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2012: The Year in Horror

Many critics would have us believe that 2012 was a “great” year for movies. They’re referring to mainstream movies, among which there were indeed several good-to-great releases in ‘12 (although I’ll forever contend that LINCOLN, LES MISERABLES, THE AVENGERS and MOONRISE KINGDOM are all quite overrated). This, however, is a horror site, and in the horror zone of 2012 cinematic greatness, as I’m sure I don’t need to inform you, was in short supply.

     According to most genre sites the year’s best horror movie was CABIN IN THE WOODS, a ranking I don’t agree with. In my view CABIN… was far from great, and indeed I didn’t see a single horror movie in 2012 that I’d call “great”--even my #1 choice, as you’ll see, was at best very good.

     The following includes my rankings of the best and worst horror films of 2012, along with recommended non-genre and DVD releases, and a brief look forward at some promising 2013 releases. As always, the films listed are culled from those that were commercially released theatrically or on DVD within the U.S., and not film festival screenings or foreign DVDs. Obviously I was unable to see every horror movie released last year: I missed many of the big sequels--the new UNDERWORLD, RESIDENT EVIL, SILENT HILL and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY flicks--and kiddie cartoon comedies--PARANORMAN, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA and FRANKENWEENIE--as well as THE COLLECTION and (regrettably) ROOM 237.

     So with that, let’s get started on my look back over this sorry year with…
 

The Best:

1. BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW
A movie that over-relies on atmosphere at the expense of a strong narrative. But then again, the otherworldly aura created by writer-director Panos Cosmatos and his collaborators is so extraordinary I won’t complain too much! The setting is a technologically fuelled new age retreat called Arboria, run by the severely creepy Dr. Nyle (Michael Rogers), who years earlier underwent a ritual intended to bring about a “new age of enlightenment of the human soul.” The experience turned Nyle into a near-mutant who now has to wear specially made contact lenses and a hairpiece. The ritual also birthed an offspring, a telepathically endowed young woman (Eva Allan) residing in Arboria who is poised to escape. The grab-bag of a narrative is nothing to shout about, playing like THX-1138 crossed with THE FURY, SCANNERS and LOST HIGHWAY, but the hallucinatory atmosphere is extraordinary in its artful disorientation--I’d even wager that this film’s quasi-futuristic psychoscape is as unique and recognizable as anything created by Lynch or Cronenberg. I should add that the above applies only to the scenes set within the enclosure of Arboria, marked by unnervingly antiseptic production design, ominous sound effects, eerily beautiful multi-hued photography and performances that perfectly match the film’s brooding style. I should also add that BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW all-but demands to be experienced more than once, and preferably on a big screen.

2. KILL LIST
It’s impossible not to be moved by this harsh, disturbing and plain horrific film, surely the finest British horror film of recent years. It centers on two contract killers (Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley) who take a job that entails tracking down and killing three people. Unfortunately for our “heroes,” they fail to immediately pick up on the many odd and suspicious aspects that go with the job, such as an arcane symbol that frequently turns up and the fact that two of their victims inexplicably thank them before dying. The violence is startlingly brutal and lacerating; one particularly nasty killing stunned even me (not easy to do) with its unblinking ferocity. It helps that the performances are all first rate (although the mumbled dialogue is often difficult to make out), the atmosphere thick with impending menace and the narrative consistently surprising, with an impossible-to-predict twist in the final ten minutes.

3. COMPLIANCE
This based-on-fact film has been widely criticized for being implausible (if you view it on a big screen you can expect to see, as I did, at least one outraged patron storm out of the theater), but speaking as one who’s done time in the service industry I found it entirely believable. Furthermore, from what I understand the film follows the particulars of the actual case, which took place in 2004 at a Kentucky McDonalds, quite closely. The setting is a fictional restaurant called ChickWich, whose overworked manager (Ann Dowd) receives a phone call one morning from a guy claiming to be a police officer, who alleges that an attractive blond employee (Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer. What follows is an increasingly depraved procession of torture and humiliation as Dowd, blindly following the dictates of the caller, subjects Ms. Walker to all manner of abuse, culminating in a sexual assault. Writer-director Craig Zobel relates this account with an impressive sense of realism, bolstered by uniformly strong performances and a steadily mounting tension that would have made Hitchcock proud. Contrary to what many commentators would have you believe, the proceedings are never exploitive, although they are difficult to watch. Zobel doesn’t shy away from the tale’s more unpleasant aspects, illuminating the ugliest corners of the human psyche in a film that ranks with similarly themed fact-based classics like 1976’s TENTH LEVEL and the German DAS EXPERIMENT.

4. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Critics largely dismissed this latest Batman sequel, while audiences overwhelmingly voted it their favorite movie of the summer. I’m siding with the audiences. Sure the film is overlong, has too many characters (actress Juno Temple is shamefully wasted in a role whose total screen time is around 30 seconds) and is burdened with a cacophonous Hans Zimmer score, but those were all things that afflicted THE DARK KNIGHT, which everybody loved. I did too, but found this new film superior in many respects: the action scenes are more streamlined and coherent, and the narrative, set in a “Gotham City” that’s clearly meant to evoke--and indeed is--a post-9/11 NYC beset by class warfare, has more real-world relevance. There’s no single performance that galvanizes the proceedings the way Heath Ledger did in the previous film, but all the actors acquit themselves quite nicely, including Tom Hardy as Bane, who nearly outdoes James Earl Jones in ominous vocalizing, and even (unbelievably enough) Anne Hathaway, who’s appropriately sexy and spunky as a none-too-catlike Catwoman.

