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2014: The Year in Horror

For horror movie fans the year 2014 was actually a pretty good one. Notice how my “Best” film listings (21 in all) far outnumber the “Worst” ones (13) below. Of course, finding the really good stuff entailed venturing outside the mainstream, which is certain to inspire accusations of elitism by uninformed “film fans.” A suggestion: given that you “fans” are invariably the ones who bitch the loudest about the lack of quality entertainment, why not forego the name-calling and actually track down some of the obscurities mentioned below? I can’t promise you’ll be as enthusiastic about the likes of UNDER THE SKIN or THANATOMORPHOSE as I am, but I can ensure that seeing them will be a far better use of your time than bitching about my perceived elitism.

     What follows is my fourteenth annual ranking of the best and worst horror movies of the past year, along with recommended non-horror and DVD/Blu-ray releases. As always, the following includes only those films commercially released (however limited) in the US. Also as always, I was unable to catch every horror movie released during the past year (among the missing: MALEFICENT, DELIVER US FROM EVIL and THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2). Nonetheless, I feel the following is a fairly comprehensive overview of the horror movies of 2014, beginning with an admittedly controversial choice…
 

The Best:

1. THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS [L’ETRANGE COULEUR DES LARMES DE TON CORPS]
The second film from Belgium’s Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, who debuted with 2010’s crazed giallo tribute AMER. THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS is another giallo pastiche, and is several times wilder than the previous film. Indeed, I’d say it’s as extreme (in every conceivable respect) as anything I’ve seen lately, and in terms of color and cinematic invention virtually occupies its own category. The filmmakers utilize a bewildering variety of stylistic quirks, and freely incorporate dreams and hallucinations into their narrative. Contrary to what many reviewers have insinuated, there is an extremely involved narrative here, although multiple viewings are required to fully (or even partially) sort it out. It involves a businessman (Klaus Tange) who finds his wife missing from his big city apartment, thrusting him, and the film overall, into an increasingly hallucinatory reality in which the unhealthy fantasies of the man’s fellow tenants are laid bare while an unseen killer goes about his (or her) nasty business. The film contains one jaw-dropping sequence after another, including a stalking bit in which a woman is pursued through the wallpaper(!) of her apartment, and a murder scene involving fingers literally burrowing under the victim’s skin. In keeping with the giallo influence, the killings are carried out by black gloved hands whose brutal handiwork is presented in extremely frank fashion. Ditto the sexual angle, which explains why this stunning exercise in artful delirium hasn’t gotten much play in the US.

2. UNDER THE SKIN
I have a lot of problems with this film, which I believe would have been stronger had it hewed more closely to the Michael Faber source novel. Yet the film has resonated with me in a major way, being the most haunting and evocative portrayal of an alien perspective of our world since THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. UNDER THE SKIN is also notable for containing the first-ever instance of full frontal nudity by Scarlett Johansson, a fact that by itself has rendered the film a near-legend in many circles (I understand traffic on Mrskin.com increased dramatically following its release). She plays an extraterrestrial babe cruising through Scotland in a van, picking up guys she takes back to a shack for purposes that are never entirely made clear. Director Jonathan Glazer provides a superlative example of visual storytelling (with what little dialogue there is being largely incomprehensible, spoken as it is in heavy Scottish accents). The subtly oft-kilter wide shots of cinematographer Daniel Landin render the commonplace alien, as does Johnnie Burn’s masterly sound design, which provides every scene with its own distinct ambiance. The performance of Ms. Johansson is also instrumental to the effect, with a distant yet highly sexy and charismatic air (Johansson’s pick ups were apparently all filmed documentary-style via hidden cameras). The film has its problems, certainly, but from a purely atmospheric standpoint it ranks with nightmarish classics like ERASERHEAD and STALKER, and that’s high praise indeed.

