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2013: The Year in Horror

2013 was apparently a banner year for horror and a “great” one for movies overall--or so we’ve been led to believe. Clearly, whoever made those claims didn’t sit through HATCHET 3 or STORAGE 24! Yes, there were some good horror films last year, and certainly some financial successes, but notice the fact that the Worst film listings below far outrank the Best (for that matter, the mainstream releases in my view weren’t all they were cracked up to be, particularly “masterworks” like BLUE JASMINE, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and THE GREAT GATSBY).

     2013’s horror movie makers deserve credit, I guess, for cutting back on the zombie apocalypse and found footage films. Unfortunately the TWILIGHT wannabes, pointless sequels and remakes all proliferated, and took their toll on the overall quality of 2013’s cinema.

     As I do every year, I’ve listed my choices for the best and worst horror fare of the past year, as well as recommended mainstream releases and DVD revivals. Only those films released in the U.S. theatrically or on DVD qualify, although I have included a brief “Still Waiting On” list at the end focusing on 2013 films that have yet to be commercially released.

     As always, I’ll be starting with the good stuff first, and my #1 horror movie of the past year. Drum roll please…

The Best:

1. UPSTREAM COLOR
Imagine a collaboration between David Cronenberg and Terrence Malick and you’ll have the essence of this downright maddening film, which must nonetheless be counted as 2013’s most vital release. It’s writer-director Shane Carruth’s long-awaited follow-up to his 2004 indie sensation PRIMER, and proves he’s definitely not a filmmaker to be taken lightly. The story involves a woman (the excellent Amy Seimetz) abducted by a thief who injects her with worms that are then transplanted into the body of a pig, which fundamentally changes the gal’s life in a number of ways. The narrative is highly enigmatic yet quite straightforward (multiple viewings are definitely required), while the extraordinarily dense and layered visuals, impressionistic editing, painstaking sound design and darkly ambient score make for a uniquely immersive viewing experience that compels even at its most inconclusive. There are also moments of skin-crawling Cronenbergian horror that set a new benchmark for sheer grossness.

2. STOKER
This, the latest film by Chanwook Park (of SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, OLDBOY and THIRST fame), is an outrageously stylish and fascinating work. It’s admittedly a bit scatterbrained from a narrative standpoint, but the audacious filmmaking places STOKER in a class of its own. It’s about the highly unstable Stoker family, comprised of eighteen-year-old India (Mia Wasikowska), her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and the latter’s stepbrother Charles (Matthew Goode). Charles clearly has a thing for India, and has had since she was a baby--and she, despite her attempts at denying it, is definitely attracted to him. With a family name like Stoker it’s no surprise that a strain of latent psychosis is evident in both Charles and India, and a lot of assorted mayhem is in store for everyone involved. Chanwook Park fans worried that his unique sensibilities might be watered down in this, his first film made outside his native South Korea, can rest assured: STOKER is every inch a Park film, with his penchants for perverse eroticism and unflinching brutality very much in evidence, as well as the visual extravagance that characterizes all his work. Nearly every conceivable stylistic quirk is evident in STOKER, and results in a film that, once one adjusts to its loopy rhythms, is enormously fun to watch.

3. PACIFIC RIM
A film that has set off innumerable online geek-gasms (I hear it’s especially popular in the female nerd community), and no wonder: PACIFIC RIM is first and foremost a damn good time, capturing the quintessence of innumerable manga and Godzilla flicks in its plethora orgiastic mayhem perpetrated by giant alien critters, opposed by equally massive human-operated robots. TRANSFORMERS, IRON MAN and AVATAR are also directly recalled here, although director Guillermo del Toro has a style and vision that are unique, and utilizes CGI in a wizardly manner that puts most of his contemporaries to shame. He also pays some attention to things like plot and characterization, meaning this film may lack the heart and soul of del Toro masterworks like THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE and PAN’S LABYRINTH but is still leagues ahead of MIMIC and HELLBOY 2. I will complain, however, about the lazy ending, which pivots on a big explosion perpetrated by a bomb with a handy digital countdown, and also the fact that so many of the lead actors look exactly alike!

4. ROOM 237
There’s never been a documentary quite like this gloriously cockeyed examination of Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING and its apparent assortment of hidden messages. In the course of ROOM 237 five SHINING fanatics discuss their various takes on the film in voice-over, with director Rodney Ascher using extensive clips to flesh out the theories. Those theories include the popular Stanley Kubrick-faked-the-moon-landing-footage claim, which one of the narrators states is referenced in THE SHINING by the titular room number (the moon is 237 thousand miles from the Earth) and a hallway rug pattern, which resembles an aerial view of a NASA field. Yes, the proceedings are outrageously nutty and obsessive, but that’s part of what makes ROOM 237 such an irresistible viewing experience. A woman theorizes about the layout of the film’s hotel set, which curves in on itself and contains an “impossible” window that (as shown by elaborate animated diagrams) actually faces inward--all of which, the claimant maintains, were part of Kubrick’s design. We also hear from a guy who feels the film is a metaphor for the suppression of the American Indians, and another who believes it’s about the holocaust. In the process of all this insanity we’re made privy to just how all-consuming film love can become, particularly when the film in question happens to have been made by Stanley Kubrick.

