In the previous installment, we took a look at numbers 11-6 of my Best Horror Films of 2014 list. This time around, we’ll take a look at the top five, along with the batch of runner-ups that could very well have found themselves in the ranks, under slightly different circumstances.
The very fact that Jennifer Kent’s remarkable, ridiculously self-assured debut feature The Babadook ended up at Number 5 on my list instead of closer to the top is pure testament to the fact that horror in 2014 was healthier than ever. Everything about this film radiates class: an original story with a truly scary, unique villain, raw nerve acting and an intelligent focus on family-oriented horror that you just don’t get enough of, The Babadook is a real doozy. Truth be told, I loved pretty much everything about the film, bar some minor quibbles. Ask me how this film ranks tomorrow and you might get a very different answer.
Fun fact: I didn’t love Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar nominated Prisoners. It had several ferocious performances and a suitably downbeat finale but I just didn’t connect with it as much as I did with the nearly identical Big Bad Wolves. I only mention this because I absolutely love his followup, Enemy. In a year chock-a-block with doppelgänger films, only Villeneuve brings the appropriate amount of apocalyptic dread: everything in the film is drenched in sickly yellow hues, giving the feel of a jaundiced world collapsing in on itself. Nothing is explained, nothing is expected and the film takes some crazy turns that suggest Lynch and Cronenberg might have been the opposing angel/devil on Villeneuve’s ridiculously talented shoulders. Enemy is the kind of film where nothing terrible can happen, yet you still find yourself holding your breath and gritting your teeth so hard that you wear them to nubs. That’s a powerful film, ladies and gentlemen, and easily one of the most fundamentally frightening films of the year.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Remember when I said “In any other year?” Yeah, well, in any other year, Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive would be a no-brainer pick for the top spot. I might be a Jarmusch fanboy but, if you’re smart, you are, too: the guy is a national treasure and should probably have a holiday named after him. There were so many ways that this lyrical, romantic, beautiful little film could have gone down in flames but ol’ JJ is too much of a pro to let any of it go off the rails. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are radiant as the ageless vampire lovers who languidly watch the eons pass by, while those stupid little humans provide endless entertainment. All of Jarmusch’s trademarks are here, from his brilliant script to the subtle little pokes he takes at any number of targets (the decaying corpse of Detroit makes a suitably Gothic backdrop). While I’ve had Dead Man and Down By Law tattooed inside my heart since the very first time I saw them, it looks like I’m gonna have to make room for some new ink. There are no perfect films? Try telling that to Jim.
Under the Skin
There are some films that you watch and there are some films that you experience: in all my years of watching movies, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is, perhaps, one of the purest examples of an “experience” I’ve ever had. It’s not so much that the film is highly hypnotic, although it is certainly that: rather, Glazer’s impossible to describe sci-fi/horror/surreal/metaphor-whatsit is in a class all its own. A nameless woman travels around Scotland, picks up guys and takes them home to meet an endlessly bountiful ocean of…nothing? Everything? We get just enough information to keep pace but Glazer isn’t interested in the obvious stuff: he shows us an astounding galaxy of possibility, yet wants us to focus on the miniscule, ant-like things beneath the microscope. Easily one of the most gorgeous, accomplished films of the year, genre or otherwise, Under the Skin is proof-positive that horror can be not only smart but sensual, vibrant and beautiful, as well. Perhaps you’re getting tired of hearing this but in any other year, there’s absolutely no way another film would take the top spot from Under the Skin.
Remember when I said that the number one slot was pretty much a lock this year? Meet Housebound: my favorite horror film of 2014 and an instant classic. Is this a better film than Under the Skin, Only Lovers Left Alive or Enemy? Maybe, maybe not. I can tell you that New Zealander Gerard Johnston’s feature debut was pretty much tailor-made for my sensibilities, almost as if the tricky little bastard crawled into my frontal lobe and rooted around with a garden trowel. A young reprobate is sentenced to house arrest under the slightly cockeyed gaze of her sweet but weird mother. She thinks mom’s a square, mom thinks the house is haunted…you know, all the usual stuff. I’d sooner die than spoil any of the films endless surprises and joys but suffice to say that Housebound is uproariously funny, genuinely scary, immaculately made and features a truly thunderous performance from Morgana O’Reilly as the hooligan-turned-ghost buster. Did I mention that the film is also heartfelt and makes some surprisingly astute observations about mother-daughter relationships? I went in to Housebound with very high expectations and the film still managed to leap over them like Superman vaulting the Metropolis skyline. Let’s just say that I look forward to growing old with this film and leave it at that.
