10 Cloverfield Lane, Best Horror Films, Best of 2016, Carnage Park, cinema, Clown, Curtain, Emelie, film reviews, films, Freaks of Nature, Green Room, horror films, mid-year review, Movies, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Scherzo Diabolico, The Gateway, They're Watching
With as little ado as possible, I now present the other half of the horror films that have impressed me the most since January. As with the previous list, these are in no particular order, although the final two bear the distinction of being the two most recent films I’ve screened. Let’s get to blurbing!
They’re Watching — What do you get when you let two of the creative masterminds behind SpongeBob Squarepants loose in the horror genre? Turns out you get something truly quirky, weird, goofy, sort of stupid and thoroughly entertaining: whoda thunk it? Jay Lender and Micah Wright’s horror-comedy sends the crew of an American home renovation show to a tiny, backwater Eastern European village, where they run afoul of the sinister locals, a possible witch and lots of unnatural things in the woods. The film is pitched and realized as a nod to Sam Raimi’s classic Evil Dead and it works like gangbusters, especially once we get to the SFX-heavy finale. Never less than fun and frequently rather brilliant, this was one of the biggest surprises of the year.
Emelie — On the surface, this tale of the proverbial bad babysitter seems thoroughly old hat and moldy but it’s actually quite tense, intelligent and genuinely unsettling. We see how deranged the titular character is right off the bat, which lends an immediate queasy jolt to all of her interactions with the children. It’s the classic case of knowing there’s a bomb, under the table, ready to explode at any moment. While I wouldn’t call Emelie Hitchcockian, per se, let’s just say that writer-director Michael Thelin gets a lot closer to that celebrated real estate than most. The Tudors’ Sarah Bolger does some truly frightening things as evil Emelie and the kids are likable enough to make us care. Another film that should have received a theatrical release but went straight to VOD.
The Gateway — For his sophomore film, writer/director/cinematographer Jaron Henrie-McCrea opted to make what I consider to be a front-runner for horror film of the year, which is really considerate of him. The premise behind The Gateway (aka Curtain) is so simple that it might sound stupid, at first: a burnt-out hospice nurse rents an apartment where any curtains hung in the shower mysteriously disappear. She decides to find out where they go and absolutely metaphysical mayham ensues. The logline may seem like the setup for a lame punchline but what Henrie-McCrea does with it is nothing short of genius. To say almost anything would potentially spoil some amazing twists and reveals, so suffice to say that this microbudget marvel is worth a watch and we’ll leave it at that. A strange, delightful companion to last year’s equally twisted Motivational Growth.
Freaks of Nature — Another film that I expected to be a silly goof, Freaks of Nature won me over so completely that I ended up watching it again a few days later. Fun, good-humoured, full of smart themes, loaded with quotable dialogue and featuring a simply terrific cast, this tale of a small town that happens to be populated by uneasily coexisting humans, vampires and zombies and is then, in turn, invaded by aliens, is the definition of a crowd pleaser. The characters are charming and empathetic, old pros like Denis Leary, Keegan-Michael Key, Joan Cusack, Bob Odenkirk and Patton Oswalt turn in instantly memorable performances and the laughs are both earnest and just raunchy enough to suit the material. The rare film where the teenage characters actually feel like teens and not like thirty-year-old actors. Suffice to say, I liked this one a whole lot.
Pride + Prejudice + Zombies — Despite being a fan of both Jane Austen and zombies, separately, I did not expect to enjoy this particular mash-up in the slightest. I gotta say, though: it ticked every box off my personal score card for big-budget, multiplex horror fare and then some, especially when compare to something like World War Z. Lushly filmed, very smartly written (the not-so-subtle battle of the sexes themes reveal surprises at every turn), full of great action sequences with decent enough CGI effects and quite a bit of grue (for a PG13 flick), I found myself constantly entertained, intellectually engaged and a little sad when it was over. With tongue just enough in cheek (through cheek?) but with an obvious reverence for the source material, this is a modern(ish) update that really works.