5. GOD BLESS AMERICA
A comedy that has taken on an increasingly dark resonance in the months since its early-2012 release. The reasons for that are the multiple real life tragedies in whose wake this once far-fetched satire, featuring scenes of people mowed down in a movie theater and elsewhere by assault rifles, no longer seems all that satirical. The narrative concerns a fed-up divorcee (Joel Murray) who after being fired from his longtime job declares war on the shallowness of modern America. Together with an equally disgruntled young woman (Tara Lynne Barr) Murray embarks on a killing spree, with his sights set on annoying reality TV stars, right wing demagogues and just about anyone who annoys him. Writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait (yes, that Bobcat Goldthwait) depicts the killings in unashamedly bloody fashion while keeping the proceedings suffused with a streak of pitch-dark comedy. Given how on-target Goldthwait is in his depiction of American annoyance (a mock right wing TV broadcast is so impeccably staged I was convinced it was an actual Fox News excerpt), it’s hard not to root for the film’s trigger-happy protagonists, even after all the real life shooting sprees that have shaken America to its core. I’d argue that GOD BLESS AMERICA is a far deeper and more resonant work now than it was initially, although the film’s flaws, most of them narrative-related (such as the fact that the protagonists’ killing spree is far too easy overall), are unfortunately still quite evident.

6. LOOPER
A wildly overstuffed but reasonably effective effort from indie auteur Rian Johnson, who here tries his hand at an action-intensive time travel thriller along the lines of 12 MONKEYS. Other evident influences are THE TERMINATOR and THE OMEN, and the mix isn’t pulled off without a lot of evident strain, resulting in a film that plays like (at least) two entirely separate movies. Taking place a few years from now, it begins with a digitally altered Joseph Gordon Levitt as a “looper” who assassinates individuals sent back from 30 years in the future, when time travel is a reality. Levitt’s ordered existence is thrown into turmoil when one of his intended victims (Bruce Willis) escapes--a particularly thorny problem, since, it transpires, Willis IS Levitt thirty years hence! Then around the halfway point Emily Blunt turns up as a single mother living in a farmhouse with a telepathically endowed kid, and LOOPER becomes an entirely different movie, with quite a few plot strands left to dangle (such as Levitt’s relationship with his close pal Paul Dano and some business involving actress Piper Parabo, who was evidently the subject of a discarded subplot). There’s also the issue of Levitt’s voice-over narration, which is lazily utilized (i.e. whenever some particularly complex concept needs explaining) and narratively questionable, seeing as how Levitt’s isn’t the only point of view expressed. This doesn’t mean the film isn’t entertaining, mind you, just that Johnson would be wise to exercise greater control over his material.

7. EXCISION
A twisted little gem with a real sense of style and a galvanizing performance by (no joke) Traci Lords. She plays the domineering mother of a severely maladjusted 18-year-old outcast (AnnaLynne McCord). We know the latter is disturbed because of the demented dreams she’s always having, which involve extreme bloodletting set within gaudily colored clinical interiors. The girl’s an aspiring surgeon, and it’s clear from the start that she’ll be putting her surgical leanings to use on one or all of the girls who are constantly tormenting her, if not on her little sister or her hated ma. Writer-director Richard Bates Jr. does a good job delineating McCord’s disturbed psyche, but the film’s real drama is in the fraught mother-daughter dynamic at its center, which is extremely well developed and intense. Alas, the frequent celebrity cameos by the likes of Malcolm McDowell, John Waters, Ray Wise and Marlee Matlin do nothing but distract from the goodness.

8. THE DIVIDE
Apocalyptic horror movies are often heavy-handed (see the entry for 4:44--LAST DAY ON EARTH at the end of this list), but here’s one such film that avoids preachiness in favor of trashy exploitation. Directed by Xavaier Gens (of FRONTIER(S)), it’s a Canadian made splatterfest in which a nuclear blast traps several people in the basement of a big city apartment building. Among the unfortunates are a hot chick (Lauren German), a punk (Milo Ventimiglia), a panicked mother (Rosanna Arquette) and a gruff authoritarian (Michael Biehn) who lords over them all. That, at least, is how things are initially, but then a couple of the participants briefly make their way out of the basement, and find a makeshift laboratory where children are being used in unholy experiments. From there the dynamic inside the basement changes, with bad behavior and bloodlust overtaking the protagonists. At nearly a full two hours the film is overlong, but it’s also quite grotesquely entertaining, with a goodly amount of bloodletting and an overall arc that couldn’t possibly be any bleaker.

9. SINISTER
I don’t believe it! A chilling and nuanced depiction of hallucinatory horror from the director of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE and the DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL remake! That director is Scott Derrickson, whose Christian leanings are well known, and may have contributed to this film’s non-ironic, character-based vibe. Another surprise is Ethan Hawke, who’s actually quite strong in the lead role of a writer who discovers a stash of 8mm film in the attic of his new house. He’s moved into the place because a murder occurred there, and he hopes that residing in the house will help with his research. But Hawke gets more than he bargained for when he views the films he’s discovered, which depict all sorts of horrific murders (mass hangings, a head run over with a lawnmower, etc), and the proceedings come to take on a distinctly VIDEODROME-ish feel as Hawke’s sense of reality begins to dissolve. SINISTER’S suburban milieu feels genuine, as does the family dynamic at its center, while the snuff film footage is quite unnerving. The ending, alas, doesn’t quite work, failing to wrap things up in a satisfying manner and leaving too much unexplained.

10. KEYHOLE
A 1930s set something-or-other by Guy Maddin, who can always be counted on, at the very least, for otherworldly weirdness. He provides that in this black-and-white hallucination, which is as strange as anything Maddin has ever made--making it, by default, one of the weirdest movies of all time. Whether it’s any good I honestly can’t say, but Maddin fans (i.e. me) will be sated. Jason Patrick stars as a gangster named Ulysses who together with his goons breaks into a haunted house. The delirious psychosexual shenanigans that follow put me in mind of THUNDERCRACK!, and I’ll confess I didn’t understand everything that occurs in the swirl of horny ghosts, electrocution, telekinesis, surprisingly copious full frontal nudity (male and female), thwarted love and general insanity that is this film.

11. THE IMPOSSIBLE
A dramatized Spanish made account of the 2004 East Asian Tsunami, told from the point of view of a family caught in the thick of the disaster who somehow survived. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts are both quite strong in the lead roles, while THE ORPHANAGE’S Juan Antonio Bayona lends the proceedings a powerful sense of realism, and demonstrates (not for the first time) that he really knows how to work with CGI. The film’s ultimate virtue, as well as its most grievous flaw, is its near-primitive simplicity: it presents the events of the tsunami and its aftermath in straightforward, unblinking fashion with little in the way of introspection or complexity. Perhaps this is why I found the film curiously detached from an emotional standpoint, even though it contains some truly nerve-jangling depictions of aquatic mayhem and an unprecedented amount of onscreen crying (it actually makes LES MISERABLES look restrained in that regard).

