Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Countdown: The Best of Horror

Looking back, it’s really been a great year for horror. Usually when I do these end-of-year roundups, I have way more terrible-to-okay movies to choose from, and far fewer great ones. Not the case for 2015, wherein I actually had to demote some of my favorites to make room for even better ones. Thank the horror gods, I guess, and I hope 2016 is as good as this year was!

Bone Tomahawk. The western made a comeback in a big way this year, and Bone Tomahawk did a fantastic job of seamlessly combining the western genre and the horror genre. This movie is chock full of everything a western should have – outlaws, a quest to save a damsel in distress, a desolate landscape, a sheriff and his sidekick (the inimitable Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins) – plus inbred cannibals and some particularly nasty gore. It’s a bit slow if you’re not already into westerns, but that’s not a detriment to fans of the genre.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. If there’s a movie that can get by on style alone, it’s this. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a bit slim in story, but man is it gorgeous to look at. Sheila Vand is mesmerizing as The Girl, and the perfect vehicle for conveying what is, at its heart, a rather sweet story. It’s also one of the most original horror movies of the year, which is why it’s one at the top of my list.

The Gift. One of the least horror-y horror films on this list, it still gets a place here because it masterfully illustrates the term “psychological horror.” This movie is so restrained, yet it’s positively brimming with suspense. There’s no big bang of an ending, just a simmering, lingering uneasiness, and yes, horror.

What We Do in the Shadows. A masterful horror comedy. I’m not sure any other movie this year has made me laugh as hard as this one. There’s not really much more to say, except that I hope the rumors of a werewolves-not-swear-wolves sequel are true!

Deathgasm. Heavy metal and horror is obviously a match made in heaven, and this movie has the gore, laughs, and loveable characters (Zakk + Brodie + Medina 4ever) to make this movie an instant favorite. Between this and Blood Punch, Milo Cawthorne is becoming someone to watch out for. Which brings me to…

Blood Punch. I was shocked by how much I liked Blood Punch. If we’re being totally honest, I’m not 100% sure this movie would have made the best-of list if it weren’t for the fact that I only saw it last Thursday, after I had already posted my notable horror films of the year list. Butttt, it’s definitely a toss-up, because I really, really enjoyed it. Milo Cawthorne and Olivia Tennet were fantastic – Tennet was really a standout – and the plot was of the twisty-Bermuda-Triangle type that I absolutely love. Definitely worth seeing multiple times.

Crimson Peak. I won’t lie, aesthetics are the main reason I loved this movie. The story is as predictable as any gothic-horror-fairytale, but that doesn’t detract at all from how enjoyable it is. Even so, it’s the lush costumes and unbelievably gorgeous sets that make this movie so worth watching. Just a feast for the eyes.

It Follows. Obviously this made the list, for all the reasons everyone has already said so many times in so many places: The unrelenting tension, the unique take on a supernatural monster, the beautiful cinematography. The sense of timelessness. Not to mention how rich the material is for analyzing (see my essay on it here). It Follows is sure to be talked about for years to come, and rightfully so.

So that's it! We've come to the end of another year of horror. Agree with my choices? Disagree? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter! And happy new year!

Monday, December 21, 2015

2015 Countdown: Notable Horror Films of the Year

These films aren’t necessarily excellent or awful, but they’re worth noting in the great scheme of horror for one reason or another.

Goodnight Mommy. This festival darling got a ton of buzz, and for good reason. It’s a creepy, capable psychological thriller with a healthy dose of cringe-worthy gore. Even so, Goodnight Mommy had just as many detractors, due to its incredibly obvious “twist” (which I literally figured out in the first five minutes of the film). Personally, I don’t think the twist mattered one way or the other; it didn’t effect my enjoyment of the film at all. Overall, it was a very good movie that I’m not sure deserved quite all the praise – or criticism – it got. (See my essay on it here.)

