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The Year in Horror, 2016: Jerry’s Top 10 Horror Films!

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It’s been one hell of a year for horror and the first one to have me condensing a good twenty-two films into the ten that really stood out the most. I hope you dig this and that it inspires some searching out for some interesting genre fare.

 

10. VOLUMES OF BLOOD: HORROR STORIES
When anthologies miss, they’re a scattered mess, but this solid group of stories all play into each other with such precision that I found myself forgetting I was watching a film written and directed by multiple people. Focusing on a series of events throughout the year, all of which weave in and out of each other, VOLUMES OF BLOOD: HORROR STORIES plays into a larger story, one that offers up what feels like the horror genre’s version of PULP FICTION.
Watching this entertaining anthology, you find yourself being aware of the writers and directors’ affinity for the genre, the film oozes horror love and references, while never heading into that silly area of fanboy-like ripoffs.

VOLUMES OF BLOOD: HORROR STORIES tackles the crime-gone-wrong subgenre, how passionately against any and all remakes a lot of fans can be and offers one of the most authentically Christmas-y Christmas segments that has hit the genre in quite some time. Check this one out and tell them Jerry sent you…or just watch it and tell them nothing. Either way, it’s one enjoyable fright flick.

 

9. THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK
In what feels like THE EVIL DEAD meets early Jim Jarmsuch, BUZZARD-helmer Joel Potrykus gives horror fans one of the most uniquely original offerings with THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK, telling the story of a young and unstable hermit’s attempts at combining the practice of alchemy and ritualistic offerings in order to attain wealth. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan, when an evil is unleashed, providing a film that is equally funny and terrifying at the same time.

There’s dryness and wit to the way Potrykus writes his films, and THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK’s very impressive performance from actor Ty Hickson is something that needs to be seen to be believed. It’s hard for an actor to carry around 95% of a film alone and Hickson does such a great job showing the deterioration of his character’s psyche, making the film’s viewers question whether or not it’s the lack of medication that is causing the strange happenings or if there’s a real evil taking the guy over and unleashing demonic forces all around.

 

8. FENDER BENDER
The first original production from Scream Factory, Mark Pavia’s FENDER BENDER is a solid, synth-heavy throwback to slasher films of the ‘80s, combining solid and bloody kills with one of the most impressive and memorable antagonists that we’ve seen in some time. So many films strive to give off that homage to the ‘80s vibe, but FENDER BENDER does it without winking to the audience, instead opting to scare the crap out of you with the combination of synth and metal (literally, a metal, fetish-heavy mask and some Kroenen-like HELLBOY blade work), slicing and dicing and an all bets off attitude which works wonders for the tension in front of us.

It’s great to see Pavia return to the director’s chair with FENDER BENDER and WE ARE WHAT WE ARE’s Bill Sage as the film’s “ram you in the bumper before stalking you” villain really does what so many lesser films try to do: provide an iconic villain without feeling the need to broadcast just how icons the character is.

 

7. THE WITCH
One of the many divisive films on this year’s list, Robert Eggers’ THE WITCH is a slow-burn story that is already very much a classic in my eyes, building tension and dread before making its viewers uncomfortable and scared in ways. Involving a family in 17th century New England who is slowly affected by what might be evil an evil witch and dark forces, THE WITCH is a film that never dumbs itself down just to fit the audiences of today.

With time-appropriate diaglogue, natural lighting and excellent performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, the film is one which would fit better alongside ’70s horror fare, never rushing itself and instead opting for mood, tone and a second act that really turns on the fear and paranoia, along with one memorable antagonist in the family’s goat, Black Phillip. While a lot of outlets and people brought the “Satanic masterpiece” label to the film, it’s more about an evil affecting (and infecting) an already fragile group of people, leading to a finale which makes good on the film’s title.

 

6. JACK GOES HOME
A film which hit me hard and in very personal ways, Thomas Dekker’s directorial debut, JACK GOES HOME is an experience that not only shows off Dekker’s promise as a writer/director, but is also a film which leaves its hooks deep in your soul, long after it ends.

