The 31 Days of Halloween (2017): 10/8-10/14

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As the weather continues to get colder, The VHS Graveyard keeps things nice and warm with the second week of The 31 Days of Halloween. We screened seven films last week, a mixture of the new and the familiar and present the results for your humble perusal. Lock your doors, turn up the fire, check the windows, look under the bed and try to ignore that strange sound outside. The Season of the Witch continues!

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It Comes At Night

Some films are made to be consumed with boisterous audiences at rowdy midnight screenings and others are meant to be pondered over in somber meditation: call Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night one of the latter. In the wake of an undisclosed plague, a makeshift family holds their own in studied isolation. When another family arrives, however, forces both internal and external will strive to tear their lives apart.

Humorless, sober and slow-burning, Shults’ claustrophobic meditation on the evil that humans must do is rarely what I would call “fun” but never less than sturdily constructed and well-performed. While the film mostly operates in a kind of mournful neutral ground (think something like The Road or The Survivalist), the occasional bursts of action are well-done and kinetic. It’s an austere film, to be sure, no surprise when one considers that it’s being released by A24.

While questions may arise as to whether It Comes At Night truly counts as a horror film (I’m still on the fence, although lean towards the horror camp based on overall impact), there can be no doubt that Shults has constructed a lean, tense and effective little film. I doubt that I’ll ever watch it again, to be honest, but that probably says more about me than the film.

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Pumpkinhead

Special effects god Stan Winston only directed two films during his entire, illustrious career: 1990’s A Gnome Named Gnorm and this 1988 horror classic. While A Gnome Named Gnorm has faded almost completely from memory (for good reasons), Pumpkinhead has remained utterly unforgettable for nearly 30 years and counting.

This decidedly old-fashioned tale of revenge (essentially an even darker version of a Grimm’s fairy tale) features one of esteemed character actor Lance Henriksen’s very best lead performances, a truly ferocious creature design and a completely immersive, claustrophobic atmosphere that dunks you deep in Southern Gothic miasma and holds you there. Despite his “day” job, Winston has as firm a grasp on the mechanics of story and filmmaking as any seasoned director: the non-creature stuff in the film is just as powerful and gripping as the impressive special effects.

Tragic, frightening and badass, Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead has been one of my go-to films since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I’ve rented the movie at video stores, ordered the DVD and streamed the film. The methods may change but one thing will remain the same: I’ll still be watching Pumpkinhead as long as I’m still around.

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Gerald’s Game

2017 is truly the Year of King, with more Stephen King projects and adaptations popping up than you can shake a stick at. We’ve already had a smash-hit version of It, loads of upcoming releases and, now, a prestige version of one of King’s thorniest novels, Gerald’s Game, from rising genre luminary Mike Flanagan. It’s truly a great time to be a fan of the undisputed master of horror.

Writer-director Flanagan, hot off the surprisingly respectable Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), brings a version of King’s disturbing tale that hews fairly close to the printed word, right up to the highly divisive ending. Troubled married couple Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) plan a romantic weekend at their isolated cabin in order to respark their failing relationship. When Gerald suffers a heartache and dies, however, Jessie is left handcuffed to their bed, no hope for rescue on the horizon. As the hours tick on, Jessie is left with only her tormented thoughts about Gerald and her own childhood abuse for company. There’s also a hungry, stray dog that’s taken an interest in Gerald’s body, of course. And the Moonlight Man.

Mike Flanagan, known for works of mature, disturbing horror like Absentia and Oculus, brings that same sense of style to Gerald’s Game and manages to craft one of the best King adaptations ever. From first to last, the film is a work of beauty: gorgeously made yet never afraid to delve into the gritty end of the pool (the degloving scene is one of the most revolting things I’ve ever seen), this is a prestige film, through and through. In the past, films like Misery, Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption were always regarded as the “high literary marks” of cinematic King adaptations: Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game just joined that illustrious club.

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Don’t Kill It

While I may have been a wee bit disappointed with Mike Mendez’s previous film, The Last Heist (2016), all is soundly forgiven thanks to his newest gem, Don’t Kill It. In fact, Mendez’s new film isn’t just better than The Last Heist: it’s better than ever other film in his entire filmography, including personal favorite Big Ass Spider (2013). It’s actually one of the best horror films of 2017. That, friends and neighbors, is a comeback.

Possessed of a genius concept (a demon can only jump to a new host when its current host is killed), a towering lead performance (Dolph Lundgren’s Jebediah Woodley is this generation’s Snake Plissken), astounding levels of gore and mayhem, an exceptionally game supporting cast and truly smart, funny script, Don’t Kill It is the perfect throwback to similar films from the ’80s and ’90s and is an absolute blast from start to finish.

I laughed. I cheered. I quoted lines back at the screen. I never wanted it to end and, when it did, I wanted to start it all over again. It’s the best film of Mendez’s career, the best performance of Lundgren’s career and one of the very best horror films of this year. If you’re looking for good times this October, look no further than Don’t Kill It.

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Pet Sematary

With all the focus on Andy Muschietti’s current version of It, I thought it might be fun to revisit one of King’s earlier cinematic adaptations. While the master of horror has been a notoriously difficult visionary to successfully adapt to the silver screen, there have been a handful of films that got it right, over the past 30-odd years: Mary Lambert’s adaptation of Pet Sematary is one of those.

While the film is far from perfect (the comic relief involving Brad Greenquist’s undead Pascow was done far better in An American Werewolf in London and really grinds the film to a halt), this timeless tale of an old pet graveyard and the “sour ground” beyond it sticks faithfully to the novel, right up through the tragic, heartbreaking finale. Bolstered by a sturdy supporting turn from Fred Gwynne (a million miles from Mockingbird Lane) and an endless cauldron of creepy atmosphere (the Micmac burial ground is one of those iconic locations, right up there with the Overlook Hotel), Lambert’s version of King’s bestseller adds all of the odd, supporting characters and details that pepper the Master’s prose (like Missy Dandridge) and really nails his tone.

There’s an undeniable tragedy to the story that could, in the wrong hands, have been suffocated by the creepier elements (see the regrettable sequel). Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary finds the perfect balance between tragedy and terror, giving this one a bite that still endures.

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Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter

It doesn’t always happen but the 13th fell on a Friday, this October, and that means only one thing for the 31 Days of October: you gotta screen a Friday the 13th film. Since we just watched the original not too long ago, I decided to revisit the fourth and “final” entry in the series, The Final Chapter.

As horror franchises go, I’m fairly hot-and-cold on Friday the 13th. On one hand, I’ve always loved the first two films and have at least enjoyed the others, to a greater or lesser degree. On the other hand, as films…well…they’re really not that great. Full of amateur “acting” and usually censored to the point of neutering the kills (theoretically the focal point of the enterprise), the F13 series has been a real mixed bag: sorry die-hards!

The Final Chapter (yeah, right!) is no different: Corey Feldman’s Tommy Jarvis still holds up fairly well but the rest of the cast, including Crispin Glover, really grates and pretty much every murder setpiece has been hacked into incoherence (at least on the video version of the film). This definitely features one of the most menacingly physical incarnations of Jason, however, and the finale featuring Trish, Tommy and Jason is easily a highlight of the entire series. Like I said: a mixed bag but I’ll always have a soft-spot for ’80s horror sequels, in general.

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Deathgasm

Heavy metal and horror movies are a lot alike, when you think about it: they come in a myriad of forms and varieties, tend to get written off by the status quo and are the sanctuaries of misfits and loners the world around. They can be smart, topical and complex or they can be base, bloody and bludgeoning. Sometimes, you want something calculated, clinical and cold, something like Meshuggah or The Witch. Sometimes, however, you just want Gwar: blood, body parts, blasphemy and bad attitudes.

New Zealand writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s Deathgasm is the Gwar of horror films: loud, violent, immature, silly, drenched in bodily fluids and the best time possible. This charming tale of misunderstood Kiwi metal-heads who bring literal Hell to their sleepy little town owes a massive debt to neighbor Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (they must teach it in New Zealand film schools) but has the heavy metal soul that Jackson’s zombie howler never did.

Full of snarling neo-Deadites, death by dildo, at least 300 gallons of fake blood, ax-wielding preppies, true love, betrayal and some of the snappiest one-liners around, Deathgasm isn’t the film you want playing in the background of your rockin’ party: it IS the rockin’ party. Grab your corpse paint, plug in your amp and crank this sucker straight to 666!