The Midnight Swim. I’m so darn down on found footage horror, I had to include one of the FF films that didn’t make me want to throw a brick at my TV screen this year. The Midnight Swim is distinguished by its inventive use of a worn out subgenre, and by the fact that it is a truly creepy and thought-provoking watch. (See my full review here.)

#Horror. I’m pretty much just mentioning this film because I haven’t mentioned it elsewhere on this blog, and it’s too weird to let the year go by without talking about it at least once. I guess you’d say this is a slasher-meets-bullying-PSA – which sounded great to me, but actually didn’t turn out all that good. The majority of the movie consists of tween-aged girls being horrible to one another (like, really horrible – at one point, several girls mock their chubby friend for being bulimic while she’s throwing up in the toilet), with some surprisingly daring gore towards the end. However, #Horror fails to deliver a coherent narrative or say anything in an original or compelling way. It’s mostly general weirdness peppered with weird scenes of Chloe Sevigny being weird. Actually, “Chloe Sevigny being weird” is my main takeaway from this movie.

Spring. Spring didn’t quite make my best-of list for the year, but it is a great little sci-fi movie nonetheless. Lou Taylor-Pucci is excellent, as usual, and brings a lot of heart to what could have been nothing more than a bizarre creature feature. It’s not scary at all, but I think most horror fans will find something to like here anyway.

Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead. Another that just didn’t quite hit all the points I needed for a best-of, but was still a fantastic, super fun watch. I loved the Mad Max vibe, I adored the bad-ass female heroine, and I loved the zany gore. I’m sure I’ll be watching this again.

Zombeavers. Okay, seriously, though. I don’t think this horror-comedy gets enough love. Yes, it’s stupid and ridiculous. But it’s also genuinely funny and occasionally kind of smart, and I’d take it over a large number of the horror “comedies” that have come out this year, all of which failed to tickle my funny bone anywhere near as often as this one did.

The Green Inferno. This one is notable mainly for its notoriety – much of which, one could argue, is undeserved. This “controversial” film was deemed so before it even came out, because it’s the brainchild of “torture porn” (ugh, I hate that term) aficionado Eli Roth, and it’s about cannibals. Well, not only is it a movie about cannibals; it’s a movie inspired by some truly controversial and disturbing cannibal films, including Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox. The Green Inferno is nowhere near as disturbing as its predecessors, but I guess it’s easy to rile people up these days. (See my full review here.)

What do you think were the most note-worthy horror movies of this year? Tell me in the comments or on Twitter! And tune in next week to find out my picks for the best horror of 2015!

Monday, December 14, 2015

2015 Countdown: The Worst of Horror

Exeter. This jumbled confusion of a movie is little more than a bunch of exorcism clichés tossed onto a lovely set – which makes it all the more annoying. Exeter’s glossy look and high production value belies a hackneyed, chaotic story and uninspired characters. It’s a movie to watch while falling asleep, at best.

Cooties. Although this is really not one of the worst horror movies I’ve seen this year, it’s on this list because it was such a disappointment. I had high hopes for an Elijah Wood-produced and -starring zombie movie (it immediately brought to mind nostalgic memories of The Faculty for me), and I’m predisposed to like any movie with creepy, murderous children. Unfortunately, Cooties failed to satisfy on any level, be it laughs, gore, or suspense. It had a few good one-liners, but the majority of the plot was simply too static and slow.

The Gallows. As has been the case every year since forever, it seems, plenty of lame found footage horror movies came out this year – Unfriended, Nightlight, Creep – to varying degrees of middling success. However, The Gallows wins my personal prize for worst FF-style horror because it has all the hallmarks of a typical FF movie (annoying dialogue that does nothing to advance the plot, amateur acting, drab camera angles), and absolutely nothing else. It was a total drag.

The Lazarus Effect. A cool idea undone by the smallness of its scope. The Lazarus Effect took great actors, a creepy (if unoriginal) idea, and a great first half hour – and made it totally suck. I think its failure is due in large part to the fact that the story never leaves the laboratory or the course of a single night, so everything feels super rushed, cramped (both literally and figuratively), and colorless (again, both literally and figuratively). When the movie does briefly enter otherworldly territory, it’s mostly illogical and pointless.