3. NIGHTCRAWLER
A pitiless study of the world of "Nightcrawlers," men who spend their nights surreptitiously videoing crime scenes which they sell to the news media. Writer-director Dan Gilroy presents this account as essentially a warped Horatio Alger narrative, with a determined but conscious-less young man, superbly played by Jake Gyllenhaal, stumbling into the nightcrawler world and finding it uniquely suited to his sociopathic bents. He's aided by Rene Russo as a small time newswoman who eagerly purchases his footage, thus precipitating an increasingly sordid danse macabre. Gilroy is to be commended for ignoring any number of annoying horror/thriller conventions (the redeeming romantic interest, the virtuous cop investigating the hero), and never shying away from his story’s more twisted and unpleasant aspects. Of course, many of the narrative developments, particularly those of the third act, aren't entirely plausible (such as Gyllenhaal finding the time to rearrange a crime scene before police arrive), but that's about the only real flaw I could find in this impeccably crafted descent into amorality, made all the more affecting because it's so staunchly reality-based.

4. BLUE RUIN
A stark and powerful indie that in the manner of all the best such films uses its limitations to great advantage. The fact that the lead actor Macon Blair looks so average and un-movie star-like only renders his characterization of a normal guy driven to murderous extremes that much more powerful. Specifically, Blair plays a drifter seeking to avenge the murders of his parents. He succeeds in killing the culprit, but the latter’s family decide to retaliate, thrusting Blair into a bloody vortex that can only end badly. The script has some credibility problems (including the vastly overused Hollywood cliché of the chatterbox villain who ruins a point-blank kill by talking too much), but it’s the sparseness and concentration of the filmmaking that make BLUE RUIN the disturbing marvel it is.

5. THANATOMORPHOSE
The demented spirit of David Cronenberg is evident in this profoundly disquieting French-Canadian artsploitation film concerning the body of a bored young woman (Kayden Rose) decaying from the inside out. First she finds strange bruises appearing on her skin, then her fingernails begin falling out. Vomiting and incontinence follow, and before long her skin turns purplish and maggots begin nesting in it. None of Rose’s attempts at alleviating the decay, be they medical or cosmetic, do much to decelerate the process, which continues to its inevitably awful end point. The film isn’t terribly original, containing elements lifted from Cronenberg’s THE FLY (the rotting fingernails and falling-off body parts) and 2003’s IN MY SKIN (a piece of skin preserved in formaldehyde), yet as a surreal depiction of encroaching madness the film has an impact comparable to classic art-horror freak-outs like SALO and IN A GLASS CAGE. As with those films, THENATAMORPHOSE shuns cheap exploitation in favor of a more artful and elemental brand of horror: it aims to disturb, and for the most part succeeds. Then there’s the amazing lead performance of Kayden Rose, which all-but redefines daring.

6. COHERENCE
The latest in a long line of metaphysical mind-benders to emerge from the American indie film world; others include PRIMER, THE MAN FROM EARTH and ANOTHER EARTH, all of which this film explicitly recalls. However, it has an aura of jazzy naturalism that’s very much its own, with the type of wobbly handheld camerawork and dialogue-driven storytelling that have become independent movie mainstays utilized to decidedly twisted and bizarre ends. The film also boasts uniformly strong performances by an unknown cast, thus rectifying the central irritant of most indie productions. It begins in leisurely fashion with a cocktail party on the night a comet appears in the sky; things go awry when some of the participants wander outside and notice a house whose residents look disconcertingly familiar. That’s all I’ll reveal about the narrative, which encompasses doppelgangers and quantum physics, and is consistently intriguing and absorbing (and occasionally downright confusing). I’m not sure, however, that I approve of the final scenes, which nudge the material into horror territory, and in so doing alter the thrust and feel of the film irrevocably.

7. TUSK
Not all of this film works, but writer-director Kevin Smith deserves credit for creating something so unapologetically demented. It's the second of Smith's outside-his-comfort zone efforts (following RED STATE), films that bolster Smith's standard rambling, dialogue-heavy aesthetic with actual filmmaking prowess. In TUSK a young podcaster (Justin Long) is lured by an online ad to the Canadian home of a reclusive codger (Michael Parks) who harbors profoundly demented designs on Long involving walrus skin and tusks. As he did in RED STATE, Smith indulges Parks with a few too many rambling monologues, but the film overall has a distinctly psychotic charm, bolstered by a time-tripping narrative and adroit tonal changes.