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And with that, we bring the second week of October to a close. Join us next time as we continue to celebrate the 31 Days of Halloween. Remember, kids: keep it scary!

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The 31 Days of Halloween (2017): 10/1-10/7

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At long last, The VHS Graveyard returns from its slumber to present the annual 31 Days of Halloween. As longtime readers will know, one day out of the year is a paltry celebration for the kaleidoscopic glory represented by horror films: as such, we celebrate horror for all 31 days of October, forgoing any and all cinema that does not, in fact, go bump in the night.

While previous Octobers have seen the VHS Graveyard plowing through mountains of cinematic goodies, from the most-current chillers to old favorites, we’ve scaled it back a little this year. As always, however, our goal remains the same: screen at least one horror film for every day of the month of October. We didn’t quite hit the quota for this week but, nonetheless, we humbly present the six films that make up the first week of our October viewing. As always, we invite you to discover new favorites and reconnect with old friends. Welcome to the Season of the Witch!

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American Fable

My October viewing got off to a bit of a false start with writer-director Anne Hamilton’s feature-length debut, American Fable. While I didn’t expect the film to feature overt horror elements, various discussions had pegged it as magical-realist and a spiritual successor to Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which definitely put it on my radar.

In actuality, American Fable is a dark coming-of-age drama with a consistently oppressive atmosphere and frequent forays into dream sequences and fantasies that put it closer to Peter Jackson’s striking Heavenly Creatures, albeit with a more mundane resolution. 11-year-old Gitty (the impressive Peyton Kennedy) has a lot going on in her world: her stressed-out parents are one thin dime away from losing their family farm…her shithead older brother, Martin, makes a game out of swinging an ax at her hand and threatening her beloved chicken, Happy…she’s dealing with the pangs of adolescence…oh yeah…there’s also the mysterious man (Richard Schiff) that Gitty finds trapped in her family’s abandoned grain silo, which, as always, can’t be a good sign.

American Fable was a lot easier to respect than actually enjoy, at least as far as I was concerned. Although the film looked and sounded fantastic (cinematographer Wyatt Garfield also shot Lila & Eve), with one carousel sequence that has to go down as the single most gorgeous shot of the entire year, it was also rather dull. The reveal did nothing to help things, turning the film into a much more middle-of-the-road crime drama than it was probably shooting for. The fantastic elements were an odd fit, to boot, feeling distinctly out-of-place with the grim seriousness of everything else.

There was enough here that worked (similar to Ryan Gosling’s odd Lost River) for me to be interested in Hamilton’s future work but American Fable certainly isn’t the calling-card it could have been.

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

I’ve watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre more times than I can count, quite possibly more times than any other film on my “All-time Favorites” list. I don’t always screen it every October but I try to screen it most Octobers: it’s the kind of film I never get tired of seeing and it’s always as welcome as catching up with an old friend. I always find something new in this ageless tale of dumb teenagers getting on the wrong side of an insane family of cannibals, deep in the Texas badlands. It is, quite frankly, one of the very best horror films in the entirety of the genre and, might I add, one of the best films, in general.

There was no way I would miss screening TCM this October for one simple, sad reason: the man who made the saw scream, genre legend Tobe Hooper, shuffled off this mortal coil on August 26th of this year. While Hooper’s career was far from perfect (his last truly great film was actually The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, way back in 1986), he was still responsible for some of the films that I hold closest to my heart: the aforementioned Chainsaws, Eaten Alive, The Funhouse and Salem’s Lot. He was a unique visionary who burned bright and fast but left an indelible mark on the world of film.

If you have any doubt of Hooper’s lasting power, do one simple thing to realign your compass: turn off all the lights, put your phone away and watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre tonight. That feeling in your gut? That’s dread, buckaroo, and Hooper wrote the first and last word on it 43 years ago. Let that sink in.

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Night of the Living Dead (1968)

2017 has been a rather dreadful year, in general, but it’s been particularly shitty for old-school horror fanatics. Not only did we lose Tobe Hooper but we lost the Father of the Living Dead himself, George A. Romero. When you’re talking legends, they don’t get more legendary than the visionary who wrote the rule-book that zombie films (and pop culture) would follow for nearly 50 years and counting.

As simple in set-up as it is powerful in execution, Romero’s debut is an exercise in economy that does nothing to distill the apocalyptic fury that it contains. NOTLD planted the seeds for not only the entirety of zombie films that would follow but also laid the groundwork for siege films, ala Assault on Precinct 13 and Fort Apache: The Bronx. It featured a black lead who was portrayed as a strong, independent individual in the same year that the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was ripping the country apart. It featured graphic (remember, this was 1968) sequences of gut-munching and dismemberment and had no problem with killing off children (still somewhat of a cinematic taboo).

Romero had a rich career outside of his landmark Dead film, including classics like The Crazies, Martin, Creepshow and The Dark Half, but it all started back in that little farmhouse, in grainy black and white, with legions of the freshly dead clawing at the windows. George Romero changed my world, no small feat, but he also changed the world and that’s why he’ll never be forgotten.

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Cult of Chucky

On a happier note: Don Mancini is still alive and kicking and I’m eternally grateful for that! He’s been writing the Child’s Play series all the way back since the first one, in 1988, but only took over the director’s reins beginning with 2004’s Seed of Chucky. While that effort wasn’t amazing, 2013’s Curse of Chucky most certainly was: introducing a Hitchcockian element that sounds ludicrous on paper but plays out perfectly, Curse of Chucky was not only a breath of fresh air but a clear signal that the Child’s Play franchise was alive and kicking.

This year’s brand-spanking-new Cult of Chucky isn’t quite as perfect as Curse but that’s a minor quibble: trading Hitchcock for Cronenberg, Mancini comes up with another delirious, giddy, gorgeously shot bit of blood-soaked eye candy, providing fan service for the long-timers while managing to keep things fresh and new for everybody else.

This time around, Nica (the thoroughly kickass Fiona Dourif, channeling her inner Ripley) is confined to a mental institution and accused of Chucky’s murders from the previous entry. When the ol’ Chuckster shows up to finish what he started, it sets into motion a complicated series of machinations involving long-time series hero Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent, grown-up), Chucky’s insane girlfriend, Tiffany Valentine (the always amazing Jennifer Tilly) and various incarnations of Chucky from the previous films. Nica is going to have to be strong, though: one Chucky might be a handful but a whole cult of Chuckys? That’s murder, buddy!

Self-referential, beautifully shot (one set-piece apes Argento in the best way possible) and with a fantastic, smart script, Cult of Chucky is quality filmmaking from first to last. The pleasures to be found here are virtually endless (one of the most sublime being the scene where Fiona gets to, essentially, perform as her father) but the brilliant finale, which flips the whole series on its keister, indicates that Mancini has plenty of fun left in his bag of tricks. An easy lock for one of my very favorite horror films of 2017, hands down.

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They’re Watching

Originally screened as part of my eternally on-going pursuit to see every horror film released in 2016, I decided to re-watch They’re Watching as part of this year’s seasonal festivities for one important reason: I really dug it the first time around and was in the mood for a fun romp. As hoped, this fit the bill quite nicely.

Coming from the demented minds of writer-director duo Jay Lender (Spongebob Squarepants, Phineas and Ferb) and Micah Wright (videogames like Destroy All Humans and Call of Duty) comes a film that, no surprise, is equal parts video game, live-action cartoon and gonzo horror-comedy. Parodying endless cable home improvement shows, They’re Watching follows a hapless, woefully unprepared film crew as they travel to rural Slovenia and collide with murderous locals and, perhaps, something much more ancient and fundamentally dangerous.

From beginning to end, They’re Watching is a giddy romp, taking a kitchen-sink approach to its subject matter that actually works. Combing elements of backwoods brutality, found-footage, witchcraft, possession, horror-comedies, home improvement shows and ’90s SFX spectacles (albeit with much cheaper digital FX) makes for a finished product that is never dull and, at times, genuinely surprising. Suffice to say that I liked this just as much as the first time around, indicating that They’re Watching has earned a spot on my seasonal rotation list.

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Housebound

I’ve written extensively about Gerard Johnstone’s delightful Housebound in the past, even going so far as to name it my favorite horror film of 2014. This wonderful tale of an obnoxious petty criminal who gets the ultimate punishment when she’s placed under house arrest in her overbearing mother’s possibly haunted house became a favorite of mine from the very first time I saw it and the love has diminished not one bit.