Muck. Meant to be a “throwback to old-school horror,” this derivative, hollow dribble is anything but. Muck lacks the heart and soul of older slashers and tries to make up for it with boobs. Even for those who are really hard up, I think this movie will fail to engage or titillate in any way.

Sinister II. “Here’s an idea: let’s take the most boring, un-scary part of a great movie, and build an entire sequel around it!” I think those were the actual words of the people who came up with the plot of Sinister II. But seriously, everyone knows the ghost children were the weakest part of the original, and mostly fantastic, Sinister. So why the hell would you make them the main characters of the sequel?

Poltergeist. Of course a slick Hollywood cash-grab had to make this list. The most damning thing about this remake is the fact that it was marketed as a straight horror film, when that’s not what the original was at all. The original was a typical Spielberg mash-up of adventure and childlike wonder, sprinkled with a little horror after Tobe Hooper was called in to take over. This remake tries to be scary, but whoever made it didn’t have the chops to transform it into the horror movie the trailers promised, so it just comes off as another terrible PG-13 “horror” movie. I also hold this lame attempt responsible for slashing the funding on the upcoming It reboot, which actually sounded good before the bigwigs forced out any sort of creative interpretation based on the fact that the Poltergeist remake didn’t do well, and Hollywood deduced that to simply mean, “Americans don’t like clowns.”

Knock Knock. Eli Roth’s foray into erotic thriller territory is probably the most outstandingly bad movie on this list. Totally ridiculous and often nonsensical, laden with bad acting and risible dialogue (the pizza speech, my god), this movie almost seems proud of its badness. For that reason alone, it has a tiny bit of potential for rewatching. Who knows, in five or ten years it might be a campy favorite of mine. But I seriously doubt it.

So there you have it; my least favorite horror films of 2015. Sorry to the losers - but at least you're excelling at something.

What's on your list of worst horror for the year? Tell me in the comments!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Review: Krampus

Holiday-themed movies have always been a bit of an iffy area in horror. Aside from Halloween, which naturally lends itself to horror stories, the majority of holidays haven’t inspired much greatness in the way of horror cinema. From Leprechaun, to April Fool’s Day, to Uncle Sam, to Thankskilling – for the most part, holiday horror movies are just sort of there to laugh at when the appropriate holiday rolls around.

Because Christmas is arguably the biggest holiday of the year (even for non-Christians, who are nonetheless forced to suffer through the interminable shopping season), there are a few more options to choose from, but the pickings are still fairly slim. For decades, horror fans have had to satiate themselves with viewings of Gremlins and Black Christmas, year after year, as nothing better ever seemed to come along. Not that those aren’t excellent movies; but you’d think that someone would have made at least one equally good Christmas horror film in the 30+ years since those movies came out.

This is the part where I tell you that Krampus, the latest offering from Trick ‘r Treat director Michael Dougherty – celebrated by horror fans the world over – is the greatest Christmas horror movie to be seen in decades. Right? Well… sort of. Not exactly. But kind of.

Let me get there.

I’ll spare you the details of Krampus’s plot, because if you’re reading this blog I’m guessing you’ve already been following the hype of this movie for a while now. Trick ‘r Treat is widely considered an instant classic and genre staple, so it was exciting to hear that Dougherty had another holiday horror movie in the pipeline. In many ways, Krampus is every bit the film I hoped it would be. In other ways, it doesn’t – and perhaps shouldn’t be expected to – live up to the high bar set by Trick ‘r Treat. After all, that standard exists only in my mind, and is most likely an unfair one.

