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BestHorrorHM

Just how good was the “Year in Horror,” circa 2015? It was so good, dear friends and readers, that your humble host had to compile a whole separate listing to contain all of the amazing films that just missed the “Best of” by this much (you can’t see it but it’s about a centimeter, give or take). In any other year, any or every one of these little gems might have made the big list: hell, once all is said and done, I’m sure I’ll second-guess at least a few of these and kick myself, anyway.

With no further ado, then (and in no particular order whatsoever), I present the seventeen runner-ups to Best Horror Films of 2015. If the “Best Ofs” are Rolls Royces, these are Jaguars. In other words, you just can’t go wrong taking any of ’em out for a spin.

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Love in the Time of Monsters — Pure fun from start to finish, this is one of the most unabashed good times I had watching a film all year. Full of endearing, quirky characters, a really great concept (the people who play Sasquatch at a Bigfoot-themed tourist trap are turned into murderous monsters by toxic waste), some great, gory special effects and one of the most kickass finales in some time, this isn’t perfect but it’s pretty darn awesome, nonetheless.

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Pod — Claustrophobic, endlessly tense and with a genuinely smart pay-off, the only thing that holds Pod back from neo-classic status are a set of performances that are slightly too intense and shouty for their own good. When the film is focused on the creeping, oppressive atmosphere and the question of just what, exactly, is down in the basement, there were few films that got under my skin quite like this.

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Last Shift — Full disclosure: I absolutely loathed the last film I saw by writer-director Anthony DiBlasi, the patently terrible Clive Barker adaptation, Dread. Combined with the truly terrible cover art for his newest, Last Shift, I had absolutely no interest in seeing the film whatsoever. Good thing I choked back my bias, however, because Last Shift isn’t just a good film: it’s an absolutely great one. Barring the stereotypical and cliched finale, everything about this film is a master study in minimal effort for maximum unease. Think of it as a ruthlessly slow-burning variant on Assault on Precinct 13 (kinda sorta) and that’ll get you close enough. I’m not to proud to say when I’m wrong: sorry, Anthony D…this was a keeper.

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The Gift — Not strictly a horror film but close enough for government work, actor-writer Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut is, hands-down, one of the subtlest, meanest and most uncompromising films of the year. Based on the idea that we’re only ever a stones’ throw from the sins of our past, The Gift features a trio of razor-sharp performances (Bateman, playing completely against type, is utterly magnificent) and the kind of twist that used to be Shyamalan’s stock in trade. This is psychological horror of the highest caliber and destined for classic status, down the road.

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Knock Knock — This one completely surprised me. While Knock Knock features the usual tonal shifts, inappropriate humor and “thinking bro observations” that are endemic to Eli Roth’s entire filmography, there’s something about this sneaky little gem that sank its hooks into me and wouldn’t let go. Come for the sick head-games, screwy gender politics and shocking level of restraint (suffice to say, this is the first Roth film that doesn’t feature copious gore) but do stay for the scene where poor Keanu discusses, in detail, his inability to turn down free pizza. This should have been completely wretched but, somehow, ended up being pretty good. Surprise, surprise.

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Digging Up the Marrow — In a true gift to genre fans, writer-director Adam Green (the mastermind behind the Hatchet franchise and under-rated “stuck on a ski-lift” epic, Frozen) teamed up with renowned monster illustrator Alex Pardee and the results are some of the flat-out coolest, creepiest and most awe-inspiring, diverse monsters to hit the silver screen since Clive Barker’s Nightbreed took us to Midian. The story, itself, is pretty meta for this type of thing: Green (playing himself) is invited by the always amazing Ray Wise (not playing himself) to check out some honest to goodness monsters. Things, as expected, don’t go well. More monsters on screen would have pushed this into the next echelon but what’s here is pretty damn unforgettable.

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Lost After Dark — In a genre where throwbacks to previous eras have become not only more popular but virtually expected, finding a new horror film that apes a ’70s or ’80s horror film really isn’t that hard. Finding one with the consistent quality, high production values and subtle wit of Lost After Dark, however, isn’t quite so easy. While writer-director Ian Kessner doesn’t do anything radically different, he does manage to nail all of the stylistic quirks of his intended homage, all while conducting things with a modicum more seriousness and less meta tongue-in-cheek than we usually get. If Lost After Dark really were an ’80s film, I’m pretty sure we’d be seeing homages to it right around this time.

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Extinction — Like Lost After Dark, Extinction doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel but, instead, doubles-down on what makes its particular sub-genre (zombie films) such an intrinsic part of our horror-loving culture. The performances are solid (Burn Notice’s Jeffrey Donovan is particularly good), the twists and revelations come across as fairly organic and the whole “zombie outbreak in a frozen wasteland” scenario is explored to good effect. Is this one of the best zombie films ever? Not even close. Was it the best zombie film of 2015? Maybe.

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Stung — Going in, I expected this to be another silly, over-the-top horror-comedy: after all, caterers standing as the last line of defense between a mob of giant, mutant wasps and the sniveling local aristocracy at a posh garden party sounds like the kind of thing that could, troublingly, be dubbed “zany.” Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when Stung turned out to be much more serious than that. Essentially an old-fashioned “giant insect” film with deft touches of pitch-black humor, this was just about a grand slam. Fantastic creature effects (easily in the Top 5 of this year), fun performances (Lance Henriksen gets a nice bit as the elderly, tough-as-nails mayor), some really great setpieces and some genuinely smart tweaks to convention (suffice to say there’s more than a little bit of Cronenbergian body horror here) make this an easy recommendation.