8. NIGHTBREED: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT
The long-awaited director’s cut of Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED has taken on legendary status among horror buffs, and now, 25 years after the fact, it’s here at last (courtesy of producer Mark Alan Miller, who tracked down and reincorporated around 45 minutes’ worth of missing footage, and Scream Factory, which released the finished product on blu-ray). I’ll have to say it’s a massive improvement over NIGHTBREED’S choppy and incoherent theatrical cut, with more measured pacing and added scenes that properly flesh out the material, lending it an appropriately epic hue. What hasn’t changed, unfortunately, are the bad acting, cut-rate production design (the graveyard where much of the film takes place never looks like anything more than the indoor set it is) and clunky staging. This was only Barker’s second film as a director, and he hadn’t entirely found his footing. There’s also the fact that the modest $10 million budget was far too scant to match Barker’s outsized ambitions. So while this refurbished NIGHTBREED is fun and imaginative, with a plethora of cool monsters and diverting action, it’s still not all it could be.

9. SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR
This nine-years-after-the-fact sequel to SIN CITY bombed spectacularly, but it isn’t really that terrible. No, it doesn’t come close to topping the original, and contains some glaring missteps (such as the thirtyish Jessica Alba playing a teenage stripper), but the film does its job nonetheless in colorful and entertaining fashion. It once again ties together several violent stories set in a wildly excessive film noir universe, painstakingly transposed from the graphic novel series by Frank Miller. Obviously the ultra-stylized look is no longer as fresh as it seemed in the first SIN CITY, but Miller and co-director Robert Rodriguez provide some gorgeously rendered black and white visuals, and don’t skimp on the R-rated violence and perversion so integral to the SIN CITY universe. The standout element is the startlingly overt sexuality of Eva Green as the titular dame, who makes a titanic impression that all-but wipes her co-stars off the screen.

10. EDGE OF TOMORROW
A surprise: a summer noise-maker that’s genuinely smart and engaging. At heart, of course, EDGE OF TOMORROW is just as mindless as any of its star Tom Cruise’s more generic action-oriented vehicles, as proven by the misconceived happy ending that renders moot everything that came before. Set in the in the midst of an invasion of insectoid aliens, it features Cruise as a war correspondent sent to fight on the front lines after he tries to blackmail one of his superiors. Cruise is killed by the alien critters but finds himself reliving the same day over and over, his objective being fairly simple: use the knowledge bequeathed by his unique situation to find a way to halt the invasion. He’s assisted by a fit and fierce Emily Bunt as a hot chick soldier/love interest who once had powers similar to Cruise’s. Lots of mayhem ensues, adroitly orchestrated by director Doug Liman, so much so that I’m nearly willing to overlook the fact that there’s not a whole lot to the film outside its audacious STARSHIP TROOPERS-meets-GROUNDHOG DAY narrative.

11. STARRY EYES
Anyone wanting a tutorial on the plight of young actresses in Hollywood need only watch this movie, a gripping supernatural chiller that chills due to the fact that its mordant view of the movie business rings unpleasantly true. Alexandra Essoe delivers an enormously empathetic performance as an aspiring actress desperate for stardom; a no-budget horror film made by a band of creepy eccentrics promises to finally make her dream a reality, but the costs are far greater than she can imagine. Anyone attuned to the harsh truths of the dream factory will appreciate this film’s all-too-realistic depiction of the obstacles faced by countless Hollywood wannabes, which God knows are horrific enough without the addition of the supernatural. Perhaps this explains why the final half hour, in which mass bloodletting, reality displacement and demonic possession come into play, is far less satisfying than what came before.

12. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
A moody and protracted reverie from indie darling Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch’s ultra-deadpan style is quite distinctive, and hasn’t changed much over the course of his thirty-plus year career, meaning ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE will probably play better to viewers unfamiliar with his previous films (which include STRANGER THAN PARADISE, DOWN BY LAW and GHOST DOG). Yet we can all admire the artfully textured visuals, marked by strikingly desolate big city scenery. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston star as a vampire couple moping their way through the uglier sections of Detroit. They’re joined for a time by Swinton’s bratty younger sister (Mia Wasikowska), which is about all that really “happens” in this movie. In true Jarmusch fashion, it’s the highly languid mood and atmosphere that take precedence (a mood identical to those of nearly all Jarmusch’s other films), and also the presence of Ms. Swinton, whose androgynous air has never been better utilized in a movie.