Following Rory Culkin’s Jack (a man who is soon having a child of his own), who after getting news of his father’s very sudden passing due to a car accident, heads home to the funeral and to make sure his mother (Lin Shaye) is okay. Almost instantly, it’s made abundantly clear that not only did Jack have a mysteriously rough childhood, but that his mother has nothing but resentment and hatred towards Jack. Little by little, Dekker pulls piece by piece of the puzzle down, letting them fall into place until we’re left with one revealing, dark ending that is one of my favorites of year. Culkin and Shaye work well together, and JACK GOES HOME gives the actress a lot to work with, showing how versatile she is as a performer.

It’s great when films aren’t afraid to feel a bit dirty or mean spirited, showing you how unsafe you really are. Dekker’s got some serious chops as a storyteller and if JACK GOES HOME is any indication of just how able he is a director, then I’m most definitely looing forward to his next venture behind the camera.

 

5. THE GIRL IN THE PHOTOGRAPHS
A satirical look at Terry Richardson-like photographers, the obsession with death that a lot of people have and an example of one hell of a way to tell a horror story, Nick Simon’s THE GIRL IN THE PHOTOGRAPHS fits perfectly in this list and offers something original and lasting. It’s a dark, in your face type of film, full of dread and fear-inducing moments, gory and horrific payoffs and a really unique approach to filmmaking.

Revolving around a duo of serial killers who get their kicks murdering girls and leaving photos of their bodies in public places, THE GIRL IN THE PHOTOGRAPHS points the spotlight on how far we’re all willing to go for attention and the people who aren’t afraid to go TOO far. It’s a slasher film that feels close to both the ’80s films that influenced it and today’s shock and terror-filled films as well. We’ve all known or know of people like Kal Penn’s annoyingly hip photographer, who jumps at the opportunity to head where the murders happen and schedule photo shoots there, before pissing off the killers and unleashing them on every character in the film. It’s a wild film, willing to go for the gold in terms of realistic violence, never feeling too over the top or forced at all.

Filled with memorable performances from Penn, Kenny Wormald and Claudia Lee, THE GIRL IN THE PHOTOGRAPH is a great example of how realistically gnarly a film can be when done well and a film that would make the late Wes Craven (who produced the film) proud to have his name attached to.

 

4. THE NEON DEMON
Another very divisive one on the list, Nicolas Winding Refn’s THE NEON DEMON is a film which falls into the love it or hate it category, which isn’t anything new for NWR-helmed films. There’s most definitely an IDGAF approach to this one, which tells the story of an up and coming model and the fashion industry snakes she comes across, losing her innocence and soul in the process.

A beautiful and at times shocking look at what happens when fame-hungry people get exactly what they want, THE NEON DEMON never feels the need to explain any and everything to its viewer, instead offering a visually GORGEOUS film, one that tells a lot of its story through images rather than exposition. With excellent performances from Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote and one dirty scumbag of a character played by Keanu Reeves, the film is one that I adore to hell, but also a film that I can understand some viewers hate for.

Refn’s never felt the need to make films for anyone but himself and THE NEON DEMON is one that you’ll never get ushered through with nonstop explanations of every single aspect, leaving a lot of meanings up to you, something that in today’s film landscape is rare. A visual masterpiece of a film and in my opinion, NWR’s best film yet, THE NEON DEMON is just another example of how unique 2016 has been when it comes to its films.

 

3. THE MONSTER
After making 2008’s THE STRANGERS, the future seemed wide open for writer/director Bryan Bertino. What camenext though, was somewhat of a sophomore slump in the form of the entertaining but deeply flawed found footage entry, MOCKINGBIRD.

A lot of fans labeled the filmmaker as a one trick pony but those statements were proven VERY wrong by this year’s THE MONSTER. A film which shows how talented the director is with allowing his stories to breathe, putting a woman and her daughter into a confined setting (trapped in a car with a monster outside of it) and showing, like THE STRANGERS, how great the filmmaker is with realistically imperfect characters and the arc of redeeming said flawed characters. The film begins with Kathy, an impatient mother (played excellently by Zoe Kazan) fleeing her abusive husband with her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine in one of this year’s best performances) and getting broken down in a rain-filled night.

