The Year in Horror, 2013: Ken Hanley’s Top Films
It’s Christmas Time here at FANGORIA, and that means our year is rapidly exiting this mortal coil in order to bring us even more gruesome goodness in 2014. More importantly, it means we get to reflect on the year behind us, think about the things we liked and put them into lists in order to spur petty arguments and superfluous agreements!
Now, before we begin, I just need to make a few clarifications. First off, I’m not counting anything not getting an official release as of December 31st, 2013, so this excludes festival favorites such as CHEAP THRILLS and BIG BAD WOLVES. I am not counting any film that is more science fiction or genre-bending out of horror, so that nixes THE WORLD’S END, GRAVITY, ONLY GOD FORGIVES and THIS IS THE END.
So, let’s start with a brief rundown of ten titles that I dearly enjoyed, but not enough to make my top 10. They’re still definitely worth your attention: BLACK ROCK, THE CALL, BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, THE ABCs OF DEATH, CRAVE, CONTRACTED, JUG FACE, HERE COMES THE DEVIL and WORLD WAR Z.
And now, let’s move on to an honorable mention that was ever-so-close to making the cut:
HONORABLE MENTION: CURSE OF CHUCKY
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see some of the more surreal limited releases this year had to offer, such as TOAD ROAD and MAGIC MAGIC, but there was one very pleasant surprise I had that’s worth mentioning. It may not have been “Top 10” quality, but I was damn impressed by CURSE OF CHUCKY, especially considering my ho-hum reaction to Mancini’s first directorial offering in the CHILD’S PLAY series, SEED OF CHUCKY. For a direct-to-DVD release, CURSE OF CHUCKY had some of the strongest moments of suspense in the series’ history, as well as a surprisingly restrained and strong cast that were given more than just a platform to be killed upon. It was way above DTV standards, and made Chucky scary once again, while never losing his cringe worthy one-liners. Furthermore, the reveal of the film’s place within the series continuity was a great twist in its own right. It was a movie that catered to the fans without feeling compromised creatively, and for that, I salute CURSE OF CHUCKY for going above and beyond the expectations of much of the horror community, myself included.
And now, without further adieu, here’s my Top 10 for the year…
10. WOULD YOU RATHER
One of the strongest genre outings of the year was one I had no idea even existed until I watched it in a packed house at the IFC Center, courtesy of FANGORIA: David Guy Levy’s WOULD YOU RATHER. A deceptive tale that requires a sense of audience voyeurism in order to subvert their preconceptions, WOULD YOU RATHER’s true success lies in its ability to establish character while the film crawls towards the inevitable. It’s a bloody, brutal film on the surface, peppered with a wickedly grandiose performance from Jeffrey Combs, but beneath that, the film plays as a gut-wrenching experience in desperation and futility. WOULD YOU RATHER manages to juggle that bleakness with dark humor and exhilaration, which makes the more shocking moments so much more painful to watch. The cast is diverse and often times excellent, including Brittany Snow, John Heard, Robb Wells and Sasha Grey as well as recent Golden Globe nominee June Squibb. It’s a hell of a ride and contains some of the strongest dialogue of a genre film this year. I must not be the only one who has taken notice, as three of the film’s cast members have notably appeared on the most recent half-season of THE WALKING DEAD: Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Robin Taylor and Enver Gjokaj.
9. AMERICAN MARY
One of the most buzzed about horror films of 2013, AMERICAN MARY was very deserving of its praise as a unique and outright disturbing character study from the minds of Jen and Sylvia Soska. Stylish and gruesome, this little wonder explores the world of black market body modification with wanton disregard, which only adds to the taboo nature of the film. Despite problems with the third act, the film develops characters exceedingly well, which is particularly impressive as the darker side of our anti-hero, the titular Mary, is indulged. Antonio Cupo and Tristan Risk give incredibly strong and surprisingly endearing performances throughout, but it’s Katharine Isabelle’s show through-and-through, as she gives Mary the freedom to have dry humor and a cognizance of her sexy visage whilst also giving a damaged, resentful apathy to her colleagues and a fearful addiction to the underground fame resulting from her vocation. It’s a nasty piece of work, but still one that’s executed beautifully and with more brains than your average revenge film.
