WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (2013)

It was quite an interesting year for the horror genre—one in which a few remakes actually vied for places of prominence, and the good stuff ran the gamut from classical haunted-house spookery to modern video-voyeuristic shocks.

While the quality of 2013’s scare fare in general was all over the place as well, narrowing down a 10-best list proved surprisingly difficult; catch me on another day, and one or two of my runners-up might supplant the titles in my top 10. As usual, my lineup is comprised of movies that saw commercial release last year, which means a few festival faves (like Big Bad Wolves, Cheap Thrills and The Battery) will have to wait for my 2014 list. These are my picks for ’13, and the movie at the summit was an easy choice:

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (pictured above): Jim Mickle and his writing partner/trusted actor Nick Damici came blazing out of the gate with their debut feature Mulberry Street, and they’ve just been getting better ever since. Their English-language adaptation of Jorge Michel Grau’s Mexican cannibal-family saga is an object lesson in elevating existing material and making it sing its own song—of death, drama and tragedy in this case. It’s inhabited by fully felt performances (led by Bill Sage as the patriarch and Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner as his teenage daughters) and suffused in rainy atmosphere that’s punctuated by chilling moments that are all the more upsetting because we care so much for the characters.

The rest, in alphabetical order:

BYZANTIUM: Neil Jordan interviews a couple of new vampires, played by a fierce Gemma Arterton and a luminous Saoirse Ronan, and they tell the story of a mother-daughter relationship finally beginning to fray after 200 years. The locations are as perfectly chosen as the cast, and Jordan doesn’t skimp on the startling bloodshed as Arterton enthusiastically and Ronan reluctantly feed their hungers.

THE CONJURING: It’s rare to see a film where even though you feel you’ve seen its tricks before, they’re carried off so well that they seem frighteningly fresh. Credit that to the panache director James Wan brings to the fact-based, fairly standard-issue saga of a haunted Rhode Island home, the frightened family occupying it and famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who find the case of a lifetime within its walls. Wan’s skill at staging and shooting wrings every possible jolt and white-knuckle suspense out of the scenario, and he elicits realistic performances from his entire ensemble, most notably Lili Taylor as the spirit-plagued mom.

GRABBERS: Unfairly overlooked by the mainstream this past summer, this will hopefully have a long life as a cult film—and party film—on video. Scripter Kevin Lehane’s clever premise (tentacled bloodsucking aliens that invade an Irish island can only be put off by alcohol in one’s system—so everyone down to the pub!) is brought off with the perfect straight-faced tone by director Jon Wright, employing an extremely likable cast and damned impressive creature FX. It would make a perfect double bill with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s comic sci-fi apocalypse The World’s End.

GUT: Appropriately titled, Elias’ domestic nightmare spurs a strong visceral reaction, paired with equally resonant dramatic undercurrents. Anxious to reconnect with old friend and co-worker Jason Vail, adult teenager Nicholas Wilder invites him to watch a DVD he’s not gonna believe, and the repercussions of its contents come to threaten their sanity and their lives. Well-received at festivals but relegated to under-the-radar video release, here’s a flick to be sought out, savored and shivered to.

IT’S IN THE BLOOD: Another film consigned to an obscure section of the direct-to-video conveyor belt, which means too few people have probably seen one of Lance Henriksen’s best recent performances. As a father struggling with demons both figuratively dwelling in his past and literally threatening in the present, alongside grown son Sean Elliot (who also scripted with director Scooter Downey), Henriksen brings his usual grave intensity to a part that truly deserves it. It’s the centerpiece of a movie that develops dual horrors on complementary narrative tracks that both pay off in chilling fashion.

MY AMITYVILLE HORROR: Turns out that all the allegedly fact-based as well as fictionalized screen horrors that have taken place in the infamous Long Island house can’t hold a candle to the disturbances in the psyche of Daniel Lutz, oldest of the three kids who survived the month-long ordeal back in the ’70s. Just what that ordeal actually involved is investigated in penetrating, fascinating detail by documentarian Eric Walter, whose study remains sympathetic to Lutz’s trauma even as it leaves room for skepticism about some of what he, and the doc’s other interviewees (including Lorraine Warren), claim to be the truth.

