Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The 28 Best Movies I Reviewed In 2011. Also, Happy Birthday This

Don't worry folks. I still have another seven days before I cross a very big milestone in my own count of years (code: I turn 30 next week) but in the meantime, allow me to wish a very happy third birthday to the Deadly Doll's House! As is tradition, I like to take this anniversary to lavish praise upon some of the better films I watched and wrote about this past year, linking to each review via the title. 

Let the countdown commence!

Filmmaking team Adam Mason and Simon Boyes annoyed but intrigued me with 2006’s nihilistic Broken, so it was refreshing to see a followup that further developed their strengths. A mental patient (cleverly played by Andrew Howard) leads a team of psychiatrists to an abandoned house where the titular furniture provides a gateway into a Silent Hill-like dimension of brutality. Filled with terrifying imagery, strong performances and surprising twists, it's a great argument for the continued fight that Modern Horror Is Not Dead (it's just sitting in a chair).

By no means a masterful film, the third installment of this never-been-great franchise takes Warwick Davis' Irish scamp to Las Vegas where the expected Elvis impersonations ensue. On paper, there's not a whole lot to the pint-sized villain's exploits, but in the hands of genre vet Brian Trenchard-Smith, Leprechaun 3 becomes something truly joyous, a fun but not cloying ride into controlled goofiness. Sometimes the act of enjoying a film is enough to make it number 27.

26. Pieces

What a terribly ridiculous collection of awesome, a 1982 slasher that uses everything from chainsaws to kung fu to tell the story of a college killer being hunted by a geek, a tennis pro, and the most useless batch of police officers since Plan 9 From Outer Space. Pieces is an awful, awful film, but one that exists in that wonderful realm of so-bad-it's-laughably-amazing, a realm I like to call heaven.
25. Pin

If V.C. Andrews had a mannequin fetish, she might have written Pin. Instead, it turns out her future ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman had a mannequin fetish and wrote…Pin. Quirky but not cute, Pin tells the story of a doctor (Terry O’Quinn!) who confuses his children’s understanding of sexuality, thus leading to a promiscuous daughter and repressed son who would rather spend time with a medical dummy Dad used to break bad news. It’s not perfect by any means, but Pin is also something truly unique and special enough in its weirdness to make this list.

Thought I didn’t see the universally panned remake, I have my doubts that 1980’s Jamie Lee Curtis disco fest was THAT much better than its PG13-rated reboot. Despite the presence of Leslie Nielson, Prom Night was a mediocre slasher that had one excellent stalking scene amidst a sea of blandness. Imagine my surprise to discover that the 1986 sequel was actually FUN, a self-aware slasher that incorporates wacky kills with high school humor and, hold your breath, Michael Ironside. 

Released around the same time as the goofy (but great) Rumplestilskin, the straight-to-VHS Pinocchio’s Revenge never had much of a positive reputation. I sat down to it expecting a Child’s Play ripoff and silly doll kills. Well, the movie IS a Child’s Play ripoff, but not in the way you think. Instead of a pint-sized fairy tale stabbing ankles around him, Pinocchio seems to put the dirty work in the little hands of his owner, a troubled little girl who might be using the guise of a toy to take vengeance on bullies and would-be stepfathers. Or maybe he’s possessing her. Ambiguity is hardly something I’d associate with ‘90s killer doll films, but this one has a little more ambition in its beady blue eye.

Horror anthologies tend to offer the very best and worst of the genre. On one hand, the concise format allows for simple scares or twists. On the other, it can sometimes lead to undisciplined shortcuts or lazy and trite been-there campfire tales. Drive-In Horrorshow takes the anthology and juices it fully with five unique stories that range from clever comedy to dark body horror. Like any anthology, some tales work better than others, but combined in a tight runtime and framed with a groovy post-apocalyptic drive-in setting, this 2009 indie does it right.

"I like people."
"Yes son, but they don't like you."
That exchange has stayed with me ever since I sat down to watch Simon Rumley's horrific little drama about a schizophrenic (an incredible Leo Bill), his broke but aristocratic father, and sweet but cancer-ridden mother, all living in a decaying mansion isolated from modern times. Rumley gets a little too eager to boggle his audience's minds with his surreal experimentation, but this film remains a powerful portrait of a failing family unit. Both this and the soon-to-be-mentioned Red White & Blue show Rumley as an exciting new filmmaker who's willing and able to create characters that are too interesting to be classified as good or bad, and all the more tragic for it.