13. GONE GIRL
A prime example of B-movie material done up in prestige film fashion. Adapted from the bestseller by Gillian Flynn, it involves the inexplicable disappearance of a seemingly contented young woman (Rosamund Pike), apparently at the hands of her dissatisfied husband (Ben Affleck). But of course not all is as it seems, as a variety of increasingly implausible twists make clear. As directed by David Fincher, the proceedings exert a fair amount of trashy enjoyment, and do so without compromising the story's darker edges. The performances are also quite impressive, including those of such unlikely choices as Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry. But again, this is medium-grade exploitation regardless of how it's dressed up.

14. THE PURGE: ANARCHY
Most everyone seems to agree that this sequel to last year’s THE PURGE by its writer-director James DeMonaco is a big improvement. Forsaking the contained setting and clichéd home invasion plot of its predecessor, this one ventures outside into the violence and anarchy that overtake a big city on the night of the annual “Purge,” during which people are encouraged to act out their darkest impulses. The protagonists are well acted by the likes of Frank Grillo as an outlaw sergeant and Carmen Ejogo as a morally upstanding waitress adrift in this madland. DeMonaco introduces several novel ideas here, including the concept of elites who round up poor people for use in MOST DANGEROUS GAME styled private hunts. Yes, the political angle is just as overt as it was in the previous film--it’s no accident that the bad guys are all white--although the proceedings are exciting enough to conceivably play without it.

15. COLD IN JULY
A strong adaptation of Joe Lansdale’s classic 1989 thriller. The novel’s blood and grit have been transferred to the screen virtually intact, although director & co-scripter Jim Mickle made some ill-advised changes to the material that result, among other things, in what feels like two separate movies. DEXTER’S Michael C. Hall plays a Texas family man whose life is completely upended after he shoots a burglar. This upsets the latter’s ex-con father (Sam Shepherd), who becomes determined to make Hall and his family pay…at least until Hall discovers that the guy he killed is not who he thought he was. From there Hall teams up with his tormentor, and also Don Johnson as a redneck PI--and the film, as previously stated, becomes something else altogether. The roll of Hall’s wife (Vinessa Shaw) has been reduced considerably from the novel; she’s completely absent from most of the film’s second half, which (semi-spoiler alert) results in her making an unbelievable last-minute appearance that completely destroys credibility. But Mickle deserves credit for turning out a solidly made, pretension-free thriller with none of the annoyances of so many modern indies (distracting handheld camerawork, gratuitous pop culture references, excess CGI). Here the emphasis is on old fashioned storytelling, and I more than approve!

16. INTO THE STORM
An unabashed throwback to the nineties, when movies didn’t need stars or even stories so long as they had some exploitable element--in this case tornadoes. INTO THE STORM actually makes its most noticeable predecessor, the notoriously crass and simplistic TWISTER, look like a model of narrative complexity. The story, such as it is, involves a bunch of disparate individuals--horny teenagers, tornado chasers and the neglectful father of one of the teens--caught up in a succession of deadly twisters. It’s done in quasi-documentary style, allegedly visualized through cameras wielded by the protagonists, but the device is halfhearted at best (I’m guessing the project was initially conceived as a found footage exercise). The film is dopily entertaining, in any event, with solid special effects and sound design, and passable performances by a cast of unknowns.

17. OCULUS
I’m not entirely sold on this movie, but it deserves points for effort. Adapted from a well-received short by director Mike Flanagan, it concerns a brother and sister (Brenton Thwaites and Karen Gillan) who return to their childhood home to destroy an apparently cursed mirror they believe was responsible for their mother’s death. The particulars of the killing are laid out in a series of horrific flashbacks, in which Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff play the kids’ parents. Flanagan provides a strong, confident visual style to go with his tricky narrative, making for a film that if nothing else is mighty impressive from a technical standpoint. The problem is that Flanagan never entirely gets a handle on his convoluted two-pronged storyline, which further suffers from the fact that there’s not a single likeable character (everyone is either completely nuts or on their way). Again, though, the film gets a nod for effort, imparting an original story with a great deal of filmmaking savvy.