Already a creepy setup, the film then injects a monster waiting for the two outside their car, bringing terror into the film and also beginning a great transformation for Kazan’s character in the form of growth, beginning the film as a woman who doesn’t connect with her daughter, isn’t responsible and is unable to be the loving parent that her daughter so desperately needs. Where we get the transformation is internally, showing us as viewers a true character arc, something this year’s films seemed to be great at. Kathy wants to make sure her daughter is okay, so the selfish attitude she begins the film with slowly begins to go away, leading Kathy into being a real hero for her daughter and an individual who refuses to let her daughter die at the hands of the creature outside.

 

2. 31
This is one I can see people giving me crap over but hey, it’s my list so there. Rob Zombie’s follow up to the also very divisive LORDS OF SALEM, 31 is a mean as hell, take no prisoners exploitation film filled to the absolute brim with mean as all hell clowns, carnies and by far one of the best horror performances of the year.

Telling the story of a group of carnival workers (played by a series of Zombie regulars including Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Meg Foster and a few others) who are kidnapped by an unnamed group in an abandoned amusement park and forced to play a game called “31”, the film takes the approach of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and THE RUNNING MAN and putting that “hunting humans” angle deep into Rob Zombie territory. One by one the group has to fight off a series of murderous clowns. From Sick-Head (a small nazi clown who mostly speaks…Spanish) to the chainsaw-wielding duo of Psycho-Head and Schizo-Head, 31 isn’t afraid to really go that extra mile when it comes to its violence, its extremely hardcore nature or even just the over the top flavor the film has in spades.

The kidnapped group members are hunted, kill some of the clowns, are killed by some of the clowns and are slowly picked off, one by one until the final showdown happens between the surviving members and a character that I predict will be as revered as Zombie’s Firefly family from HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES/THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. Richard Brake’s Doom-Head character is played with such viciousness that he jumps right out of the screen to stab you, never seeming cheesy for a single second. Brake has been one of horror’s best kept secrets and his role in 31 is one that will be thought of as a truly memorable performance. Some hated 31, some loved it and without a single doubt whatever, I fall into the latter, loving the hell out of this mean as hell film.

 

1. TRASH FIRE
Having missed the countless festivals this one played at this year, Richard Bates, Jr.’s TRASH FIRE is a film that snuck up on me. Having really liked EXCISION and SUBURBAN GOTHIC, I was hoping for a film as good as the director’s previous work and what I got was a film that is not only, in my opinion, the best film Bates has made to date, but also EASILY the best film of the year.

Angela Trimbur and Adrian Grenier play Isabel and Owen, a very dysfunctional couple who downright hates each other but continually tries to work things out. Playing out like a John Cassavetes film in its first quarter running time, TRASH FIRE takes the doomed couple and injects them into the life changing revelation of being pregnant. Desperate to make things work, Owen tries to turn his hatred-filled heart around, promising to work harder at their relationship and when Isabel demands that they go to visit Owen’s grandmother Violet and sister Pearl (Owen and Pearl’s parents were killed in a fire years before and Owen abandoned Pearl, never looking back) to reconcile.
Where the film really hit the ground running is when both Owen and Isabel are subjected to the cruelty and hate-filled ways of Violet, a frank and gownright mean as hell woman who isn’t afraid to call Isabel the worst of names and be absolutely horrible to the couple. Fionnula Flanagan is absolutely cruel as Violet and EXCISION’s AnnaLynne McCord is show stealing great as Pearl, who after being burned on 80% of her body in the fire years ago, absolutely hates Owen but becomes infatuated with Isabel.

With such flawed yet mezmerizing characters, Bates tells one epic story of hate, redemption and anger, one that possesses the ability to get reel you in before putting you right in the middle of a pressure cooker of a film, until one insane payoff of an ending plays out in front of you. A unique film and easily one of the best horror/thrillers in a long time, TRASH FIRE takes the comedically dark storytelling that Bates utilized in his first two films and really sets them off on you, further showing how unparelled the filmmaker truly is.

About the author
Jerry Smith
A lifelong genre fanatic, Smith loves all things Carpenter and plays a mean game of hide and seek. Currently the Editor In Chief of Icons of Fright, Jerry hails from the dead center of California and changes diapers on his off time.
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