When it comes to zombies in the 21st century cinema, there are really only two paths to take: 1. Use them as background or a means to explore a deeper topic (Deadgirl, Dead Set, They Came Back) or just tell it like it is REALLY GOOD. Hence, the French action horror The Horde, a fast-paced, fast zombie siege film that does nothing new but everything right.

Misrepresented as a new entry into savage Santa cinema, Rare Exports is something much more special and, well, weird. Part fairy tale and to a lesser extent, horror movie, this yuletide treat keeps you truly surprised with which direction it will take, a rare feat in modern cinema.

I’m often baffled by the lack of war-set horror films, and seeing something as good as Michael J. Bassett’s Deathwatch does little to curb that. Set in the already terrifying trenches of WWI, Deathwatch follows a crew of British soldiers (including Love Actually’s Kris Marshall, Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell, and Gollum himself, Andy Serkis) as they face impending evil. It’s tense and genuinely scary, marred slightly by cheap-looking CGI but ultimately effective straight down to its final reveal.

One of the most pleasant theatrical surprises of 2011, James Wan's low budget ghost story (of sorts) actively engages in horror cliches and flicks them away for a good hour. Haunted house? Move out! Lurking figure? Turn the lights on! Evil gnomish demon? Have him dance to Tiny Tim! Yes, it doesn't carry that brilliant energy into its last act, but for almost 75 minutes, Insidious is a scary and strangely funny tale that finds new ways to tell an old story.

While many of my peers gush over the very mention of blood, boobs, & black gloves, the giallo genre has never done much for me. Unnecessarily complicated plots that try to cover up a contrived mystery killer no intelligent person could ever solve? No thanks. Yet when my blogging cohort  T.L. Bugg assigned Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling, I was hugely surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The cast is top notch ‘70s stars and the killings come from a definite place of motive. Most importantly, however, Don’t Torture a Duckling features the most awesome use of a dummy stunt double in the history of mankind.

Larry Cohen doesn't make seamless films, but nearly all the ones I've seen soar with a rare sense of fun present in every frame. Q the Winged Serpent is pure Cohen using his favorite tools: a dingy '80s era New York City, over the top effects, and most importantly, a classically insane Michael Moriarity. Less disturbing than something like God Told Me To and not quite as bombastic as The Stuff, Q makes for the kind of watch that is simply entertaining in a big ol’ monster kinda manner.

My bias must be confessed: big bugs kick ass. Infestation is a gleefully intentional B-movie about a likable mixed bag of survivors who awaken to discover...big bugs. Spider people, flying beatles, and you know, big...really big...bugs. Like a more fully realized Eight Legged Freaks, Infestation revels in its cheese in a so much smarter-than-you-think style. We can only pray to our giant aphid overlords that a sequel scurries our way soon.

Perhaps one of the most pleasant surprises of 2011 for genre fans, this go-crazy-in-the-woods horror movie proceeds with echoes of everything from The Blair Witch Project to The Wizard of Oz yet still manages to be its own original and genuinely surprising treat. The cast of mostly unknowns is universally believable, while the script toes dangerous lines between black comedy and visceral scares. Although the ending doesn’t quite satisfy the strengths that came before it, YellowBrickRoad remains a scarily good trip into modern horror.

George Sluizer’s infamous 1988 thriller is every bit as intense and nail-biting as its reputation leads you to believe. Even if you know the big surprise of an ending (as I did), the film remains a fascinatingly stark look at both obsession and sociopathy. Skip Sluizer’s own American remake (complete with Jeff Bridges speaking like his mouth is stuffed with marshmallows and a token Hollywood happy ending) and save this original dark tale for the kind of day when you need to remember there’s evil in this world.

Less horror than...philosophy? magical realism? It's hard to say. This French film begins on a perfectly novel idea: one sunny summer day, the dead return to life not to eat the living's flesh, but to just...sort there. Your late fiancee now lays in bed next to you not sleeping. Your tragically killed child now sits in a park...not playing. Tax collectors get confused. City councils meet in frustration. They Came Back could be considered a metaphor for a lot of things--the grieving process, immigration policy, local administration--and that's kind of its beauty. This is a quiet, thoughtful film that opens itself up to questions with no easy answers.