8. EVIL DEAD (2013)
Pushing the limits of the R-rating past every widely-released contemporary to date, EVIL DEAD was a jaw-dropping, eye-popping remake that brought the series into a thematic u-turn, replacing quotable one-liners and physical dark comedy with visceral shocks and squeamish brutality. Director Fede Alvarez makes one hell of a feature debut with EVIL DEAD, which can happily coexist with the moody, creepy original as the overlap basically ends with the title and premise (well, maybe the imaginative use of vines and chainsaws draws parallels…). Alvarez balances jump-scares with unnerving tension, splattering on tons of gore, dismemberment and punishment from start to finish. Featuring a fearless performance from Jane Levy and strong supporting work from Jessica Lucas, Lou Taylor Pucci, Shiloh Fernandez and Elizabeth Blackmore, it’s ballsy horror that’s eschews commercial compromise in favor to taking general audiences to psychologically scarring places by reveling in sadistic violence. It’s everything jaded horror fans would want from a remake of such a seminal film, and it was a refreshing taste of horror that disregards ambiguity, as Alvarez doesn’t think your imagination is as demented as his.
Part unconventional fairy tale and part post-mortem murder mystery, HAUNTER is an atmospheric spook story that proved Vincenzo Natali can still invoke fear in subtle ways. In other hands, the story may not have been handled so delicately, as a film so reliant on mood requires a certain amount of exposition to thread together the narrative. HAUNTER succeeds in making that exposition seem natural by building identifiable characters and allowing them to be aware of their role within the supernatural. It’s an emotional film at some points, a terrifying ghost story at others, but by allowing ambiguous rules to dominate such a regulated existence, HAUNTER is playfully mischievous and all the more freaky. Better yet, the film is sold impressively by its more-than-capable cast, headed by burgeoning scream queen Abigail Breslin (who also starred in THE CALL, and will appear as a zombie in next year’s MAGGIE) and a very off-putting Stephen McHattie. Most importantly, Natali’s understanding of technically calculated and correctly paced storytelling is evident throughout, which gives the film a definable sense of class and gravitas.
When someone tells you that there’s a remake done almost entirely in first person perspective, the word “gimmick” comes to mind more than once. However, nothing is farther from the truth, as the first person ploy makes the film more brutal, frightening and even more empathetic to the plight of our violent “protagonist.” Elijah Wood delivers his most involved—definitely, his most unsettling—performance to date as Frank, the uncontrollable psychopath from whom we see this story unfold. The kills are shown in their sickening glory and the stalker element that’s often seen objectively is no longer bipartisan within the narrative. It’s definitely much different than your run-of-the-mill slasher film, and director Franck Khalfoun presents a strong remake that possibly stands taller than its progenitor. It’s also one of the few films to hit this year that genuinely made me cringe and gasp with the stark realism of the gore on display.
Despite having its flaws, I thought the original V/H/S was an excellent surprise and the jumpstart that the found footage genre needed from the independent horror community. So, when the fast-tracked sequel hit at Sundance in 2013 to a glorious reception, my expectations were incredibly high. Little was I aware of just how far they’d be exceeded, as the injection of passion and ambition into the new segments helped fashion one of the scariest anthology films to date. Simon Barrett’s wraparound segment was creepier, nastier. Sole returning director Adam Wingard finds an innovative way to bring found footage into a particularly effective haunting story. Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale follow with a darkly humorous and bloody zombie tale told from the perspective of an undead person’s go-pro and Jason Eisener offers a bizarrely emotional extraterrestrial pick-’em-off tale as the last segment of the film. Between those latter two is something really special: the Indonesian horror tale “Safe Haven”, in which a documentary crew bites off more than they can chew when they approach a controversial cult. The amount of curveballs thrown in this segment will leave you dizzy, especially as the violence mounts and the insanity reaches Fulci-esque levels of madness. A marked improvement in directing, FX and acting, V/H/S/2 is an excellent installment that allows the horror to be both fun and frightening. If this is to be a pattern for the future, consider me stoked for more outings.