5. YOU’RE NEXT
Here we have another victim of the hype machine that tends to work against horror indies like this one. The fault here isn’t necessarily with the filmmakers, or even the distributor Lionsgate, but with the fact that YOU’RE NEXT has been around since 2011. In that time the film has built up an outsized mystique, obscuring the fact that it’s an above-average home invasion movie and little more. The home in question is a secluded mini-mansion and the occasion a family reunion, during which four crossbow wielding, animal mask wearing dickheads turn the place into a slaughterhouse. The film benefits from strong performances and spirited direction by POP SKULL’S Adam Wingard, who keeps things lively even when the narrative is at its most implausible. Regarding that narrative, it pivots on surprise revelations by characters who are rarely ever who they appear to be--and obligingly wait until the third act to fully reveal their motives.

6. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
British horror is alive and well, as proven by this sleek and terrifically innovative psychological horror flick. Like a mutant offspring of Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT, it pivots on the travails of a sound man, in this case a never-better Toby Jones as a mousey sort who travels to Italy to work on a trashy horror flick. Jones immediately feels out of place, and is also appalled by the exploitive nature of the film he’s stuck working on. Furthermore, the offscreen action appears to be oddly mimicking that of the film in question. Of course we see very little of that film, as we’re made privy to the dialogue and sound effects but not the visuals--a conceit that works quite well given the nature of the protagonist’s profession. The narrative’s gradual shift from fish-out-of-water comedy to outright horror is also skillfully pulled off, but it ultimately fails to cohere into any kind of satisfying whole. It seems writer-director Peter Strickland didn’t know how to end his film, which dissolves into inconclusive surrealism that doesn’t negate what came before, but does lessen it considerably.

7. BYZANTIUM
A vampire drama from INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE director Neil Jordon, who delivers a fitfully entertaining and erotic Irish-centric film. It features two vampire babes (Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton) residing in a small coastal town where one prostitutes herself and the other falls in love with a too-nice guy, not realizing that they aren’t the only vamps afoot in the area. Jordon puts his experience as a Hollywood director-for-hire to good use, resulting in a film whose look and scale belie the low budget. There are also moments of ethereal poetry and plenty of effectively gruesome bits (the simplest of which, a close-up of a fingernail piercing a wrist, is arguably the most effective). On the downside, the proceedings take around 15-20 minutes to get going, and the copious flashbacks revealing the origins of the girls’ vampiric existence are a bit cheesy, being the one portion of the film in which the sparseness of the budget is evident (a shot of rivulets turning blood-red would be impressive were it not for the unconvincing CGI). In the end, however, the good things of BYZANTIUM outweigh the not-so.

8. WE ARE WHAT WE ARE
Think SPIDER BABY retooled as a Sundance-friendly indie and you’ll have the gist of this demented little film. A remake of the well received 2010 Spanish film of the same name, it’s about an unnaturally tight-nit family living in the deep south. The family matriarch has just passed away, leaving her two teenage daughters to take control of the family’s long-held rituals--which include weekly cannibalistic banquets. But the girls’ temperamental father, masterfully essayed by Bill Sage, is hardly down for the count, as is proven in the grand guignol climax. The growly voiced Michael Parks is also on hand as a local doctor who grows suspicious of the family’s activities (and rightfully so!). Director Jim Mickle gives the proceedings a quiet and unshowy style that fits the overall atmosphere of muggy Southern discomfort, and compels almost in spite of itself. Mickle also shows he’s not afraid of the red stuff, a fact demonstrated in the unforgettable finale, wherein cannibalism goes from an offscreen implication to an in-your-face reality.

9. PASSION
Remaking the 2010 French thriller LOVE CRIMES (a film I don’t much like) was a bad idea in my view, but writer-director Brian De Palma makes a conditional success of the job. PASSION is unerringly stylish and good looking, and adds some elements that weren’t in LOVE CRIMES, such as a strain of barely-suppressed lesbianism and a twin sister of one of the protagonists. Those protagonists are played, in a wild bit of stunt casting, by the young and perky Rachel McAdams as an amoral businesswoman and the more seasoned Noomi Rapace as a put-upon employee who decides to fight back. Much quintessentially De Palma-esque intrigue ensues, including a bloody murder, a shocking revelation and an elaborate dream sequence. All this is diverting enough, but the puzzling and inconclusive final scenes are inexcusable.

10. BLUE CAPRICE
Those wanting insight into the “Beltway snipers” John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, who killed 10 people in the Washington, D.C. area in the fall of 2002, will be disappointed in this biopic. Director Alexandre Moors has created what amounts to an extended mood piece that conveys, in extremely spare, almost impressionistic fashion, the overpowering alienation felt by both men, which apparently led to all the killing. For the most part Moors’ subdued approach works, creating a deeply chilling and absorbing account with strong performances by Isaiah Washington as Muhammad and Tequan Richmond as the teenaged Malvo. The film only really goes wrong in the opening and closing scenes, the former showing in overly perfunctory fashion how Muhammad lured the naïve Malvo from his home in the Caribbean to the US, and the latter depicting their shooting spree in an extended montage that raises more questions than it answers.

11. SIGHTSEERS
Britain’s Ben Wheatley follows up the unnerving KILL LIST with this black comedy, which has a similarly bent sensibility. Here a married couple (Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who jointly scripted the film) are caravanning through various rural parts of England. After Chris accidentally runs over an obnoxious tourist they take to killing off the assholes they encounter, which has the effect of spicing up the couple’s relationship--for a while, at least. Not all of this works (the lazy throwaway joke-ending is a sore spot), but Wheatley’s deceptively laid back, quirky style makes for a quietly unnerving film with a aura of real danger underlying the comedy. It helps, of course, that the lead actors/writers succeed in creating three-dimensional characters whose relationship feels genuine.