12. BRAKE
Another of those immersive single actor claustrophobia-fests that have become so popular in recent years (see BURIED and WRECKED). BRAKE features Stephen Dorff as a secret service agent who one day awakens to find himself shut inside a glass coffin situated in the trunk of a speeding car. Up until the film’s final minutes Dorff's is the only face we see as he attempts to communicate via cell phone and CB radio with another man who claims to be in a similar predicament, an unseen truck driver and his government superiors, all the while being subjected to various torments by his unseen captors (filling the coffin up with bees, etc), who are apparently looking to use Dorff's knowledge of the inner workings of the U.S. government to pull off a presidential assassination. The proceedings are appropriately stark and suspenseful, and Stephen Dorff makes for a surprisingly strong center. I could, however, have done without the double-twist ending, in which Dorff is joined by several more actors outside the car trunk, thus destroying the cunningly wrought mood of forced entrapment and finishing off a highly unconventional film in a thoroughly conventional manner.

13. DUST BOX
This digitally lensed Swedish feature is a sequel of sorts to Ronny Carlsson’s 2010 short RECOMPENCE. A young woman (Mariah Kanninen) wants to have a baby but can’t, until one day, to her great surprise, she discovers she’s become impregnated--her joy, however, quickly turns to anxiety and terror. Carlsson’s oft-kilter tastes are evident in the visually evocative nature of the film, which is anything but a traditional horror movie. It’s more an atmospheric mood piece, marked by an ever-present sense of hallucinatory dread and little-to-no demarcation between dream and reality. If the film has an overriding flaw it’s that it appears to have been conceived in a form similar to that of the above-mentioned RECOMPENCE--i.e. as a short film. Even at a quick 72 minutes DUST BOX feels overlong and drawn-out, with a few too many repetitive shots of the heroine wandering through desolate cityscapes and forests. Yet the film’s nightmarish aura is undeniable, and evoked with enormous skill.

14. CABIN IN THE WOODS
This film deserves credit for its clever dismantling of the EVIL DEAD-inspired splatter movie model that has become so ingrained among modern genre filmmakers. That, however, doesn’t change the fact that CABIN IN THE WOODS is too pleased with itself by far, over-relying on cleverness to sustain our interest. I won’t give away too much of the narrative, as it’s best to experience the reality-warping twists, topped off by a fun last-minute cameo, from a fresh perspective. I’ll reveal only that the film involves a bunch of idiots staying in a cabin in the woods, contrasted with several people in a research lab. How the two realities connect is a prime example of the film’s cleverness, as is the way screenwriter/director Drew Goddard (assisted by TV titan and AVENGERS director Joss Whedon) pays affectionate homage to his EVIL DEAD model while simultaneously critiquing it. Of course, you might argue (correctly) that we’ve already had more than our share of this sort of thing already. Here’s an idea: why not dispense altogether with the homages, critiques and whatnot and create something original?

15. THE GREY
With THE GREY director Joe Carnahan crafted a wilderness survival saga that’s dark and uncompromising in a manner that harkens back to the bare-knuckle cinema of the seventies. It features Liam Neeson as a freelance huntsman who survives a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness together with a bunch of oil workers, who are then stalked, and gradually picked off, by wolves. The plane crash sequence is impressive (although it was outdone by the one that opens FLIGHT), as is the none-too-happy ending. Unfortunately Carnahan can’t resist packing much of the rest of his film with Hollywood bullcrap, from the many distracting actor-ey moments star Liam Neeson is given (lecturing the oilmen about the true definition of masculinity, hollering at God) to the GLADIATOR-esque flashbacks of Neeson’s idyllic home life. I’ll also complain about the bloated two hour-plus running time, which could have stood to lose at least 30 minutes.

16. SILENT HOUSE
Surprisingly enough, I liked this Americanized remake of the 2010 Latin American no-budgeter THE SILENT HOUSE more than the original. Like that film, this one takes place over the course of a single night, with a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) becoming increasingly terrified by the eerie occurrences in an old house she and her father are supposed to be fixing up. The filmmakers add some intriguing complications to the ruthless minimalism of the original film’s narrative, but the proceedings work largely because of Liz Olsen (the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley), who proves here, as she did in last year’s MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, that she’s a mighty formidable performer.

17. THE THEATRE BIZARRE
I’m being VERY generous in giving this wildly uneven anthology project a recommendation (even a muted one), but I say any movie that includes directorial contributions by Tom Savini, COMBAT SHOCK’S Buddy Giovinazzo and DUST DEVIL’S Richard Stanley is deserving of our support. Stanley’s segment is unfortunately the most pointless and nonsensical of the bunch, an H.P. Lovecraft inspired goof featuring Lucio Fulci regular Catriona MacColl and a silly-looking toad monster. Giovinazzo’s offering is better, a stylish account of marital strife set within the confines of a tiny apartment. As for Savini, he provides a gross-out spectacle involving a man with a castration complex that works, but only on the most shallow and superficial level. The same is true of a Karim Hussain directed segment about an eyeball stabbing female serial killer, and also the final tale, a hilariously nauseating David Gregory helmed depiction of depraved junk food fetishists. That leaves the so-so Jeremy Kasten directed wraparound, featuring Udo Kier as a mechanical man who lures an unsuspecting young woman into a movie theater, and Douglas Buck’s “The Accident,” which is, unexpectedly enough, a genuinely powerful and disturbing examination of death, as seen through the eyes of a little girl who witnesses a bloody motorcycle accident. As I said, the enterprise is quite uneven overall, but as I also said, it’s well worth your while nonetheless!