18. NOAH
Make no mistake: this movie is a fiasco in most every respect. That probably explains why I enjoyed it. My affection for misguided epics is hardly a secret, and few films are more epic or misguided than NOAH. It’s director Darren Aronofsky’s big budgeted take on the Biblical figure Noah (played by Russell Crowe), who under the guidance of the almighty builds an arc to escape a massive flood. This of course requires a lot of special effects, and special effects aren’t Aronofsky’s specialty--and nor, for that matter, do his gritty handheld visuals mesh terribly well with the subject matter. Adding to the silliness are a number of elements that to my knowledge weren’t in the Bible, including a bunch of massive stone creatures--earthbound angels, apparently--and an antagonist (Ray Winstone) who manages to stow away aboard the ark. It’s a total bust, in short, but for bad movie buffs NOAH is very hard not to enjoy.

19. THE BLUE ROOM (LA CHAMBRE BLEUE)
An adaptation of Georges Simenon’s once-shocking 1955 novel of the same name by director-star Mathieu Amalric. As in the novel, the film relates the macabre story of a small town man (Amalric) getting involved in a torrid and ultimately deadly love affair with an icy seductress (Stephanie Cleau), related through fractured chronology that intercuts the details of the affair with a subsequent police inquest. This results in an unnecessarily convoluted and often downright confusing account that fails completely as a thriller. As a saucy art film, however, it’s rather interesting, with Amalric’s precise, detail-oriented direction imparting a real sense of creeping anxiety and madness gradually overtaking the protagonist, and by extension the sleepy community where he resides.

20. JESSABELLE
The stronger of ‘14’s two “Belle” movies. Unlike the thoroughly rotten ANABELLE, this bayou-set effort is solidly crafted and compelling, and contains snatches of originality. The narrative, involving a wheelchair-bound young woman seemingly haunted by the ghost of her deceased mother, is nothing special, but the impressively nuanced performance of newcomer Sarah Snook in the title role is a mitigating factor. She movies in with her father after being crippled in a car accident, and discovers a stash of eighties-era videotapes in which, in the film’s most interesting element, her mother is seen using tarot cards to predict Jessabelle’s future. As you might guess, those predictions are far from rosy, and borne out by the mayhem that ensues, topped off by an obligatory twist ending.

21. SHARKNADO 2: THE SECOND ONE
No, this movie isn’t “good,” nor even so-bad-it’s-good. It is of course an extended goof that sequelizes last year’s inexplicably popular SyFy Channel production SHARKNADO in predictable fashion, with the overpowering ridiculousness of the original film’s premise--of sharks getting blown out of the ocean by tornadoes--conflated to horrendous proportions. The comedy is far more overt than that of the first SHARKNADO, and bolstered by dozens of distracting celebrity cameos by everyone from Kelly Osborne to Jared from the Subway commercials (quite apropos given all the Subway product placement). Yet I’ll say this: unlike the first film, I was never bored watching SHARKNADO 2. Plus, given my admitted weakness for whacky movies, I contend there’s something laudatory about a film whose makers are so cheerfully willing to indulge such a wealth of loony ideas (sharks attacking a plane in the sky, New Yorkers menaced by the Statue of Liberty’s head rolling through the streets, a guy harnessing a shark in midair), especially in today’s play-it-safe movie scene.


Recommended Non-Horror Releases:

THE DANCE OF REALITY
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest film, a highly characteristic autobiographical ramble containing all the surreal insanity any Jod fan could possibly desire.

FORCE MAJEURE
A highly eccentric Swedish-made study of family dysfunction during a ski vacation. It’s a bit staid for my tastes but impressive nonetheless, at once darkly comedic and disquieting.

I ORIGINS
Quasi-sci fi from ANOTHER EARTH’S Mike Cahill that despite a rambling narrative registers as a provocative mixture of scientific speculation and genuine emotion.

INTERSTELLAR
Definitely a love-it-or-hate-it movie. Put me in the former camp, as I couldn’t help but get caught up in Christopher Nolan’s ultra-expansive vision that cleverly incorporates nearly every sci fi trope in existence.

 

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE
A tragic but exhilarating documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mega-budgeted adaptation of DUNE, certainly one of the most fascinating films never made.

LIFE ITSELF
Roger Ebert gets his just due in this revealing and insightful doco, probably the finest, most moving work ever done by HOOP DREAMS’ Steve James.

MILIUS
Another laudable documentary, this one about libertarian moviemaker John Milius, one of the most unique characters to emerge from the movie brat generation of the 1970s.