What more is there to say about this charmer (think fellow New Zealander Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners but with much more heart) than that you should see it immediately? With news coming in that Johnstone has just been pegged to pen the Justice League Dark script, this might be the last chance to catch him before the superhero machine sends this talented writer-director straight into the stratosphere.

 

Stay tuned for Week 2 and keep it spooky, boos and ghouls!

 

 

 

 

 

 

7/23/17: The Bad Batch

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Some films have such an impossibly fascinating premise that they demand your attention: writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), was one of those films. Billed as “the first Iranian vampire film,” this gorgeous, black-and-white homage to everything from John Hughes to Roman Polanski more than lived up to the premise, showcasing a fresh, exciting new voice that promised a truly fascinating career.

For her follow-up, The Bad Batch (2017), Amirpour moves the action from Iran to the badlands of west Texas, hammering down harder on the spaghetti-Western leanings of her debut to craft something that is far more visceral but no less gauzy, in its own way. One thing remains abundantly clear, however: Ana Lily Amirpour is an amazing filmmaker whose craft continues to impress at each new turn.

We find ourselves in a world that’s recognizably ours, yet smeared with a heavy coating of grease and grime: think early Mad Max, pre-Fury Road. “Undesirables” are processed through some vague penal system, dubbed the Bad Batch, tattooed with an identifying number and tossed out into the unforgiving, scorched Texas badlands. Your choices, at that point, are pretty slim: you can try to get to the frontier town of Comfort, led by smarmy New Age guru/Ibiza part host The Dream (Keanu Reeves and one seriously choice mustache) or you can try to avoid being dinner for the roving cannibals known as Bridgers, while surviving on whatever you can eke out of the cracked earth.

Arlen May Johnson (Suki Waterhouse), as it turns out, opts for more of an “all of the above” approach. She gets captured by cannibals, loses an arm and a leg, escapes and makes it to Comfort, only to realize that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. One day, while target shooting in the wastelands outside the town’s walls, Arlen comes upon a pair of cannibals, a mother and daughter, and makes the fateful choice that will put her into direct contact with the formidable Miami Man (Jason Momoa). Arlen will come to learn that when you’re already on the fringes of society, questions of “right” and “wrong” don’t mean much and that people with the least often have the most to lose.

To get the gushing praise out-of-the-way: I really loved The Bad Batch, part and parcel. I’m more than willing to admit that the film isn’t perfect, mind you, but the sheer level of invention on display here should more than gloss over some narrative wheel-spinning or any nitpicking. We need more filmmakers taking risks and this, if nothing else, is one helluva risky film.

Risky, you say? Let’s see…you have a gritty, revenge-oriented, spaghetti-Western, complete with all the stock characters and trappings you would expect. You also, of course, have a Mad Max-style, post-apocalyptic film where people live in junkyards and a messianic guru holds court from atop a giant, neon boom box. Let’s not forget what could arguably be called a traditional, ’50s teen romance where kids from the wrong side of the tracks somehow find true love. Oh, yeah: it’s also got elements straight out of The Hills Have Eyes. Easy sell, right?

As with her debut, however, Amirpour is a natural when it comes to taking all these disparate elements and blending them into a completely organic, believable whole. Although the scale is certainly smaller, The Bad Batch definitely evokes some of the wonder of the Fury Road world: with its cannibalistic body builders, DJ-led cults, baroque prison system and dystopian wastelands, it’s not hard to place this in the same, general universe. I left the film wanting to know more about its world and denizens, always the biggest compliment I can pay any film, especially a stand-alone movie.

From a craft standpoint, The Bad Batch looks and sounds phenomenal. The cinematography, courtesy of Lyle Vincent (who also shot A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), is simply gorgeous, full of rich wide shots and eye-popping, vibrant colors. The score and sound design make excellent use of songs to highlight scenes, in much the same way as AGWHAAN did, but puts a greater emphasis on sparse arrangements: for much of the film, there’s no score at all and it’s a powerful, well-executed choice.

For her cast, Amirpour collected a pretty diverse group of performers and manages to make the choices look like anything but stunt casting. Suki Waterhouse, equally great in last year’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, is simply superb as Arlen, turning in the kind of kickass turn that would make spiritual forebears like Clint Eastwood proud. Equally great is Jason Momoa, giving us the kind of tragic character that would be exceedingly hard to pull off with so little (largely garbled) dialogue, let alone as a violent cannibal. Keanu Reeves, continuing his latter-day trend of quirky roles, brings the proper amount of genuine pathos and complete sleaze to his cult/town leader role and is never less than magnetic when he’s on-screen.

To that core trio, let’s add a roster that includes: the always incredible Yolonda Ross as Miami Man’s wife, Maria; Jayda Fink, doing a fair amount of heavy-lifting in only her second performance, as the little girl; Jim Carrey, doing some of the best acting of his life, in a completely silent role (and I’m not being snarky, in the slightest); and Giovanni Ribisi, as a possibly prophetic madman. It’s a cast that looks odd, on paper, but plays together beautifully. In a film with plenty of sublime joys, the acting is certainly one of the foremost ones.

When all is said and done, The Bad Batch is an incredibly smart, self-assured experience. The film is about many things – one need only look at the marked contrast between the serious, family-oriented cannibals and the party-hardy, hedonistic townies to know that Amirpour has a few things to say about a few different subjects. From a purely cinematic viewpoint, however, she’s created a completely immersive experience and, as an avid cinephile, that’s something I just don’t get enough.

From the first spoken words, as the Bad Batch are processed, to that final, amazing campfire shot, Amirpour’s sophomore film holds your attention like a bear trap. It’s not always an easy film (shit gets hacked off and there will be blood) but there’s a genuine beauty to the ugliness and grime that’s undeniable. As someone who grew up on films like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, I appreciate that glorious combination of the panoramic shot and the gut shot…the decision of the individual to shrug, say “the hell with it,” and wade back into hell just because…the way that death is an ever-present given but life and love still manage to carve their own paths through the wilderness.

The Bad Batch might not be a perfect film but I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel close to perfect on at least a dozen times while watching it. That’s just about all I need to know, friends and neighbors.

The State of The Graveyard Address (June 2017)

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By their very nature, graveyards tend to be quiet: possessed of the sort of stillness and lack of activity that comes naturally when the vast majority of your occupants are dead, most graveyards are anything but hives of activity. Supermarkets are for hustle and bustle…graveyards are for quiet contemplation and mournful reflection. You shouldn’t have to convince anyone of this fundamental fact. Unless they’re a horror fan, of course.

You see, horror fans know that graveyards can be just as “alive,” active and bustling as any thriving metropolis. To horror fans, no graveyard could ever really be considered dormant or dead, not while so many numberless creatures of the night still roam this world. This is all by way of saying that neither The VHS Graveyard nor its humble caretaker are dead: we’ve just been moving at our own, decidedly funereal pace, much like the vampires, zombies and ghastly beasties that are our stock-in-trade.

As we near the midpoint of this calendar year, however, I thought it might be useful to check in with all of you loyal boos and ghouls and let you know just what monstrous abominations have been stirring from their deathless slumbers deep within The VHS Graveyard’s unhallowed halls: we may have been silent but we’ve been anything but idle.

First and foremost, The VHS Graveyard continues in its previously stated goal of screening every single horror film released in 2016. This, of course, might have been a little timelier last year but life has a funny way of imposing its will over any given situation. Nonetheless, we’re finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel and it does not, in fact, appear to be an approaching freight train: out of a grand total of 258 horror films released in 2016 (either theatrically or straight-to-VOD), we only have 28 titles left to screen.

What’s been taking so long? Life, as it turns out, but also a rather inherent truth: we’ve been scrapping the bottom of the 2016 barrel for a few weeks, now, and the pickings ain’t getting any choicer. While I screened more than my fair share of flat-out amazing films in 2016, I also saw an almost equal amount of pure and unmitigated crap: as the selections thin out, the crap has risen to the surface in some pretty unpleasant ways. Suffice to say that screening three awesome horror flicks a day is a dream job. Trudging through just one 80-minute shit-fest, however, can feel like the cinematic equivalent of the Bataan death march and tends to put the brakes on forward momentum.

But here’s the thing: I knew it wasn’t going to be all champagne and caviar when I picked this assignment. In essence, that’s one reason why I wanted to watch all 2016 horror films as opposed to just cherry-picking the best. This way, I’m getting a full picture of everything that 2016 horror had to offer, warts and all. It’s easy to say that “Film X” is the best horror film of the year if you’ve only screened a handful of films: giving that same proclamation after screening 258 films, however, is a whole other ballgame.