18. 4:44--LAST DAY ON EARTH
Here indie auteur Abel Ferrara, of MS. 45, KING OF NEW YORK and BAD LIEUTENANT, gives us his take on the end of the world. The results are as bleak and ugly as can be imagined, and (this being an Abel Ferrara movie) not a little self indulgent. The setting is New York City on the last day on Earth; Willem Dafoe plays an actor who spends the day in his rooftop apartment, together with his unstable painter girlfriend (Shanyn Leigh). At one point Dafoe leaves to canoodle with his brother (Paul Hipp) and the latter’s pals (who include indie mainstay Natasha Lyonne) before returning for the final dissolution, which occurs, as the title indicates, at forty four minutes after four in the morning. The film is visually impressive and provocative, but lacks the profundity Ferrara was aiming for. What it does have are a lot of lengthy Buddhist-minded environmental sermons and a goodly amount of nudity by the fetching miss Leigh (currently Abel F’s better half), for which I’m certainly not complaining.
 

     That’s it, I’m sorry to say, for my “Best” picks, which are unfortunately outweighed by the “Worst” list that follows. But before getting to that unpleasantness, let’s take a look at some…

Recommended Non-Horror Releases:

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
Don’t be put off by all the mainstream accolades lavished on this film, as it’s easily the finest bayou-set movie since SHY PEOPLE.

CLOUD ATLAS
Another of those movies that nobody seems to like but me. Your loss, methinks, as this centuries-spanning mind-roaster is the most gloriously ambitious and unique film to come our way in years, if not decades.

COMIC CON EPISODE IV: A FAN’S HOPE
The one and only Comic Con documentary, a Morgan Spurlock helmed entertainment that works as both an alluring introduction to this essential piece of Americana and a pleasant rehash for Con regulars like myself.

COSMOPOLIS
This film, a David Cronenberg helmed account of a soulless Wall Street tycoon (a well cast Robert Pattinson) on a surreal limo ride through NYC, is boring as shit but exerts a definite oft-kilter fascination.

DJANGO UNCHAINED
You can always count on Quentin Tarantino to deliver the goods, which he definitely does in this outrageous spaghetti western/blaxploitation hybrid.

FLIGHT
Worth it for the wrenching upside down plane crash that opens the film.

KILLER JOE
Although it begins slowly, this stage-based William Friedkin freak-out is a terrifically depraved film, and proves that when he gives a damn Matthew McConaughey can be a powerful actor.

THE MASTER
Showcasing Paul Thomas Anderson in a more esoteric mood than usual, this wildly eccentric historical drama delights in enigmas and unresolved conflict. It’s irritating to be sure, but also a marvel of idiosyncratic filmmaking.

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
That vomitous title and the miscasting of Emma Watson aside, this is a perfectly pitched portrayal of early-nineties adolescence with a core of real darkness--plus it features Tom Savini in a supporting role!

THE RAID: REDEMPTION
Let me put it this way: if you’re an action movie fan and haven’t yet seen this Indonesian ass-kicker, shame on you!!

RUST AND BONE
Probably the year’s most unlikely concoction, a gritty French art film fashioned from Hallmark TV movie material (Marion Cotillard loses her legs in a botched whale stunt) and set to a Katy Perry(!) tune. Somehow it all works.

SAMSARA
The latest semi-documentary image-fest by BARAKA’S Ron Fricke. It’s quite ham-fisted and overly enamored of Eastern mysticism, but I’ve learned to put up with those things from Fricke, who can light and compose an image like nobody else.

SOUND OF MY VOICE
The incandescent Brit Marling, the writer and star of ‘11’s ANOTHER EARTH, resumes those duties on this arrestingly creepy quasi-science fictionish account of a cult whose leader (Marling) might be from the future.

ZERO DARK THIRTY
Despite all the controversy it’s engendered this fact-based thriller is easily director Kathryn Bigelow’s best film since NEAR DARK!

 

     The following section, you’ll find, is sparser than usual. That’s because it focuses on DVDs, and there just weren’t too many of those to be found in 2012. It may be too early to pronounce the DVD dead, but it seems the format is definitely on its last legs…

Recommended DVD Releases:

BATTLE ROYALE
This now-legendary 2000 Kinji Fukasaku film, which is everything THE HUNGER GAMES wanted to be, is finally available stateside in a jam-packed three disc edition.

THE BOOGENS
Not a particularly great movie but not an especially terrible one either, an early eighties low budgeter that for some reason took over a decade to make it to VHS--and just as long to show up on DVD!

THE CHEKIST
The first-ever DVD release of this marrow-freezing Russian film, which comes complete with a write-up by yours-truly.

GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL
Must-see Japanese horror lunacy that was released as part of Criterion’s “When Horror Came to Shochiku” multi-disc set, which includes the equally essential LIVING SKELETON.

NO BLADE OF GRASS
I’ve always had a certain affection for director Cornell Wilde’s starkly apocalyptic depiction of environmental catastrophe, even if it is clumsily made and often plain stupid.

PEOPLE WHO OWN THE DARK
Leon Klimovsky’s jazzy NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD wannabe remains one of the standout Spanish horror films of the early 1970s.

ROSEMARY’S BABY
A most welcome Criterion special edition of Roman Polanski’s 1968 masterwork, which remains one of the truly essential horror films.

THEY LIVE
Finally an NTSC formatted release of the special edition of John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE, containing one of the all-time great DVD audio commentaries.

WEEKEND
Jean-Luc Godard’s French new wave nightmare gets Criterionized, with a newly minted digital transfer and lots of well-chosen extra features.
 

     And with that I’m afraid the good stuff is complete. Now (cue ominous music) it’s time for…
 

The Worst:

1. THE BUNNY GAME
I blame the BBFC. That’s the British Board of Film Classification, who refused THE BUNNY GAME a certificate, effectively banning it in the UK and Ireland--and so giving this thoroughly undistinguished piece of no-budget crap a lot more publicity than it would have otherwise received. It’s about a prostitute who’s picked up by a truck driver, who torments and humiliates the woman incessantly. Yes, that about sums up the entire film, which is drawn-out and repetitive in the extreme, relying on shock value, shitty death metal tunes (the scourge of many a horror no-budgeter) and arty camerawork to hold our attention. The problem is the film is never very shocking, and nor is it at all artful.