STOKER: It was an uneven year for Korean filmmakers taking the plunge into the English-language market, but Park Chan-wook surfaced with a compelling combo of coming-of-age anxiety and psychopathology. Redolent of Hitchcock in its attention to detail and the basics of Wentworth Miller’s script, the movie achieves its own hypnotic style and identity, following grieving teenager Mia Wasikowska as she becomes first suspicious of and then fascinated by her mysterious uncle Matthew Goode.

V/H/S/2: Taken on its own, Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Safe Haven” is the year’s most frightening movie, a plunge into the depths of an Indonesian religious cult that sublimely evokes the tone and textures of a nightmare. The segments surrounding it pack plenty of thrills of their own, each with its own eccentric angle, from Jason Eisener’s frantic suburban apocalypse “Slumber Party Alien Invasion” to Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale’s comparatively lighthearted GoPro-zombie jaunt “A Ride in the Park.” It all adds up to a tighter and stronger anthology than its predecessor and a highlight of the crowded found-footage scene.

YOU’RE NEXT: Like The Conjuring, this is a trek through familiar territory done with reinvigorating gusto. Director Adam Wingard and scripter Simon Barrett introduce us to an engagingly quirky cross-section of parents, siblings and significant others, place them in a remote country house and then sic a trio of heavily armed home invaders on them, keeping the shocks and surprises coming at an unrelenting pace. It’s sometimes viciously funny, too, and showcases a breakout turn by Sharni Vinson as a newcomer to the brood who’s more than able to take care of herself.

Special mention goes to Charles De Lauzirika’s Crave, which isn’t technically horror but dwells in an unbalanced mind as well as any true genre movie I’ve ever seen. Other runners-up include Jen and Sylvia Soska’s twisted character study American Mary, Peter Strickland’s densely sonic and homagistic Berberian Sound Studio, Mike Mendez’s outrageously fun Big Ass Spider!, Fede Alvarez’s surprisingly good Evil Dead remake, Richard Raaphorst’s madder-than-mad-scientist opus Frankenstein’s Army, Vincenzo Natali’s twisty and intelligent Haunter, Adrián García Bogliano’s family fever dream Here Comes the Devil, Don Coscarelli’s entertainingly all-over-the-place John Dies at the End, Chad Crawford Kinkle’s intriguing rural creepfest Jug Face, Rob Zombie’s surreal Eurohorror salute The Lords of Salem and Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac, another better-than-expected remake with a sublimely creepy Elijah Wood.

The genre’s lowest points this year also explored many different subjects and styles of horror—just not nearly as well…

COME OUT AND PLAY: The jury’s still out on whether hooded, monomonikered filmmaker Makinov is a legitimate eccentric or a joker pulling our legs. Either way, his first feature should have been more interesting than this pointless, suspenseless reboot of Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s great Who Can Kill a Child?

DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA: What was he thinking? What were they all thinking?

GIRLS AGAINST BOYS: A would-be feminist-vigilante shocker that wastes appealing star Danielle Panabaker in a film that seems inordinately pleased with its own “edge,” while acting as if the likes of Ms. 45 never existed.

HATE CRIME: A stab at gritty realism via found-footage filming of a home invasion by “meth-crazed neo-Nazis” (never mind that true neo-Nazis reject hard drugs). But the movie is so exaggerated in its villains’ behavior and attempts to push the envelope, it comes off about as “realistic” as an episode of Scooby-Doo.

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2: However bad and grotesquely exploitative you might have thought Meir Zarchi’s original or the 2010 remake were, this sequel to the latter is worse—maybe a lot worse.

INBRED: There have been countless would-be shockers about young people traveling into a rural area and getting slaughtered by the freaky locals, but with the possible exception of Evil Breed: The Legend of Samhain, this might be the very worst, with its combo of cheap sadism and thoroughly dislikable characters.

NO ONE LIVES: Tarantino-wannabeism invades the horror genre, resulting in a movie about bad people encountering worse people with a surfeit of arch, awkward dialogue and absolutely nobody to root for.

TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D: Starts off with a baby retrieved from the Sawyer house aging only about 20 years after four decades, continues to a cop sending flawless streaming live video from the subcellar of a middle-of-nowhere house, and suggests that all involved had a severe case of Rob Zombie envy throughout.

ZOMBIE HUNTER: Danny Trejo seems to be doing even more straight-to-video movies than Henriksen these days, and is overdue for his own It’s in the Blood. Hunter (in which Trejo, despite what the marketing would have you believe, does not play the title role) is just another hodgepodge salute to B-movie fare without a single original thought of its own.

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