Additionally (but to a far lesser extent), I ending up screening a handful of films that proved to be fake horror films: whether thrillers, straight-up comedies or classic fake-outs, this group of 10ish films made the initial list but just ended up wasting my time, once the final credits had rolled. In the grand scheme of things, this factors more as a par-for-the-course thing than anything more frustrating but it still ate away a few valuable days of viewing time.

Nonetheless, we’re still committed to our original goal and getting closer by the day. We’re still a little undecided as to what form the final project will end up taking (we’ve even toyed with the idea of releasing this cinematic journey as a book, with the understanding that it would probably see light of day sometime around 2050) but rest assured that The VHS Graveyard will be documenting this (previous) year in horror cinema in some manner in the nearish future.

What else has The VHS Graveyard been brewing up in its Hammer-approved laboratory? It goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway) that The Graveyard hasn’t been neglecting this current year in horror cinema, even though our eyes have been firmly planted in the rear-view mirror. We’ve managed to screen 10 current horror films, thus far, including a rare trip to the multiplex: except to see more complete analysis on these soon, including a preliminary look at what we consider to be the best films of 2017, so far.

This desire to document some of the newer films we’ve screened leads us directly to what may be one of the biggest changes for The VHS Graveyard. When I first started this blog, back in the early hours of 2014, my goal was to chronicle every single film that I screened, in order, by day. This initial goal held fast through mid-2015, after which the tremendous backlog of screened films (conservatively, I’d estimate that we watch somewhere between 200-300 movies a year) overtook us like a tsunami. After that point, postings became fewer and farther between and we lost, for the most part, that initial feeling of peeking into our daily viewing habits.

In order to unblock the jam and allow forward movement, The VHS Graveyard will be attempting to release reviews in a more timely, if non-linear manner. We currently have at least several hundred unwritten reviews, in the wings, and our ultimate goal is to get these out to you fine folks sometime before we all expire. That being said, The VHS Graveyard prides itself as a source for horror fans to discover all kinds of previously unknown treats and that’s just not possible unless we’re getting the reviews out. Like all promises, this one is contingent on life looking the other way but we feel good about it and that’s a start.

In closing, let me reiterate one thing: The VHS Graveyard is still here and we aren’t going anywhere quite yet…after all, there’s still a few acts left in this particular tale. Keep giving us your undivided attention (or divided…we’re not picky) and we’ll continue to bring you our unfiltered views on the world of cinematic horror, along with anything else that happens to catch our eye.

We may be late but we prefer to think of ourselves like that famed Transylvanian count: timeless.

 

 

5/20/17: In Space, No One Can Hear You Shrug

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It ain’t easy successfully continuing a film franchise after decades have passed: audiences change, filmmakers change, society changes…it’s a real dice toss. After all: who wants to potentially tarnish prior glories and dampen whatever warm feelings fans might have garnered over the years? For every Fury Road (2015), you have a Godfather Part III (1990)…like I said: dice toss.

Tasked with following up his own Alien (1979), Ridley Scott responded with a befuddling prequel, Prometheus (2012): part origin story, part gorgeous creation fable, it used the Alienverse as a springboard for a discussion on the creation of mankind and its inevitable destruction. Light on the franchise’s beloved Xenomorphs, Prometheus was its own beast, warts and all, although scarcely deserving of the derision piled upon it by franchise fans. For the follow-up, Alien: Covenant (2017), Scott doubles-down on the surface trappings of the Alienverse while neglecting to add the elements that made Alien so special in the first place:  genuine heart and soul.

Taking place a decade after Prometheus, Covenant introduces us to the crew of the titular generation ship that’s transporting thousands of cyrogenically-frozen colonists to a new home in a far-flung galaxy. We meet Oram (Billy Crudup), the ship’s second-in-command; Daniels (Katherine Waterston), this film’s Ripley; pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride); security-chief Lope (Demian Bichir); android Walter (Michael Fassbender, pulling double duty as sinister David); Karine (Carmen Ejogo), the resident biologist; and another half-dozen or so crew-members/cannon fodder.

After a freak accident costs the team their captain (James Franco, in a walk-on), Oram makes the questionable decision to investigate a strange audio transmission that comes from a previously undiscovered planet. Despite the protestations of ultra-sensible Daniels, the crew adjusts course and are promptly marooned on a world that seems to serve as both paradise and necropolis. In short order, they meet the planet’s sole inhabitant, Prometheus’ David, and find out the terrible truth behind the dead planet they’ve found themselves on.

Let’s get one thing out of the way, right off the bat: Covenant is not a good film. It’s not a good Alien film, in particular, but it’s also not a good film, in general, arguably representing the nadir of Scott’s impressive career. Lackluster CGI notwithstanding (generously speaking, the look is generic and the creature effects are severely lacking), the film suffers from a bad script (the dialogue is awful and the character building is non-existent), generally dismal performances (only Fassbender really acquits himself, with Waterston and McBride coming off particularly awkwardy) and the overall feeling that this is only a placeholder film for a much grander “finale.”

This is a film that strives to introduce new variants on the traditional Xenomorph (the new, albino version could have come from any of a dozen recent films) while shoehorning in scenes like the one where a hesitant character is practically goaded into sticking his head into one of the iconic egg pods, with the resulting re-introduction of the face-hugger coming not as an organic shock but a tired and foregone punchline to a bad joke. This is the worst case of “having your cake and wanting to eat it, too”: Covenant gorges on leftovers like they’re going out of style.

None of the cast or characters stick in the mind after viewing, unlike the original. Katherine Waterston is a poor patch on Sigourney Weaver, her Daniels more a reactive agent of the story than any iconic hero. Crudup blends into the background, as does Bichir and, to be fair, pretty much any actor that isn’t Fassbender. This isn’t to say that he puts out career-defining work, mind you, just that his Walter/David combo winds up with the lion’s share of the film’s smartest material: talk about a stacked deck!

On the plus side? The gore effects are plentiful and fairly juicy (for what that’s worth) and there are moments that approach the chilly, visual grandeur that elevated Prometheus to something beyond its B-movie trappings. The Pompei-inspired world surface is undeniably cool and the hints we get of a primordial source for the original contagion prove more tempting hints than anything substantial but I’d be lying if I said they weren’t both appreciated and well-done. Scattered moments out of a 2+hour film don’t really signify a smash success, however, no matter how you do the math.

As someone who genuinely enjoyed and respected Prometheus, I really wanted Covenant to knock this out of the park: that Scott managed to whiff it so completely comes as a bit more than a disappointment. In truth, however, the film lost me from the get-go and never got me back: there was no point where this felt like anything more than the disposable middle entry in a longer, better series. From the unnecessary intro to the disposable characters…from the forgettable creature designs to the truly stupid script…from the terrible, Starship Troopers-esque shower scene to the tedious, frenetically-edited action beats…Alien: Covenant has very little to recommend it.

There were plenty of great ideas here (the notion of an all-powerful mad scientist with a God complex trapped on a dead planet, by itself, is solid gold) but precious little in the way of skillful execution. Scott is capable of much better: he’s proven it, time and time again. By trying to please everyone, however, the pro and anti-Prometheus camps alike, Scott ends up disappointing everyone: neither significantly advancing the Prometheus storyline nor adding anything of value to the classic canon, Covenant just exists…nothing more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 2016 Academy Awards – Guesses and Speculation

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I’ll freely admit: there was just too much going on this year for me to pay as close attention to the Oscars as I usually do. From moving and starting a new job to focusing on 2016 horror films to general world affairs, my attention was often elsewhere. To that end, I find that my overall opinion on (non) 2016 cinema will carry even less weight than usual this year: many of the opinions below reflect a mixture of gut instinct, general scuttlebutt and a general sense of which way the Academy tends to lean, at any given time.

For the purpose of full disclosure, I only managed to screen seven films out all of the nominees: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Moonlight, Hail Caesar, Kubo and the Two Strings and The Lobster. As such, I’m sure that I missed lots of worthwhile films that may have influenced these (decidedly) uneducated opinions. Them, of course, is the breaks.