When accepting movie recommendations, one could do worse than following the advice of Martin Scorscese. 1964's The Innocents has long topped those lists of forgotten horror classics, often being overshadowed by the better known The Haunting. It's a shame. Starring an effectively cold Deborah Kerr as a frigid governess, the film adapts Henry James' The Turn of the Screw into chilling gothic black and white horror. From the eeriness of British children laughing to the masterful use of shadows, The Innocents represents subtle horror at its best.

Legendary is my love of the pseudo sequel Class of 1999, but this youth-gone-wild punk rock trip is a surprisingly strong piece of ‘80s Canuxploitation. Director Mark Lester imbues his film with grand energy, from the kicking score to over the top costume design and most importantly, fully committed performances from the likes of a baby-faced Timothy Van Patten and a brilliantly losing-his-mind Roddy McDowell. 

If I could give an award for Film That Most Improves The More You Sit Back From It, Red White & Blue would be wearing a tiara and cup waving from on high. Director Simon Rumley already demonstrated a harsh sense of filmmaking bravery (as well as a strong hold on performances) with the aforementioned The Living and the Dead, and with this 2011 followup, he takes horror to a new level. Three strangers--fantastically played by a terrifying Noah Taylor, complicatedly likable Marc Senter, and astoundingly understated Amanda Fuller--find their lives tragically intertwined through an endless cycle of disease and violence. I wouldn't dream of spoiling this film, and while it's not for the weak of heart (or stomach) and won't make you want to smile (ever again), it's a feat of filmmaking and--broken record alert--more proof that genre cinema is doing just fine.

Sion Sono is easily one of the most unique filmmakers working today,a former poet who now uses his camera to explore everything from true love to adolescent angst to parental incompetence and, when in doubt, crazy religious cults. Cold Fish is one of his more disciplined journeys through these kinds of places, following a timid tropical fish store owner/frustrated father through a terrifying friendship with an enigmatic serial killer. It's as funny as it is twisted, and while it doesn't necessarily blaze new trails in the way Suicide Club made viewers rethink schoolgirls on subways, it's still a juicy ride somewhere you've never thought to go.

The fact that Michael Ironside headlines this film was already enough for me to endorse it as a hearty recommendation, so the fact that it's actually A REALLY GOOD FILM is just gravy on the mozzarella cheese fries. This recently rereleased Video Nasty (Brits are such squares) immediately became one of my all-time favorite slashers boasting a formidable villain (sociopathic Ironside with mommy issues galore and pleather tanktops in his closet), strong final 'girls' and a superbly haunting hospital setting. A true hidden treasure of the 80s.

I imagine--and hope--that I'm not alone as a cinema fan in finding true joy when I get to watch enthusiastic filmmakers grow and improve with each project. Director/writer Jim Mickle and actor/cowriter Nick Damici's Mulberry Street showed incredible promise, but it's their epic post-apocalyptic vampire yarn that demonstrates the goods. Much like Mulberry Street, Stake Land's biggest strength lies not in its cast, but in the filmmakers' castING. Most horror films--low budget indies in particular--grab the nearest nubile bodies and slap them with sexy clothing and bland backstories. But let's face it: when the apocalypse hits, there will be as many able-bodied soldiers as there are middle-aged nuns, 40something men with weathered skin and scrappy orphan boys learning the trade. Stake Land makes its wasteland environment all the more believable because its occupants are people we know. As its heroes wander through a hell filled with supernatural cannibals and murderous religious fanatics, Mickle and Damici ground their tale in its survivors, pausing to remember life's treasures before vampires are dropped on top of it.

The essence of A Simple Plan is--forgive me--quite simple. A good man's soul can be corrupted by a bagful of money if he lets it happen. In the hands of Sam Raimi and his able cast, it's a great thing that said good man is Bill Paxton, his wife, a Lady MacBeth in the making Bridget Fonda, and brother, an incredibly sympathetic Billy Bob Thornton. The film flows like a modern Shakespeare tragedy about everyday folks who allow themselves to dream too high, only to then become all too ready to do what it takes to make those dreams come true. 

I've never been the biggest Dracula fan, making the fact that Werner Herzog's 1979 adaptation (don't let the title fool you) landed the top spot of my year-end list all the more impressive. From Klaus Kinski's shivering vamp to Isabelle Adjani's haunting expressions, Herzog zeroes in on his instruments' strengths and amplifies them to his own tune. Along the way, we get breathtaking imagery from every direction and even, just for kicks, a full plague subplot. It’s the equivalent of drinking the best cup of hot chocolate you’ve ever had, complete with fluffy marshmallows, the world’s finest whipped cream, elite chocolate shavings grounded fresh from Willy Wonka’s factory, and stirred with a decadent cinnamon stick. The only catch is that it might have been made with read dead rats, but hey, everything has its price, and great cinema is rarely not worth it.