12. JACK THE GIANT SLAYER
It’s easy to be put off by the misleading advertising for this mega-budgeted take on “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which is much tougher than the goofy kid flick Warner Bros. evidently wanted. It begins slowly, with the young farmhand Jack (Nicholas Hoult) continually running into a fetching princess (Eleanor Tomlinson), but once the giant beanstalk of lore sprouts up the proceedings grow increasingly dark and intense. Atop the beanstalk Jack and his cohorts run into a race of human flesh eating giants, leading to all sorts of violent and gruesome action, and culminating in an epic ground-level showdown. The CGI is laid on a bit thickly, and truthfully isn’t always up to snuff, but all things considered this is director Brian Singer’s best work in some time: the overall intensity is impressively sustained, and Singer laudably resists the type of postmodern goofiness that tends to afflict fairy tale retooling like this one.

13. THE WORLD’S END
The third collaboration by director Edgar Wright and co-writer/star Simon Pegg, preceded by SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ. The freshness that propelled those films is absent from this one, with the Wright-Pegg mixture of screwball humor and rotgut action being well established and even somewhat formulaic by now. Still, THE WORLD’S END is directed with a fair amount of energy, and contains one of Pegg’s strongest performances to date as a fortyish loser desperately trying to relive the glory days of adolescence via an epic pub crawl. He gathers together his old buddies--including Wright-Pegg veteran Nick Frost--and the crawl commences, only to be interrupted by the intrusion of robotic body snatchers. The alien invasion business is ironically the least affecting portion of the film, with its surprisingly perceptive portrayal of middle aged discontent registering far more vividly.

14. THE CONJURING
Viewed on a big screen with a receptive audience this film is a mighty effective scare-fest. At home on a small screen, alas, it seemed silly and overwrought. Inspired by an allegedly true case of an errant spirit encountered by the famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren back in 1971, the film stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the Warrens. They decide to cut short their planned retirement to help out a family headed by Lily Taylor and Ron Livingston, who are being harassed by the aforementioned ghost. “True” or not, the story is nothing much, being a string of shopworn horror movie clichés. Yet the superbly horrific set pieces created by director James Wan (the bit with the invisible what’s-it dragging the girl around by her hair in particular) are quite inspired.

15. MAGIC MAGIC
Very likely the most walked-out-of and/or switched-off-before-it’s-over release of 2013, a very odd little film that begins in agonizingly uneventful fashion. That uneventfulness continues for over half the 99 minute running time, after which the film gradually accumulates in intensity. It concerns a young woman (Juno Temple) vacationing in Chile with strangers (the ever-obnoxious Michael Cera among them), where she suffers from insomnia and suspicions about her companions. Is she cracking up or is something more insidious occurring? Not to give anything away, but that question is never really answered. The proceedings benefit from top notch performances by Temple and co-star Emily Browning, and evocative cinematography partially achieved by the great Christopher Doyle, whose efforts result in a vivid atmosphere of psychological apprehension.

16. AFTERSHOCK
An Eli Roth production that could have used a more expansive (read: bigger budgeted) canvas, but works just the same. Roth co-scripted, produced and stars in AFTERMATH as a horny American dude adrift in earthquake prone Chile. The film takes its time--a full 35 minutes--to get to the big quake that provides its raison d’etre, but once it does it becomes a diverting gorefest, with Roth and a ragtag band of survivors making their way through an increasingly violent and chaotic landscape. The low budget is painfully evident throughout (particularly in what has to be the least convincing movie tsunami since the fishtank splash that concluded THE LAST WAVE), but director Nicolas Lopez provides plenty of reasonably well staged action and gore, ensuring that the film satisfies, at the very least, as a fitfully depraved time-waster.


     Only sixteen Best listings? I’m afraid so. Even more depressing is the fact that my Worst listing below is nearly twice as long. But first let’s take a look at some…

Recommended Non-Horror Releases:

12 YEARS A SLAVE
Sort of an artsy take on MANDINGO, this is an overrated film IMO, although it definitely has its moments.

THE ACT OF KILLING
A fascinating and alarming documentary expose of Indonesian death squad leaders staging a movie that celebrates the torture and murder in which they so enthusiastically engaged.

ALL IS LOST
Superlative stripped-down minimalism with Robert Redford as a lone sailor fighting for survival on the open sea--yes, that about sums up the entire movie, but don’t let that put you off.

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR [LA VIE D’ADELE--CHAPTIRES 1 ET 2]
This French drama is famous for an 8 minute lesbian fuck scene, but it’s the tremendously moving lead performances and director Abdellatif Kechiche’s intense portrayal of life-altering passion that make it worth seeing.

CAPTAIN PHILIPS
Tom Hanks has never been better than he is in this suspenseful fact-based thriller from director Paul Greengrass, whose talent for documentary realism is utilized to its fullest.

EUROPA REPORT
The indie answer to GRAVITY, a sci fier about cosmonauts attempting to subside on one of Jupiter’s moons. Compelling, although the low budget is a constant annoyance.

GRAVITY
You’ve seen this one I’m sure, so I won’t go into detail other than to complement director Alfonso Cuaron’s ingenious use of CGI, which (for once) fully justifies the inflated budget.

HER
Arguably the finest film ever made by Spike Jonze, who’s created a terrifically innovative and touching science fiction love story with a standout performance by Scarlett Johansson--or at least her voice!