VISITORS
Sitting through this plotless image-fest requires an unusual amount of patience, but VISITORS features a plethora of stunningly odd and evocative sights, as well as a hypnotic score by Philip Glass.

WETLANDS (FEUCHTGEBIETE)
This uniquely vile German import may well become the new SERBIAN FILM given its amazing succession of disgusting acts performed by a sex-obsessed young woman.

WHIPLASH
Quite simply the finest, most intense film about musicianship I’ve ever seen.




Recommended DVD Releases:

CURTAINS
This Canadian “classic” is far from great, but it’s one of the more effective eighties slashers, with a justly famous ice skating sequence that’s guaranteed to lodge in your mind.

FEDORA
Not exactly a horror movie, but it’s great to see Billy Wilder’s long-neglected 1978 thriller, the true follow-up to the legendary SUNSET BOULEVARD, digitized at last.

LAST EMBRACE
This witty and suspenseful Roy Scheider headlined thriller is among the most interesting--and heretofore difficult to find--films directed by THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS’ Jonathan Demme.

MACBETH
Roman Polanski’s stunningly brutal filming of the Bard’s most horrific play gets Criterion-ized. Need I say more?

MS. 45
This special edition of Abel Ferrara’s art-sleaze masterpiece has been a long time coming, and New Video Group’s sumptuous packaging and well-chosen extra features are nearly worth the wait.

 

RAW FORCE
This trashy eighties exploiter’s charms are adroitly summed up by its alternate title KUNG FU ZOMBIES. If that sounds good to you then you’ll probably enjoy RAW FORCE.

SAFE
Another worthy Criterion release: a profoundly creepy and disturbing exercise in chilly minimalism that remains one of the premiere horror movies of the nineties.



SEIZURE
Oliver Stone’s little-known directorial debut was this surreal horror no-budgeter. I’ve admittedly never thought much of the film, but perhaps it will play better in Blu-ray form.


SORCERESS
Again, not a very good movie, but historically important as the final feature (to date) directed by the great Jack Hill. Let’s hope time is kind to it!


The Worst:

1. LEFT BEHIND
To think: I was under the belief that evangelical cinema was growing increasingly sophisticated, but this film thoroughly disabused me of that silly notion. A reboot of the 2002 adaptation of Tim LaHaye’s faith-based bestseller, this new LEFT BEHIND is about on par with a nineties-era TV movie--one with especially indifferent performances and cut-rate special effects! That’s in spite of a healthy budget and an unusually high profile cast led by Nicolas Cage and Lea Thompson. Cage plays a commercial airline pilot who happens to be flying a commercial jetliner when the rapture hits and whisks all the True Believers away, leaving widespread chaos and disillusionment in its wake. The idea of a Christian end-of-the-world polemic combined with the AIRPORT-inspired disaster movie formula has promise, and there are parts of this film (such as Cage’s attempts at landing the plane on a blacked-out runway) that could have worked in the hands of competent moviemakers. Competence, however, is something this film’s makers woefully lack.

2. I, FRANKENSTEIN
The logical successor to VAN HELSING and ABRAHAM LINCOLN VAMPIRE HUNTER, a noisy CGI fest that reimagines Frankenstein’s monster as an Aaron Eckhart incarnated stud fighting on behalf of humanity against a race of immortal demons led by Bill Nighy. Given the ludicrousness of the premise, and dialogue like “You’re only a monster if you behave like one,” I, FRANKERNSTEIN definitely has the makings of a bad movie classic, yet I found it insulting and dull. It offers further proof (as if any were needed) of modern-day Hollywood’s fundamental illiteracy and contempt for its audiences; if such nonsense is what movie people think we want to see then that really doesn’t say much for them or us!

3. ANNABELLE
A rather inexplicable box office success whose appeal thoroughly escapes me. About a creepy doll absorbing demonic spirits bequeathed by evil cultists who attack its pregnant woman owner (Annabelle Wallis), ANNABELLE was billed as a prequel to THE CONJURING. In actuality it’s a twelfth-rate ROSEMARY’S BABY wannabe. As in that film the heroine moves into a creepy big city apartment building (and takes the doll with her) where she grows increasingly terrified for the safety of herself and her baby. It’s all very by-the-numbers, with the scares announced by noisy music cues and an ending that shamelessly cribs from that of THE EXORCIST.

