When last we left off, I had just listed half of my Top 20 Horror Films of 2016, in no particular order. In a logical progression, I now present the other half, in likewise random order. As with the first half, there will probably be a few givens here, along with at least a few surprises. After the conclusion of this list, I’ve also listed the “rest of the best,” the 23 films that almost made this list and, quite possibly, might have on any other day.
Stay tuned for some final thoughts on this past year in horror, as well as a few ruminations on where it might go in the new year. Until then, however, I present the conclusion of the Top 20, in no particular order.
– – –
They say that it’s hard to come up with new stories by this point in our civilization and, at times, I’m almost inclined to agree: almost, that is, until something truly wondrous and unique like The Gateway (aka Curtain) crosses my path. Like previous favorites Motivational Growth and Wrong, this seems to exist in a world so completely alien from our own, so fundamentally weird and amazing that I can’t help but be drawn in. This sense of wonder is one of the primary reasons I got into movies and tapping into it is what’s kept me a fan for my entire life.
Danni (Danni Smith), a burnt-out hospice nurse, rents a cruddy apartment and discovers something not listed in the lease: an apparent portal to somewhere (possibly another dimension, possibly Ohio) that seems to exist in her bathtub. She discovers this, by accident, when she realizes that her numerous missing shower drapes are actually being sucked through a hole into pure mystery. With the aid of a friend, Danni tries to discover where the portal leads, who put it there and what the ultimate purpose is. The truth, as she discovers, is much wilder than anything she could possibly have imagined.
Similar to Repo Man in its grungy look and anything-goes narrative, The Gateway is pure delight from the opening credits all the way to the pure gut-punch revelation. To say anything beyond the basics would be a total disservice, so let me just say this: as someone predisposed to look for twists and inclined to “figure out” whatever I’m watching, I can honestly say that Jaron Henrie-McCrea’s mind-blowing little film took me by complete surprise. If you thought you’d seen it all and you haven’t seen The Gateway, I’m willing to wager you haven’t seen it all, at all.
Under the Shadow
Call it the “Iranian Babadook,” if you must, but writer/director Babak Anvari’s stylish debut actually has a bit more on its plate than its Australian predecessor. On the surface, the similarities might seem a bit uncanny: mother fighting evil forces (and, perhaps, her own sanity) to save her young child…claustrophobic environments…the presence of a sinister, possibly supernatural force…a child’s possession that becomes the source of the “haunting”…an atmospheric, austere style that puts a premium on mood and suspense over obvious shock effects…put ’em side-by-side and there are certainly parallels.
While The Babadook was focused solely on the relationship between a mother and her young son, however, Anvari’s film uses the backdrop of the Iranian Cultural Revolution to add additional social, gender and religious aspects that make this an overall richer experience. The mother, Shideh (the extremely impressive Narges Rashidi), is a gifted, smart and thoroughly worthy individual who has been marginalized and cast aside by her country after the regime change leads to a massive swing from more liberal policies (including the ability of women to study at universities) to more conservative ones (stay at home and don’t say a word). This conflict, along with the inherent struggles of trying to raise a child during wartime (shellings are a constant, formidable presence) add layers to Under the Shadow that just aren’t there in The Babadook.
Ultimately, Under the Shadow is a supremely well-made, fully-realized supernatural chiller that has a bit more on its mind than easy scares. That’s not to say, of course, that scares aren’t important: as with the best horror films, Under the Shadow uses its rich background and believable performances to pull the audience in, inch by inch, before unleashing hell in the final third of the film. Intelligent, measured and self-assured, Under the Shadow will, hopefully, lead to a renaissance in Iranian film. At the very least, it’s made Babak Anvari a filmmaker to keep an eye on.
Last Girl Standing
If you’re a horror fan, I’m willing to wager that you’ve seen at least one slasher flick in your life, regardless of whether it’s your cup o’ tea or not. It might have been Friday the 13th, The Burning or Sleepaway Camp (if you’re a little older) or it might’ve been Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer or Hatchet (if you’re a little younger). At the very least, as a fan of the genre, you probably know the “rules”: horny teens go out to the woods (or suburbs, in the ’90s-’00s) for a little drinkin’, druggin’ and screwin’; a masked killer doesn’t approve and makes his/her case for abstinence/sobriety via any number of extremely sharp, dangerous weapons; everyone gets slaughtered with the exception of the one young woman who has, thus far, abstained from any of the “bad stuff”; this “final girl” takes up arms against the maniac and brings him/her to ultimate justice; credits roll and we get ready for the sequel.
