The Year in Horror, 2013: Sam’s Top Films
2013: a year in which I loved a lot of films, but treasured only one. I’ve carried STOKER with me through all twelve months, having been swept up in Chan-wook Park’s artistry on a very early January morning in Park City, Utah. I entertained the possibility then, that a full calendar could yield something as stunning (many came close), but I knew. I knew this engrossing, prodigiously composed and entirely warped gothic tale of understanding yourself and who you come from would take it all. Thus, similar to last year, it’s not very fruitful to assign meaningless numbers to this list. If anything stands above, it’s STOKER. The films that proceeded to make incredible impact shouldn’t be delineated by anything other than alphabetical order.
The best horror films of 2013 are wildly varied in content. Finding yourself bound to any one subgenre or “type” of horror—or even films that skirt the very edges of it all—would be denying what the widely encompassing genre has to offer, and what truly unites the best of it: vision. I’m a sucker for style, for boldness and for assuredness. My favorite horror films of the year do not lack an aim to push, or provoke, to feel operatic or go entirely off the rails They excel at creating an atmosphere and making that atmosphere vital to exploring a well-dressed coming-of-age; a haunted Rhode Island house; altered states, folk tales and transcendence; paranoia abroad; tours of the countryside; abuse and more.
A Note, or Two: In the interest of penning a list most readers can adequately discuss, I’ve kept my choices to 2013 releases, and not films I’ve seen this year that will open next. In doing so, it was difficult to leave behind a few pictures that deserve special mention and will very likely appear on the 2014 edition. They are: E.L. Katz’s biting, satirical debut CHEAP THRILLS; Ben Wheatley’s stark, hallucinatory period piece A FIELD IN ENGLAND; Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s experimental giallo THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS; and Tamae Garateguy’s predatory, punk rock SHE WOLF.
Similarly, I was afraid a few genre-bending films didn’t properly fit within the bounds of “horror,” but are nonetheless some of my absolute favorites. They are the Lithuanian head-trip from Kristina Buozyte, VANISHING WAVES; Edgar Wright’s rousing, hilarious and intensely layered Cornetto finale, THE WORLD’S END; Nicolas Refn’s transgressive nightmare ONLY GOD FORGIVES; Shane Carruth’s extraordinary UPSTREAM COLOR; Amy Seimetz’s Florida noir debut, SUN DON’T SHINE and Cristian Mingiu’s riveting convent exorcism drama BEYOND THE HILLS.
Finally, some films are doubled up. This doesn’t indicate a tie, so much as they complement each other and I’d like to see them as double features.
A special breed, the best coming-of-age films are awash in cinematic power that evoke visceral remembrance of adolescence and a time when every emotion was true elation, the most fluttering of butterflies or absolutely gut-wrenching. It’s in adolescence when everything feels a matter of life and death, making this extremity of feeling ripe for exploration through genre. In that sense, and in many others, Park Chan-wook’s first English language feature STOKER is perfect. It’s lead, the young India (Mia Wasikowska) on the cusp of womanhood, navigating a journey of heightened senses, family mystery and eventual murder, is a warped, lurid portrait of coming-of-age. She faces loss, of both a loved one and an idol, and gains herself in the process. In the end, India boasts a sense of self, is assured of her body and is equipped with a thrilling drive. (Full Review)
THE CONJURING/ INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2
Real, palpable dread. In THE CONJURING, it is thick and ever present, and takes on many forms. It is a doll, it is a door. It is a hand clap, it is a spirit. It is malevolence in the air, it is the chill from a dark basement. It is accursed land. It is, eventually, the reveal of director James Wan’s full capabilities as a master of horror. Like INSIDIOUS before it—although miles ahead of that already splendid exercise in shoulder shudders—THE CONJURING is special because Wan, as a filmmaker is. Here, he has proven an innate understanding of the eerie and the frightening. (Full Review)
And with 2013, James Wan was firmly revealed as a Master of Horror. The classical, ever-roving and entirely frightening THE CONJURING was punctuated with a second, smaller haunter. His sequel to INSIDIOUS unveiled that, despite losing him to the big leagues, his weirdo sensibilities were roaring, alive. INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 is scrappy, garish and aggressive, and ultimately an audacious disregard of any audience who disregarded INSIDIOUS’ jaunt into the Further. CHAPTER 2 lives there, in a world where every fright feels like that ghostly slap to Rose Byrne’s face, leaving a stinging red impression that likely won’t fade until Wan returns.
DARK TOUCH is aesthetically dark and aggressively down, yet is an entirely fists-in-the-air alive film. de Van is clearly angry—and rightfully so—at the horrors that daily befall children, as well as attuned to some of the more alarming behavior that infests so-called normal lives. The aforementioned opening and subsequent psychically clashing set pieces are rough, breathless. Weaving in drops of pitch-black comedy, a child’s birthday party becomes a frenzied, taut sequence highlighting the icky manner in which the children are learning to treat and discuss their dolls. Soon, the director is employing her predilection to push, the gallows humor and graphic, confrontational manner of her debut IN MY SKIN, and the stylish, thriller maturation of DON’T LOOK BACK. It creates a swirling, ever simmering atmosphere that bubbles to a final act so visceral and entirely warped, it’s really unmissable. (Full Review)
KISS OF THE DAMNED
KISS OF THE DAMNED will most often be referred to as throwback. Its dreamy score, its opening titles, its visual flair and just how swooning the cast is all hark to the Roger Vadim, Jean Rollin Eurohorror aesthetic beloved by so many. More than a call, though, Xan Cassavettes’ vampire tale is a refresher. Entrenched in supernatural high society, its heightened senses, from ample bloodshed to melodramatics to lips that smash hard when they come together has found a way to make vampirism exhilarating onscreen again. (Full Review)
MAGIC MAGIC / BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
Strangers. Strange land. One, a troubled American girl in South America overwhelmed by her own paranoia and an ensemble of truly odd, prodding “friends.” The other, a meek British editor flown (or was he?) to Italy to complete post production on a 1970s horror film, where an ensemble of truly odd, prodding filmmakers and the close proximity to uncomfortable material force his mind elsewhere. One is an incredible exercise in nervous tension, the other a moody haze. Both, thanks to turns from Juno Temple, Michael Cera and Toby Jones, are kind of unforgettable. (Full MAGIC MAGIC review)
With Ben Wheatley—one of the most electric and prolific new filmmakers working—and stars/writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram crafting a chronicle of new lovers on holiday, the last thing to expect is anything resembling a traditional relationship drama. And that’s the last thing you get. But within Chris and Tina’s mad love, their pencil museum visits, their vicious murders and hysteric jaunt through the countryside is real poignancy about the peaks and valleys of intimate connection and letting go of long-held restraint. (Full Review)
TOAD ROAD / THE LORDS OF SALEM
Both TOAD ROAD and THE LORDS OF SALEM find their lead characters spiraling in a perfect storm of drugs and Northeastern folk tales (Witches, Pennsylvania’s Toad Road). Rob Zombie’s latest is artfully composed, delivering on his promise as a filmmaker with often beautiful looks at blasphemous activity (not to mention, some fantastic wallpaper). TOAD ROAD, the first film from director Jason Banker, is a singular makeup of horror story and suburban youth doc. What’s probably most unsettling is the real footage of reckless kids messing with fad substances, ultimately setting the stage for this year’s most tragic of protagonists (emphasized by the death of actress Sara Anne Jones).
The latter half is where V/H/S/2 gets incredible. A leaner film, V/H/S/2 is still bursting with energy as Gareth Huw Evans, of THE RAID: REDEMPTION fame, alongside co-director Timo Tjahjanto (MACABRE, THE ABCs OF DEATH) craft a docu-like chronicle of an Indonesian cult that flies so high, its Fulci-esque destination will leave fists in the air. Quite probably the most insane, “Safe Haven” brings supernatural, demonic reckoning upon on a team of filmmakers who’re finally besieged by a climactic creature with an entrance so very gleefully, savagely rowdy, it’s unforgettable. (Full Review)
WE ARE WHAT WE ARE
…in the essence of adhering to our country’s own horror tradition, this time WE ARE WHAT WE ARE culminates in a fleshy dinner. While sufficiently red throughout, the team of Mickle and cinematographer Ryan Samul craft a gorgeous, if ominous view of the Parkers and their immediate vicinity. It’s often brooding, as are the brood, so when the very final act gets underway in an operatic sequence of stunning violence, the roof feels completely torn off. WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is very much its own, enrapturing beast. (Full Review)
What’s surprising about YOU’RE NEXT is just how seriously funny it is, but not at the expense of its horror, or with an interest in being meta. It stems from the authentic, snappy and ball-busting nature of family interaction that heightens as the stakes do. That handling of stark violence and the truly comedic—sometimes in the very same instant, giving the film a devious, “home invasion by Agatha Christie” nature—is evident of great crowd pleasing talent from Wingard. The filmmaker behind acclaimed, grimmer fare like A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE is able to craft thick, proper tension that houses unforgettable visual gags and dialogue exchanges that in many other hands, almost certainly wouldn’t have worked. Put simply, it’s great. (Full Review)