2015, Alleluia, cinema, disappointing films, Felt, film reviews, films, Harbinger Down, Hellions, Hidden, horror, horror films, Horsehead, Let Us Prey, Lost River, Movies, personal opinions, The Diabolical, Turbo Kid
Let’s get one thing out of the way: none of the films in the following list are bad films. Well, that’s not exactly true: one of them is actually a terrible film but we’ll get to that. For the most part, however, none of these are bad…in fact, a few of them are actually quite good. So what gives?
As the title might indicate, these are the horror films, released in 2015, that disappointed me the most for one reason or another. Perhaps they were exceptionally strong films that completely collapsed by the conclusion. Maybe they had great central ideas/effects/actors/intentions but only a middle-of-the-road approach. Perhaps they were created by filmmakers I normally follow or had such high pre-release buzz that I couldn’t help but anticipate them. For whatever reason, these are the thirteen films (in rough ascending order, leading to my biggest disappointment) that disappointed me the most in calendar year 2015.
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Harbinger Down — This had great effects (practical, might I add), a killer location (the frigid Arctic), a kickass concept (downed Soviet-era satellite causes mutations, ruins everyone’s day) and then managed to plow as mundane a path with the material as possible. The performances tend towards broad (to put it politely), the creation mechanics/mythos is too fluid and unformed to make much sense (logically or narratively) and the whole thing devolves into a rather clunky rip-off of Carpenter’s The Thing. That being said, Harbinger Down is a lot of fun and certainly no worse than many of its ilk. My disappointment comes from the fact that it could’ve been a lot more unique but never quite crested that hill.
Let Us Prey — Another film with a great cast (Liam Cunningham and the always amazing Pollyanna McIntosh), a great concept (sort of Needful Things meets Assault on Precinct 13) and some genuinely impressive gore effects, Let Us Prey’s devolution into sheer inanity is a real headscratcher. While starting out strong and atmospheric, the whole thing collapses into so much macho posturing (Hanna Stanbridge is one of the chief offenders, along with Douglas Russell), shouting and stupid decisions that it actually made my head hurt. Again, this was never an out-and-out terrible film: it just became an incredibly stupid film, which handily earns it a spot here.
Turbo Kid — I really wanted to love Turbo Kid: in fact, going in to the film, I fully expected to love it as much as Hobo With a Shotgun, which is quite a bit. By the end, unfortunately, it was not to be. While the film was frequently charming and featured a great score, clever world-building (the BMX bikes were a nice touch) and some truly surprising gore (almost in the same ballpark as Hobo, if more reserved), it just never connected with me on any kind of a deeper level. While it’s hard to really pinpoint where the film went wrong for me (I loved the incredibly similar Manborg), the incredibly awkward romance between Munro Chambers and Laurence Leboeuf was certainly one of the main culprits. Leboeuf, in general, turns in such an odd, affected and irritating performance that it made me grow tired of the film fairly quickly: at a certain point, I was just ready for the credits to roll. This may be a case of “individual results may vary” but for your humble host, Turbo Kid was pretty much stuck in neutral.
Lost River — I’ll be honest: I never actually expected Ryan Gosling’s Refn-inspired directorial debut to be a great film. Hell, I didn’t even think it was going to be a good film. Festival buzz bespoke a film that was all style over substance, a confused attempt at creating a new fantasy mythology amid the wreckage of modern-day Detroit. Lost River ends up on my biggest disappointments list instead of my “worst of the year” list, however, for one very simple reason: it’s a pretty fascinating film. Is it a complete mess? Oh, absolutely: not only doesn’t the film make any kind of traditional narrative sense, it never adheres to enough of a mythology to make any kind of fantastical “inner” sense, either. What we’re left with are alluring snippets of a truly intriguing idea (just the submerged city, alone, is kinda classic), some interesting performances, some genuinely amazing visuals and the overriding idea that this souffle coulda been a contender. Next time, however, I think the Gos may come up with something that actually sticks.
The Diabolical — This started out as a genuinely creepy, unnerving haunted house flick (albeit an incredibly familiar one) before taking a complete left-turn into wacky sci-fi for the final third. None of the finale makes sense, the fast-pace feels more “caffeine rush” than “rollercoaster plunge” and it becomes head-poundingly dumb. A classic example of how adding too many ingredients to the soup doesn’t make it better: it just means you have to throw the batch out and start from scratch.
