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.

 

The Year in Horror (2016) – The Ones That Got Away

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259 horror films released to theaters and VOD this year…my plan to see every one of them was always going to be an uphill climb. Despite some truly Herculean efforts, especially during the annual 31 Days of Halloween, there were always going to be a few that slipped through my fingers.

In that spirit, allow me to spotlight five films that I just didn’t get to this year. None of these will (obviously) factor into my end-of-year lists but I’m sure that at least a few of them would have placed pretty high. Since I still plan to see every 2016 offering, these will all get screened at some point but, suffice to say, I regret missing these more than the Cabin Fever remake or Sharknado 4.

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The Love Witch

This lush nod to a bygone era of genre film was on my radar all year but its limited theatrical release gave me too small a window to satisfy my curiosity. Suffice to say that I’ll be watching it as soon as it hits VOD in the new year but, for now, I’ll have to take the critics’ word that it was quite an extraordinary bit of cinema.

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Blair Witch

As a fan of just about everything Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have done, I wasn’t opposed to them tackling a Blair Witch reboot, especially since I didn’t particularly care for the original. The “stealth” marketing campaign came off as silly, however, and none of the specifics really grabbed me enough to get me out of my living room and down to the neighborhood multiplex. This is still Wingard and Barrett, however, so I’ll reserve final judgement until after the film hits video next month.

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Shin Godzilla

The buzz behind this was substantial enough to pique my curiosity, even though I’m not the biggest fan of the franchise: I don’t really have anything against Godzilla, per se, but he’s never been my favorite cinematic monster. The darker tone was intriguing, I’ll admit, but not quite enough to get me out for the handful of theatrical dates in my neck o’ the woods.

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Ouija: Origin of Evil

Despite having no familiarity with the low-budget original, I actually wanted to see the sequel, if for no other reason than my genuine respect for director Mike Flanagan’s filmography. His other 2016 film, Hush, is one of my honorable mentions for the year but I’ll have to catch this when it hits VOD next month. After seeing so many truly terrible possession and Ouija board films this year (Satanic, I’m looking right at you), I definitely regret missing what critical consensus seems to imply was the best of the batch: c’est la vie.

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Phantasm: Ravager

I blame this one on poor time management: I had every intention of watching the final installment of the Phantasm series when it first debuted earlier this year…I really did. It just didn’t seem right to do that without revisiting the rest of the series, however, and that never happened. The final adventures of Reggie and the Tall Man will have to wait until next year, it would seem.

The Year in Horror (2016) – The Most Disappointing Films

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At long last, we arrive at the beginning of the end: the final breakdown for the year in horror, circa 2016. We’ll be examining the best, the worst and the ones that got away (so far) in later posts but I always like to start with the ones that coulda been contenders first. These are the films that had tons of potential (at least in my eyes), yet managed to drop the ball in some pretty crucial ways.

By this point in the year, I’ve managed to screen 179 of the 259 horror films released/scheduled for this year, meaning that I’ve seen 69% of all horror films released in 2016. Of those 179, I’ve whittled the list down to the ten most disappointing films of the year. Keep in mind that these weren’t the worst (with one exception) but they were the ones that were capable of so much more. With no further ado and in no particular order, I now present the evidence to you humble members of the online jury.

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Ghostbusters

There were a lot of routes that Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot could have taken: it could have been a straight-up nostalgia fest, full of cameos from the original duology…it could have been a sly, feminist commentary on the inanity of modern-day online fanboydom and the expectations of genre fanatics…it could have been a remake, a reboot, a realignment or any other re- that you care to add…it could have been a big, dumb, loud, CGI-heavy popcorn flick…really, the world was its oyster.

In reality, Feig’s Ghostbusters ended up being ALL of these things, which only served to dilute the final product down to the lowest common denominator. With no clear vision, the film whiplashed from snarky meta-commentary to unbelievably dumb CGI spectacle with an ease that did nothing but give me a headache. This wasn’t the worst ghostbusting-related film of 2016, by a long shot (that title belongs to the woeful Ghost Team), but it was the one that had the potential to be a neo-classic and that missed opportunity was a real bummer.

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Abattoir

I happen to like writer/director/all-around maniac Darren Lynn Bousman quite a bit, finding his Repo: A Genetic Musical to be an unsung modern cult classic, along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and thoroughly enjoying his batshit crazy art projects like The Devil’s Carnival and Alleluia. Hell, I don’t even particularly mind his Saw films, even if that franchise is a study in diminishing returns.

In other words, I was really looking forward to his ingenious haunted house film, Abattoir, which featured the thoroughly unique concept of an evil man cobbling together the ultimate haunted house by cutting out particular rooms from various crime scenes and stitching them together into one Frankensteinian monstrosity. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a logline worth getting excited for.

The actual film, unfortunately, is a complete and total piece of shit, easily the worst “film” that Bousman has released and one of the very worst films of the entire year. Nothing works, the film manages to completely squander a fantastic cast (poor Lin Shaye!) and the whole concept is completely dropped for a swing into Mouth of Madness territory that’s so inept, it feels like parody. In a year full of surprises, both good and bad, this was easily one of the worst.