In that spirit and with those caveats, I present my guesses for the upcoming Oscar festivities.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

What Should Win: The Lobster

What Will Win: Manchester By the Sea

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

What Should Win: Moonlight

What Will Win: Hidden Figures

Visual Effects

What Should Win: Doctor Strange

What Will Win: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Sound Mixing:

What Should Win: Hacksaw Ridge

What Will Win: La La Land

Sound Editing

What Should Win: Hacksaw Ridge

What Will Win: Arrival

Production Design

What Should Win: Hail, Caesar!

What Will Win: La La Land

Music (Original Song)

What Should Win:

What Will Win: “City of Stars,” La La Land

Music (Original Score)

What Should Win: Moonlight

What Will Win: La La Land

Makeup and Hairstyling

What Should Win: Star Trek Beyond

What Will Win: Star Trek Beyond

Foreign Language Film

What Should Win: A Man Called Ove

What Will Win: Toni Erdmann

Film Editing

What Should Win: Hacksaw Ridge

What Will Win: Arrival

Documentary (Feature)

What Should Win: I Am Not Your Negro

What Will Win: 13th

Directing

Who Should Win: Moonlight

Who Will Win: Damien Chazelle

Costume Design

What Should Win: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

What Will Win: La La Land

Cinematography

What Should Win: Silence

What Will Win: Arrival

Animated Feature Film

What Should Win: Kubo and the Two Strings

What Will Win: Moana

Actress in a Supporting Role

Who Should Win: Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures

Who Will Win: Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures

Actor in a Supporting Role

Who Should Win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Who Will Win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Actress in a Leading Role

Who Should Win: Ruth Negga, Loving

Who Will Win: Natalie Portman, Jackie

Actor in a Leading Role

Who Should Win: Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic

Who Will Win: Denzel Washington, Fences

Best Picture

What Should Win: Moonlight

What Will Win: La La Land

The Year in Horror (2016) – The Best of Times (Part 3)

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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.

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The Gateway

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Windmill

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.

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Scherzo Diabolico

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.

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Ava’s Possessions

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.

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Nina Forever

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.

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Darling

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.

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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.

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Honorable Mentions

The Greasy Strangler

The Dark Stranger

Hush

They Look Like People

Freaks of Nature

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

Carnage Park

Anguish

10 Cloverfield Land

The Mind’s Eye

The Invitation

They’re Watching

Emelie

Feed the Devil

Lake Nowhere

Observance

The Funhouse Massacre

Evolution

Scare Campaign

The Pack

Baskin

The Piper

Fender Bender

The Year in Horror (2016) – The Best of Times (Part 2)

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At long last, after an entire year of watching the best (and the rest) that horror cinema had to offer, it’s now time for me to offer my picks for the very best of the year. In the interest of giving each film its proper due, I’ve opted to split my Top 20 choices right down the middle: the final ten films will be coming up in a future post.

As with most of my lists this year, I present these films in no particular order: if choosing the 20 best films out of a field that featured 44 possibilities was difficult, ranking one of those over the other might prove to be impossible. Truth be told, any of those 20 films might flop places with any of the others, based on my mood or the current weather: the only thing I can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that these were the twenty 2016 horror films that made the biggest impression on me. These were the films that didn’t just get it right: they showed everyone else how it’s supposed to be done in the first place.

Longtime readers will probably be able to figure a few of these out ahead of time (my intense love of Wheatley, Potrykus and Bogliano makes any of their current films a usual suspect) but I’m sure there will be a few that might surprise or confound: as always, the only thing I care about is how good the actual film is. Budget, subject-matter, quality…none of these mean a damn thing if the final product punches me in the gut and makes me think. Any and every 2016 horror film had a chance to make it onto this list, from trad multiplex fare to no-budget indies: I watched them all with the same open, accepting eyes and mind.

With no further ado, then, I present the first half of my Top 20 Horror Films of 2016. Stay tuned for the second half, along with some of the honorable mentions that almost found their way onto this list. My advice? Seek all of these out and thank me later.

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The Autopsy of Jane Doe

The concept is pure simplicity: a father and son team of coroners (Brian Cox and Emile Hersch) are tasked by the local sheriff with determining the cause of death on a seemingly unmarked body recovered from a grisly crime scene. This is an overnight, rush job, since the beleaguered lawman needs some sort of explanation to feed to the hungry press in the morning. Ready to do the magic they do, the coroners bunker down with the Jane Doe and prepare to spend the evening on a very thorough autopsy of a very strange body. And then, of course, all hell breaks loose.

André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe is probably going to come off as a bit of a tough sell and that’s a real shame: get past the idea that you’re about to watch the equivalent of an hour-long, graphic (if tasteful) autopsy and you actually get to the heart of the story, so to speak, and realize that you’ve actually been watching one of the very best supernatural horror films to come down the pike in years.

Nuanced, perfectly atmospheric, top-lined by a pair of performances that would gain much more acclaim in a non-horror film and genuinely scary, this is the kind of film, like Let the Right On In, that expands the reach of the genre and allows for a perfect synthesis of horror and prestige, in-your-face-grue and tender emotions. I watched an awful lot of horror films in 2016 but this, without a doubt, was one of the very finest: to anyone impressed by The Conjuring 2, I gladly point them in this direction and request that they see how it’s actually supposed to be done.

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The Witch

It’s easy to discount Robert Eggers’ chilling tale of witchcraft and black magic in pre-Salem Witch-trials New England when it comes to compiling year-end lists. After all: the film received extensive festival release in 2015, received wide theatrical release in February 2016 and had all but secured itself a slot on any critical best-of before most critics had even started their lists. Why add another assenting voice to the crowd?

The truth, of course, is that Eggers’ perfectly measured creeper deserves all of the acclaim that it has received by virtue of actually being that good. Many non-critics have complained that The Witch is not actually scary, that it’s a classic case of style over substance, metaphor and subtext over blood-letting and endorphin rush. This is not only reductive but flat-out wrong: in a darkened room, with a good sound system and none of the external forces that are so good at wrecking internal peace, The Witch is a virtual masterclass in sustaining an oppressive level of tension and dread for the entirety of a film.

There is no release to be found from a silly stoner cracking wise, a musical packing montage or a hot and heavy sex scene: this is the ultimate, existential dread of knowing that you are a tiny speck of dirt in a gigantic cosmos of infinite, terrifying possibility…a tasty bit of food floating in a bottomless ocean, fearfully waiting for an unseen leviathan to gobble you up. I would wager to say that if you didn’t find The Witch frightening on a very primal level, you might actually be a little too afraid to take the good, long look into the darkness that this requires.

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High-Rise

One of the biggest conflicts I had when compiling this list (indeed, when embarking on my original plan to screen every 2016 horror release) was the question of what, exactly, constitutes a horror film. Does it have to be explicitly “horror”, filled with zombies, ghosts, monsters, insane slashers or any combination of the above? What about films where characters devolve into frightening fits of insanity and commit terrible acts? Wouldn’t something like that be considered as “horrible” as something like Dracula? After all, almost all horror fans can agree that Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho is a horror film and what is that but the tale of an individual going mad and committing horrific acts?

In that spirit, I handily nominate masterful auteur Ben Wheatley’s stunning adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise as one of the very best horror films of 2016. This icy-cold, Kubrickian tale about the breakdown of humanity and moral constraints among the trapped residents of a futuristic, 1970s high-rise begins with our humble protagonist chowing down on leg of dog and proceeds to work backwards to show us that there are much, much worse things than this.

Gorgeously filmed (longtime Wheatley cinematographer Laurie Rose deserves a legit award nod but I’m more than happy to nominate for a Tomby), masterfully acted (the entire cast is simply splendid), faithful to the classic source-material and as fundamentally disturbing as Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, High-Rise is nothing short of a modern masterpiece and further proof that Wheatley is one of the very best filmmakers working today.

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The Alchemist Cookbook

A good film can entertain you, provide you with a couple of hours of stress-fire time away from the real world and give you the opportunity to just zone out. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and there never will be. The thing is…a bad film can do that, too. After all, where would the drinking game industry be without “so bad they’re good” films like Megalodon or anything bearing the name Asylum?

A truly great film, however, doesn’t just entertain you (although it should also be doing plenty of that, obviously): it makes you think. A truly great film isn’t content to merely tick the boxes off that get the job done and provoke the most immediate response: a truly great film will tick off every damn box on the sheet, if it feels like it, in service of whatever point it wants to make, viewer safety, comfort and ultimate entertainment level be damned. Writer/director/genius Joel Potrykus is a truly great filmmaker and his newest mind-blower, The Alchemist Cookbook, is a truly great film for the exact reasons outline above.