It’s a formula that’s as ingrained with horror fans as a vampire’s aversion to garlic or the need to shoot a zombie in the head: someone else came up with the rules, long ago, and we all just agree and go with it. This unthinking acceptance of genre “rules” is where writer/director Benjamin R. Moody’s debut feature, Last Girl Standing, begins but it ends in a mindset that’s just about as revolutionary for slasher films as you could possibly get. You see, Moody’s exceptional little sleeper begins with the “final girl” surviving the carnage, killing the masked maniac and then asks the question that few fans have probably thought to ask: what’s the rest of her life going to be like? After seeing all her friends butchered, before her eyes, and violently taking the life of a psychotic killer with her own two hands…can things ever be “normal”?
Dealing with issues like post-traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt and the heightened sense of “fight or flight” that affects victims of abuse as they try to navigate a post-assault world, Last Girl Standing is that greatest of meta-horror films: like Behind the Mask, Moody’s film is incredibly smart and insightful but still more than capable of swinging back into trad slasher territory at the drop of a hat. Akasha Villalobos turns in an outstanding performance as the “final girl,” bringing a nuance that keeps us guessing until the final frame: is this heading for Repulsion or is the terrifying killer really back? While I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the answer, suffice to say that Moody and crew know what they’re doing and you’re in good hands, from the first frame to the end credits.
The Eyes of My Mother
There were lots of prevalent themes running through 2016 horror offerings (lots of witches, Ouija boards, demonic possessions and haunted houses that offered moral quandaries, to name but a few) but one of the more notable themes was a return to a genre staple that never seems to go out of fashion: the marginalized, not-quite-right young woman who is just a few steps out of sync with the rest of the world and might be/probably is an insane killer.
While Polanski’s classic Repulsion will always be the gold-standard that I measure these by, there’s been quite a bit of competition, this year, and one of the very best has to be first-time writer/director/editor Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother. Filmed in gorgeous black and white and informed by films as disparate as Repulsion, the French New Wave and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Eyes of My Mother takes a good, long and extremely uncomfortable look at Francisca (played as a child by the stunning Olivia Bond and as an adult by the equally stunning Kika Magalhaes) as she takes the first tentative steps towards becoming the sort of person who clinically dismembers other people.
An art film, through and through, Pesce’s movie moves with a dreamlike sense of flow and purpose, taking its time to arrive at the foregone conclusion even though the whole thing clocks in at well under 90 minutes. Like Henry, this is a film that not only doesn’t shy away from violence but purposefully shoves our noses in it, like a wayward puppy. Impossibly ugly, despite being full of some of the most gorgeous “art” shots of the year, The Eyes of My Mother is a film that I have intention of revisiting, in the future, which is the highest possible praise I can give to this type of film. Some films are for enjoyment, others need to be seen, regardless of how unpleasant they are: this, without a doubt, is one of the latter.
As a lifelong horror fan, I love all facets of the genre, from super-intelligent art films to blood-n-guts slashers, from ultra-cheapie, no-budget grime to ridiculously polished megaplex fare. My definition of horror is pretty broad, no two ways about it, but I love it all.
Dutch writer/director Nick Jongerius’ debut feature, The Windmill (aka The Windmill Massacre), isn’t one of the smartest films I saw all year, although it’s certainly not the class dunce. It doesn’t rewrite the rule book, flipping us into a head-expanding realm where we question everything about life and our place in the cosmic scheme: it’s about a bunch of tourists who head to Holland, visit windmills and run afoul of a resurrected, medieval miller who guards the gate to Hell and grinds up bones to make his bread (literally). There are no huge “twists” no big “reveals” that flip the entire film on its head and leave the audience grasping for air.