2. CHERNOBYL DIARIES
In which a bunch of globe-trotting morons decide to tour the ruins of Chernobyl while producer/screenwriter Oren Peli reminds us he was the helmer of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. CHERNOBYL DIARIES is similar in conception to the previous film, and also THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, with the digital footage we see allegedly shot by the protagonists, who spend most of the film running around screaming as dimly glimpsed radiation-addled mutants pursue them. This film’s problems are legion: none of the characters are likeable or interesting, the verite angle is never the slightest bit convincing (it’s amazing how the jittery digital footage shot by these apparent non-filmmakers edits together so well) and the script so perilously thin I can guarantee that if it weren’t for Peli’s pedigree the film would never have been greenlit, much less completed.

3. AREA 407
Yet another deadening entry in the found footage DIY horror craze. Here the situation is a plane crash whose survivors find themselves at the mercy of toothy critters in a government testing site. Sounds promising, but the problem is that (aside from the fact that this sort of thing is already done to death) the proceedings are consistently amateurish and incompetent, even by traditional DIY movie standards. There are endless scenes of the protagonists arguing, visualized through wavy camerawork that never stops moving, even when there’s no plausible reason for anyone to still be recording the action (i.e. when the protagonists are being chased by monsters--which would seem to be an ideal time to put the camera down!).

4. HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET
Jennifer Lawrence is a terrific actress who usually always demonstrates sound judgment in her choice of film roles (including her entirely understandable decision to drop out of Oliver Stone’s SAVAGES), which makes me wonder why she bothered with this misfire. HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET was advertised as a supernatural horror flick but it’s actually more of a psychothriller, and a dull one, complete with a third act “twist” I figured out early on. Jen plays an inquisitive teen who after moving into a new neighborhood becomes intrigued with the brother (Max Thieriot) of a young girl who years earlier murdered her parents. When Thieriot begins acting weird the suspicion is raised that he might possibly have something to do with the killings. Co-starring Elizabeth Shue as J-Law’s divorced mom, demonstrating that director Mark Tonderai’s primary skill was in somehow convincing two Academy Award nominees to sign onto this clunker.

5. ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER
In this severely misconceived embarrassment we learn that Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) was trained as a young man to fight vampires--which of course entails taking off his shirt amid a lot of acrobatic derring-do. Abe continues his vampire bashing after he becomes president and the vamps mobilize the confederate army in the Civil War; eventually Abe, staring at a dinner fork, figures out that vast quantities of silver will be needed to win the war. This movie, believe it or not, is even more idiotic than it sounds, overloaded as it is with cheesy CGI-packed mayhem and burdened with a perfunctory mess of a screenplay; it seems that, in an all-too-typical Hollywood lapse of judgment, director Timur Bekmambetov was counting on us to be so dazzled by all the action and bloodletting that we wouldn’t notice the film is woefully deficient in things like logic and characterization. Bekmambetov, the director of NIGHT WATCH and WANTED, helms in typically wired, go-for-broke fashion, but his efforts are wasted on material this nonsensical.

6. THE WOMAN IN BLACK
Where does this film go wrong? To fully detail its shortcomings would require a novel-length manuscript, but I’ll go into a few of them here. First and foremost among the fumbles is the fact that the filmmakers clumsily attempt to fashion a Hollywood spectacular out of material (the 1983 Susan Hill novel and ‘89 British telefilm) that was quintessentially refined and low key in nature. Director James Watkins also provides the most ludicrous attempt at a happy ending I’ve seen in some time (with a staunch if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em approach to ghostbusting). Beyond that the period setting never felt the slightest bit convincing (a sense of style a la Tim Burton might have gone some way toward rectifying that complaint, but Watkins displays no discernible style to speak of) and Daniel Radcliffe is thoroughly miscast in the lead role of a grief-stricken attorney who’s haunted by the eponymous woman in black. An overblown waste of time.

7. BATTLESHIP
How does one adapt an eighties board game into a $200 million Hollywood blockbuster? Apparently by plundering much of the filmography of Michael Bay. ARMAGEDDON, PEARL HARBOR and TRANSFORMERS are all represented in this ridiculous movie, which has the crew of a battleship stationed in Hawaii going up against a cabal of robotic aliens. There’s scant logic to any of the mayhem (early on the aliens blow up a battleship with ease but inexplicably tone down their onslaught against the heroes’ vessel) and the “characters” are little more than good-looking automatons who change their nature and personalities based on the dictates of the plot (such as the goofball hero, who immediately goes from an irrepressible screw-off to a strong-willed leader).

8. THE MOTH DIARIES
I’m not sure why director Mary Harron (of I SHOT ANDY WARHOL and AMERICAN PSYCHO infamy) bothered with this lackluster Canadian made low budgeter. The setting is a girls’ boarding school where a mysterious new girl (Lily Cole) is stirring things up among her classmates; among other things, this weirdie has a tendency to disappear each night and never seems to eat anything. Her true nature isn’t exactly difficult to figure out, what with all the vampire allusions bequeathed by the girls’ school assigned reading of “Carmilla.” That classic of lesbian-tinged vampirism brings up another aspect this film covers, that of girl-on-girl affection, but it’s too discreetly presented to have any impact. As for the horror business, it’s dealt with in thoroughly obvious and predictable fashion, and not helped by the fact that none of the performances on display here are particularly strong.

9. ATM
A very silly Winnipeg-based suspensor about three yuppies (Brian Geraghity, Alice Eve and Josh Peck) who leave an office party late one night and stop off at an ATM booth, where they become trapped by a faceless killer lurking outside. There are plenty of things wrong with this premise (like so many modern movie psychos, the antagonist is a lumbering oaf who never moves very quickly and is easily outrun), and also with the ensuing narrative, which only grows steadily more unbelievable as it advances. Director David Brooks seems especially fascinated with the sight of the bad guy poring over maps and diagrams of the ATM’s location, so much so that we’re subjected to several tedious minutes of such footage at the film’s beginning and end. If only Brooks had shown the same passion for the story and characters, ATM might not be as ridiculous as it is.