This is a film with no easy answers or even a particularly easy narrative reference: you could say that’s it’s about a mentally disturbed chemist trying to find the secret of life while holed-up in dingy RV in the middle of the woods but that would be like describing 2001 as “that ape movie.” It’s about insanity, paranoia and possibly schizophrenia, sure, but it’s also about medieval alchemy, friendship, love, greed, demons, monstrous felines and the need to prove your value to the world at large. Like Potrykus’ previous masterpiece, Buzzard, The Alchemist Cookbook doesn’t just look at fringe individuals: it IS a fringe individual, a completely insane, messy, confusing, fucked up and thoroughly awe-inspiring piece of outsider art.

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Trash Fire

Prior to Trash Fire, I knew writer/director Richard Bates, Jr. as the mastermind behind coming-of-age headfuck Excision (The Breakfast Club meets American Mary) and Suburban Gothic (The Frighteners by way of American Beauty), so I assumed that his newest would be more of the same: supremely arch and clever, full of smart, likable characters and some rather intense, if artful, explosions of violence. Turns out Trash Fire is nothing like Bates’ previous films save for one important aspect: it’s just as damn good, if not exponentially better.

The clever set-up takes a while to get to full-blown terror territory. For the first half of the film, we’re basically stuck with the single worst couple in the history of romantic attachments: Owen (Adrian Grenier) and Isabel (Angela Trimbur) aren’t so much in love as ruthlessly dedicated to making each other as miserable as possible. Just when it seems that the couple might actually achieve the impossible and draw physical blood with their virulently poisonous verbal abuse, Isabel drops the bomb that she’s pregnant and they decide, against all odds to try to make their shitty relationship work. Part of this involves Owen getting back in touch with his estranged mother, played by the irrepressible Fionnula Flanagan, a woman who makes their mutual hatred look like childs’ play. There’s also, of course, the little issue of Owen’s long-unseen and hidden sister, a frightened (and frightening) figure who might just hold the key to the entire family’s destruction.

Trash Fire is the kind of film where the verbal barbs are so constant, amazing and genuinely painful that you’ll find yourself watching through clenched fingers for the first half, out of sheer discomfort, only to keep your hands in place once things hit a whole new level of uncomfortable. Never predictable, always fresh and intensely nasty, Trash Fire is the kind of delirious descent into other people’s’ hells that cinema was practically invented for, ending in the kind of Southern Gothic apocalypse that would make Flannery O’Connor proud. Unlike anything else this year, Trash Fire will stick with you long after it’s over.

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Clown

I won’t go into the origins of Jon Watts and Christopher Ford’s exceptional creature-feature Clown here, mostly because I’ve discussed them extensively in the past, but the short version is that this is the fake Eli Roth trailer turned actual, third-party movie, with Roth as executive producer. The story is pretty fascinating, as these things go, but decidedly secondary to the real reason we’re here: this thing rocks harder than an uneven washing machine on a cobblestone floor.

Decidedly old-school in construction and intent, Clown looks to ’80s-’90s-era creature features for inspiration (think Pumpkinhead and The Fly, for a basic frame of reference) but vaults over its inspiration by virtue of a genuinely original, slam-bang concept, some ridiculously cool, well-made gore effects/set-pieces and tragic characters that you not only root for but empathize with. Lead Andy Powers brings a tremendous amount of pathos to his performance as the doomed father/titular monster, recalling nothing so less as Jeff Goldblum’s unforgettable descent into the hell of Brundle Fly.

When it came time to salute the best horror films of the year, there was no way in hell I was going to leave off Clown, one of the best, genuine, full-throttle horror films I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting on the edge of my seat through. There might have been more poetic, measured, artistic and “high-falutin'” horror films released in 2016 but if you were looking for the real deal, old-school style, there wasn’t much better than Clown.

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Summer Camp

At first glance, Alberto Martini’s Summer Camp didn’t seem like much to get exited about: a group of camp counselors fall afoul of something evil at a summer camp in Spain, people die, lather, rinse, repeat. I figured this would be just another 2016 film to check off the list, something that probably already had a spot reserved for itself in the “Decent” section of my roster. Boy, was I wrong.

Turns out Martini’s Summer Camp (co-scripted with Danielle Schleif) is non-stop, whiplash-inducing insanity with not one but at least FIVE of the best twists I’ve seen in ANY film, genre or otherwise. I’m not talking about “so-and-so is a double-crosser” bullshit: I’m talking full-blown, jaw-dropped, yell-at-the-screen in delight twists, the kind that show the filmmakers are not only paying attention to their own film but all the ones that came before it.

Summer Camp is the kind of film that indie genre filmmakers need to make more of: simple in construction and execution, yet mind-blowing in concept and intention, Summer Camp obviously didn’t cost a fortune but it didn’t need to. Martini and company have put a premium on an intelligent script, ably executed by a talented cast, and the results speak for themselves. For best results, see this with a group of like-minded souls who are going in blind and then kick back and watch the fun.

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The Similars

Right off the bat, writer/director Isaac Ezban’s The Similars should live up to its name: we begin in a desolate, rainy and nearly abandoned railroad station, shot in moody, color-infused black-and-white, as a solemn narrator calmly explains that we’re about to see some very strange sights, indeed. From this direct nod to the glory of Rod Steiger’s immortal Twilight Zone, we leap into a simmering stew of paranoia, fear and suspicion, as the various people waiting for a train to Mexico City all begin, one by look, to look exactly like the same person. As tensions rise, the shocked passengers demand answers: as always, however, they might not like the ones they get.

Endlessly inventive, darkly whimsical and possessed of some of the most casually shocking images I saw all year (a bit involving a dog will haunt me until the very last day I draw breath), this uses The Twilight Zone as a frame but fills the canvas with influences as far-ranging as Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Luis Bunuel and David Lynch, all while managing to maintain a tone that splits the difference between dead-pan gallows humor and full-blown horror.

While this might not fit the strictest definition of a “horror film,” to some, this is another perfect example of the deeper, more intense and existential fears that the best fright films latch onto. There’s something genuinely scary about a machete-wielding maniac, don’t get me wrong: I just happen to find the idea of involuntarily losing your very identity and sense of self to be equally horrifying.

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Green Room

Working his way through the color spectrum, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier follows up his bleak revenge tale Blue Ruin with the equally bleak siege film Green Room: at this rate, we should get a film with a name like Red Doom some time in 2017 and it’ll probably make Cormac McCarthy look like Mr. Rogers.

This time around, Saulnier’s patented “hopeless individuals at the end of their rope” are an idealistic straight-edge band who get trapped in the titular location by ravenous neo-Nazis after witnessing a murder in a backwoods, Oregon club. The skinheads outnumber our heroes ten-to-one, are heavily armed, have vicious attack dogs, no qualms about killing people and are led by Patrick frickin’ Stewart, fer chrissakes: this ain’t no rock n’ roll…this is homicide!

Featuring one of Anton Yelchin’s final performances, a rare serious turn from Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat and a truly memorable, chilling performance from Stewart as the most genteel, reserved and polite monster since Hannibal Lecter sipped chianti, Green Room is non-stop tension and redlined danger, only taking a breather before slamming home the next horrifying development. As with the best that 2016 had to offer, however, Green Room gives so much more than sick thrills, mind-searing violence and an adrenaline overdose: it provides real characters that you actually come to care an awful lot about. When the violence happens (and it happens quite often), you aren’t laughing at stupid stereotypes and cheering on the aggressors: you’re watching people who look and sound a whole lot like people you know get brutally violated and slaughtered. Call it a thriller, if you want, but I think that’s just about as horrifying as it comes.

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The Monster

For some reason, writer/director Bryan Bertino seems to get an awful lot of shit from the horror community and I’m not quite sure why. Sure, his breakout debut, The Strangers, was a slick home-invasion flick that struck a chord with the masses but it was also tightly plotted and fairly effective, even if it looks overly familiar these days. His follow-up, Mockingbird, was even better but seemed to be almost universally reviled. For my money, though, that creepy little bit of weirdness about disparate strangers connected via a mysterious “game” was one of the best films of its year, revealing a filmmaker who had no problem deviating from the straight-and-narrow in order to grab his audience by the throat and give them a good shake.