Hidden — Until the stupid “twist” rears its ugly, misshapen head, Hidden is an endlessly tense, smart and claustrophobic little chiller about a family trapped in an underground fallout shelter while the world falls apart above their heads. Or doesn’t, as it turns out. When the film sticks with our plucky trio of survivors, there’s a combination of sweet domesticity and ominous foreboding that’s immensely winning. Once filmmaking duo The Duffer Brothers drop the other shoe, however, it ends up being a moldy old boot, held together with nothing more than dust and duct-tape. Pity, too: if they just could’ve stayed the course, this would have, easily, been one of the biggest sleepers of the year instead of one of its biggest disappointments.
Monsters: Dark Continent — Remember when I said one of these disappointments was also a terrible film? Well, here’s the culprit. While I never loved Gareth Edwards original Monsters, I still had a lot of respect for what the film was trying to do. The only emotions I feel for Tom Green’s sequel, however, are derision and a slight irritation at my wasted time. Dark Continent is a terrible film is so many ways, from its utterly generic, anonymous cast (every soldier looks the same and they’re all assholes: they’re sort of like the Borg, in that respect) to its “Poli-Sci 101” level of political commentary (the soldiers are in the Middle East to fight giant mutants but spend more time fighting human insurgents because war is hell, man) to it’s utterly “who gives a shit?” notion of narrative continuity. I don’t even mind that the monsters aren’t the main focus of the film (they weren’t in the first movie, either): I mind that this shitty, utterly generic, middle-of-the-road “war” movie is.
Horsehead — What starts out as a lush, crazy, Gothic fever-dream slowly morphs into something that could best be described as a misguided attempt to turn A Nightmare on Elm Street into an art film. It’s a real shame because Horsehead is one hell of an eye-popping experience until the whole thing sags and collapses under the weight of expectations it can’t possibly fulfill. Had this stayed a creepy, moody and nonsensical little bit of nightmare fantasia, ala Argento’s best work, Horsehead might have ended up on my Best of the Year list. In the end, however, the film is just too cluttered, stretched-thin and vaguely silly to have much lasting impact. A pretty film, to be sure, but also pretty vacant.
Alleluia — As someone who really enjoys Fabrice du Welz’ films, I was definitely looking forward to Alleluia, his take on the infamous case of the “Honeymoon Killers.” While there’s not much technically wrong with the film, Alleluia ended up being one of my biggest disappointments this year simply because the film ends up being so repetitive, predictable and (at least for the Belgian provocateur) too darn safe. The beauty of du Welz’ films is that we get the idea that anything can happen at any time. Laurent Lucas and Lola Duenas’ actions have such a “lather/rinse/repeat” quality to them that everything gets telegraphed, after a while. We always know exactly how Duenas’ Gloria will react, which significantly reduces any sense of tension. As such, the whole film becomes a waiting game in-between Gloria’s “manic” episodes. While visually alluring and full of strong performances, Alleluia is definitely the low point of du Welz’ filmography and that, my friends, is massively disappointing.
Hellions — As someone who considers Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool to be a bona fide modern-day classic, any follow-up was going to instantly make its way to the top of my “must-see” list. When I found out that Hellions was about a pregnant teen who must make a desperate stand against demonic, trick or treating, home invaders on Halloween eve, well, let me tell you: I pretty much expected this to be one of the very best of the year. And here we are. While Hellions is a true visual marvel (the whole thing is shot with a hallucinatory pink filter and is probably the most unique-looking film I’ve seen since Wheatley’s A Field in England), it’s also kind of a mess, shooting for the stylized insanity of primo-era Itallo horror films but ending up somewhere closer to Rob Zombie’s “close-but-no-cigar” Lords of Salem. This was a classic case of style over substance which is especially disappointing coming from the auteur behind the whip-smart Pontypool. I definitely don’t mind films that are genuinely odd: Hellions, however, feels like it tries way too hard to achieve that. As you might guess: that’s pretty disappointing.
Felt — You know what’s disappointing? When you agree with a film’s message, part and parcel, yet can’t stand the messenger. There’s nothing about Jason Banker and Amy Everson’s Felt that I necessarily disagree with: this searing indictment of our modern rape culture is both unflinching and long overdue. There are some genuinely powerful moments here, both visually and narratively, and if the film is never as fundamentally mind-blowing as Banker’s earlier Toad Road, well…what is? The problem (at least for me) was Everson’s consistently unpleasant, tedious and obnoxious performance as the tortured lead. I agreed with what Amy (the character) wanted to achieve but everything about the character and performance was needlessly “kooky,” off-putting and tiresome. It wasn’t just that Amy “told it like it really is”: she turned her rage on everyone around her, including her put-upon “friends” and often came across as nothing more than a spoiled brat, eager for attention. The hell of it? There’s every indication this could have been the modern Repulsion.
