on this year’s list, the best part of these movies is the excitement at young directors’ potential. 

6. Black Christmas

Is 2019’s Black Christmas the scariest telling of a holiday-themed slasher? Gosh no, nor is it even a slasher! As a horror film, I won’t argue that Sophia Takal’s film is a masterclass in suspense, but as a feminist blast of the patriarchy, it’s a joy, and the 14-year-old female horror fan deep inside my past was practically in tears at how supported I felt. I think of the scene where an immaculate Imogen Poots has to hold herself in from exploding at the doofy white middle aged male security guard any time I’ve had to restrain my own anger, because you know what? While I’ve never had to take down a cult of fraternity misogynists, I still felt seen by what this movie understood about the fundamental female place in a world run by men who are terrified that their power is slipping away. I fully understand this film not clicking with a lot of viewers, but I refuse to tolerate anyone not accepting that it’s damn important.

5. Paperhouse

With Candyman, Bernard Rose made what is often considered the best genre film of the 1990s. More a magical realist drama, Paperhouse, long out of print and now watchable via Amazon Prime, is a far different film but equally stunning. An unhappy schoolgirl discovers that her art can come to life in her dreams, and before long, she’s making daily visits to a sickly boy her age haunted by an abusive father figure. There’s a lot going on under the surface, and brilliantly sparse visual style that makes each frame feel like a painting from the same collection. It’s a beautifully quiet meditation on that age between child and teenager, as our lead slowly grows up by opening herself up to others. It’s a lovely, haunting film that won’t leave you easily.

4. Exhibit A

The cover art of this British found footage drama would have you expecting the kind of shaky cam quickie that was so popular in the post-Paranormal Activity boom, but Dom Rotheroe’s Exhibit A is something far deeper, more akin to something from the mind of Michael Haneke than Blumhouse. A middle class British family begins to document their daily life with a video camera right as their boisterous but damaged father starts to fall apart. It’s not an easy watch and not one I’ll repeat any time soon, but it’s incredibly well made, and will leave you far more disturbed than most of the traditional horror films I watched this year. 

3. What Keeps You Alive

Colin Minihan has become quite a force in the modern horror genre, starting with his teamwork in Grave Encounters and continuing now with Shudder’s well-received Spiral. What Keeps You Alive demonstrates that Minihan might just be one of the best working directors today, with a mastery of how to build suspense, use his geography, and steer fantastic performances. The less you know going in, the more effective the film will be, so stop reading and queue it up on Netflix already. You’re welcome.

2. Vivarium

Yes, Vivarium had a weird stroke of luck in landing on Amazon Prime during lockdown, which undoubtedly made this story of stifled isolation even more effective. Writer/director Lorcan Finnegan crafts an unusually haunting tale of a young couple trapped in an artificial housing development and forced to raise some sort of monster child. Actress of the year Imogen Poots turns out another complex performance as a woman who didn’t ask to be a mother but can’t decide if she should fight or embrace it. I know a lot of horror fans found Vivarium disappointing (I’ve seen the word “boring” thrown out quite a bit in reviews and comments) but something about its suburban forced parenting nightmare really struck me, and hasn’t left my mind since.

1. Poison For the Fairies

The best feeling I can ever have when covering a film — particularly an older one — is to say, “where has this been my whole life?” Carlos Enrique Taboada’s Poison For the Fairies is so strange, so stylish, so hypnotically unique that I genuinely fell in love. I’m guessing that’s true for a lot of filmmakers, as there are certainly hints of Taboada’s essence in Guillermo Del Toro and Issa Lopez’s works. Poison For the Fairies tackles one of my favorite subjects: children who are fundamentally mean. While fairly tame for most of its running time, Poison For the Fairies ends on such a shocking moment that I was left with my jaw on the floor, then reassembled in a very unusual smile. This is a special, special little treasure from a filmmaker I didn’t know. Can’t wait to dive in deeper. 

And that's a merciful end to the year that was a LOT of horrors! Come back next week for the start of February's Attack of the Shorties!, aka a whole month devoted to murderous things on a smaller scale. 


  1. Lots to touch on here, this calls for bullets:

    - I remember reading your review of Poison For the Fairies and not being sold on it but your quick summary of it here changed my mind. I'm not going to re-read your initial review, just gonna add it to my list and give it a shot.

    - Vivarium, oh heck yes. I agree, one of the best horror/thrillers I've seen in a long time. Btw I have no idea how to classify it. I suppose psychological thriller is the closest but that doesn't quite fit the bill either, imo.

    - Your review of Paperhouse sold me so it's been on my list since then. Looking forward to this one.

    - Hmmm, Culture Shock is another one that didn't grab me initially but I'll add it to my list too.

    - You mentioned Masters of Horror, and I wanted to say that I checked out most of the first season and was really bummed by all of it. Didn't like a single episode. Is the second season any better? I was so disappointed by the first that I didn't bother looking into the second.

    Other flicks from last year I really liked: The Platform, and Doctor Sleep. Have you seen either? I definitely recommend both. Doctor Sleep is a really interesting piece because it walks the line of being a sequel yet also standing on its own, and being both a typical stupid King horror but also a shockingly decent flick. A buddy of mine said it's like really good fan fiction, which I think nails it. Btw that was the 50th King flick my pal and I watched, huzzah!

    1. Bullets!
      - Poison For the Fairies: it's weird and haunting and ends on a bang. DO IT.

      - Heck yes Vivarium. And good point about the classification, which I think is what soured a lot of horror fans on it who came in expecting something 'scarier'

      - Masters of Horror ... eh. It was such an interesting exercise to go through both seasons on the podcast because it really helped frame what was one of, in many ways, the worst eras of horror, and also the sort of last call for some of its more male gaze-y stuff. I think season 1 has a few gems - The Fair-Haired Child, Homecoming, Dreams in the Witch House, and Sick Girl - but the overall thing is a mess, and it reeks of both laziness from once-great filmmakers and an incredibly gross sense of misogyny that just sours so much of it. Season 2 has some absolute garbage (Pelts and Pro-Life made me want to skin men alive) and a LOT of mediocrity (there's a killer ice cream episode that is the most boring thing you can imagine, and I mean, KILLER ICE CREAM). But, I do recommend a few: Family, which is a GIANT improvement from John Landis, The V Word, directed by Demon Knight's Ernest DIckerson, Brad Anderson's Sounds Like, which is the best made hour in the entire series, Joe Dante's The Screwfly Solution, an adaptation of one of the most interesting female sci-fi writers of all time's short story, and The Washingtonians, which is completely goofy and absurd in the best way. Hard pass on the rest. 

      - LOVED The Platform, just never got around to writing about it. I've been sitting on Doctor Sleep for a while and have been waiting for the right time to dive in, since the running length is massive (I also haven't fully decided if I'm supposed to start with the theatrical or director's cut). I'm a huge Mike Flanagan fan, and I've listened to some very interesting interviews where he discussed the challenges of combining King's novels with what most movie fans have absorbed from Kubrick's film. I'll get there eventually!