4. VAMPIRE ACADEMY
How rotten is this movie? Even aficionados of the popular YA series that inspired the film admit it’s crap, an enormously self-satisfied and unfunny comedy about girls at a vampire boarding school. These gals are all impossibly articulate, speaking in clever screeds packed with irony and a pop culture reference for every occasion. There’s also a (surprisingly muted) romance and a pack of evil vampires, which leads to some intense action toward the end that does little to lift the film out of its self-imposed malaise.

5. AS ABOVE, SO BELOW
Nobody appears to have informed director John Erick Dowdle that the found footage format has long since run its course, as he’s provided yet another digitally shot faux-documentary portrayal of a group of twentyish airheads getting chased around by unseen somethings, with lots of miscellaneous screaming and camerawork that never stays still. The sole point of interest is the setting: the catacombs beneath Paris, an authentically eerie environ into which the protagonists--and that ever-shaky camera--descend in search of treasure. From there, of course, things grow extremely chaotic as Dowdle and his screenwriters throw seemingly every supernatural menace they can think of into the mix, in the evident hope that we’ll forget about THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and its countless successors, as well as the fact that the proceedings are complete and utter nonsense.

6. OUIJA
Uninspiring teen-centered horror, with a girl disappearing after she and a friend play around with a Ouija board. Said friend (Jessica Alba look-alike Olivia Cooke) is left to figure out what happened, and discovers that supernatural shenanigans are afoot. Given the striking dark-hued photography and reasonably good work by Ms. Cooke (also in 2014’s THE SIGNAL), OUIJA isn’t as insultingly awful as some of the other bad movies released in ‘14, but it is fatally clichéd and forgettable.

7. A FIELD IN ENGLAND
I really wanted to like this film, a hallucinatory period piece by Britain’s talented Ben Wheatley (of KILL LIST, SIGHTSEERS and the upcoming HIGH-RISE). Audacious and thoroughly oft-kilter, it certainly seems like my kind of movie, yet I never found it the slightest bit involving. Judging by what little of the murky narrative I could decipher, it involves a band of 17th Century English soldiers meeting up with an enigmatic magician who enlists them in a dig for some kind of treasure, prior to a lengthy psychedelic interlude and an all-out bloodbath. It’s filled with distracting quirks--freeze frames, excess slow mo, discordant music cues, dialogue spoken in near-whispers--that appear to have been included primarily to jazz up the scantiness of the scripting and all-too-evident low budget.

8. DRACULA UNTOLD
A companion-piece to I, FRANKENSTEIN that takes essentially the same crass approach that film did with Frankenstein in relating the early years of Count Dracula, a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler. Luke Evans plays Drac/Vlad as a pure-hearted stud who becomes a vampire in order to save his beloved Transylvania from invading Turkish armies. In true Hollyweird fashion the filmmakers have attempted to hit every conceivable demographic--there’s a fair amount of creepy-crawly stuff for us horror fans, some sappy romance for the TWILIGHT crowd, large-scale CGI battles straight out of LORD OF THE RINGS, and much gravity-defying martial arts action--and ended up with an overblown concoction that satisfies on no account. However, it’s not as abominable as I, FRANKENSTEIN due to a few striking elements, most notably a startlingly poetic bit in which Dracula’s sweetheart (Sarah Gadon) takes a slow-motion plunge off a cliff…and he follows her down!

9. INTO THE WOODS
Obviously I'm far from the ideal audience for this movie, a lavish adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical of the same name. A mash-up of several well known Grimm fairy tales, it features Sondheim's trademarked tuneless songs crooned by several A-list stars, of whom Johnny Depp and Emily Blunt fare the best; it's unfortunate, then, that both are killed off long before the end! Even more damaging is the bland staging by director Rob Marshall, whose level of inspiration is evinced by the fact that the evil giant who dominates the film's second half is played by Frances de la Tour, who essayed a nearly identical role in HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE. See Christophe Gans' lush and vibrant (and thus far unreleased-in-the-US) adaptation of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST for what INTO THE WOODS could have been.