Let me start with everything Krampus does right – and that’s a lot. The cast is roundly impressive and likeable (even the redneck relatives are loveable when it counts), with Krista Stadler being a standout as Omi, the grandmother who knows the dark history of Krampus. Even the child actors are winning, from main character Max to mouth-breathing Howie Junior, the kids are all entertaining, if mostly one-note. As a blizzard sets in and the situation escalates, the actors do an excellent job of making you care what happens to them. Unfortunately, the plot undoes that hard work to a certain extent… but I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Something I trusted Dougherty would bring were the special (and practical) effects, and bring it he did. Krampus is simply a wonder, from the way he is revealed – leaping from one suburban rooftop to another in the misty snow with the force of an earthquake – to the slow pan from his giant hooves to a chain-laden cloak seen from beneath a car, to the horror of his grisly face, Krampus is all that one could hope for in a Christmas nightmare. And then there’s his army of minions: murderous gingerbread cookies that happily bring to mind Gremlins, a jack-in-the-box truly from hell, and “elves” that look like they were plucked straight out of a Greek tragedy. The effects here are on point, to say the least, and are often quite frightening.

But there were disappointments, as I suppose there were bound to be, what with the high hopes I’d been harboring. My first quibble is a small one, but I found the jokes annoyingly hit or miss. An opening montage of Black Friday shoppers battling it out in slow motion to the tune of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is perfectly scathing and timely, and a great way to introduce the main theme of the movie. When the rightwing, redneck relatives show up at the uptight liberals’ house for Christmas dinner, however, the gags rest heavily on broad, stale jokes, and more discouraging, jokes that outright mock the young characters for being fat and ugly. I’m not one to shy away from some nasty humor, believe me, but many of these supposed witticisms were outdated and undercooked.

The bigger complaints I had will surely depend on whether you go to see Krampus because you love horror, or because you love Christmas. Gore is basically nonexistent in Krampus’ world, despite that the demonic creature is constantly yanking people away under the snow, accompanied by ghastly (and seemingly irrevocable) crunching noises. And that’s a real problem; although Omi sets the stage by giving us the folklore of Krampus, we never find out exactly where he’s taking the people he drags off under the snow. Are they being killed? And if so, are they then taken to Hell, or somewhere else? This lack of parameters, and the quickness of the characters’ picking off, has the opposite effect of what I think was intended. Rather than feeling all hope is lost, the audience gets the sense that there must be some loophole that will save everyone in the end.

Then there’s the ending. Without spoiling it, let me just say that the ending can be read in a couple of ways, both of them somewhat clichéd (though I’m partial to one over the other, and as a horror fan, you’ll probably be able to guess which one). Multiple fake outs result in an ending that’s more jumbled than shocking, an ending that just sort of tapers off when it should’ve ended with a bang – or at least something not so wishy-washy. It feels like Dougherty was trying to please both the horror crowd and the family crowd, to poor effect for at least one of those factions. Perhaps he will please the parent who takes their ten-year-old to see it, and that’s fine. Krampus is probably the kind of movie that would have terrified and thrilled me as a child. Whether Krampus will end up on rotation year after year for adult horror watchers, however, remains to be seen. I deeply enjoyed parts of it, and it’s certainly the best Christmas horror film I’ve seen in quite a long time, but I’m not sure it has what it takes to endure years of viewings and be labeled a classic.

“Instant classic” is, of course, a perilously high bar to set, and the comparisons to Trick ‘r Treat are made all the more difficult because Halloween is a pagan’s holiday, tailored-made for the horror genre. It’s meant to trick and treat, whereas Christmas has always solely delivered treacle-sweet messages of love and morality, making it hard to break the mold and deliver a sellable movie to theaters during the holiday season. Dougherty was clearly going for widespread appeal and a PG-13 rating with Krampus, two things that were happily absent from his earlier work. But in straddling that line of pleasing the holiday industrial complex and delivering something more, I think Krampus leans far to the side of settling.

The savage bite of Trick ‘r Treat is what is lacking in Krampus; aside from the broad-strokes conservative/liberal jokes and the fat kid/lesbian jokes – which will, yes, have twelve-year-olds and Tea Partiers rolling in the aisles – there is very little that is subversive or edgy about Krampus. At its heart, it is a movie that by all measures appears to be a throwback to the Christmas movies of old, from A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. And those are great movies, but they’re not horror films. They’re not beholden to anything other than a happy ending. Call me crazy, but I think horror fans can be some of the most discerning fans, and I think we demand more than straightforward moralizing. Perhaps Dougherty was trying to give horror fans that something more at the very end, but I found it to be too little, too late.