THE HUNT [JAGTEN]
Here we have another great performance, this one by Mads Mikkelsen as a teacher falsely accused of molesting a little girl in a Danish drama that’s every bit as harsh and troubling as you might expect.

LEVIATHAN
A wordless documentary depiction of the doings of a fishing crew, giving us an eye-opening look at the enormous waste involved in commercial fishing, as well as some of the most impressively fluid camerawork you’ll ever see.

LONE SURVIVOR
An appropriately grueling Afghanistan set kill fest, with a forresty setting and highly immersive aura that set it apart from other war pics.

PIETA
Here South Korea’s Kim Ki-Duk spins a singularly perverse account of a brutal debt collector who’s given a chance at redemption when a woman claiming to be his mother enters his life.

SPRING BREAKERS
Outrageously pretentious but irresistible sleaze from writer-director Harmony Korine, with a pack of Disney starlets on a crime spree in Miami.

UPSIDE DOWN
The story of this sci fier, involving star-crossed lovers separated (quite literally) by different worlds, one of them situated directly above the other, is pretty thin, but the wondrous visuals are stunning.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
The most outrageous movie ever made by Martin Scorsese, who explores the debauched lives of the Wall Street scumbags we’ve been taught to revere.


     Onto my Recommended DVD Releases listing. Yes, believe it or not, DVDs and Blu Ray discs are still being released, and actually yielded up some important films in 2013. The pickings, however were slim!

Recommended DVD Releases:

THE CURTIS HARRINGTON SHORT FILM COLLECTION
An overly expensive (40 bucks!) but vital compilation featuring all of director Curtis Harrington’s heretofore unavailable experimental shorts, including the legendary FRAGMENT OF SEEKING.

THE FILMS OF CHESTER NOVELL TURNER
A goldmine for bad movie buffs, a two-disc set featuring BLACK DEVIL DOLL FROM HELL and TALES FROM THE QUADEAD ZONE, and stocked with oodles of fun extras.

INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION
I’ve always liked this nightmarish political thriller from Italy’s Elio Petri, which arrives on DVD courtesy of Criterion. Now if only they’d do the same for Petri’s more overtly horrific A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY

THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL
It’s great to see this wonderfully depraved late sixties relic, starring Jack Lord and photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, given deluxe DVD treatment. A must!

NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR
This Philip Yordan scripted grade-Z anthology project from the eighties is one of the damndest things you’ll ever see, and marks the only legitimate DVD release of the astounding DEATH WISH CLUB (presented in cut-down form as this film’s middle segment).

NINJA III: THE DOMINATION
A longtime personal favorite, this irresistible Cannon Films trash-fest mixes kung foolishness with demonic possession, and features goodly amounts of sex and gore. Need I say more?


     Okay: I’m afraid that’s it for the good stuff. Onto the Worst listing, which as stated above was unusually lengthy this year!

The Worst:

1. SHARKNADO
I’m not sure why it is that of all the made-for-SyFy Channel shark movies this one got the most attention. It’s no better or worse, after all, than MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS or 2-HEADED SHARK ATTACK. What SHARKNADO has in its “favor” is perhaps the most ludicrous concept of any these films, positing that L.A. is hit by a string of tornadoes that blow sharks out of the ocean to threaten land-dwelling folk. This leads to the type of grade-B goofiness we’ve come to expect from SyFy fare, including substandard acting (from “stars” like Ian Ziering, Tara Reid and John Heard), inexcusably shitty CGI and lazy scripting, all done with a smirking self-awareness that’s supposed to excuse the nonsense. I’m fine with so-bad-it’s-good cinema, but that’s hardly something to aspire to.

2. ALL HALLOWS’ EVE
This 3-parter is tacky, amateurish and misogynistic in the extreme. There’s no point going into detail about the Halloween-set wraparound story involving a babysitter looking after two bratty kids, one of whom is given a videotape that provides the film’s three segments. All involve young women stalked by freaks in excessively drawn-out sequences that demonstrate how writer-director Damien Leone vastly miscalculated his ability to build suspense, or even maintain viewer interest. The most entertainment I had was in noting the many films this one rips off: HALLOWEEN, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, THE HITCHER, THE RING, SAW, V/H/S and (in the unintentionally uproarious final shot) ROBOT MONSTER. There’s even a portion shot in scratched-up retro grindhouse mode, although the modern day cars and fashion totally deflate the seventies aura Leone was apparently trying to impart.

3. HATCHET 3
The second sequel to HATCHET, a property whose previous installment was famously yanked from release after just three days due to inert box office returns (although I understand it was a strong seller on DVD). HATCHET's creator Adam Green didn’t direct this latest installment, but his fingerprints are evident in the perfunctory narrative and emphasis on over-the-top splatter. Danielle Harris returns as the traumatized survivor of part two, who is once again called to take on the supernaturally endowed serial killer Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder), together with a sympathetic journalist (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II’s Caroline Williams) and a bunch of clueless cops (among them GREMLINS’ Zach Galligan). Missing is the low-budget energy and leavening humor of the first HATCHET, leaving us with an uninspiring by-the-numbers slasher pic. As if we didn’t have enough of those already!