No, The Windmill isn’t that kind of a film. What it is, however, is a nearly flawless, breakneck paced, exquisitely shot and ruthlessly entertaining old-fashioned horror film, the kind where a group of disparate folks get systematically torn up (in some very inventive ways) by a very scary monster, up to the point where they band together and start kicking some serious ass. This, friends and neighbors, is the film that horror fanatics are talking about when they say they want a return to the “old school”: no frills, no metaphor, no “pretense” or bigger purpose. As the tag line reads: “This isn’t Hell. It’s Holland.” It just doesn’t get more old-school than that.
There are a handful of contemporary genre filmmakers that I would gladly follow anywhere, regardless of what they do, if for no other reason than the simple fact that they have never let me down. Ben Wheatley is right at the top of that list, as are Marjane Satrapi, Quentin Dupieux, Alex de la Iglesia and Joel Potrykus. This group wouldn’t be complete, however, without Spanish auteur Adrian Garcia Bogliano. As expected, his newest fiendish delight, Scherzo Diabolico, is one of the year’s very best, by a landslide.
As with the best Bogliano films, Scherzo Diabolico begins with a simple concept, in this case the old chestnut of a put-upon middle manager deciding to advance his career by kidnapping the boss’ daughter, only to have the whole thing shatter in some thoroughly jaw-dropping ways. With viewer alliances whiplashing as the various players start to do some astoundingly terrible things, we’re never sure who to root for or even trust: there’s no gray area, here, only an unending void of pitch black. The title means “diabolical prank” and that, friends, is truth in advertising.
As impish and playful as he is brutal and unflinching, Bogliano dances his principal characters around each other on marionette strings, his ever-present shears ready to lop them loose at a moment’s notice. This is a horror film in the explicit sense of the term, make no mistake, but it’s also a horror film in the most implicit ways, as well: these are characters that, under any other situation, might have been the “heroes.” Hell, they might’ve been us and that’s the scariest thing of all.
Without a doubt, one of this year’s most delightful surprises was writer/director Jordan Galland’s Ava’s Possessions. I went into this expecting very little (another theme for a year with so many anonymous films) and came out with huge grin on my face. Turns out, this little sleeper is as far from an anonymous film as you can get.
Like Last Girl Standing, Ava’s Possessions begins at the end of another story and proceeds to expand upon its target in some truly fascinating ways. In this case, the story is a stereotypical possession one and we first meet our amazing lead, Ava (Louisa Krause, simply superb), as she’s being successfully exorcised of a very nasty demon. After finally being free of her demonic possession, however, Ava is now looking at the wreckage of her former life: she did just spend several days indulging in every violent, carnal and evil act possible, after all, so her friends and family are probably gonna be a little unhappy with her.
Part AA parable, part Beetlejuice, part self-empowerment and all awesome, Ava’s Possessions is that rare horror-comedy that gets both halves right, charming with an easy, dark wit that makes the swings into full-bore horror (Ava’s demon is not, in any way, nice) that much more effective. The performances are great (Carol Kane, in particular, is perfect), the effects are impressive and the whole thing is shot in a colorful, vibrant way that is thoroughly eye-catching. In a year where a lot of films managed to get a lot of different elements right, Galland’s Ava’s Possessions is one of the few that managed to put them all in the same film.
There are few real taboos left in horror but one of the few that still remains is sex and death. I’m not talking about that old slasher greatest hit where young people humping equals machete or the even older one where a little T&A helps the medicine go down. Nothing as easy as that, friends and neighbors. I’m talking about the actual intersection of sex and death, the zip-code where Jorg Buttgereit built the house of Nekromantik and the one part of town where most filmmakers (and viewers) fear to tread. Thank your lucky stars that the Blaine Brothers (Ben and Chris) didn’t get the memo, however, otherwise we never would have got the twisted marvel that is Nina Forever.
Released on Valentine’s Day, in the most inspired bit of serendipity since the last time a Friday the 13th film actually opened on the 13th, Nina Forever manages to be that most unholy and difficult to achieve combination of genuinely erotic, romantic, disturbing and tragic. A young man finds it difficult to move on after the death of his beloved, Nina, in a terrible car accident, mostly because said beloved won’t actually stay dead. More specifically, Nina displays the rather inappropriate tendency to manifest physically while the new couple are making love. Despite this being the kind of thing that would normally wreck a new relationship before it can start, the new girlfriend is more than willing to give this arrangement a shot, doing everything she can to make Nina feel welcome in their love nest. Nina, on the other hand, isn’t really the sharing type.
