The Year in Horror, 2014: Michael Gingold’s Top 10 MoviesFearful Features,Home,Movies/TV,News Michael Gingold
It truly was the independents’ day on the horror scene this year. Nine out of my choices for the top 10 (well, actually 10 out of 11) films for 2014 only received limited theatrical release, and the one that went wide was made independently and acquired by one of the minimajors.
It goes without saying to anyone who surveyed the past 12 months of fear fare that many of the films that only got a handful of big-screen playdates deserved nationwide exposure, and vice versa. But VOD and disc, if not necessarily on parity with the theater experience, certainly level the playing field in the end, so here are a bunch of movies that, if you haven’t yet caught them, are well worth seeking out for home horror enjoyment. As always, my list is composed of films that received their commercial releases this year; they’re in alphabetical order, though my unequivocal top choice comes in first that way as well:
THE BABADOOK: I’ve been singing the praises of Australian actress-turned-filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s stunning directorial debut ever since I saw it at a festival this past spring, in my review and elsewhere, and still believe it’s one of the most accomplished genre features of this decade. Running a gamut of harrowing emotions well beyond horror, Kent’s study of a single mother (a shattering turn by Essie Davis) under stress from both her out-of-control young son (equally superb Noah Wiseman) and an invasive phantom functions just as well as a perceptive domestic drama as it does as a truly shivery supernatural chiller.
THE BATTERY: Just when the DIY zombie movie seemed to be on (or past) its last gasp, along came writer/director/star Jeremy Gardner to offer a fresh point of view. As a pair of baseballer pals (Gardner and Adam Cronheim, with wonderful bro chemistry) make their way across an undead-dotted rural landscape, observational comedy rules the day and there are funny surprises at every turn, even offering takes on the living dead we’ve never seen before. The final act is a small masterpiece of situational simplicity, existentialist humor—and invention mothered by necessity.
BIG BAD WOLVES (pictured right): Just as exciting as discovering Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s debut feature RABIES was watching the Israeli duo take the next big step with their follow-up. No one is clean in this shocker centering on a suspected child-killer (Rotem Keinan), a vengeful father (Tzahi Grad) and a vigilante cop (Lior Ashkenazi), yet the cast and filmmakers keep us riveted rather than repelled by these unsavory characters, wondering both what they’ll do next and what they might have done in the past.
CHEAP THRILLS: There’s been some internal debate among the Fango crew as to whether E.L. Katz’s film about dares for money gone to extremes qualifies as horror or is better categorized as black comedy. I say that any film that plumbs this level of psychological disturbance, punctuated by occasional, painful moments of bloodshed, definitely belongs in the genre realm. Anyone who thinks the new breed of cheap, imitative torture porn represents transgressive cinema-making should watch this film (perfectly acted by Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner and Sara Paxton) to see what truly pushing boundaries of abusive human behavior looks and sounds like.
HOUSEBOUND (pictured left): Another winner from Down Under (and to the right), Kiwi first-time filmmaker Gerard Johnstone’s horror/comedy unfolds its series of story twists so confidently, it almost makes you feel like you’ve forgotten how to be surprised by a movie. Everything’s right here: Johnstone’s careful modulation of tone and command of narrative, the rural New Zealand atmosphere and the pitch-perfect performances, led by Morgana O’Reilly as a sullen young woman forced into house arrest and Rima Te Wiata as her long-suffering mum, with whom she’ll have to learn to get along as they confront something sinister haunting their home.
LIFE AFTER BETH: A further demonstration of how to get the tricky balance of horror and humor just right. Aubrey Plaza is Beth, apparently dead from a snakebite but now back among the living; Dane DeHaan is her boyfriend Zach, first confused, then thrilled, then perturbed by her return. As he drops a series of sometimes riotously funny gags and character bits, writer/director Jeff Baena (yet another surehanded maiden voyage at the helm) keeps it all grounded in truthful human emotion that gives both the laughs and the gross-outs weight and meaning. John C. Reilly, as Beth’s in-denial dad, heads up a first-rate supporting cast.
OCULUS: Making good on the sterling promise of his first feature ABSENTIA, and expanding on his previous short film, director Mike Flanagan creates the quintessential haunted-mirror movie. Deftly intertwining past terrors and a present in which two siblings (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites) try to prevent the looking glass’ bloody history from repeating itself, Flanagan and co-scripter Jeff Howard build a series of escalating frights with both occult and familial origins.
PROXY: A brutal assault on a pregnant young woman is certainly an attention-grabbing opener, but even with such a bluntly vicious act, all is not as it seems. In the scenario written by Zack Parker and Kevin Donner and directed by Parker, the attack is neither the central event nor even the bloodiest one, but the launching point of a psychodrama in which three women (very well-played by Alexia Rasmussen, Alexa Havins and Kristina Klebe) interact in ways that reveal deep, dark secrets and motivations that take both them and the audience in unexpected directions. The less you know about the plot and characters in advance, the better, so read no more and check this one out.
THE SACRAMENT (pictured right): Basing a horror film on a true event might threaten to undercut the suspense via foregone conclusion, but in this case, the knowledge of the terrible events in Jonestown decades ago only adds a queasy, scary sense of inevitability to Ti West’s variation on that story—his latest and best-yet exercise in slow-burn terror. Told documentary-style, the movie has us tagging along with a VICE crew to a religious compound where the surface utopia gradually, inexorably gives way to unnerving revelations of what’s really going on. It all rides on Gene Jones’ instant-classic performance as “Father,” the leader of the cult whose courtly Southern-gentleman exterior masks a megalomaniacal zealotry.
TIE: UNDER THE SKIN and ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE: A pair of art-house horrors that explore different sorts of vampirism, both showcasing standout performances by their leading ladies. SKIN’s Scarlett Johansson, an incognito alien preying on the male of our species, and LOVERS’ Tilda Swinton, as a centuries-old creature consuming both art and blood, anchor films that find great beauty amidst the shivers, as directed by Jonathan Glazer and Jim Jarmusch respectively.
Runners-up include Clif Prowse and Derek Lee’s energetic vacation-gone-very-bad saga AFFLICTED; THE GUEST, an exciting throwback synthesis of action and horror from YOU’RE NEXT’s Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett; HORNS, with Daniel Radcliffe in Alexandre Aja’s go-for-broke adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel; Alejandro Hidalgo’s THE HOUSE AT THE END OF TIME, another chronology-twisting winner; Adrián García Bogliano’s English-language debut LATE PHASES, pitting a terrific Nick Damici against werewolves; STARRY EYES, in which Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer chillingly demonstrate that the road to Hollywood hell is paved with ambition; THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS, more senses-filling giallo homage from Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani; WITCHING & BITCHING, Alex de la Iglesia’s defiantly, sometimes hilariously politically incorrect return to genre territory; WOLF CREEK 2, Greg McLean’s second go-round with the murderously patriotic Mick Taylor (John Jarratt); and a trio of little movies that could: Brendan Steere’s ANIMOSITY, Greg Olliver’s DEVOURED and Scott Schirmer’s FOUND.