Scherzo Diabolico — Anyone who’s been a regular reader of The VHS Graveyard will know that I hold auteur Adrian Garcia Bogliano is no small regard: truth be told, he’s a major deity in my personal pantheon of modern horror filmmakers and someone whose projects I await like a kid on the last day of school. Every film has been markedly different and this little jewel keeps the trend running. A put-upon, low-level lawyer finally reaches his breaking point and decides to kidnap his boss’ daughter in order to throw the alpha asshole off his game. The plan works, to a point, and then it doesn’t: the eventual blowback brings to mind the works of Chan-wook Park and earns this a resounding place at the horror big kids’ table. The title is Italian for “Diabolical Prank” but this is all treats, no tricks.
10 Cloverfield Lane — Full disclosure: I was never bonkers over J.J. Abram’s original Cloverfield. While I always admire a good giant monster flick, that one came with a bit too much nausea-inducing 1st-person POV and obnoxious characters for my taste. I liked this kinda-sorta follow-up (Abrams produces but doesn’t direct) quite a bit better. In fact, when the film is just Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr. feinting around each other in the bunker, it’s kinda-sorta amazing. The “other stuff” is handled well, without a doubt, but those tense early-to-mid scenes are where the film really shines. To my mind, it’s still obvious that this is two films “stitched” together. When it’s done this well, however, I really can’t complain.
Clown — Once upon a time, a couple of jokers named Christopher Ford and Jon Watts had the cojones to post a trailer for a movie called Clown online and attribute said film to horror maven Eli Roth. Thing is, Roth had nothing whatsoever to do with the film, which also didn’t exist in any form. He was impressed by their temerity, however, so we flash-forward to the actual product, written by both, directed by Watts and presented by Roth. Is the destination as good as the journey for the little creature feature that could? Absolutely. Not only is Clown the very best killer clown movie ever made (call it the Citizen Kane of clowns, if you will), it’s also one of the very best horror films of the last few years, hands down. Clown is pure, old-school, slow-tracking-shot glory, full of outrageously gory kills, a genuinely kickass origin story and a supremely sympathetic, tragic hero. This isn’t a horror-comedy, ala Stiches or Killer Klowns From Outer Space: this tale of a father who dons an old clown costume and starts going through “ch-ch-changes” is pure, skin-crawling, not-afraid-to-kill-off-the-kids, flat-out horror. Essential.
Green Room — Some might argue that Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to the gut-punch that was Blue Ruin doesn’t exactly qualify as horror. Fair enough. Close your eyes and imagine that you’re trapped in the back of a run-down bar, in the middle of nowhere, weapon-less, with a mob of bloodthirsty neo-Nazis pounding down the door. Sounds horrifying, right? Fair enough. Featuring one of Anton Yelchin’s final performances, a truly surprising serious turn from Alia Shawkat and Patrick Stewart as the most polite, sublimely evil skinhead in recent memory, Green Room is throttle-to-the-metal action, as fist-pumping and head-banging as it is genuinely sad and tragic. Once again, Saulnier shows that there’s no one better when it comes to depicting deperate folks at the end of their very last ropes. Extra points for a truly kickass soundtrack.
Carnage Park — And here he is again: good, ol’ Mickey Keating. Two films in one year and they both landed on my mid-year best of list…suffice to say, I’m starting to think that this low-budget auteur is the bee’s knees! Capturing not only the blown-out look but also the heat-mirage morality of ’70s-era drive-in fodder, Keating brings us a simply dynamic tale of a pair of lowlifes who rob a bank, take an innocent hostage and drive into the desert, where they all run afoul of a looney-tunes former war hero who’s decided that sniping unsuspecting folks on his own twisted “amusement park” wasteland is as good a form of therapy as any. The performances are pitch-perfect, with Ashley Bell and Pat Healy being easy stand-outs, but it’s really all of the little, marginal details that make this so special, including what I’m pretty sure are some subtle allusions to the original My Bloody Valentine. At this rate, there’s every chance that Keating’s next film, Psychopaths, will also end up on this year’s best of list: when yer hot, yer hot!