10. GODZILLA
It's probably wrong to expect too much from this, Hollywood's latest take on GODZILLA. As far as giant monster movies go, I'd put it on par with the so-so likes of GORGO, which is of course a far cry from the original GODZILLA, or even the 1998 Roland Emmerich reboot (which I feel isn't nearly as risible as its reputation suggests). Director Gareth Edwards was evidently in over his head on this, his first big budget feature, which would seem to explain the plodding nature of the enterprise, featuring Godzilla taking on a lame Rodan wannabe in a succession of uninspired skirmishes, interspaced with even duller attempts at "character development" by a slumming cast.

11. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
Interesting: an “Iranian” film shot in the Farsi language that was actually lensed in Southern California by a largely American crew (Elijah Wood was an executive producer). In any event, its depiction of Iran, as a shadowy desert overrun with oil wells and haunted by a veiled vampire seductress (Sheila Vand), feels convincing. As conjured by writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour the film is a mighty striking one, visualized in gorgeous black and white with a heavily stylized hipster overlay. In this respect A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is similar in feel to Michael Almereyda’s nineties art-horror film NADJA, and replicates that film’s central flaw: the promotion of style over substance, which reaches epidemic levels here. So while this film is damn good looking, it’s sorely lacking in things like plot and characterization.

12. HORNS
A case of laudable ambition and indifferent results. Here director Alexander Aja adapts Joe Hill’s 2010 novel into what could have been an interesting and eccentric account of a man (Daniel Radcliffe), falsely accused of murdering his GF, who one day finds devil horns sprouting from his forehead. In addition, Radcliffe discovers the horns grant him all manner of powers, such as reading people’s minds and influencing the behavior of (patently fake) snakes. It all leads to a shocking revelation regarding the true killer of Radcliffe’s girlfriend, and a wild gross-out climax. Sounds good, but the tone is off: Aja’s staging is overly antic and cartoony, particularly with the performers, who appear to have been encouraged to overact. That’s especially evident in the supporting roles, such as a waitress played by Heather Graham, whose emoting is so ridiculously overwrought it momentarily brings the picture to a dead halt. Then there’s Daniel Radcliffe in the lead, who does his best but (just as he was in last year’s WOMAN IN BLACK) is hopelessly miscast.

13. THE BABADOOK
Australian horror done with the relentless spirit that tends to characterize genre filmmaking from Down Under. Writer-director Jennifer Kent doesn’t appear to care much about her viewers’ sensibilities (you can be sure that a cute dog seen in the early scenes won’t be long for this world), and isn’t afraid to render her protagonists unsympathetic. Essie Davis plays a single mother traumatized first by the (offscreen) death of her husband, and then by her hyperactive son (Noah Wiseman), who claims he’s being haunted by a nasty creature called the Babadook. Davis doesn’t believe him initially, but then, in an increasingly SHINING-like series of developments, actually begins to take on the Babadook’s none-too-pleasant characteristics. The derivative nature of the film’s second half hurts it (there’s even a scene toward the end, in which the kid confronts his possessed mother, that’s lifted nearly verbatim from THE SHINING novel). Too bad, as THE BABADOOK is generally impressive otherwise, with stylish visuals and strong performances by its two leads.


Still Waiting On:

LE BELLE ET LA BETE
I’m not sure this new French version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is entirely necessary, but it’s worth seeing for its stunningly evocative visuals and masterly use of CGI.

ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS
An Australian-made documentary on the late Cannon Films! How could this film not be fun?

GREEN INFERNO
Eli Roth’s latest was supposed to be released in Fall of ‘14 but got pushed back--not an encouraging sign!

 

HARD TO BE A GOD (TRUDNO BYT BOGOM)
From Russia, a stunningly mounted black and white portrayal of a distant planet whose inhabitants are mired in the dark ages.

HIGH-RISE
Several attempts have been made over the years to bring this J.G. Ballard nightmare to the screen. Let’s hope this film, by Britain’s Ben Wheatley, does the material justice!

LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU
An exploration of Richard Stanley’s failed attempt at filming THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU in the nineties, and the John Frankenheimer-directed abomination that resulted.

MAPS TO THE STARS
David Cronenberg’s latest hermetic dialogue-driven drama, which seems to have become his preferred mode of filmmaking. Not as bad as many would have you believe.

 

--1/15/15

     

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