10. PIRANHA 3DD
Essentially an R-rated version of those made-for-Syfy Channel flicks with GIANT or MEGA in the titles. As with those films, the John Gulager directed PIRANHA 3DD, the like-minded sequel to 2010’s goofy PIRANHA 3D, tries very hard for B-movie camp, a practice that usually always annoys me; remember, most of the iconic bad movies from the likes of Ed Wood and Roger Corman weren’t intended as such. Other problems afflicting this film include the fact that its best and most outrageous gag--the piranha emerging from a gal’s vagina to chomp the penis of the guy she’s screwing--occurs early on (something Wood or Corman would have never allowed), and also the joke casting of David Hasselhoff, whose very presence, it seems, is supposed to make us crack up. There’s also an end credits sequence padded with over 10 minutes’ worth of outtakes, gags and footage of “the Hoff” goofing around on the beach, which still only brings the total running time to 83 minutes, and points up the fact that the filmmakers couldn’t even be bothered to come up with a feature-length product.

11. THE RAVEN
Preliminary advertising had me convinced this was some kind of gory art film. This RAVEN, it turns out, is definitely gory but none too artful, being a tawdry biographical portrait of Edgar Allan Poe (a seriously miscast John Cusak) in his final days. It seems somebody is committing a series of killings patterned after methodology described in his stories, but Poe is too drunk to care--at least until his girlfriend is snatched and enclosed in a coffin (a la “The Premature Burial”). The concept of involving Edgar Allan Poe in a murder mystery is a fictional mainstay--see THE HOLLOW EARTH by Rudy Rucker, THE LIGHTHOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD by Stephen Marlowe and THE POE SHADOW by Matthew Pearl, to name but a few examples. Perhaps this film’s makers should have considered adapting one of those books, as the narrative they provide isn’t all that invigorating. It doesn’t help that James McTeigue’s direction is strictly by the numbers, with more interest lavished on the gore scenes (especially a graphically depicted “Pit and the Pendulum” inspired dismemberment) than any human drama.

12. THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN
I was admittedly primed to hate this SPIDERMAN reboot, and its well-publicized production problems and underwhelming performance at the box office--it made a fair amount of money but still fell short of all the Sam Raimi SPIDERMANS--seem like Karmic justice to me. Not that Raimi’s SPIDERMAN movies were in any way inviolate, with Tobey Maguire wrongfully cast in the title role and Danny Elfman’s theme music completely unremarkable. The problem here is that Andrew Garfield’s angsty TWILIGHT-esque take on Spidey isn’t much better than Maguire’s, and the new score by James Horner, while possessing an agreeably epic hue, lacks any discernible theme (try whistling it). Other problems include ultra-choppy editing, a fumbling and inconclusive narrative, and the fact that the film, “rebooted” though it may be, rigorously follows most of the tropes established by Raimi: the details of the killing of the protagonist’s uncle (Martin Sheen) are right out of Raimi’s SPIDERMAN even if the locale and dialogue are different, as are the pro Wrestling inspiration for the Spiderman costume and the concluding swinging-through-NYC montage. And speaking of derivative, did anyone else notice that the giant lizard antagonist looks remarkably like the ridiculous Incredible Hulk-in-drag critter of THE KEEP?

13. SILENT NIGHT
A loose remake of the notorious Yuletide slasher SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT. That, of course, wasn’t much of a movie, and neither is this one. Once again there’s a psychopath dressed as Santa Claus terrorizing people at Christmastime, with a babe policewoman (Jamie King) looking to track down the killer, and an asshole superior (Malcolm McDowell) constantly impeding her efforts. There are some fun gory bits, as when the Santa-psycho grounds up a woman in a wood chipper (that she herself turns on!) and some flamethrower fu, but otherwise the film is a poorly acted, formulaic bummer.

14. INTRUDERS
Spain’s Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is a terrific director, but something went seriously awry in this, his ambitious but fatally misconceived follow-up to the memorable 28 WEEKS LATER. INTRUDERS involves a faceless monster who invades the lives of two children living in different countries. Clive Owen plays one of the kids’ parents who winds up battling the monster himself--but a security camera recording the scene shows him swiping and swatting at dead air. Owen’s character is terminally uninteresting, and nor are the titular “intruders” particularly exciting creations. It seems Fresnadillo was trying for something along the lines of Larry Fessenden’s WENDIGO (which was also about the power of a child’s mind to create a monster), but the results aren’t particularly scary, involving or even coherent.

15. THE BAY
In which a big shot Hollywood director attempts to make an ecological statement via a (perceived) popular subgenre: the BLAIR WITCH-inspired found footage horror movie. The director in question is Barry Levinson, who’s far too talented to be laboring on this type of faux student film project, most examples of which, let’s not forget, actually are made by inexperienced student filmmakers. There’s also the fact that nobody appears to have informed Levinson that the popularity of found footage cinema has long since waned. Sort of an environmentally minded take on HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, THE BAY is set in a California fishing village under siege by monstrous underwater spores, birthed from radioactive chicken shit dumped into the ocean. Said spores cause ugly festering rashes and turn people into homicidal zombies (or something). The whole thing masquerades as a home-made documentary by a young would-be reporter, a device I never found especially convincing; even though the proceedings have an appropriately unpolished aesthetic, Levinson still insists on scoring and editing the film like a standard Hollyweird production. Worse, none of the characters are especially compelling and the central menace is vague and under-explained. There is, however, an expertly modulated leap-out-of-your-seat moment toward the end.

16. THE DEVIL INSIDE
A surprise: this movie wasn’t as awful as everybody says it is. I’m not saying THE DEVIL INSIDE is at all good, mind you, being predictable and derivative--director/co-writer William Brent Bell seems unaware that demonic possession movies have long since been done to death, as have faux documentary horror flicks. It is watchable, however, with a convincing yet obtrusive documentary veneer (the camera shaking is thankfully kept to a minimum), and the lead actress Fernanda Andrade is mighty easy on the eyes. Andrade plays a young Hispanic woman who travels to Italy to find out what’s afflicting her mother, who murdered three clergy people during an exorcism. Is the old bitch possessed? The answer, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, is a resounding yes.