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Zombeavers — In a year with more top-notch horror-comedies than you could shake a funny bone at, Zombeavers wasn’t the creme de la creme but it still held its own. With an intriguingly gonzo premise (mutant, zombified beavers attack partying young people, all hell breaks loose), an all-in cast, some fairly outrageous gore effects and a helluva lot of impolite, politically-incorrect humor (the bit where the “wild girl” doffs her top, for no reason, only to be chided by a stereotypical backwoods yokel for making a spectacle of herself is but one example of the filmmakers biting the hand that feeds), Zombeavers is pretty much the perfect party film. Silly, funny but distinctly horror-minded, Zombeavers is one horror-comedy with real teeth.

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The Midnight Swim — Beautifully made, expertly acted and genuinely unsettling, writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s The Midnight Swim was one of the most thought-provoking films I screened all year. This is a subtle film, certainly more sororal relationship drama than hard-core fright film. Look closer, however, and you’ll see that the concepts being discussed here (loss of the self, life after death, the dark mysteries of bottomless bodies of water) are the same sort of things explored in plenty of more “traditional” horror films. While those looking for gore and explosions should keep walking, anyone with a thirst for genuinely smart, evocative cinema should have no problem diving into the deep end.

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Suburban Gothic — Essentially a lesser version of Peter Jackson’s superior The Frighteners or Gerard Johnstone’s far superior Housebound (or a much, much better version of the inept Odd Thomas, if you prefer), Suburban Gothic stars Criminal Minds’ Matthew Gray Gubler as a grown man who moves back into his parents’ house and immediately begins seeing spooky things. Kat Dennings and Gubler make a fairly cute couple, Ray Wise is typically excellent as Gubler’s hateful, racist dad and the whole thing has a light-hearted feel that makes it endlessly breezy and rather pleasant. Barring a few scenes of extraordinarily stupid physical comedy, this was definitely a sleeper.

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Spring — Of the two indie-romance-inspired “guy dates a monster” films that were released in 2015 (the much more problematic Honeymoon being the other), Spring is definitely the better one. Featuring strong performances from both Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker, great use of the picturesque Italian countryside and a decidedly Lovecraftian bent, this metaphor for the joys and terrors of new relationships is appropriately icky, when necessary, while also managing to be genuinely heartfelt and emotionally resonant. Small surprise that this is from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the filmmakers behind the stunning Resolution and two of the most promising new filmmakers out there.

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All Hallows’ Eve 2 — One of the biggest surprises of the whole year for me, All Hallows’ Eve 2 was the equivalent of finding a golden ticket in my Wonka Bar. While I genuinely liked and respected the ultra-gory, no budget original film, nothing about this more polished and expensive follow-up inspired early confidence. Turns out I was wrong, however, since this modest little anthology ended up being one of the best I’ve seen in the past few years. While nowhere near the feral insanity of the original, this is still a rock-solid horror film with plenty of good ideas and no shortage of red stuff for the gorehounds. It’s no Trick ‘r Treat, mind you, but really…what is?

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Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead — Gleefully bonkers, this outrageous splatter film manages to deliver just what the cover promises: Mad Max meets Dawn of the Dead. Detailing one badass mofo’s trek across the zombie-ravaged Australian Outback, in search of his sister (kidnapped by mad scientists), while wearing homemade armor, there really aren’t a lot of films like this out there. Although the film is frequently quite funny (Leon Burchill provides excellent comic support as the sassy Aborigine sidekick), it’s actually more of a straight-forward horror/action flick than the synopsis might make it sound. While the exterior scenes provide plenty of tension, it’s the sweaty, claustrophobic sequences in the scientist’s lair that pack the biggest punch.

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Circle — With a simple concept, obviously low budget, largely unknown cast and lack of unnecessary backstory, Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione’s Circle instantly recalls another sci-fi sleeper: Vincenzo Natali’s classic Cube. Like Cube, Circle is a film that purposely keeps the audience off balance, wondering just what the hell is happening onscreen. By the time we get the full story, the film is already rolling the final credits, which is just the way it should be. Smart, economical and legitimately fascinating, I have a sneaking suspicion that Circle will enjoy the same favored status as Cube in the next decade or so. I went in expecting nothing and was completely blown away: that’s the definition of a nice surprise.

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Deep Dark — This year saw the release of two excellent films about sad sack losers receiving life advice from holes in their grimy apartment walls (if this baffles you, we obviously don’t run in the same circles): we’ll get to Motivational Growth later (I know, I know…”spoiler alert”)…Deep Dark is the other one. Although I prefer the batshit insanity of Motivational Growth, that has less to do with the quality of Michael Medaglia’s Deep Dark than it does with my personal sensibilities. Needless to say, if Motivational Growth wouldn’t have dropped this year, I’m pretty sure that Deep Dark would’ve got called up to the majors. This dark fable of a starving artist who seeks inspiration from a strange, fleshy hole in his apartment wall features blood-spraying art mobiles, man-on-wall sex and that all important warning: be careful what you wish for. Indeed.

 

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