4. THE HOST
It was enormously satisfying seeing this bummer do a well-deserved belly-flop at the box office, what with the enormously smug ad campaign heralding “the next great franchise.” The fact that the pic was adapted from a novel by TWILIGHT’S Stephanie Meyer involving a paranormal love triangle appears to have given the film’s makers a false sense of security--indeed, it seems everyone involved was so certain they had a hit on their hands they didn’t take much notice of the fact that their film is an erratically paced, frequently incoherent, unintentionally hilarious and vastly overlong mess. A wasted Saoirse Ronan plays a girl in a future Los Angeles that’s been taken over by extraterrestrial body snatchers. But there are non-afflicted humans hiding out in the desert, where Ronan winds up, precipitating the requisite TWILIGHT-esque love triangle--and rendering an already boring and disjointed film even more so. To be fair, I’ve heard Stephanie Meyer’s novel is much better than what ended up onscreen, but as Meyer was one of the producers she has only herself to blame for this lousy movie’s failure.

5. THE LORDS OF SALEM
This film is supposedly representative of Rob Zombie’s “maturity” as a filmmaker. If that’s truly the case I’ll have to say I prefer the immature Rob Zombie. There’s a fine line between keenly wrought atmosphere and plain listless filmmaking, and Zombie, who was never known for his subtlety, all-but pole vaults over it. As in Zombie’s other pictures the cast is peopled with aging movie stars from the seventies and eighties (Bruce Davison, Dee Wallace, Meg Foster, Andrew Prine, Maria Conchita Alonso, Michael Berryman, etc), although he inexplicably cast his nonactress wife Sheri Moon in the lead role of a Salem, Massachusetts based DJ getting in touch with her witchy lineage--complete with his standard gratuitous close-ups of Sheri’s ass (the closest thing Zombie has, it seems, to a directorial signature). Further detriments include a typically half-baked script that cribs shamelessly from other films (ROSEMARY’S BABY in particular) and a wobbly narrative that eventually descends into music video incoherency.

6. INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2
Another film I was primed to dislike, as I was only lukewarm on the first INSIDIOUS--which despite good things was at heart a substandard POLTERGEIST wannabe. This installment is likewise quite derivative, blatantly ripping off THE SHINING in its account of the protagonist of part one (Patrick Lambert) becoming possessed by an evil spirit that has haunted him since childhood. This leads to an uninspired succession of would-be scares that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the first INSIDIOUS (or, for that matter, nearly any mainstream horror movie of the past fifteen years). Director James Wan was clearly going through the motions here, providing a slick but disposable product completely lacking the charge of its predecessor, or Wan’s other 2013 release THE CONJURING.

7. WARM BODIES
2013’s major TWILIGHT wannabe, with soulful zombies in place of vegetarian vampires. One of those soulful zombies--denoted by animated beating hearts superimposed over the chest area--is a good looking young guy (Nicholas Hoult) who falls in love with the film’s young heroine (Teresa Palmer, who just happens to closely resemble TWILIGHT’S Kristen Stewart). They’re opposed by Palmer’s gruff father (John Malkovich) and several not-so-nice zombies (in place of TWILIGHT’S meat-eating vamps). The film’s portrayal of a zombie apocalypse is strictly by-the-numbers, with only a smirky-ironic sense of humor to distinguish it from most other modern zombie flicks…well, that and the silly romantic angle, which seems surprisingly muted and inconsequential given that the target audience was teenage girls.

8. CONTRACTED
This indie has an arresting premise involving a young woman (Najarra Townsend) contracting an apparent venereal disease following a one-night stand that results in all sorts of gruesome physical maladies. Unfortunately writer-director Eric England didn’t bother to develop his film much beyond those perimeters. It certainly doesn’t help matters that the protagonist is thoroughly unlikable, and even despicable in the way she brazenly attempts to pass on her contagion to a naive male suitor. Another problem is that CONTRACTED had the misfortune to turn up around the same time as the similarly themed THANATOMORPHOSE, a film that all-but wipes the floor with this one.

9. COTTAGE COUNTRY
Another film that appeared around the same time as a similarly themed but far more effective production, in this case SIGHTSEERS, which like COTTAGE COUNTRY is a black comedy about a vacationing couple on a killing spree. Here the couple is played by Tyler Labine and Malin Ackerman, who during a country getaway are joined by Labine’s loser brother (Dan Petronijevic). Following an argument Labine impulsively kills his sibling, precipitating an increasingly implausible succession of murders. I never bought this film for a second despite the best efforts of Labine, Ackerman and director Peter Wellington, whose darkly comedic touch is at odds with the more serious and moralistic final scenes, in which Wellington seemingly attempts to humanize his immoral protagonists--a conceit that like so much else about this movie just doesn’t work.

10. STORAGE 24
A future cult classic for sure, this British no-budgeter has already attained some infamy due to the fact that it was 2013’s lowest grossing movie, raking in a whopping 72 dollars in the U.S. It’s about an alien loose in a storage facility, where it picks off the standard assortment of clueless idiots. There’s one striking bit involving a storage bin filled with creepy mannequins, but excess silliness is what really marks the film. It utilizes the old-school gimmick of a guy in a monster suit, which looks like a cast-off design from Cronenberg’s THE FLY; the sight of this ludicrous critter ripping a man’s heart out of his chest is funnier than anything I’ve seen in any of 2013’s intentional comedies.

11. THE MONK [LE MOINE]
I’m not entirely sure what went wrong here, as the idea of France’s immensely talented Dominik Moll (of A FRIEND LIKE HARRY and LEMMING) adapting Matthew Lewis’ X-rated gothic classic THE MONK with Vincent Cassell in the title role seems irresistible. Yet despite some slickly rendered visuals and a committed performance by Cassell the film just never comes to life. The problem seems to be that the 18th Century set story, about a Spanish monk compromising his faith at the behast of the devil to romp with a luscious young woman, is simply no longer as shocking as it once was (I know I said the novel was X-rated, but these days it barely rates an R). A more contemporary interpretation of the material might have helped, as Moll takes it at face value, which turns out to be the wrong choice. Let’s remember that the novel was previously adapted for the screen in the Luis Bunuel scripted LE MOINE (1971), and that film wasn’t much, either.