This time around, Bertino presents us with The Monster, a veritable prestige piece about an estranged mother and daughter who find that their own poisonous relationship is the least of their worries when they’re stuck in the woods with an honest-to-god monster. Essentially a two-person film, everything rides solely on the shoulders of Zoe Kazan and young Ella Ballentine: good thing they’re both extraordinary, giving the kinds of performances that normally feature in Oscar clip segments. Although the film moves slowly and deliberately, in the first half, it does anything but spin its wheels: these foundational scenes pay off amazing dividends once the stakes are raised and it becomes life-or-death.

Full of genuine emotional heft and bolstered by two of the strongest performances of the year, The Monster sounds like a Hallmark film, right up until the time the creature (who looks fantastic) pops up and starts laying waste to everything, switching tracks onto a rail that leads straight to Predator land. As someone who foolishly demands that horror films serve both the head and the heart, The Monster is my kind of film: if you’re into quality, I’m guessing it’ll be your kind of film, too.

Stay tuned for the second half of this list, along with the honorable mentions that almost (but not quite) clawed their way into the top honors.

The Year in Horror (2016) – The Worst of Times

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There’s no denying that 2016 was a great year for horror cinema but every coin has two sides. Before we get to the very best that the year had to offer, it bears taking a look at the other side of the coin: the very worst of calendar year 2016.

Out of the 179 horror films I screened in 2016, I classified 40 of them as terrible: of those 40, I’ve managed to whittle the list down to the top 15 offenders, the group of 2016 horror films that I would classify as the “worst of the worst,” at least based on what I screened. Bear one thing in mind: none of the films on this list committed the sin of being merely humdrum, dull or average: this were overachievers, in the same way that the top 20 films overachieved. In that spirit, then, I present you with the 15 worst horror films of 2016, in no particular order. View at your own risk.

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The Forest

This came out at the beginning of the year and set the tone for the worst that 2016 horror would offer: glossy visuals, lame jump scares, loud musical stingers, zero genuine frights, unlikable characters and reckless squandering of great concepts/locations. There’s something so generic and processed about this lifeless story of a woman investigating the disappearance of her sister in Japan’s legendary Aokigahara Forest that you might feel as if time has stopped if you’re unlucky enough to sit through it. While there were certainly gems to be found in this year’s crop of mainstream, multiplex horror films, The Forest was most certainly not one of them.

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Found-footage nonsense that somehow manages to make a Biblical apocalypse in Jerusalem as interesting as paint drying. Loathsome characters run around the city, fleeing from angels, demons and any semblance of common sense possible. This reminded me of As Above, So Below, which is definitely not a compliment.

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The Boy

Even without the astoundingly terrible “twist,” The Boy would proudly represent the nadir of mainstream horror in this calendar year if it didn’t have so much competition. This was the kind of goofball thing that began as a head-scratching concept (a naive young woman is hired by the kind of sinister old couple that belong in House of the Devil to babysit their young son, who happens to be a wooden doll), devolved into dumb Blumhouse jump scares and then came full circle to a resolution that is so howlingly stupid, I fully expected the cast of SNL to jump out and start doing the robot.

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The Before Time

Another dead-on-arrival found footage film that would be casually offensive if it weren’t so thoroughly inept and forgettable. Irritating reporters head to the desert, uncover evil, yadda yadda yadda. Like most of the film’s on the list, this was an absolute chore to get through.

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Martyrs

Proudly taking the title of “Most Pointless Remake” from Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot Psycho redux, this American redo of the classic New Wave of French horror gut-punch manages to bleed all the power, intensity and repulsive beauty from the original, leaving nothing but a hollow shell and the basic story beats. The original Martyrs might not have been everyone’s cup of tea but the remake isn’t even a cup of warm water.

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Abattoir

I fully expected Darren Lynn Bousman’s Abattoir to be one of my favorite films of the year and yet here it sits on my least favorite list. What went wrong? The film starts with a fantastic concept (a genteel madman, played by the formidable Dayton Callie, goes around and “collects” various rooms that have hosted terrible crimes in order to build the ultimate haunted house) and then works as hard as it can to destroy any good will garnered from said killer idea. At the end, we’re left with a piss-poor imitation of John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness when we could have had a completely new, totally cool horror franchise for the new millennia.

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The Final Project

Another found footage film (notice a trend here?) that details the exploits of a group of obnoxious film students on a haunted plantation. The lack of scares wouldn’t be a problem if anything else in this worked. As such, though, we’re pretty much left with video cam footage of a bunch of young jerks goofing around, followed by some cheap, dollar store effects.

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Bunni

No-budget dreck about a mama’s boy and his killer mama feels like a bad student film (the lighting, in particular, is atrocious) and does nothing in its relatively short run time to alleviate that impression. I’ll be honest: I could elaborate but that’s just about what this particular situation calls for…short, sweet and to the point.

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Ghost Team

Painfully unfunny “comedy” that features people like Justin Long, Jon Heder and Amy Sedaris (who really should know better) mugging their way through a tissue-paper-thin haunted house story that isn’t so much Scooby Doo as Scooby Dumb. As bad as the films on this list might be, there were few that I disliked as immediately and intensely as this waste of resources.

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Darkweb

This film satisfies a very small but, I’m sure, extremely dedicated niche market: those folks who revel in the humiliation of Danny Glover. If you harbor some sort of pathological hatred for the esteemed actor, Darkweb will be like manna from heaven. For anyone who doesn’t want to watch poor Danny Glover shout, flail his arms, cuss like a sailor and generally act like a complete idiot, however, this pathetic Hostel clone will offer nothing more than odd ethnic stereotypes, unconvincing performances and some truly goofy setpieces. Awkward, to say the least.

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B.C. Butcher

Impossibly stupid Troma goof about a Cro Magnon killer who targets a group of cave women, this features Kato Kaelin in a loincloth diaper, which should tell you all you need to know. The only redeeming feature to this mess is that it clocks in at under an hour, which is pretty faint praise, indeed.

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Dead 7

Asylum-esque horror-Western that features former members of ’90s-’00s-era boy bands fighting zombies in a post-Apocalyptic setting and is about as convincing as a kindergarten presentation of Glengarry Glenn Ross. I’ll admit that I’m not the target audience for something like this and I did, for a time, try to keep an open mind. At the end of the day, though, this is in the same wheelhouse as the Sharknado movies and there’s only so much intentional stupidity I can take.

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Voodoo Rising

Many films that I screened in 2016 shared similarities with Voodoo Rising: amateur actors struggling to deliver lines in a convincing manner, an inability to propel the story forward in a timely fashion, a tiring familiarity that telegraphed every single “twist” and “turn” in the narrative. Few films managed to double-down on these failings with as much conviction as this one, however, earning it a spot with this esteemed group of peers.

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Den of Darkness

The “den” in the title refers to a Girl Scout troupe and the “darkness” refers to the hysterical blindness that has befallen the den mother after one of her college-age (?) charges accidentally falls off a cliff. The house she moves into might be haunted or her shithead husband might be trying to gaslight her. If you have any doubts, after reading the above, that Den of Darkness is a truly terrible film, let me lay them to rest: it is a truly terrible film.

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Paranormal Sex Tape

This bears the distinction of being the first film in years that I haven’t been able to get through without judicious use of the frame-forward button, so at the very least you know this left an impression. Only nominally a film, this is actually a loosely edited series of walking scenes, broken up by really bad softcore porn and non-actors improvising awkward “dialogue” that makes Ed Wood read like Chaucer. I have no idea what it was about, a fact that I doubt would have been clarified had I managed to watch every one of its 70-some minutes.

The Year in Horror (2016) -The Best of Times (Part 1)

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2016 was an exceptionally good year for horror. You might call that a subjective point of view but I assure you: I arrived at my results the same way that any good statistician might…I analyzed an awful lot of data. As of this writing, I’ve seen 179 of the released 2016 horror offerings or roughly 68% of every witch, zombie, possession, alien, slasher and monster flick that came out this calendar year.

Each film I screened this year went into one of five categories based on my completely biased (although rarely arbitrary) impression: Excellent, Very Good, Decent, Pretty Bad/Better Than It Should Have Been (a bit of a catch-all) and Terrible. As of this very moment, 70 out of the 179 films sit comfortably in the Excellent/Very Good end of the spectrum.