  1. That top three is mind blowingly good. Congrats on three years!

  2. Thanks The Mike! I recommend EVERYTHING!

  3. congrats on 3 years of awesome. fun fact: Prom Night 2 was shot in my home town and I was an extra on set. I think we watched the same movies last year. I wish I could have blogged about them as well as you do.

  4. Man, kudos! Wonderful thing about our generation (for me) is that you all turn the big *insert number*-0 first.

    You've certainly inspired me to watch more movies. Now if I could just find the juice to write about them...

  5. Aw, thanks so much ladies! Karen, I now dub you the coolest person EVER for being in Prom Night 2. Any chance you swiped a sweaty tee from Michael Ironside's trailer? Let's work out a deal here!

    Ashlee, it's the curse of having an early birthday. Sure, I got to buy booze and drive (not at the same time) before most of my friends, but that also means I have to cross into this wasteland of 30 first. I'm not ready! NOT READY I SAY!

  6. Holy cow! I don't even know where to start, so I'll just say that this is an excellent list with some damn fine picks. Even though ShowShow took a steaming shit all over it, I still champion PINOCCHIO'S REVENGE. Also, glad to see some love for INSIDIOUS, as well as three overlooked and/or underrated picks from your list, THE DEVIL'S CHAIR, PIN, and DEATHWATCH.

  7. Thanks Aaron! The ShowShow hatred for Pinocchio's Revenge saddened me. I give that movie so much credit for not taking the obvious route. Sigh. We will build an army yet!

  8. I haven't seen a lot of these but you can count me in the PINOCCHIO's REVENGE army.
    The ShowShow crowd are smokin crack on that one :)
    I saw PIN this year also, and that one sticks in the mind also.

    Great List.

  9. YES! Our army is strong and wooden.

  10. So glad to see PROM NIGHT 2 on this list, as that film has a special place in my heart. When I lived in Michigan, we got the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on our cable (mainly because of Hockey Night in Canada, I'm guessing) and they showed PIN a lot. Like once every couple of months. The CBC showed some freaky-ass films on its late-nite "Cinema Canada" show. It's where I first saw the work of Guy Maddin, not to mention my favorite film of the entire 1980s --John Paizs' CRIME WAVE.

    I'm sure if you ever get around to seeing THE WONDERFUL LAND OF OZ, it will immediately vault to the top of next year's list. Well, probably not. But see it anyway. I doubt it's on Netflix Streaming (why would it be?), but there are ways... oh, yes, there are ways.

  11. Ooooh I've heard so many great things about Crime Wave but have never thought to actually check it out. And I thank you for Prom Night 2 Wayne, as I believe you were one of the championers of it that kept it on my radar. As for The Wonderful Land of Oz, I imagine it's the sort of territory well colonized by youtube. Are there munchkins? 'Cause maybe i can squeeze it in for The Shortening...

  12. Tragically, there are no Munchkins in The Wonderful Land of Oz. But there is one kid, Tip, who turns into... oh, I can't spoil it. It's too good. I will say that Tip is played by the director's son, which speaks volumes about how he got the lead role in anything. I've never seen a more sullen, disinterested child star. Every line sounds like an insincere apology.

    My one suggestion for The Shortening would be Devil Times 5, which is public domain and widely, freely available on the Internet. It's a killer kid movie... TIMES FIVE! Yup, there are five killer kids, one of whom is Lief Garrett (!) and another of whom dresses as a nun and looks eerily like a young Mink Stole. When I reviewed all 50 films in Mill Creek's Chilling Classics, I named Devil Times 5 as my favorite of all 50 because it's so crazy and tasteless and entertaining. Did I mention it had FIVE killer kids instead of just one?

    Crime Wave has gotten hard to see because its rights are in dispute. I managed to get a VHS copy from a store that was closing about 10 years ago.

  13. Score, I have Devil Times 5 on my Chilling Classics pack. I almost forgot to comb through them for shorties!

    The next time I feel like sitting at my computer for a movie, it's all going to be about The Wonderful Land of Oz. Every time you drop one more fact about it, I get that much sweatier for a piece.