12. HAUNTER
I’m up for anything by Canada’s Vincenzo Natali, and HAUNTER turns out to be a good barometer of his strengths and weaknesses. This is to say that it fully showcases Natali’s commitment to unique, precedent-setting genre cinema, but also exposes his unfortunate habit of indulging in visual trickery at the expense of narrative clarity--a tendency that’s allowed to run wild in HAUNTER. It features Abigail Breslin as a teenager who finds herself trapped in a creepy house with her parents, reliving the same day over and over. Outside is a smoggy void, while within a malevolent ghost in the form of PONTYPOOL’s Stephen McHattie holds sway. No points for guessing the “twist,” as it’s revealed early on that Breslin and the family are ghosts themselves. Unfortunately the film doesn’t really go anywhere once that revelation is breached, continually spinning its wheels in repetitive CGI packed scenes of Breslin getting chased around by McHattie. The repetition extends to Breslin’s performance, which consists largely of scared, shocked or incredulous facial reactions.

13. JOHN DIES AT THE END
A feverishly inventive, defiantly individual effort that just doesn't work. Adapted from the popular novel by David Wong, it's the latest film by the ever-idiosyncratic Don Coscarelli, who loses his footing early on in this nonsensical account of two losers, a soy sauce based hallucinogen, zombies, a spider creature and some kind of inter-dimensional alien invasion. The film's problems start with the fact that it's supposed to be a comedy yet just isn't funny. Another irritant is the aggressively hip overlay, which feels forced and at least 20 years out of date. The biggest problem, however, is that I just never cared about either of the protagonists, and so couldn't work up any interest in their fates, regardless of all the flying mustaches, hot dog cell phones or car driving dogs Coscarelli throws at us.

14. MAMA
A film with quite a few things going for it, including an interesting premise and a soulful lead performance by Jessica Chastain, yet it just isn’t very good overall. Adapted from writer-director Andres Muschietti’s 2008 short film of the same name, it features a dark haired Chastain as a rocker babe charged with taking care of her orphaned nieces. The kids interact with an apparently imaginary personage they call Mama, who turns out to be a very real ghost that grows jealous when Chastain’s maternal instincts begin to surface, leading to a cliff-set climax so hokey it nearly shifts the proceedings into outright camp. It doesn’t help that the CGI title character looks like a crummy discard from a Tim Burton movie, demonstrating that the old-time horror movie practice of keeping the monsters offstage for as long as possible maybe wasn’t such a bad idea.

15. ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY
Surprisingly, the critical reception granted this would-be Cronenbergian freak-out was quite positive overall. Most of the adulation centered around the performance of Michael Eklund, who is indeed impressive as a genetics researcher who discovers a deadly virus being cultivated in a German biology lab, and also its first victim: himself! Unfortunately Eklund’s skilled performance isn’t enough to save this agonizingly uneventful film from terminal dullsville, with the relationship between Eklund and a babe researcher (Karoline Herfuth), a brewing conspiracy among his colleagues and the climactic make-up effects all falling woefully flat.

16. DARK TOUCH
France’s Marina de Van is to be commended for her commitment to intelligent woman-centric horror cinema, even though only one of her self-directed efforts, 2002’s IN MY SKIN, has done her ambitions justice. 2009’s middling David Lynch wannabe DON’T LOOK BACK didn’t quite measure up, and neither does this messy CARRIE-inspired effort. Set in modern-day Ireland, DARK TOUCH, de Van’s first English language production, is evocatively visualized and extremely well acted by the young Missy Keating as a girl with a “talent” for moving things around telepathically--which she initially demonstrates by doing in her family, and continues when she’s sheltered by a kindly but clueless couple. Speaking of clueless, the film, despite de Van’s valiant efforts, is done in by a highly uneven, inconsistent narrative and much cheap-o CGI.

17. THE PURGE
This film’s enormous financial success was due to its tremendously audacious premise of an annual one-night “purge” in which crime is legal and everyone is allowed to work out their aggressions. Ethan Hawke plays a wealthy man who can afford to stay locked away in his security proofed house during the Purge, together with his wife and troublemaking children. The fun begins when Hawke’s kids let a possibly dangerous man into the house, leading to all sorts of splatterific mayhem. The pic could have been good, but the highly derivative narrative (the similarities to STRAW DOGS are hardly incidental) and overblown political angle (which makes most Oliver Stone movies seem restrained) result in a definite missed opportunity.

18. V/H/S 2
Early reports suggested this film, a sequel to last year’s found footage anthology V/H/S, was superior to its predecessor. In truth, however, the two films are about even quality-wise. As in part one there’s a wraparound segment involving miscreants breaking into a house, where they view several vhs tapes that comprise the movie’s various segments. In the Adam Wingard directed first part the proceedings are viewed entirely through a camera implanted in a guy’s eye, through which he (and we) see ghosts; it concludes, memorably enough, with the eye-camera shoved down its owner’s throat. In part two, directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, we witness a bicyclist’s transformation into a zombie, seen via a POV camera mounted on his head--clever, but the directors cheat by editing in alternate camera POVs. The third segment, filmed largely in Korean, was helmed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans. It’s an overlong and excessive account of the making of a movie that includes zombies, mutant births and at least one devil-like creature. In part four, directed by Jason Eisner, some bratty kids left alone by their parents are attacked by an ill-defined extraterrestrial menace in an annoying and incoherent account, much of it viewed from a camera mounted on a (fake) dog’s head.