And there, gentle readers, is what I consider the eleven best horror films of the calendar year 2014. With a year as strong as this, however, there were bound to be lots of choices left on the cutting-room floor. I now present to you, in no particular order, the “honorable mentions” for the year. In any other year, yadda yadda…you know the drill, folks.
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Here Comes the Devil — a strange, creepy, psycho-sexual warning about poking around in strange caves. Spoiler: don’t do it.
Big Ass Spider! — the first five minutes of this were five of the best minutes I spent watching a film all of last year. If the following 80 couldn’t quite hit that apex, well, I still don’t hold it against ’em.
Hellbenders — Profane, funny and action-packed, J.T. Petty’s Hellbenders was a few notches below Witching & Bitching but was still a helluva ride…pun intended. This story about exorcists who sin so that we don’t have to is like a game of spit-take chicken: the film will dare you to take the bet and you will lose, my friends…oh how you will lose.
Plus One — Someone had the bright idea to weld a dumb, “ultimate party” film with a super smart, paranoid sci-fi film about doubles, time paradoxes and alternate universes. It’s like finding out that the guy doing the keg-stand is an astrophysicist. It’s also one of the most quietly mind-blowing films I’ve seen.
The Den — By this point, found-footage horror is played out but The Den still managed to plow some relatively unfurrowed ground. The focus here is on modern technology and social media, with the underlying idea being that you never know exactly who might be on the other end. It could be a creepy perv or, in this case, a rather terrifying killer. This was one of the few horror films I’ve seen in recent years that actually had me looking over my shoulder a time or two: see this on a computer screen for maximum effect.
13 Sins — There’s something rather fearless about this little “what would you do for money, honey?” proposition, a queasy sort of acceptance that the filmmakers are going to take us on a little tour of places we’d rather not go. While the film occasionally dips into abject nonsense (where the Sam Hell did the ostrich come from?), it makes up for it with some setpieces of such howling insanity that I actually felt sick to my stomach. This has also got Ron Perlman in it which, as you should well know, means it’s automatically a must-see.
Willow Creek — I really liked Bobcat’s found-footage Bigfoot film even if the entire production struck me as an attempt to remake The Blair Witch Project and fix all of the problems. Mission accomplished: Willow Creek features fully sympathetic characters, genuinely funny scenes and a truly bravura ending showcased by a pretty impeccable 20 minute scene inside a tent. The film’s not perfect but it should help keep hikers out of the woods for at least a couple more seasons.
Knights of Badassdom — Essentially a variation on Army of Darkness, Joe Lynch’s LARPers vs succubus tale is primo horror-comedy, although it absolutely doesn’t skimp on the violence in the latter half (think ripped-open heads and the like). The cast is stellar, with Steve Zahn and Peter Dinklage turning in priceless performances as the perpetually stoned friends that have to get truly medieval on someone’s ass.
Almost Human — Lots of films try to slavishly emulate ’80s genre films but Almost Human is one of the few modern ones to really nail the grimy, lo-fi feel of the kinds of gems that used to litter video store shelves in the glory days of the VCR. There’s nothing terribly original here (guy is abducted by aliens, returned as an axe murderer) but the film embraces its schlock roots without resorting to overly cheesy affectations: the practical effects are pretty bracing (there’s some suitably ooky body-horror moments to go with the plethora of axe wounds on display) and the film is never silly, making for a suitably thrilling little rollercoaster.
Starry Eyes — There was a lot of hype behind this Fame-by way of-Faust-by way of-The Fly flick and, for the most part, it lived up to the press. This would have placed higher but the overly familiar story kept triggering deja vu in my poor, horror-addled brain. There may not be many surprises here (although the finale is a real corker) but the whole thing is flawlessly made and features some truly nasty practical effects. In the best possible way, this reminded me of early Cronenberg: I’m guessing the filmmaking team of Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer will grow into a pretty formidable machine.
Blood Glacier — Despite being a remake, very few films can touch John Carpenter’s The Thing: for my money, it’s the alpha and omega as far as frozen horror goes. Clear a spot in the alphabet for Marvin Kren’s Blood Glacier, however, a mutants-on-ice flick that throws plenty of global warming discussion at the audience, along with some of the weirdest, coolest monster designs I’ve seen in some time. At it’s heart, this is a good, old-fashioned monster movie and we can never have too many of those, now can we?
So there it is, folks: the twenty-three films that I considered to be the creme de la creme of the horror world in 2014. Next up, join me as I tackle the almost insurmountable task of selecting my favorite overall films from 2014. It’s a hard job but someone’s gotta do it…and that someone might as well be me. Stay tuned, folks…we’re just getting warmed up.