There’s a lot to unpack in this film and I’m sure that plenty of more sensitive viewers will steer clear before they get much deeper than the surface necrophilia angle: as mentioned earlier, that’s a fair reaction to a taboo subject. If you give it a chance, however, you’ll see that there’s a truly tender, affecting love story here, the kind that you rarely (if ever) get in a horror film. That’s not to say that the Blaines shy from the bloody stuff, however…far from it. In reality, they’ve come up with a perfect synthesis of grue and glow, just the right combination of dramatic weight, emotional impact and exposed viscera. There’s genuine tragedy to Nina’s story but that doesn’t make anything that happens less horrifying or unforgettable. In a year where many films tried to do something different, Nina Forever actually did, earning its place on this list.
If they gave an award for hardest-working over-achiever in contemporary genre cinema, I’m pretty sure that Mickey Keating would be the odds-on favorite. After releasing the above-average alien invasion flick Pod last year, Keating dropped not one but two of this year’s best genre flicks, Carnage Park and Darling, with another proposed film, Psychopaths, getting bumped to 2017. Keating releases films like old punk bands used to release albums and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This time around, Keating does a 360 and gives us a skittery, schizophrenic bit of paranoia with Darling, a black-and-white examination of a young woman’s extremely quick slide into full-blown psychosis. Repulsion is the obvious influence but Keating isn’t interested in merely paying homage, bringing every facet of the film into play (the constantly erratic, ominous score is a particular highlight) to bludgeon the viewer into submission. By the time the film descends into stroboscopic madness, it will, literally, feel as if you’ve joined Lauren Ashley Carter in her howling hell of insanity.
And lest I forget to single out Carter, who has been a shining star in such recent genre standouts as Jug Face, The Mind’s Eye, The Woman and Keating’s own Pod, let me take a moment to do so now: her fearless, frightfully immersive performance as the titular character is one of those tours de force that feels less like acting than channeling. Any film that focuses on a central character having a mental breakdown is going to live or die based on that central performance: Darling is one of the year’s very best films, so I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Train to Busan
Several years ago, South Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho wowed the world with The Host, a monster film about a rampaging, Cloverfieldian creature that was equal parts affecting family drama and giddy Godzilla knock-off. It was fresh, fun and added a great new entry to the canon. This year, Joon-ho’s countryman, Yeon Sang-ho, has repeated history, presenting one of the best, freshest, most action-packed and emotionally resonant films of the year amd giving a shot in the arm to the moribund zombie genre, in the process. The film is Train to Busan and it is, without a doubt, the best zombie film of the year.
Built around likable characters and believable family dynamics, Train to Busan introduces us to a group of stock characters (a workaholic divorced dad, expectant couple, group of high school athletes, shithead businessman, elderly sisters, etc..) and then makes us care for them (except for that shithead businessman, of course) by making them fully-rounded. There’s all kinds of zombie mayhem going on left and right (all of which, might I add, is top-shelf and much more effective than World War Z, which this occasionally resembles) but none of it would pack any punch if we didn’t care about the characters. In particular, Ma Dong-seok (who was equally amazing in Kundo: Age of the Rampart and The Good, the Bad and the Weird) makes his hot-headed, blue-collar, father-to-be such an instantly iconic, ridiculously badass presence that I wanted a full movie devoted just to that guy.
And so it goes: Train to Busan is the kind of film that features a fist-pumping action setpiece one minute (no lie: some of the setpieces are so good, it hurts) and then makes you tear up the next. It’s the kind of fully-realized vision that understands that gut-munching and character development don’t have to be mutually exclusive, that the pursuit of horror entertainment doesn’t automatically mean one has no interest in the non-red crayons in the box. I’m all for horror films stripped right to the bloody bone but, sometimes, you just want a little more. Train to Busan is that “little more” writ large and I’ll take it any old day of the week.
– – –
The Greasy Strangler
The Dark Stranger
They Look Like People
Freaks of Nature
Pride & Prejudice & Zombies
10 Cloverfield Land
The Mind’s Eye
Feed the Devil
The Funhouse Massacre