19. THE ABCs OF DEATH
You’ll be forgiven for mistaking this 26 part anthology feature for a student film compilation, as for the most part that’s just how it plays. The conceit is that each segment represents a different letter of the alphabet, and all have something to do with death. That’s a mighty broad framework, and explains why the films are so all-over-the-place in terms of tone, style and subject matter, with glorified music videos jostling with short narratives, a couple animated efforts and even a claymation film. What the films do have in common, unfortunately, is their uniform shallowness; none of the filmmakers assembled here provide much outside empty-headed gross out spectacles, which explains why the film as a whole runs out of steam long before its 129-minute running time is done. Among the more noteworthy filmmakers are actress/sometime director Angela Bettis, who provides a silly little miscellany about a man’s battle with a spider; Ti West, who contributes a short-short featuring a woman having a miscarriage in a toilet (yes, that about sums the whole thing up); KILL LIST’S Ben Wheatley, who delivers a forest-set POV fest involving a resurrected dead person; and A SERBIAN FILM’s Srdjan Spasojevic, who provides a bizarre and predictably blood-soaked something-or-other involving perverted surgeons, an extremely active patient and a rain of blood.

20. YEAR (or BIRTH) OF THE LIVING DEAD
A middling documentary on the making and cultural impact of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The information gleaned from interviews with George Romero, critic Elvis Mitchell, WALKING DEAD producer Gale Anne Hurd and this film’s executive producer Larry Fessenden isn’t anything you can’t find in the copious texts and DVD commentaries on NOTLD. Much is made, for instance, about the fact that the main character is black, an unheard-of horror movie innovation--and something that has already been discussed ad nauseum. Yet even if you haven’t already read up on NOTLD this film probably won’t seem too edifying, being overly short--76 minutes isn’t nearly enough time to do the subject justice--and contained, as aside from Romero we hear very little from the film’s cast and crew. Furthermore, director Rob Kuhns fills out the proceedings with cheesy animated transitions that do nothing to enhance the overall ennui.

21. WORLD WAR Z
Good production values and an strikingly epic canvas mark this zombie blockbuster (as well they should given the $200 million budget). I’ll also credit director Marc Foster with keeping things moving along in smooth and satisfying fashion--obscuring the fact that the script was a disjointed hodgepodge that was retooled as it went along--and pulling off some impressive set pieces (my favorite being the zombie on the plane bit). However, those things don’t obscure the fact that the zombie apocalypse trope has officially been done to death, and that for all its bombast this film is essentially a glorified remake of 28 DAYS LATER. I’m not sure why the filmmakers even bothered crediting the alleged source novel by Max Brooks, as the book’s documentary overlay, panoramic scope and political overtones were all jettisoned in favor of a pulpy account that sees Brad Pitt as a former U.N. investigator getting called back into action to find a cure for a zombie plague infecting the world. Ten years ago this movie might have been a worthwhile time-waster, but now…

22. MANIAC
I’m tempted to give this film a passing grade, but it’s just too dumb to warrant a full recommendation. It’s a somewhat loose remake of the similarly titled 1980 “classic” about a slob (Joe Spinnell) on a misogynistic killing rampage in NYC. The setting here is LA, where another psychotic misogynist, this one played by Elijah Wood(!), is on the loose. He’s looking to procure scalps for his mannequin collection, which he treats as if they were actual women. The gimmick is that nearly the entire film is seen from the killer’s POV, conveyed through constantly mobile camerawork and sometimes innovative digital effects depicting the maniac’s hallucinatory reality. The killings are quite graphically depicted, although the whole thing is so cartoony none of it is especially troubling. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if director Franck Khalfoun was trying to create some kind of flamboyant dark comedy, because (in direct contrast to the stark and brooding original) that’s how this MANIAC often plays.

23. CARRIE
In which director Kimberly Pierce, who after 1999’s BOYS DON’T CRY dedicated herself to socially relevant fare, finally threw in the towel and joined the commercial ranks. A remake of Brian De Palma’s 1976 rendering of Stephen King’s first novel, this CARRIE is every bit as trashy and exploitive as anyone could possibly want. It follows the original film’s every beat, albeit with much newly minted gory mayhem and even a mutant birth. What it lacks is De Palma’s style and economy, while Chloe Grace Moretz in the title role is far too cute and perky to be believable as a put-upon social misfit. Another negative is Julianne Moore as her pious mother, a role that’s vastly overplayed, making Piper Laurie’s famously overwrought rendering of the same character seem like an exercise in stately restraint.

24. EVIL DEAD
Yes, I was primed to hate this remake of Sam Raimi’s THE EVIL DEAD, which proves that the material just doesn’t work when divested of the no budget funkiness of the original (or the screwball slapstick of EVIL DEAD 2). Director Fede Alvarez appears to be fully aware of this fact, and so follows Stephen King’s “Go for the gross-out” edict by overloading the proceedings with outrageous gore, resulting in what is probably the most splat-happy piece of cinema since Peter Jackson’s early films. Alvarez also attempts to impart some actual gravitas, with the four-idiots-massacred-in-a-secluded-cabin concept gussied up by the fact that two of the characters are a brother and sister looking to rebound after the tragic death of their mother. Of course all subtlety is abandoned once the splatter gets underway.