17. THE WICKER TREE
A sort-of sequel to the 1973 cult classic THE WICKER MAN by that film’s director Robin Hardy. The new film treads much the same ground as the original in its depiction of modern-day Christianity going up against pagan superstition in a rural Scottish community. It stars the cute and perky Brittania Nicol as an ex-country singer who’s in Scotland to spread the gospel together with her flighty boyfriend (Henry Garrett). The two discover a community of pagan freaks, among them an old guy played (in a too-brief cameo) by Christopher Lee, who are looking to use the couple to appease the spirits residing in a wicker tree. Said tree is poor substitute for the imposing wicker man of the original film, just as Hardy’s clunky script (adapted from his own novel COWBOYS FOR CHRIST) can’t hope to compete with Anthony Shaffer’s sterling WICKER MAN treatment, and nor does the bland and uninspired filmmaking ever come close to capturing the horrific naturalism of the previous film.

18. THE TALL MAN
This was writer-director Pascal Laugier’s hotly anticipated follow-up to 2008’s MARTYRS, which I still insist is one of the most remarkable horror films of recent years. Here, in his first English language film, Laugier tries for a similar vibe, with disturbing subject matter--in this case a series of child murders--and a narrative made up of constant twists, some of them genuinely surprising. It’s those very twists, unfortunately, that are the film’s biggest problem, with Laugier losing track of the spine of his narrative early on, when Jessica Biel as a doctor under attack by the mysterious tall man of the title turns out to be someone entirely different. Following this a supporting character, who likewise turns out to be entirely different from how she initially seemed, takes over the lead role and things change yet again. In short, the film plays like an 3 part anthology, and only one of those parts (the first, to be exact) is at all interesting.

19. THE HOLE
It took three years for this 2009 film to get a proper release, and it wasn’t worth the wait. It’s a family horror film by Joe Dante, who I expect could do this sort of thing in his sleep--which seems to have indeed been the case, as the proceedings, about a teenager and his younger brother finding a bottomless portal in the basement of their new home that unleashes an evil presence, play out in thoroughly obvious fashion, with little of the style, wit or imagination that characterize Dante’s best work. The pic was theatrically exhibited in 3-D, which is obvious in the way things are always being pointed or thrust at the camera, and which does nothing to elevate the proceedings dramatically. Even the climax, set in a surreal Tim Burton-esque netherworld within the titular hole, falls flat; as Dante himself has conceded, the budget was far too low to do his grandiose ambitions justice.

20. CHAINED
Jennifer Lynch’s fourth directorial effort was this throwback to the torture porn cycle that ran its course a few years ago. It features a young boy and his mother (Julia Ormand) picked up outside a movie theater by a demented cab driver (Vincent D’Onofrio), who takes them back to his rural home. There he kills the mother and raises the boy as his own son. The film spans a decade, with the chained-up boy growing into a severely maladjusted teenager (Eamon Farren), during which time he witnesses all manner of ickyness as his “father” kidnaps and murders one woman after another. The proceedings aren’t entirely unimpressive, possessing a compellingly gritty look and powerfully brooding atmosphere, but they lack the demented inspiration of 2008’s SURVEILLANCE (to date Jennifer Lynch’s only good film). CHAINED, by contrast, doesn’t have much to distinguish it from the innumerable torture-porn programmers that followed in the wake of SAW and HOSTEL, being predictable and repetitive from start to finish, and never following through in any meaningful way on the perverse relationship between its protagonists.

21. PROMETHEUS
If anything this Ridley Scott directed ALIEN prequel reminded me of the universally maligned ALIEN 3. Like that mess, this one appears to have begun with some strong ideas that were diminished by the Hollywood development process. The setting is the distant planet where ALIEN took place, visited by a band of cosmonauts much like the ones from the initial film. They encounter all the expected mayhem, accomplished via a lot of crummy CGI and unexciting critters (a dimly glimpsed worm monster and three-tentacled octopus are no substitute for the immortal H.R. Giger designed Alien). There are some interesting AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS-like concepts involving mankind’s possible extraterrestrial evolution, and a must-be-seen-to-be-disbelieved self-administered cesarean monster birth by actress Noomi Rapace, but for the most part nonsensical CGI-packed action is all we get.

22. SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN
A startlingly ambitious film to be sure, but it’s a definite example of much ado about nothing (or at least very little). The film’s problems start with the inexplicable casting of Kristen Stewart as “the fairest of them all,” which, even without taking into account the real life cheating scandal that followed this film’s release (and which I really shouldn’t have to go into here), she just isn’t. Perhaps the film’s two lead actresses should have switched roles, with K-Stew as the evil queen and Charlize Theron, who essays that role amid a lot of distracting CGI, as Snow White. As it is we have Kristen on a seemingly eons-long quest for Theron’s castle, together with a hunky huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and seven potty-mouthed dwarves. There are some good moments here and there--I particularly liked the fight with the giant troll, even if it ends in completely unbelievable fashion with the creature becoming enraptured by Kristen’s beauty.

23. DARK SHADOWS
With this Tim Burton production it seems that, in a very rare occurrence, I’m quite close to the ideal audience. This is to say that I’m in the same position as the youthful demographic Warners so assiduously courted in that I’ve never seen a single episode of the famed gothic soap opera that inspired the film (reason: I’ve got more than enough pop culture obsessions as it is, and adding a 1,225 episode TV show onto an already overflowing plate seems ill-advised). Thus, I can’t say how it does or doesn’t live up to its source material, although I can say the film is a bummer. Sure, the proceedings look damn good, but the gorgeously composed gothic visuals are nothing we haven’t already seen in previous Burton efforts like SLEEPY HOLLOW and SWEENEY TODD. Johnny Depp is as enjoyably quirky as ever in the lead role of an ancient vampire moving in with his freaky descendants, but Burton indulges Depp’s eccentricities at the expense of his co-stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloe Grace Moretz and Jackie Earle Haley--talented performers all, but the only supporting player who makes any real impression is Eva Green as Depp’s vampiric nemesis, and that’s only because she displays so much bare skin. Burton seems fully aware of the film’s shortcomings, which is probably why he throws in a wholly gratuitous special effects-packed climax that positively reeks of desperation.