4. WE ARE WHAT WE ARE
Most likely the best constructed horror film of the year, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE eschews traditional expectations in lieu of an emotionally claustrophobic and inherently shocking tale of family with a legacy of savagery. It’s cold, calculated and often times lying on the fringe of fear while the action unfolds, but when WE ARE WHAT WE ARE reveals its true face, the film truly becomes a disturbing battle royale of wills. Director Jim Mickle brilliantly plays his cards close to his chest, offering just enough information against beautifully shot images to dangle the horrifying inevitability over the audience’s head. By doing so, Mickle allows the characters and story to suck its audience into the film and thus, when the film reverts to its horror roots, it hits much harder. Mickle uses Bill Sage, Michael Parks and Wyatt Russell as the voices of the wounded and insecure males in the world of WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, but the film truly gets captivating around Julia Garner and Ambyr Childs, the sisters from whom the horror of the film lies within, both literally and figuratively.
3. THE CONJURING
Following a decade of paying dues via impressive, but under-appreciated (and in the case of SAW, retroactively maligned), fright films, James Wan found a smashing success in THE CONJURING and for very good reason: it’s the scariest film of 2013. It’s a story that’s surprisingly simple in execution, while never relying too much on CGI to get there, and often times bounces between effective scares and palpable dread with ease. Wan establishes characters that you’ll legitimately give a shit about with both the Perrons and the Warrens, which is only bolstered by his penchant for wonderful character casting. What makes THE CONJURING the scariest film of 2013 is its ability to allow scary scenes to unfold at a brilliant pace. As tiny reveals are made left and right, scares are delivered with such a slow-burning prelude that the payoff is more terrifying than anticipated, and soon, simple fun turns into jaw-dropping malevolence.
Beautiful, poetic and affecting without necessarily being disgusting, brutal or overtly terrifying, STOKER plays a long con on the viewer by simultaneously requesting emotional investment and distance as it breaches your safety zone. Its creepiness attacks your senses with unsuspecting guile, and it’s fairy tale aesthetics only make it harder to get a grip on exactly why it inspires such unsettling feelings. Director Park Chan-wook delivers something totally unexpected that feels tonally indicative of the director’s previous work, but with such apt and subtext-laden dialogue that it often feels hypnotic. What’s more, the cast is so damned excellent, from Mia Wasikowska as the scarred and devious India to Matthew Goode’s playful and charming bloodletter Charlie, to Nicole Kidman’s manipulative and jealous Evelyn. It’s almost like a Jane Austen novel, but told through the lens of Edgar Allen Poe or Alfred Hitchcock, with enough time spent pondering on the terrors of untenable consequence that you forget how far down Park’s rabbit hole you’ve traveled. It’s a work that requires an open mind, but is unforgettable to those who are willing to take a fright film beyond face value.
1. YOU’RE NEXT
There wasn’t a single horror film in 2013 that I had more fun with than YOU’RE NEXT, the brilliant and encapsulating brainchild of Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard. By flipping the home invasion genre on its head, Wingard and Barrett offer a story so invigorating that it’s hard not to be glued to the screen as you wait for the next shocking development. Populated by mostly pompous and densely flawed characters, brought to life by the likes of AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg and Barbara Crampton, YOU’RE NEXT is a movie as quotable as it is memorable, and contains such a fascinating dichotomy between the savage gore and heart-racing action that it’s very hard to define in containable terms. It’s leagues above the other “madmen in masks” horror offerings from this year, with much more brains and synth-soaked thrills. Furthermore, Wingard chooses a sexy, fierce and riveting lead in Sharni Vinson, who helps elevate the film into one of the most goddamn intense last stands in recent memory. When YOU’RE NEXT hits home video in a few weeks, it deserves to be first on your “to-watch” list.