25. KISS OF THE DAMNED
Put this one in the “good try” category. It’s an extremely stylish vampire pic, inspired by the 1970s Eurosploitation films of Dario Argento and Jean Rollin, whose writer-director Xan Cassavettes (of the documentary Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION) demonstrates a great deal of visual flair. That, however, doesn’t change the fact that the proceedings are terminally uninvolving and the characters uninteresting. Those characters include two vampire babes (Josephine de La Baume and Eva Green lookalike Roxane Mesquida), one of whom falls in love with a punk (Milo Ventimiglia) while the other embarks on a random blood sucking spree. Lots of graphically depicted nastiness ensues, but without a strong framework none of it has much impact.

26. ANTIVIRAL
Here we find debuting writer-director Brandon Cronenberg boldly mining the biological horror trope invented by his father David. ANTIVIRAL is about a futuristic clinic where people pay to be injected with diseases taken from celebrities. An employee of said company (Caleb Landry Jones) infects himself with many of his company’s diseases, which he then sells to a pirate outfit; his latest self-infection is a disease taken from a popular actress that has a number of painful side effects. With its unnervingly staid and colorless interiors, tightly controlled filmmaking and dialogue like “Her eyes seem to reach beneath your skin and touch your organs,” this film is creepy and clinical to a degree that few filmmakers--including Brandon Cronenberg’s father--have ever approached. But the film has problems, starting with its absurdly quaint take on celebrity, represented largely by smiling faces on billboards (reality TV and sex videos seem completely foreign to this film’s reality). For that matter, there’s no sense of any sort of culture outside the hermetic lives of the protagonists, leaving us wondering about the sort of world in which this film’s terminally loony premise could ever possibly take place--certainly not this one!

27. ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW
This is the already-infamous indie that was filmed surreptitiously at Walt Disney World. It involves a devoted family man losing his mind during a family vacation at the park, with a pair of seductive French girls, a scooter-bound old woman, a suspicious ruby necklace and a malignant virus all figuring into the mix. The film is marked by strikingly noirish black-and-white photography that transforms Disney World’s smiling cartoon characters into leering demons, and also high spirited Disney-esque music that nicely counterpoints the horror of the proceedings. The conceit of secretly filming at Walt Disney World may be a gimmick, but it’s what gives this film its effectiveness. Without the documentary overlay of amusement park rides, cartoony décor and actual crowds the proceedings wouldn’t work at all, as is evident in the listless scenes that take place outside the park. Here I’m referring specifically to the sci fi-tinged final third, involving a B-movieish laboratory and an evil princess, which is actually less surreal than the amusement park set footage, and a potent reminder that reality truly is stranger than fiction.

28. SIDE EFFECTS
Upscale thrills by Steven Soderbergh, with Jude Law and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO’S Rooney Mara proving quite strong in the lead roles. Yet in spite of such attributes the film is nonsense, burdened with a script that revels in its own cleverness at the expense of credibility, in the manner of twist-happy nineties fare like MALICE and PRIMAL FEAR. Mara plays a severely depressed young woman who kills her hubbie (Channing Tatum) under the influence of a controversial drug prescribed by her shrink (Law). But is all as it seems? Clearly not! Soderbergh was in a highly refined mood here, resulting in an unusually classy thriller that never overcomes its dopey script.

29. TRANCE
A slick but utterly disposable effort that sees Britain’s Danny Boyle returning to the type of pulpy fare--specifically 1994’s SHALLOW GRAVE--that began his career. It features James McAvoy as an art auctioneer robbed by a band of scumbags led by Vincent Cassell. The problem is McAvoy develops amnesia after being hit in the head and doesn’t remember what he did with a lucrative Goya print. Rosario Dawson as a seductive hypnotherapist is called in to plumb McAvoy’s subconscious and locate the painting, resulting in a complex web of action and hallucination packed with graphic violence and more full frontal female nudity than any other movie in recent memory. Unfortunately, as in the aforementioned SHALLOW GRAVE, there are no sympathetic characters, with McAvoy revealed as a scumbag and even Rosario Dawson’s character evincing some none-too-savory depths. Furthermore, the solution to the mystery at the heart of the film isn’t nearly as interesting as we’re led to believe.


And that’s it, thankfully, for the Worst films of 2013. One more thing before we put the year to rest, a brief listing of seven films we’re…

Still Waiting on:

CREATURE 2013
The latest surreal head-scratcher from Sweden’s Ronnie Carlssen, who was particularly inspired here.

DARK BLOOD
The final film of River Phoenix, pieced together two decades later by its director George Sluizer. Far from great, but still worth seeing.

GREEN INFERNO
A tribute to the Italian cannibal sickies of the seventies and eighties by writer-director Eli Roth. The early reviews have been mixed, but I can’t say I’m not intrigued.

LESSON OF THE EVIL
A relentless high school set kill-a-thon that sees Japan’s Takashi Miike returning to the type of over-the-top fare with which he made his name.

THANATOMORPHOSE
The year’s most disturbing film, a profoundly bleak and repellant yet curiously artful depiction of a young woman decaying from the inside out.

UNDER THE SKIN
I haven’t yet seen this one, although I have read the singularly freaky Michael Faber source novel, based on which I’m expecting great--or at least very good--things!

THE ZERO THEOREM
The latest film by Terry Gilliam, which should be all the recommendation you require. I know it certainly is for me!

 

--1/16/14

     

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