24. TWIXT
I’m all for a master filmmaker using his medium to atone for a real-life tragedy, but there has to be some edification for the viewer as well. Unfortunately that’s not the case with this Francis Ford Coppola horror fest, which sees Coppola giving full vent to his grief over the 1986 death of his son Gian-Carlo. Hopefully Coppola succeeded in assuaging at least some of his pain with this film, because it has very little worth otherwise. It’s about a novelist (Val Kilmer), grief-stricken over the death of his daughter in a boating accident much like the one that took the life of Coppola’s son, who finds himself in a small town where several young girls were recently murdered. He becomes caught up in the investigation into the killings and experiences a succession of odd dreams in which a creepy ghost girl (Elle Fanning) speaks to him, along with Edgar Allan Poe(!). Both seem eager to help track down the murderer, but Coppola loses interest in his narrative long before the film’s end, with the emphasis on the overdone CGI-enhanced gothic decor of the dream scenes (which look like excerpts from an especially pretentious student film) and the flashbacks.

25. THE HUNGER GAMES
a.k.a. BATTLE ROYALE lite, a diverting but disappointing adaptation of the first of Suzanne Collins’ popular HUNGER GAMES books. You know what happens I’m sure, so I’ll skip the plot summary and go straight into what worked (the lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence) and what didn’t (most everything else). The film is never less than watchable, and even entertaining in parts, but director Gary Ross fumbles quite a few elements, from the misconceived Felliniesque theatrics of the early scenes to the overly chaotic action of the later ones. There’s also the fact that the ending is a fizzle, being overly focused on a dopey TWILIGHT-esque romance the filmmakers take far too seriously.

26. THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS
It pains me to do so, but I’m going to have to give this H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, the second major screen effort by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (following the admirable CALL OF CTHULHU), a thumbs down. It’s done in the style of a thirties-era horror movie, and director Sean Branney does a painstaking (if not always entirely convincing) job recreating the look and style of past horror cinema. He’s also reasonably faithful to Lovecraft’s original story about a professor (Matt Foyer) investigating reports of horrific alien beings in the wilds of Vermont, and finding that those reports are very much true. The problem is that Branney and his collaborators can’t resist adding a lot of action-adventure silliness, with the final half hour finding the wimpy protagonist suddenly transforming into an Indian Jones type adventurer. As such he helps out a plucky little girl and gets into an aerial combat with the aliens, two things that weren’t in the Lovecraft story and don’t work particularly well here, seeing as how the budget was far too scant to support such extravagance. The additions also cast serious doubt upon the filmmakers’ claim that this is “the most authentic and faithful screen adaptation of a Lovecraft story yet attempted.” Not quite!

27. THE POSSESSION
As far as I know this is the first-ever movie to be inspired by an eBay listing. Said listing was for an old box said to contain a Dybbuk (evil spirit) that apparently wreaked all sorts of havoc on the lives of its owners, an account screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White have transformed into a substandard EXORCIST rip-off involving a little girl (Natasha Calis) who buys the box at a garage sale and subsequently makes life Hell for her divorced parents (Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick). The director was Denmark’s talented Ole Bornedal, of NIGHTWATCH and THE SUBSTITUTE fame, who gives this unpromising material far more class than it deserves: the visuals are crisp and well composed, the editing tight and the acting several notches above that of most low budget horror programmers. But there’s only so much Bornedal can do with such uninspired material, which despite his best efforts lapses into unintentional comedy long before the end.

28. V/H/S
This found footage anthology has some good things, but like most such films it’s a severely mixed bag. The Adam Lingard directed wraparound sets the tone and visual style, with a bunch of thrill-seeking miscreants breaking into the home of a dead man looking to steal a VHS tape. While they’re at it the twerps, who evidently have a lot of time on their hands, commandeer a TV set and view a few tapes, which provide the movie’s other segments. The best of them, unsurprisingly, is by Ti West, the most skilled and experienced filmmaker here. His segment involves a newly married couple vacationing in the Grand Canyon, filming themselves with a camcorder--but then a certain unseen individual gets a hold of the camera and things get scary. All the segments are filmed BLAIR WITCH-like through video cameras (and in one case through camera-implanted spectacles) wielded by the protagonists, who of course can’t ever seem to keep the damn things steady. Back in 1998 this film would have been quite the mindblower, but now, with the found footage POV device used in seemingly every other horror movie, the effect is quite diluted. It doesn’t help matters that the majority of the film’s segments are let-downs: they’re all quite similarly conceived, featuring twentysomethings behaving stupidly and getting killed.
 

     And that, thankfully, is the end of the bad stuff part of this list. But before putting things to rest let’s take a look at some upcoming horror releases that sound interesting. 2013 doesn’t exactly promise to be a banner year for horror movies, but let’s hope it’s stronger than 2012--and just in case you were wondering, the absence of the CARRIE and EVIL DEAD remakes from the following list is not accidental!

Looking Forward…

THE ABCs OF DEATH
A 26(!) part anthology that purports to show “death in all its vicious wonder and brutal beauty,” with Angela Bettis, KILL LIST’S Ben Wheatley and Ti West among the directors.

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
Stylish and fascinating British made psycho-horror that’s been released most everywhere but the U.S. Let’s hope that changes, and soon!

ELYSIUM
I don’t know much about this film other than the fact that it was written and directed by DISTRICT 9’s Neill Blomkamp, which for me is recommendation enough.

LORDS OF SALEM
The advance word on Rob Zombie’s latest hasn’t been promising, but I’ll try and keep an open mind about it.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
George Miller remains one of my favorite directors, and his return to the dark and scary MAD MAX universe following an excess of animated kid flicks is in my view a most welcome development!

MAMA
Again, I don’t know much about this film, but it has an impressive pedigree, having been made under the auspices of Guillermo del Toro and starring the always excellent Jessica Chastain.

OLDBOY
Here’s a remake I’m hotly anticipating, a Spike Lee directed Americanization of the brutal South Korean masterpiece OLDBOY.

PACIFIC RIM
Guillermo del Toro’s big budget alien invasion thriller is noteworthy for many reasons, including the fact that it’s one of the (very) few upcoming big budgeters that isn’t a sequel or remake.

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR
The eight-years-after-the-fact follow-up to SIN CITY. Can this possibly be any good?

STOKER
The first-ever English language film by Korea’s Park Chawook, a vampire tinged drama that actually sounds quite intriguing. Scoff all you like, but I’m excited about this one!

 

--1/18/13 

     

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