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He Never Died

This tale of Henry Rollins as an immortal, cannibalistic but, ultimately, very human and flawed “hero” had so much going for it (Rollins is quite good, for one) that it kind of hurts when it devolves into stupid comedy and tedious, indie film “run and guns.” There are moments where the concept is allowed to fully breathe and, for those brief moments, He Never Died is actually kind of special. For the most part, however, this is a classic case of filmmakers coming up with a better idea than they have the ability to actually portray.

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The Conjuring 2

I thoroughly enjoyed James Wan’s original The Conjuring, along with the first Insidious. Since that time, however, the Waniverse has started to look suspiciously like the same film, with slightly different clothes, akin to those old RPGs where you could tell an enemy was different because they were blue instead of red.

This has got all the typical Wan trademarks: creepy old house, lots of jump scares, lots of creepy figures popping up in the background and doing creepy things, Patrick Wilson and Vera Fermiga doing their best to add gravity to the silliness…if this was a checklist, it would hit all the appropriate boxes. The problem, of course, is that none of it is actually scary or even particularly interesting, by this point, lending everything a dull sheen of “been there, done that.” Not the worst big-budget horror film released in theaters, this year, but easily one of the most forgettable.

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The Neon Demon

I’ve dearly loved every single Nicolas Winding Refn film, so fully expected The Neon Demon, his first official foray into horror, to top my Best Of list for the year. As it turned out, I ended up really disliking the film, finding it to be exceptionally beautiful, visually, but completely empty and thoroughly frustrating. I’ve seen lots of year-end lists that extol the film for everything from its ultra-lush visuals to its tricky, feminist reimagining of the typical “starlet gets lost in L.A.” trope but I can’t help but feel this is another example of lauding a film for its intentions rather than its actual outcome. I can fully appreciate what Refn was trying to do and still think he’s one of the very best cinematic auteurs of our era. This doesn’t stop The Neon Demon from being a stinker, however, and one of my very biggest disappointments of the whole year.

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I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

I love old-fashioned, austere ghost films, the more Gothic, the better. This had all the trappings, from an appropriately gauzy visual aesthetic to a supremely leisurely pace (some might call it slow but that’s easily the film’s smallest issue) but it was missing the most important aspect of any film: a genuine sense of tension, danger or any kind of stakes. More than anything, IATPTTLITH comes across as a style exercise, an attempt by a modern filmmaker to replicate an older style of genre film without really understanding what made those films work in the first place. This is too well-made to be written off as a complete loss and some of the visual effects are genuinely unsettling. For all that, however, I couldn’t help but be disappointed at what could have been, with more focus and a tighter grasp on the mechanics of the story.

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Tank 432

Three things I love: British horror films, modern British war films and Michael Smiley. Tank 432 was supposed to feature all of these elements, all but assuring it a place on my favorites list. In reality, Tank 432 is an awful mess, predisposed on a twist that’s so obvious and silly that it thoroughly wrecks any of the preceding atmosphere or creepy elements. You wouldn’t think that a film about an army platoon who must take refuge in a broken-down tank from monstrous, unseen forces would be so dull, confusing and frustrating but you, like me, would be very wrong, indeed.

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Don’t Breathe

I actually enjoyed Fede Alvarez’s re-do of Sam Raimi’s classic Evil Dead, so I was curious to see what the burgeoning, young filmmaker could do with an original concept. This film, about shitty young Detroiters trying to rob a blind war veteran and getting much more than they bargained for, has a lot going for it: the film careens along like a rollercoaster, there are plenty of smart, intense setpieces and Stephen Lang is an instantly iconic “villain.” In other words, a complete classic.

Or it would have been, had the actual film not been so dumb, mean-spirited and predisposed on one eye-rolling deus ex machina after another. This is the kind of film where nothing would happen if any of the characters displayed even a modicum of common sense or desire for self-preservation, the kind of movie where you shout yourself hoarse telling the on-screen idiots to just use their goddamn brains for thirty seconds. In many ways, Don’t Breathe is this year’s It Follows: hailed by everyone and their granny as being the second-coming of horror but so far below the year’s very best as to be laughable. And let’s not even get started on the turkey baster…

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The Last Heist

Mike Mendez makes big, loud, dumb and relentlessly fun genre films (his Big Ass Spider! is still one of my very favorite modern cheeseball horror films), the equivalent of PBR tallboys out of an ice-filled cooler. The Last Heist, about hapless bank robbers choosing to rip off the one financial institution that happens to be frequented by a stone-cold serial killer (Henry Rollins, being Henry Rollins), has lots of silly action but there’s never a real spark or sense of unmitigated mayhem and fun. This felt like a made-for-cable movie, with all that implies, and could never quite shake the stigma. While too good-natured and zippy to really dislike, this was also rather dull and found me frequently checking my watch, a first for any Mendez film. Not a strikeout, per se, but a supremely weak bunt to first base.