The Hallow — Cool setting? Check. Interesting blend of fantasy and horror elements? Check. Solid acting and filmmaking? Check. Excellent creature effects? Check plus. So, with a scorecard like that, how did writer-director Corin Hardy’s The Hallow end up in this particular list? Quite simply because it promised so much more than it actually delivered. While The Hallow promises an immersion in Irish folktales and mythology that will produce a raft of terrifying new cinematic creepy crawlies, what it actually gives us is some zombifying fungus (not bad) and a whole bunch of pale, generic beasties that look like second-cousins to Marshall’s cave-dwellers in The Descent (not good). That’s pretty much it.
Add to this the fact that much of the film either takes place while poking around a creepy house (been there) or running through the creepy woods (done that) and there’s the distinct idea that The Hallow is much less fresh, original and interesting than it first appears. One of my biggest disappointments of the year, however, was getting all the way to the final credits and releasing that Hardy wasn’t going to utilize any of the terrible, wonderful, ridiculously cool creatures that have been teased throughout. No film this well-made can (or should) be considered a loss: there’s just too much that works here to write it off. The Hallow takes the penultimate spot on my list, however, because it was absolutely capable of so much more: the proof is right there, on the screen…what little of it there is.
It Follows — If there was one film that seemed to be on every horror fan’s lips in 2015, it was David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows: similar to last year’s The Babadook, the film even managed to top most genre critics “best-of” lists for the year. Depending on who you talked to, the film was either the freshest horror offering to come down the pike in years (since The Babadook?) or one of the most ingenious throwbacks to old-school horror/slasher films: take your pick. One thing everyone seemed to be in agreement on, however, was that It Follows was an easy pick for best horror film of the year.
Since you’re now staring at the aforementioned film at the top of my “biggest disappointments” list, it’s probably obvious that I didn’t agree. Was this an attempt to be “edgy” and buck the trend of popular opinion? Not in the slightest: I’m in complete agreement whenever anyone wants to discuss the film’s outstanding electronic score (Disasterpiece is, apparently, the new John Carpenter), gorgeous cinematography or (mostly) solid performances. As a film (and especially as a debut film), It Follows looks just great.
The film fails for me, ultimately, because it’s just too damn sloppy with its “rules.” Part of the sheer terror of the concept (an unstoppable, constantly moving figure is always behind the victim and will move slowly and surely towards them) comes from the inevitability of the scenario: when there’s a creepy figure moving inexorably closer in the distance, our pulse elevates right along with the character. We’re told, point-blank, that the figure will pursue its quarry to the ends of the earth, slowly, constantly coming for them. Even if you stop moving, it never does.
But then we see the figure just hanging out on top of a roof, looking menacing. Or kicking back in the background, giving the characters enough of a head start to get away. Or, in one of my personal favorite bits, seemingly able to appear right where the character is, even though she drives miles away: I’m guessing the figure hopped a cab to save its aching feet? The most important takeaway, however, is this: the “rules” for the creature are exactly as flexible/non-existent as the film calls for at any particular time.
This, for me at least, had the effect of completely deflating any tension from the film. Let’s use another example: suppose that we have a zombie film where they explicitly state that a head-shot will kill a zombie. We know this, so know what to expect in the oncoming “humans vs zombies” melee. We see countless zombies being shot in the head and dropping, until one reaches our heroes: in a bit of dramatic action, our heroes narrowly put a bullet right in its head…but it just shrugs and keeps coming. Our heroes look at each other and shrug, too. Why did this happen? Why, the need for increased drama and tension, silly!
For me, however, increasing dramatic tension by jettisoning your own established rules does nothing to serve your story or your audience: it’s the equivalent of painting yourself into a corner and then just walking back across the wet paint. Since we’re never really sure what the “rules” regarding the “it” in It Follows are, we’re pretty much left with an unbeatable McGuffin that displays just enough weakness to allow our heroes to get the upper-hand. In short, it’s a plot contrivance more than an iconic new source of terror.
Does this make It Follows a bad film? Not at all: there are genuine scares aplenty, even if the atmospheric ones gradually fall by the wayside for more traditional “we gotta come together and fight the monster” beats. My big issue with all of the hype is the baffling anointing of It Follows as a modern classic: it’s a solid, well-made film but it’s too inconsistent and laise-faire to be as ironclad as it needs to be. If It Follows was the best horror film you saw in 2015, I’m going to wager that you might not have looked quite as hard as you could have.