…But I’m being harsh. (It’s only because I love Trick ‘r Treat so much, man.) Krampus is a wild, mischievous, very enjoyable flick. It’s a bright spot in the horror wasteland that typically is December. I fully recommend that you go see it. But the fact remains – and oh, how I wish it didn’t! – I wanted more.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

November Movie Roundup

Movies I've watched and haven't written about, and movies I've written about but haven't given my opinion on...

The Visit. The Visit was kind of a strange blend of creepy and off-the-wall weird. Overall, it worked for me, because there were some really scary parts (your mileage will vary based on how scared you are of old people before seeing the movie), and most of the gonzo bits mixed in nicely with the unsettling atmosphere to give the movie an off-kilter feeling. There were a few things that were hard for me to get past, though: I didn’t like Tyler (the younger brother played by Ed Oxenbould), and a lot of the quirks surrounding his character were really hard for me to buy into. I thought Olivia DeJonge (as Becca) did the best she could with her character, and overall it worked for me, but again, the way she was written seemed somewhat forced on more than one occasion. I think the kids were a bit of a weak spot, and I’m inclined to blame the writing. (See my essay on The Visit here.)

Stung. This is a movie about gigantic wasps that attack a fancy party – and that’s pretty much all you need to know. It’s a midnight movie, a get-a-bowl-of-popcorn-and-a-blanket creature feature. It’s not anything groundbreaking, but it serves that purpose quite nicely. Plus Matt O’Leary is a main character, and he’s been quietly popping up in a lot of good movies lately.

Harbinger Down. Color me disappointed in this one. I read a while back about how a practical effects team decided to make its own movie when their practical effects got scrapped from the remake of The Thing, and I was definitely intrigued. I love good practical effects – the Evil Dead movies (including and especially the 2013 reboot) are some of my favorite horror films of all time, due largely in part to the fantastic practical effects. Unfortunately, Harbinger Down’s effects are not roundly impressive, and don’t seem worth building an entire film around. What’s more, the plot is nearly identical to The Thing, but with subpar acting. I wanted to like it, guys… but I can’t pretend it was awesome.

Cooties. Cooties was a pretty big disappointment, too. I won’t discount it completely, as there were some very funny bits (though most of them were of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety), and it did have some nostalgic value going for it (read my essay on it here), at least for this viewer. Overall, though, it wasn’t paced well; it started off fairly strong, but it really petered out as it went on. Furthermore, the characters, while amusing at first glance, were too one-dimensional and not compelling enough to carry the audience through the entire story. I didn’t hate it, but I won’t be watching it again.

Kristy. So… knowing that the U.S. premier of this movie took place on Lifetime, I was pleasantly surprised by Kristy. I’ve always liked Haley Bennett (a.k.a. the only reason I’ve watched the dull-as-ditchwater The Haunting of Molly Hartley more than once), and she makes for a likeable heroine to root for here. The premise is simple – college girl alone on campus is stalked by an online cult obsessed with killing “Kristy’s,” i.e. pretty girls with nice lives – and it works. Don’t watch it if you’re looking for a lot of gore and straight-up horror. It’s sort of The Strangers meets a 90s thriller, and I dig that.

The Gift. I actually saw this in theaters and never wrote about it, I guess because it’s not necessarily what most would consider horror. But hey, this is my blog and I like thrillers, too, so I’m gonna mention it! The Gift is an exercise in restraint, keeping you on the edge of your set right up until the end credits roll. It may not be horror, per se, but it certainly leaves you with a lingering sense of dread – for the characters, and for humanity. It also brings to mind Sleep Tight (“Mientras duermes”), which you should also watch. One last thing: why isn’t Rebecca Hall in all the movies?

What've you been watching lately? Do you have your own opinions about any of these movies? Talk to me in the comments!