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The Good Neighbor

This had a great cast (Logan Miller and Kier Gilchrist are two of the most interesting young actors currently treading the silver screen and James Caan is James fricking Caan, fer chrissakes!) and a fairly interesting concept but managed to collapse into soggy, Lifetime Channel territory by the time the lame twist reared its ugly head. This is also only marginally a horror film (very marginally), making it one of the films I screened this year that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest. As such, this was a double disappointment: very little horror and a complete squandering of James Caan. Again, not the worst of the year, by a long shot, but so dull, generic and painfully obvious as to be a real chore to sit through.

Weekly Screenings: 11/21-11/27

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Welcome to the penultimate week of November here at The VHS Graveyard. This was another light week, just like the week before, and consisted of only two screenings: Isaac Ezban’s The Similars (Los Parecides) and Travis Zariwny’s Intruder. Both films were as different from each other as possible, making this quite the varied week, despite the lack of quantity.

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The Similars

On a rainy night, in October 1968, a group of strangers wait hours for a long-delayed bus to Mexico City. Martin (Fernando Becerril), the bored station attendant, gives them all the same stock answer but it’s getting a little hard to contain the restless masses: hot-headed Ulises (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) needs to get to the hospital for the birth of his child; panicked Irene (Cassandra Ciangherotti) is pregnant and may have just killed the baby’s father; Alvaro (Humberto Busto) is a passionate college student who may or may not be involved in the violent protests that are currently sweeping across Mexico; Roberta (Maria Elena Olivares) is a native woman who doesn’t speak the same language as everyone else and is prone to loud pronouncements and yelling; and Gertrudis (Carmen Beato) needs to constantly administer special medicine to her twitchy young son, Ignacio (Santiago Torres), who may or may not have been responsible for a recent attack in a diner.

As the hours wear on and tempers and patience wear thin, the frustrated travelers are faced with another problem: for some strange reason, certain people are beginning to look like Ulises, right down to his beard. With paranoia and fear running high, no one knows who to believe or what is actually going on: is this part of some government conspiracy, a curse or some odd paranormal occurence? As time runs out, the answer may come from the unlikeliest source of all but the terrifying truth may be more than anyone is prepared to handle.

Shot in atmospheric black-and-white (albeit shot through with color, in a truly cool effect) and opening with a portentous, genteel voice-over, there’s going to be one parallel that long-time genre buffs will pick up on right away: writer-director Ezban’s The Similars is an homage to classic Twilight Zone episodes and a fantastically realized one, at that. Everything about this reminded me of Rod Serling’s tales of mystery and terror, in the best way possible, making this one of the most ingeniously executed homages of the entire year: even if the rest of the film fell as flat as a bad souffle, the concept and look, alone, would vault it high, in my book.

The good thing, of course, is that nothing about Ezban’s brilliant film falls short, in the slightest: this is fresh, original and genius filmmaking at its finest, recalling nothing less than Nacho Vigalondo’s head-fuck Time Crimes or, at times, the warped glory of Cronenberg. The script is consistently sharp, the acting is fantastic (it truly is an ensemble effort) and the film manages to keep you wrapped in such an all-encompassing fog of confusion, bizarre revelations and delightfully wackadoodle shenanigans (how else to describe that godforsaken dog?!) that there really is no telling what’s coming around the corner.

Very few films genuinely surprise me, which is probably one of the greatest problems with watching an abnormally high amount of films. The Similars genuinely surprised me, however, and on a pretty consistent basis. This might only appeal to a particular kind of viewer (the kind raised on copious amounts of The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits and Tales From the Darkside, to be very specific) but everyone should give this film a try: I wager that it’s one of the smartest films you’ve seen this year, too, regardless of how many movies you’ve seen.

Isaac Ezban is one of Mexico’s finest young filmmakers (he also contributed to the excellent Mexico Barbaro anthology) and The Similars serves as notice that he fully intends to take over the rest of the world, too. A few more films as good as this one and I’m gonna have to make a shrine to this guy, stat.

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Intruder

On the other end of the spectrum, we get writer-director Travis Zariwny’s Intruder, a positively gorgeous stalk-and-slash that fails to ever do much more than go through the motions. Elizabeth (Louise Linton), a British ex-pat who now plays cello for the Portland Orchestra, becomes house-bound during a particularly violent storm. The problem, of course, is that there’s a maniac running around killing young women and he just might be hanging out in her apartment, unknown to her.

The entire film is a fairly elegantly paced game of cat-and-mouse that starts off fairly enthralling but becomes tedious and obvious well before the obnoxious “fake” ending. The acting is pretty good, across the board, with lead Linton being the absolute best (she really was fantastic) and electro-god Moby (as Elizabeth’s shithead conductor) being the absolute worst, possibly of the entire year (and this includes Kato Kaelin as a caveman…), which helps to make the whole thing easier to swallow. Intruder really is too well-made to ever call a failure (it’s no lie to call it one of the best-looking genre films I’ve screened this year, including The Neon Demon) but it’s also about 20 minutes too long, very obvious  and rather unpleasant: opponents of the Male Gaze will find much to object to here, including a ridiculously gratuitous shower scene that’s straight out of Porky’s.

Zariwny also helmed this year’s Cabin Fever reboot (which I’ve yet to see) and is obviously a filmmaker of no inconsiderable talent: much of the film comes off as a lesser version of the recent Hush, which is no small praise considering how efficiently the former executed the stalker format in a modern context. I would be interested to see what the former production-designer/camera-operator (both skills of which are plainly evident in the best aspects of Intruder) can do with a more original concept and/or script. Intruder is a miss but it’s a near-miss that hints at much brighter things to come.

Coming soon: the final week of November, which also happens to be the week we’re currently about to vacate. Join us as The VHS Graveyard ushers in the merry month of December and sets its sights on the end of the year.

Weekly Screenings: 11/14-11/20

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For the third week of November, I fear that the pickings were a bit slim: the stresses of starting a new job in a new field left little head space for the cinematic arts. For this week, we only screened two films, neither of which could have been called a home-run, by any standards. Call it a wash, then, but we still crossed two more off the 2016 releases list, so the Graveyard remains groovy. In that spirit, let’s take a look at this particular week’s offerings.

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Tank 432

Nick Gillespie’s Tank 432 (nee Belly of the Bulldog, which is a much better title) has a lot of things going for it: if anything, the veteran camera-man (he’s done lots of work for personal hero Ben Wheatley, who also produced) brings an awfully stacked deck to his first stint as a feature-length director. He’s got a great cast of British actors, including Rupert Evans, Michael Smiley, Deirdre Mullins, Gordon Kennedy  and Tom Meeten. There’s a unique concept and location. The visual style and sound design are top-notch and work well with the overall feeling of dread. All of the elements are here for a classic British genre film, ala the aforementioned Wheatley or Neil Marshall. Why, then, did I walk away so disappointed?

A group of shell-shocked soldiers, including Evans as the voice of reason, Smiley as the mouthy Irish guy, Kennedy as the hard-as-nails leader and Mullins as the resolute medic, emerge from an underground pipe and make their way across a desolate landscape. After finding a pile of bodies at an abandoned farm, the soldiers and their hooded, bound captives flee an unseen enemy until they find a single, solitary Bulldog tank sitting in the middle of a wide open field. The motley group stows themselves away in the tight confines of the broken-down gargantuan, jamming the door shut behind them against the threat outside. And then the fun starts.

Tank 432 starts out so strong that it seems all but assured a place in the same Hall of Fame that contains Marshall’s Dog Soldiers or David Twohy’s Pitch Black. The military element is uncommonly sharp, with great dialogue and a genuine sense of unity between the brigade. The veteran actors are all playing types, without a doubt, but they play them with nary a wink nor a nod: combined with the breakneck pace, there’s an instant immersion that builds a tremendous amount of good will early on.

Cinematographer Billy Jackson’s imagery can be quite lovely and mysterious, when he refrains from the sort of shaky, quick-cut nonsense that’s become so fashionable in genre films. The sound design adds immensely to the proceedings, accentuating the otherworldly quality of the tank and lending later events a heightened sense of lunacy. The fantastic element is introduced gradually and with enough organic clues for the astute viewer to pick up on what’s going on fairly early.

And that, in essence, ends up being one of the first (and perhaps biggest) problems with the film: after establishing a few possibilities for the uncanny events, the film proceeds to hammer down on the most obvious one, including a full explanation at the conclusion, just in case viewers were still in a fog. It’s completely heavy-handed and, coupled with the film’s completely chaotic and rather silly climax, left me with a bad taste that managed to wash away much of I’d enjoyed before. There are other issues, to be sure (the fact that the clever script devolves into “Fuck you!” “No, fuck you!” is particularly painful), but that was a real deal-breaker.

Tank 432 isn’t a bad film, by any means, but it is a terribly disappointing one, primarily because there was so much potential for a genuinely unique, strange and memorable film. The result is a movie that promises much more than it can deliver, writing a check that it can’t possibly cash. There’s a shell of a good story here and a pretty good idea of where it could have gone. In the end, however, like that proverbial tank, it just sits there and rusts.

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Paranormal Sex Tape

 

I’ll be frankly honest: were it not for my personal goal to screen every single horror title released in 2016, there’s no way I ever would have watched auteur Dick Van Dark’s Paranormal Sex Tape (or Sex Tape Horror, if you make it to the end credits). I’ve developed a sixth sense for stinkers, so to speak, and there’s no way this one passed the smell test. Since it was on the menu, however, I was more than willing to let the dish speak for itself: after all, I’d been surprised by other no-budget horror flicks, this year, so the precedent was there.

If I may continue to be honest, gentle readers, I didn’t make it 10 minutes into the film before it became necessary to employ judicious use of the frame-forward button. I have a longheld personal rule that just doesn’t allow me to turn a film off once I’ve started watching: I may resist watching something for my whole life but, once it’s on, I’m gonna finish it or be damned. I couldn’t turn Paranormal Sex Tape off but there was no way I intended to watch every single obe of its 70 minutes: even I have my limits.

The plot (I don’t have a more appropriate word but that’s not quite right) seems to involve a young woman named Scarlet (the impossibly blank Amber West) and the “terrifying” figure that appears every time she has sex with her boyfriend (I’m assuming, since the film never makes this clear or even gives the poor fellow a name). She sets up a camera, in order to record the “demon” (again, the film never makes this clear in any way) and things get strange.

In essence, the film consists of incredibly long, dull scenes of Scarlet either walking to various places or riding the subway intercut with incredibly long, dull, softcore sex scenes involving Scarlet and the guy, while the demon waggles its hands in the background, looking thoroughly dejected. That’s just about it. We also get some nonsense involving Scarlet and a tattooed drug dealer, along with Scarlet and her strange friend (who I believe was portrayed by the director but, again, who really knows?) but none of them ever amount to more than time-fillers.

As noted above, I started advancing through the film once I realized exactly what it would be. The pattern was pretty simple: watch for a moment, get to a walking scene, advance until it was over, watch for a moment, get to a sex scene, advance until it was over, lather, rinse and repeat. I did manage to watch a few individual bits, here and there: one sex scene involving blacklights, bodypaint and a forced perspective vignette filter was too preposterous not to sit through. For the most part, however, this was just impossible, the kind of impossible that even Troma doesn’t seem capable of.

I’ll freely admit that certain films just aren’t my cup of tea and I don’t hold them to the same standards: the Sharknado series (the 4th, of which, is also on my 2016 list) is a good example of this. Maybe someone out there really got a kick out of this: if so, more power to ’em and a long and healthy life, to boot. As for me, this was amateurish junk, unfitting of even a porn label. Potayto, potato.

Join us next time as we delve further into November with last week’s screenings, including another of my picks for best films of the year. Until then, gentle readers, stay away from abandoned tanks and keep an eye on your sex tapes: you never know what may be watching!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weekly Screenings: 11/7-11/13

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With November rapidly coming to a close, what better time to do a little housekeeping and catch up on the various films viewed in this extremely chilly month? For your perusement, gentle readers, I now present the films screened in the second week of November. Grab some leftovers, pull up a seat and take a peek at the cinematic goodies below.

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The Piper

A lowly piper and his sickly son come upon a hidden village with a rat problem and a leader who’s kept his people in line by pretending that a war still rages directly outside their peaceful hamlet. It’s no surprise to learn that the people end up being 1000 times more evil than the rodents but they sure get a run for their money.

Powerful, grim and often unpleasant Korean retelling of the classic Grimm fairy tale is not for the faint of heart (or anyone with a rat phobia) but it is exquisitely made and filled with moments of unexpected beauty and genuine sadness (along with a little out-of-place silliness). I really respected and often enjoyed this modern fairy tale but I can’t imagine watching it more than once.

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Phantom of the Theatre

This tale of murdered acrobats coming back to haunt a recently renovated theatre looked good (aside from some truly awful CGI, especially fire-related effects) but never caught a spark (pun intended). Overly melodramatic, way too long and possessed of a twist that brought to mind nothing so much as bargain-basement Scooby Doo, this was technically okay (CGI notwithstanding) but was also a pretty primo example of “been there, done that.” If anything, it often reminded me of similarly empty, loud, big budget American multiplex fare, with all of the negative connotations that come with that parallel.

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The Haunting of Alice D

I’ll be honest: I really hated this indie horror film and could find no redeeming qualities, whatsoever, so I’ll try to keep this short and sour. A co-ed group of shitheads head to the lead misogynist asshole’s childhood home, which used to be a brothel owned by his terrible ancestor (Kane Hodder, being Kane Hodder), and run afoul of murderous spirits. Amateurish, unpleasantly sleazy (lots of implied sexual violence, for one) and with a truly ugly look, this was pure tedium from the first frame to the last. The wastelands of the 2016 horror scene are littered with picked-over carcasses and this is one of the riper ones.

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The Purge

I never saw this franchise-starter when it first came out and it turns out I didn’t miss much. Tedious, obvious and so heavy-handed with the social commentary as to be completely leaden, this story of a family-man trying to protect his loved ones on the one day of the year where any crime is legal has a few good action sequences and some decent performances but it never rises above its limitations or does anything interesting with its core concept. Consider this a missed opportunity for something much darker, nastier and more subversive, ala Crossed.

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Summer Camp

I absolutely loved every single minute of this smart, outrageous and impossibly twisted little sleeper and happily nominate it for one of the year’s very best horror films, hands down!

Four American camp counselors show up at a Spanish summer camp and prep it for the arrival of the children, setting off a chain of events that leave them fighting for their survival. To say too much would be to spoil some of the best, most genuinely surprising twists of the whole year (I’m talking multiple awesome twists, not just one or two, friends and neighbors), so I’ll let all you fine folks discover the glory for yourselves. Suffice to say that Summer Camp is purely amazing, however, and earns my highest recommendation possible. I honestly wish that everything I watched was as good as this damn film.

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The Purge: Anarchy

I disliked The Purge, so fully expected to dislike the sequel, Anarchy. Surprise, surprise: I ended up loving it. Anarchy is absolutely everything a good sequel should be: bigger, better, more bad-ass and an expansion of the original film’s concept, mythos and universe. Check and check plus, right down the board.

Frank Grillo is a relentlessly kickass antihero, the action sequences are all pretty damn sweet (nothing as vanilla as the first film) and the social commentary is handled in a much smarter, more subtle manner (for the most part). This wasn’t quite as good as the ’80s classics but it was definitely in the same wheelhouse as Class of ’84, Death Wish 3 and Escape From New York: I, for one, was fully on board.

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The Remains

Aggressively average, with spotty acting and zero surprises or scares, The Remains is another prime example of paint-by-numbers horror filmmaking in calendar year 2016. This is yet another “family moves into a house with a past and gets haunted” films and certainly isn’t terrible (I’ve seen much, much worse, trust me) but also does nothing whatsoever to distinguish itself, despite some flirtations with a truly creepy dollhouse. One of those films that I keep getting confused with other, similarly-themed films, which is never a good sign.

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The Secrets of Emily Blair

I’ll admit: I knew this was going to be bad, going in, but I still held out hopes due to the presence of Colm Meaney in the cast. After all, that dude is awesome in pretty much anything, so it would at least have that going for it, right? If I could go back in time and slap myself in the face, I’d do it: no amount of Colm could save this rampaging crapfest about a woman who gets possessed by a demon and has to rely on her dipshit fiance and his priest buddy (Colm, natch) to save her.

Genuinely bad, cliched and ruthlessly dull, this became so stupid and silly, by the finale, that it was almost as if the filmmakers decided to go for broke in the hopes of illiciting any interest, whatsoever, from the stupified audience. It didn’t work, of course, but not for lack of trying…I guess.

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The Curse of Sleeping Beauty

A young man who suffers disturbing dreams and sleep paralysis receives notice that he’s just inherited his reclusive uncle’s creepy estate and everything on the grounds. Aside from lots of antique furniture, tons of impossibly terrifying mannequins and what must be a simply tremendous heating bill, the “everything” part also seems to include the enigmatic “sleeping beauty” from his dreams, aka the legendary Briar Rose. Alas, the “everything” part also seems to include a curse and an age-old, Middle Eastern demon, so the poor guy is gonna be kind of busy for the foreseeable future.

Right off the bat, The Curse of Sleeping Beauty surprises with some truly gorgeous cinematography, fantastic visual effects and creature designs (reminding of nothing less than a DIY Pan’s Labyrinth, at points) and a genuinely intriguing and original (if occasionally cluttered and chaotic) storyline. At times, the film is actually scary (anything with the mannequins ranks with the year’s best pure horror moments), which is more than I can say for many films I screened this year. Despite some rough going, at times (this is still very much an indie film, if a remarkably accomplished one), I really enjoyed this, from start to finish: a true sleeper, in every sense of the word.

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The Monster

I’ve never understood the derision heaped on filmmaker Bryan Bertino: while The Strangers was a thoroughly decent (and surprisingly popular) home invasion flick, his much-maligned Mockingbird was, without a doubt, one of the most genuinely disturbing horror films I’ve ever seen and the mark of a true, unique voice in the field. Or it was complete and total crap, depending on critical consensus.

This brings us to Bertino’s newest film, the character-driven monster flick The Monster (formerly There Are Monsters, which actually makes more sense, in context), and one of my picks for best films of the year. The film is pure class from start to finish, with an emphasis on real emotional heft, character building and drama that you just don’t get enough in genre films. At times, the interaction between Zoe Kazan’s destroyed mother and Ella Ballentine’s jaded daughter are almost too painful to watch: both performers deserve the highest accolades possible for what are, easily, two of the year’s best performances.

The film looks gorgeous, the creature design is smart and scary, the mood is consistent and there are honest-to-god scares, not just pre-manufactured jump cues. This, gentle readers, is what I look for in a good horror film: Bryan Bertino hasn’t let me down, yet, so I’m going to continue hitching my mule to his wagon and see where the trail leads. I highly recommend you do the same.

 

 

Weekly Screenings: 11/1-11/6

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As we continue to play catch-up here at The VHS Graveyard, I now present some capsule reviews for the first week of November. Observant readers will note the presence of non-horror-related offerings this time around, including the newest Coen Brothers and Christopher Guest offerings: while we’re still focusing on the horror end of things, vis a vis our goal to screen every 2016 horror film, it’s also time to focus on all the non-horror related things that we’ve been zooming by on the ol’ entertainment highway. To that end, I now present the films screened from Tuesday through Sunday, 11/1-11/6.

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Morris From America

When it was finally time to kick off the horror dust, I wanted to make a clean break and writer-director Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America was just about as clean as I could go. This heartwarming (but funny-as-shit) coming-of-age story centers on 13-year-old Morris (future superstar Markees Christmas in a pitch-perfect performance), an aspiring rapper who’s just been uprooted from the U.S. of A. to Germany by his soccer star turned coach dad (Craig Robinson, proving that he does drama as effortlessly as he does comedy). This hits most of the traditional young fish-out-of water beats (Morris finds love, realizes the agony of youth, finds himself, figures out who is dad really is, yadda yadda…) but does everything with a genuine sweetness and sincerity that made this one of my favorites of the year. The film looks gorgeous (cinematographer Sean McElwee, who also shot Manson Family Vacation, gives this a really cool “indie prestige” look that goes over gangbusters) and the performances are spot on. Easily one of the year’s highlights.

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In A Valley of Violence

Full disclosure: aside from House of the Devil, I’ve never met a Ti West film that I’ve fully liked. I really want to love this new star of the neo-horror era but, as far as I’m concerned, he can never fully close the deal, leaving me with films that are mostly good (sometimes very good) but never fully satisfying: he’s the equivalent of a delicious beverage with a nasty aftertaste. I’ll watch anything he offers, no questions asked, but I always kind of assume that it will let me down: call it “Westianiam.”

And then came In a Valley of Violence, West’s first non-horror film and the best film in his catalog by a country light-year. This had me hooked from the totally sweet opening spaghetti-Western credits all the way through to the equally sweet closing spaghetti-Western credits. Everything about this is Grade-A beef, from West’s Sergio Leone by way of Sam Raimi direction to the absolutely pitch-perfect performances (aside from the strange “Valley girl” thing that Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan were doing). This story of a drifter walking into a bad town and kicking its ass is manna from Heaven for anyone who grew up on The Man With No Name and, without a doubt, one of my very favorite films of the entire year. An absolute classic from start to finish and damn near perfect.

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Den of Darkness

A young woman leads a Girl Scout troupe (composed of college-age young women) and stops, for a moment, to apply makeup…just long enough to allow one of her charges to wander too close to a ledge and fall over. After suffering psychologically-induced blindness, the woman moves into a sinister mansion with her over-protective husband and starts experiencing creepy doings. This was easily one of the year’s lowlights, a tedious, stupid and rather exhausting dive into terrible acting, a ridiculously melodramatic storyline and more forehead-slapping moments than a mosquito breeding convention. Nothing about this worked, as far as I’m concerned, although it does have a beginning, middle and end (sort of): hand them the “Participation” badge and get on with it.

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Voodoo Rising

Giving Den of Darkness a run for Shittiest Film of the Week has to be Voodoo Rising, the very dictionary definition of dull, terrible horror films. This aims to be a Texas Chainsaw Massacre ripoff but is really just a stupid House of 1000 Corpses ripoff (thanks, Rob) and manages to fulfill every horrible implication that this particular mental image implies. The camera can’t stay in focus, the voodoo angle is negligle (at best) and you’ll fight the Sandman harder than anyone here fights their telegraphed and tedious dooms. Clip your toenails, instead: I can guarantee that promises more thrills.

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Encounter

Paint-by-numbers (mostly) found-footage haunted house flick about newlyweds conducting spirit orb research in a typically creepy country house. This felt like a student film, to be honest, and was pretty much the definition of “middle of the road.” Despite a twist that managed to be as mundane as everything that came before, this was a flatline from the get-go and only served to remind of better films (the original Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity, for starters). The one bright spot was the acting, which managed to be much more understated and effective than expected. Trust me when I say that you have much better things to do with your time.

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Rock the Kasbah

When last I left everyman-auteur Barry Levinson (whose resume includes everything from Diner to Good Morning Vietnam to Sphere), he had just dropped The Bay, a perfectly acceptable found-footage ecological horror flick which certainly didn’t reinvent the wheel but was perfectly acceptable for a guy in his seventies. This time around, I got a really tired Bill Murray mugging his way around Afghanastan in what should have been Lost in Kabul but really ended up being another tedious espisode of the Bill Show. The only thing in the whole film that actually worked was Zooey Deschanel’s extraordinarily endearing performance, which is pretty funny considering the fact that I normally find her to be the most tedious aspect of any given film: even funnier, of course, is the fact that her character gets very little screen time, leaving me with bupkis to care about. Easily one of the most tedious, obnoxious and disappointing  films I screened all year.

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Trash Fire

In the span of only two films (the unbelievable Excision and the incredibly fun, if flawed, Suburban Gothic), writer-director Richard Bates, Jr. shot right to the top of my Must See list of exciting, new genre filmmakers, making his newest one of my most eagerly anticipated offerings of the year. As usual, this twisted auteur did not disappoint in the slightest.

Owen (Adrien Grenier) and Isabel (Angela Trimbur) are the dictionary-definition of “loving couple,” provided your copy defines the term as “fucked-up, awful, impossibly antagonistic, bullying and determined to destroy each other’s sense of self by any means necessary.” After deciding to give their doomed relationship the ol’ college try, Isabel convinces Owen to return to his long-hated grandmother (the always formidible Fionnula Flanagan) and come to terms with his terrible childhood. Big mistake.

Endlessly inventive, thoroughly nasty and written in a way that would make Mamet blush, Trash Fire is a wholly unique experience. Even if the film falters a bit in the second half, when it become more familiar and less feral, this is still astonishing filmmaking, anchored by a trio of perfect performances and some of the most unpleasant scenes of the calendar year. In a year full of exceptional films, Trash Fire stands tall with the very best of them. You might not feel great when it’s over but you owe it to yourself to experience the flames at least once.

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Demon Tongue

Cheap-jack, shoddy, cliched and with 100% more in-camera fuckery than any film could reasonably stand, Demon Tongue took the express elevator down in a big way. The only thing that this yawn-inducing possession fest has going for it is an emphasis on Eastern mysticism over more traditional Western exorcismaloozas but that’s one grain of sand in a really bland beach. Save yourself the headache and watch one of those Yule log videos instead.

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Consumption

This takes place in a snowy setting, which is pretty rare for an indie horror film: check plus. Moving on to the other column, we also need to put check marks in the “tedious,” “dumb” and “confusing” boxes. Carrying the four and adding stuff up in the margins, we can come to the natural conclusion that this tired tale of friends heading into the wilderness to find strife, possession and murder in yet another isolated cabin is a complete crap-fest with very few redeeming qualities. I think they were shooting for a Lucio Fulci-esque Itallo-horror vibe but managed to undershoot into complete and styleless absurdity. Less fun than sticking your tongue to a frozen lamppost.

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Mascots

I’m always going to have a huge soft-spot in my heart for writer-director Christopher Guest: after all, that dude wrote This is Spinal Tap, one of the single greatest films in the history of the medium, and played Nigel Tufnel, one of cinema’s great creations. As a director, he’s been responsible for a handful of great-to-decent satires, from Waiting For Guffman and Best in Show to A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. Nothing has ever approached the heady heights of the mighty Tap, of course, but what could?

Certainly not Guest’s newest film, Mascots, which takes a very gently withering glance at the world of sports mascots, big and small. Despite a pretty amazing cast and some clever moments, the film never catches fire until the climatic final competition and, even then, the flame amounts to a spark more than a blaze. Despite looking grear and being consistently smart, I found myself smiling frequently but rarely laughing. Pleasant enough but thoroughly disposable and forgettable, despite a pretty amazing cast.

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The Windmill

Hands down, one of my favorite horror films of this year or any other. A busload of tourists heads to a picturesque windmill in the Dutch wilds and manages to run afoul of a Medieval miller who traded his soul to Satan and ground up the bones of the locals to, literally, make his bread. The Miller guards one of the Gates to Hell (aka his windmill) and he’s more than happy to harvest a few more souls for his infernal boss, much to the consternation of said hapless tourists.

The Satanic Miller is a thoroughly kickass creation, sort of a cross between the unstoppable juggernaut from the Resident Evil series and Jason Vorhees and the destruction he wrecks is massively entertaining, to say the least. The characters are all fun (if a little cliched, as per this type of thing) and the film looks simply smashing, with eye-popping vibrancy and some genuinely epic shots: that windmill is just too goddamn cool and it never gets old watching it loom into the frame. Add in some of the goriest, most impressive kills of the year and you have, without a doubt, one of the best “pure” horror films that 2016 has to offer: no metaphor, no subtlety, just pure pedal-to-the-metal horror. Outstanding.

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Scare Campaign

My previous experience with Australia’s Cairnes’ brothers (writing-directing duo Cameron and Colin) was their supremely wicked 100 Bloody Acres, a pitchblack “comedy” that featured some particularly nasty business with an industrial shredding machine and loads of sly insight into the plight of farmers and ranchers in the Land Down Under. This time around, the Cairnes have set their sights on the twin modern trends of reality shows and elaborate pranking: the crew of struggling reality show Scare Campaign decide to take their pranking to the next level when they target a potentially unbalanced individual and film his inevitable breakdown. Suffice to say that things do not go as planned in any way, shape or form. The results, as expected, are deliciously gory, supremely smart and constantly inventive, as befits these fearless filmmakers. Some of the best genre films from the past 20 years have come out of Australia and the Cairnes continue that proud tradition with flying colors.

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Hail, Caesar!

I’ll be honest: I haven’t really and truly loved a Coen film since 1998’s The Big Lebowski, which still holds a place in my heart as one of my all-time favorite films. I’ve appreciated and enjoyed what’s followed, for the most part: No Country For Old Men, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou and Inside Llewyn Davis are all great films. I just haven’t loved them in the same way that I loved Lebowski, Barton Fink, Fargo and Blood Simple.

This is all by way of saying that I really loved Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ adorable love letter to Golden Era Hollywood and easily their most evervescent and bubbly film since The Ladykillers. Everything about this goofy gem worked for me and I lost track of the times where I just sat there with a giddy grin on my face. The nods to various classic film genres are always well-done and clever (Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly nod was absolutely one of the year’s highlights) and the whole zany affair reminded me of nothing less than my beloved Lebowski and Fink.

More than anything, Hail, Caesar! is the Coens having fun again: there’s a sense of joy and zany glee that fills every single frame, none of which manages to detract from the exquisitely smart and Byzantine plot. The performances are all memorable, the film is impossibly kinetic and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins makes it all look like a billion bucks. I’ll undoubtedly write more about the film, in the future, but I’ll leave you all with the Cliff Notes version: Hail, Caesar! is one of the very best films I screened in 2016. Period.

Stay tuned for the second week of November, coming soon!