We’ll look at my 20 favorite horror films of 2016, along with some more than honorable mentions, in a future post. Until then, however, I thought I might share a few thoughts on the movies that made it into the “Very Good” column of my little spreadsheet. Since time in this tumultuous year grows slim, I’ll play Lightning Round with this part of the proceedings and try to limit my observations to a few lines. Trust me when I say, however, that any of these little gems are more than worthy of greater focus. In no order whatsoever, then, here are the “Very Good Horror Films of 2016.”

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When Black Birds Fly – Dizzying, gonzo, insane and probably apt to cause seizures in certain folks, Jimmy Screamerclauz’s truly outsider epic doesn’t look like any animated film currently out there…and that’s a good thing. Despite being rough around the edges, this “Adam and Eve meet Hellraiser” parable is absolutely unique and one of the most interesting films I screened all year.

Antibirth – With a bit more focus, this could’ve been one column over but I still thoroughly enjoyed this nutty tale of the worst morning after ever: the ending, alone, is easily worth the price of admission, as are the charmingly scuzzy performances by Natasha Lyonne and Chloe Sevigne.

The Hoarder – Surprisingly smart and genuinely unsettling, this plays upon the innate creepiness of big, empty storage facilities and manages to work in some good twists and lots of cringe-inducing, if restrained, violence.

Where the Devil Dwells – On the outside, this looked cheap as hell but patience revealed a smart, well-made and surprisingly kickass interior. I’m also going to nominate David O’Hara for a Best Actor Tomby (we’ll get to those later) for his performance as silver-tongued serial killer Oren, easily one of the scariest constructs of the entire year.

Stalkher – This literal battle of the sexes is front-loaded with some of the meanest, most cutting observations on gender that I’ve ever (uncomfortably) sat through but it tempers that with a genuine eye for character and sense of mischief that makes the acid easier to swallow. This is, at heart, a two-person show and when the two performers are this damn good…well…that’s when magic happens.

Evil Souls – Another cheapie that ended up being surprisingly good, this is a grungy, nasty throwback to old-school Italian grindhouse flicks and it does the niche genre proud. While decidedly an acquired taste, this is comfort food to those who can stomach it.

The Interior – Quiet, unsettling character study that takes the familiar tale of a loner going crazy and throws some genuine curveballs into the formula. Although a little too unfocused and slight to be considered essential, this will reward viewers who appreciate mood and thought-provoking puzzles over jump-scares and gore.

Jack Goes Home – Rory Culkin does a helluva job as a truly damaged young man returning home to make peace with his awful past but this is really too unpleasant and nasty for me to truly love. Still, you have to respect any film that so honestly lays bare physical and emotional abuse and this is exceptional filmmaking for anyone who can sit through it.

Fear, Inc. – Lots of smart twists and turns in this horror-comedy about a smartass horror nerd who gets the best/worst gift of his entire life. The meta-ness of the whole thing can get a bit heavy-handed, at times, which separates this from something like Behind the Mask or Tucker & Dale vs Evil but it’s a really fun ride, full of great gore and engaging performances.

The Shallows – Call it “Blake and the Seagull vs Jaws,” if you will, but I thoroughly enjoyed this decidedly cheesy, silly tale of an injured surfer battling a ravenous shark mere yards from the safety of the shore. Lively does a great job in what’s basically a one-woman show and there are plenty of memorable setpieces and thrilling getaways.

The Triangle – For a while, this is actually a pretty sub-par, stereotypical tale (1st-person-POV, no less) about a group of friends trying to save their buddy from another one of those mysterious cults that are so de rigeur in modern, indie genre films. Then, out of nowhere, a twist comes along so goddamn good that it actually vaults the whole film into another stratosphere entirely, placing it somewhere closer to 2001 than The Sacrament and making it one of the most unforgettable films I saw all year.

Night of the Living Deb – There’s a lot to love in this charming zom-rom-com about the ultimate manic pixie dream girl who actually turns out to be anything but. The performances are exceptionally strong and if nothing ever hits the giddy heights of the best horror-comedies, the whole experience is so gosh-darn sweet that you probably won’t care.

Viral – One of the better “infection/possession/zombie” films I’ve seen recently, Viral vaults over the rest of the crowd by virtue of the pitch-perfect focus on the relationship between the two sisters, a relationship that makes the inherently tragic aspects of the story so much sharper and more painful.

Nerve – Like several films that I screened this year, Nerve is only marginally a horror film but I’ve included it because the “game that kills” aspect gives it a slight leg up on the competition. The film zips along at a manic pace and only betrays its young adult roots by virtue of one of those super-positive resolutions that always strike me as a bit cornball. This was a consistently gorgeous ride, however, and I’m not ashamed to show my love.

The Curse of Sleeping Beauty – Despite a handful of shoddy moments, this was a surprisingly cool, ridiculously imaginative take on the traditional story of Sleeping Beauty that featured truly lush visuals, a gonzo take on fairy tales and a modern update that didn’t make me want to chew glass. Another classic example of not judging a film by its outward appearance.

Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite – This Russian take on late ’90s-early ’00s Western teen slashers is derivative, for sure, but it’s also got enough natural energy to power a small city. Polished, fast-paced and lots of fun, this is the kind of film that should be clogging multiplexes.

Clash of the Dead – I’ve seen lots of “undead soldiers harass the living” films but this UK export still managed to get under my skin. Chalk it up to the cool concept, the super-eerie location or the solid performances and effects but this one left a mark on me that earned it a place on this list.

Me and My Mates vs the Zombie Apocalypse – I expected this to be a dumb romp but was actually met with a sly, subversive and rather remarkable little zombie film that features a clutch of great performances (Jim Jeffries is perfect) and unexpected moments of genuinely emotional heft. Think of this as a more subdued, small-scale version of Shaun of the Dead and you’re in the general area.

Beyond the Gates – I loved the concept of this “horror Jumanji,” especially since I owned several of the VCR-based board games that the film is based on (the horror one I owned was, of course, my very favorite) but the actual execution let me down a bit. Still, this is lots of fun and manages to nail the retro look and feel to a tee: throw in Barbara Crampton and I have no problem recommending this whatsoever.

Don’t Look in the Basement 2 – Coming 40 years after the original and directed by the original filmmaker’s son, this is a true labor of love and it shows. This return to the madhouse features many of the same characters and provides a truly organic, smart conclusion to the original narrative, no easy feat four decades after the fact.

Shelley – This seems like it’s going to be another indie take on Rosemary’s Baby but the actual destination is quite a bit thornier and much stranger.Strong performances and an oppressive sense of encroaching dread kept this one high in my list but the overall familiarity kept it from grabbing the brass ring.

Never Open the Door – Like The Similars, this mind-bending tale about a group of friends encountering the unexplained at an isolated cabin is filmed in gorgeous black-and-white and features so many twists and turns that you’d be forgiven for filing a whiplash claim. It’s a consistently smart film that offers no easy answers (or any answers, really) but should give you something to ponder for days later.

Thirst – This tale about wayward teens at a desert survival camp under siege by a monster that drains their vital juices reminds me of the films I used to grab off video store shelves based purely on their box-art…and that’s a very good thing. Although it certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Thirst is the perfect film for a rowdy group of buddies and a case of cheap beer.

Accidental Exorcist – Despite being more than a little rough around the edges, Daniel Falicki’s Accidental Exorcist was actually one of my biggest surprises of the year. The filmmaking is so strong, in fact, with a style that perfectly toes the line between pitch-black, deadpan humor and actual horror, that I was more than a little surprised and disappointed when the credits rolled: I lost all track of time. The future of horror films lies with genuine geniuses like Falicki (who also fearlessly plays the titular character) and Joel Potrykus (who reprises his essential Derek character here)

Demon – When Polish director Marcin Wrona died last year, at the age of 42, he left behind one last testament to his filmmaking prowess: the incredibly odd, unsettling and smart Jewish possession “fairy tale,” Demon. The dreamlike, strange atmosphere recalls the best work of Roman Polanski (an obvious influence) and if the ultimate resolution is decidedly vague and a bit frustrating, it takes nothing whatsoever away from the journey. The world will mourn his loss but his final statement will, I think, prove timeless.

Goddess of Love – With a little more polish and focus, this magical-realist fable about a seriously damaged young woman losing her last grasp on sanity could have been a companion to Marjane Satrapi’s astounding The Voices. As it stands, however, it’s still a pretty remarkable film, featuring an absolutely fearless performance from lead Alexis Kendra (an easy nomination for a Best Actress Tomby) and marking a major step forward for filmmaker Jon Knautz, formerly known for silly horror-comedies like Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer.