The Year in Horror, 2014: Ken’s Top 10 FilmsHome,News Ken W. Hanley
With little over a week until Christmas, and two weeks until New Years Eve, it seems that 2014 has been a divisive year in the world of horror. While 2013 was a boon to genre films studio and indie alike, 2014 was not as lucky: great offerings mostly found their debut on VOD, while great studio horror was, more or less, widely accepted as a dime a dozen. But while 2015 may offer some truly creepy cinema, this polarizing nature of 2014’s horror offerings will do well for at least one thing: varied, unpredictable and oddly defensive End of Year lists!
Of course, before we begin, let me clear the air towards what qualified as horror cinema in 2014. First off, Festival Favorites that did not get a official release before December 31st, 2014, will not be making the cut. I am also not counting any film that is horrific but absent of genre, such as THE ABCs OF DEATH 2 or THE DANCE OF REALITY. And, unfortunately, I will also not be counting the 30th Anniversary re-release of GHOSTBUSTERS, because that’s just unfair.
However, the biggest elephant in the room is the films that are “horror adjacent” but not technically falling into the category, of which there were many that you should all see immediately. These films include the likes of: Evan Katz’s hilariously brutal CHEAP THRILLS, Sion Sono’s brilliant and bloody WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?, Jim Mickle’s deep fried noir COLD IN JULY, Dan Gilroy’s compelling psychodrama NIGHTCRAWLER, Jeremy Saulnier’s revenge masterpiece BLUE RUIN, Gareth Evans’ incredibly kick-ass THE RAID 2 and the single most fun movie of the year, Adam Wingard’s THE GUEST.
And now, before we get into the good stuff, here’s an especially honorable mention that was very close to making the Top 10 list:
Honorable Mention: “THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN” (dir. Adam Robitel, dist. Millennium Entertainment)
One of the few out-and-out surprises of the year, Adam Robitel’s THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN was a damn good horror film with an excellent conceit that unfortunately bypassed theaters altogether. A genuinely scary possession film that also works as one of the most organically presented found footage films in the genre, THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN begins as a genuinely compelling and upsetting family drama, planting the seeds of horror cleverly through the introduction of it’s title character. Through the lens of a documentary, capturing the life of an older women seemingly undergoing degenerative Alzheimer’s Disease, the film falls prey to some of the standard expectations of found footage once it’s solidified as a horror film. But luckily, and unexpectedly so, THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN finds its footing once Robital introduces the mythology behind the scares, and what could have been something bland and predictable shoots into intriguing and terrifying territory. Luckily, this genre gem is finding the growing appreciation that it deserves on Netflix, where it can and should be streamed instantly.
And now, without further ado, here’s my Top 10 Horror Films of 2014…
10. “THE QUIET ONES” (dir. John Pogue, dist. Lionsgate)
Wrongly maligned due to it’s milquetoast marketing strategy, one of the scariest theatrical experiences I’ve had this year was with John Pogue’s THE QUIET ONES. The tale of a young girl undergoing experimental psychiatric treatment to expel negative energy which causes possession-like symptoms, THE QUIET ONES has the benefit of not only being scary, but shockingly smart as well, being driven by characters and interpersonal tension just as much as the suspenseful moments. And even more clever is how the character development feeds into the plot, as the building animosity that flows throughout the film, invoking dread and adding an extra cloak to every unexpected scare, gives further reasoning to the questionably supernatural elements in the narrative. And aside from having some of the creepiest set pieces of the year, in particular the attic-bound search at the bottom of the second act, the film also sports incredibly impressive performances from Olivia Cooke, Sam Claflin and film MVP, Jared Harris.
9. “RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1” (dir. Lloyd Kaufman, dist. Troma Entertainment / Starz Media)
While even I couldn’t have predicted a new Troma film would break my Top 10 list for the year, I also couldn’t have predicted how much of a return to classic form RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1 would be for the 40-year-old indie film company. With Kaufman back behind the camera, more vicious and perverted as ever, RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1 is hilarious, shocking and utterly nasty in the only way a Troma film can be. But above else, RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1 feels like Troma rejuvenated, playing their mischievous hand better than ever with production values that certainly look better than anything they’ve produced… possibly ever. RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH, VOLUME 1 is a love letter to the absurd and gross world of Troma, and if it’s not horrifying to you hardcore horror films, try showing this at your next family get-together, as I’m sure it’s more than horrific to the casual moviegoer.
8. “BIG BAD WOLVES” (dir. Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado, dist. Magnet Releasing)
Absolutely unsettling and cerebral, BIG BAD WOLVES is more in the vein of Hitchcock than HOSTEL, although the impact of the latter is certainly on display. From the opening moment on, BIG BAD WOLVES gets much mileage out of its atmospheric chills and misdirection, leaving the audience in its perpetual and twisty grip. Directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado engage the audience with a tale of revenge that’s among the most gruesome of its kind, all the while offering liberal doses of dark humor, social satire and even affecting drama. Yet beyond that, BIG BAD WOLVES most succeeds at riding the line of human-born horror, using patience, bloodshed and a looming aura of unspeakable consequences to transcend the narrative limitations of its thrilling conceit.
7. “LATE PHASES” (dir. Adrian Garcia Bogliano, dist. Dark Sky Films)
A throwback to character-friendly ’80s horror, LATE PHASES is not defined by it’s near-perfect mix of horror and humor, but rather by its charm, which it offers in lieu of genuine heart. And it’s in this way that LATE PHASES is much like its curmudgeonly protagonist in that there’s a lot to like, especially when looking in on the outside, even if there’s something darker and flawed on the inside. But LATE PHASES, while far from perfect, is a winning combination all around, sporting a great cast of dependable genre actors (headed by a career-best Nick Damici) and some of the best practical werewolf SFX in recent memory. Even more impressive is this was all achieved underneath a language barrier, as Adrian Bogliano undertook LATE PHASES as his first English-language production, injecting the project with attitude, confidence and just the right amount of nostalgia. Luckily, Bogliano delivered in spades, as LATE PHASES is an instant addition to the top tier of werewolf horror, and absolutely worthy of your time.
6. “THE SACRAMENT” (dir. Ti West, dist. Magnet Releasing)
As a longtime Ti West fan, I was highly anticipating THE SACRAMENT since it’s announcement, as his take on a Jonestown-esque scenario would guarantee some remarkable intensity in almost any case. Yet I still think I was wholly unprepared for THE SACRAMENT, which admirably treated its concept with a terrifying and heartbreaking sense of credibility. West brings his natural gift with character to the table with THE SACRAMENT, all through a first person perspective that allows him to play with the spatial nature of his story unlike ever before. But West also piles on his signature brand of unbearable dread, perpetuating it through slow stylistic and dialogue flourishes. And by the time West takes you where you want to go, THE SACRAMENT doesn’t feel like a horror film, but rather an examination of humanity at it’s most desperate, punctuated by a bloody, stark and unforgettable third act that resonates unlike any other of the year.
5. “STARRY EYES” (dir. Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer, dist. Dark Sky Films)
The perfect Faustian parable for millennials and dreamchasers, STARRY EYES is a fairly straightforward film, following a struggling actress as she finds that her big break may reap sinister repercussions. Playing like ROSEMARY’S BABY had Rosemary been in Guy’s shoes, STARRY EYES isn’t necessarily the most unpredictable film of the year, but what it lacks in surprises, it makes up in overwhelming atmospheric terror, anchored by a frighteningly bold performance by Alex Essoe. STARRY EYES hits its marks with gusto and fervent willingness to descend to the darkest depths of our imaginations, which in turn adds a psychological subtext to the supernatural horror on display. If anything, STARRY EYES’ particular brand of horror is like a screaming woman, running at the audience with a giant knife: you’ll see it coming a mile away, but as it gets closer, there’s nothing you can do but prepare yourself for the unimaginable.
4. “UNDER THE SKIN” (dir. Jonathan Glazer, dist. A24 Films)
If there’s one word to sum up UNDER THE SKIN, it’s pervasive. But not pervasive in the way of graphic or exploitative, but in the same way films like THE SHINING or POSSESSION burrow their way into your soul throughout their running time, leaving you helpless to what terrors they may infest into your mind. UNDER THE SKIN is certainly a slow-burn, and there will be moments where you will be pulled out of the film by the mechanics on which it operates, but for it to be any other way would be as if to remove a color from a painting. UNDER THE SKIN is concisely assembled to strike fear in your brain and heart, provoking your values and challenging any preconceived notions of the genre. But perhaps director Jonathan Glazer’s most impressive addition is that, believe it or not, there’s an entirely perceivable story in UNDER THE SKIN. So while the horror of the film may be disorienting and powerful, the story itself and the emotions it represents is surprisingly universal.
3. “AFFLICTED” (dir. Derek Lee & Clif Prowse, dist. CBS Films)
For what it’s worth, AFFLICTED may just be the single best found footage horror film of all time for a single reason: the characters are real. That’s not to say the experiences that the fictionalized versions of Derek Lee and Clif Prowse are in any way real, but these longtime friends-turned-filmmakers bring an authentic rapport and emotional investment in one another that simply has not been replicated in other found footage horror films. In turn, that friendship makes AFFLICTED a truly scary experience, with its incredibly impressive visual effects and fascinating concept all helping to build the devastating story of Derek and Clif. And while the film does carry its share of cheap scares, par for the subgenre course, the film uses that to it’s advantage, allowing the later moments that are captured in all of their glory to resonate just as effectively as its tragic narrative. But don’t let my words fool you: AFFLICTED is flat-out fun as well, with the thrilling, heart-racing set pieces likely being the best within the horror genre this year.
2. “THE BABADOOK” (dir. Jennifer Kent, dist. IFC Midnight)
A strange thing happened to me when I watched THE BABADOOK: I figured out something about my relationship to the films of another Australian horror filmmaker, James Wan. While I’ve forever been a fan of Wan’s work, I never really taken the time to think of his horror baddies as “boogeymen.” But alas, from THE CONJURING to INSIDIOUS to even SAW, there’s an ominous dread that Wan took advantage of from the concept of a scary monster enacting a diabolical scheme within the shadows. And that dynamic only became apparent after watching Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK, a story about a literal boogeyman of the scariest variety. One of the few films I’ve seen from a female filmmaker that is told completely and uncompromisingly from a female point of view, THE BABADOOK is viscerally terrifying and beautifully orchestrated. Gripping you from it’s dreamlike opening moments, THE BABADOOK bubbles under your skin, as Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman’s phenomenal performances build a conceivable relationship that’s designed to invoke a sincere empathy for their situation. But much like THE BABADOOK himself, it’s that empathy that captures your attention, and once it’s got a hold, the onslaught of paralyzing terror on display is executed masterfully and to the fullest extent. Make no mistake: THE BABADOOK is the scariest film of 2014 by a mile as wide as it’s memory-scarring smile, and is undoubtedly well on it’s way to becoming a genuine classic of the genre.
1. “HOUSEBOUND” (dir. Gerard Johnstone, dis. XLrator Media)
If THE BABADOOK is the scariest film of 2014, then how can HOUSEBOUND be my top horror film of 2014? That’s because HOUSEBOUND is the EVIL DEAD II to BABADOOK’s HELLRAISER, and I don’t wield those titles lightly. HOUSEBOUND is 100% perfectly tailored to my taste as a horror fan, and is so simply excellent that I consistently wished I had had something to do with it. HOUSEBOUND is breathtakingly hilarious, authentically scary, narratively unpredictable and stylistically confident, so much so that to give any details away in any fashion would spoil the experience; even the poster art for the film carries an excellent misdirect, which makes the final product all the more valuable. But if you like your horror with comedy, HOUSEBOUND is perfection, delivering hard and brilliantly conceived laughs while still having enough straight-faced and respectful scares to please even the most humorless horror fans. So while THE BABADOOK may have my memories under it’s unforgiving thumb, HOUSEBOUND has left the rest of me in stitches, and you can be certain that I’ll be the first in line for Gerard Johnstone’s next.