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2009: The Year in HORROR

2009 is over. We’re still at war, the recession is still with us and the terror threats haven’t abated--and yes, there have also been some horror movies.

     What follows is the latest installment of my YEAR IN HORROR overview, containing my picks for the best and worst horror movies distributed in the U.S.A. during the past year (film festival releases don’t count), as well as recommended non-horror and DVD releases. As always, I’ve tried to catch as many of ‘09’s horror movies as I possibly could, and as always I’ve missed a few (including the latest UNDERWORLD and SAW sequels, that none-too-promising STEPFATHER remake and TWILIGHT: NEW MOON--for which I can’t say I’m too broken up!).

     Of those horror films that appeared in ‘09 there were many pleasant surprises, though sadly not a whole lot in the way of originality. That was true of even the best films of the year, including ANTICHRIST (which was admittedly “inspired” by DON’T LOOK NOW) and ZOMBIELAND (gory comedy is hardly a novel approach). A particularly unfortunate genre mainstay was the fake scare craze, which as I’m sure you’re aware involves noisy jolts that usually always turn out to have been caused by an errant cat.

     Hype was, as it often is, a major factor in the year’s horror releases, particularly with GRACE, ANTICHRIST, WATCHMEN and of course PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, which based on what I’ve read scared the hell out of quite a few critics and audiences. As for myself, I’ll confess there was one film that really got under my skin, although it wasn’t PARANORMAL ACTIVITY--no, the picture I have in mind is (I feel) a far more riveting and unnerving experience, and happens to be my number one pick…

The Best:

1. MARTYRS
You won’t see a more profoundly disturbing film this year, or a more cunning or unique one. A part of me feels guilty about giving it such a high place of honor on this list, but the fact is NO other recent film has affected me more than the French-Canadian MARTYRS. It begins with an apparently nice suburban family sitting down to breakfast in their posh home, only to have Lucie, a severely traumatized teenager, burst in and shoot them all. Lucie claims to have killed out of revenge, as her victims were apparently her childhood torturers. Lucie’s best friend Anna assists in disposing of the bodies, but is unable to stop the tormented Lucie from killing herself. The end? Not quite, as Anna, through a wildly shocking and thoroughly unexpected set of circumstances, is about to experience first-hand the unspeakable torment Lucie escaped. The first two-thirds of MARTYRS are a well made, if essentially unremarkable, home invasion suspensor a la INSIDE, with the most effective and disturbing scenes saved for the final third. While the graphic content isn’t all that shocking, the unrelenting suffering undergone by the heroines, and its ultimate transcendent purpose, is unprecedented. Make of this film what you will (many people I know love it unreservedly while just as many detest it), but for me MARTYRS makes celebrated over-the-toppers like SALO: THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM and IRREVERSIBLE seem like Disney movies by comparison.

2. ANTICHRIST
Head bashing, perverted sex, stabbing, strangulation, testicle smashing, entrail eating, ankle skewering and vaginal mutilation are among the delicacies of this lacerating film, one of the most provocative and unrelenting cinematic offerings of recent years.  Denmark’s brilliant--make that brilliantly nutty--Lars von Trier can always be counted on to make latte-sipping arthouse patrons squirm, and ANTICHRIST, conceived during a bout of severe depression, is the most excessive of all his films. It features a married couple, identified only as “He” and “She,” traumatized by the death of their infant child. They head out to a secluded cabin ironically named Eden, where freaky visions and malevolent talking animals make themselves apparent, and He and She’s already tenuous marriage further degenerates into sadomasochistic sex play and petty torture. Filmmaking-wise von Trier marries the stately preconceived style of his early films (THE ELEMENT OF CRIME, ZENTROPA, etc.) with the looser, improvisational aesthetic of his later ones (THE KINGDOM, BREAKING THE WAVES). He also evinces a real gift for eliciting the finest possible performances from his cast, with Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg delivering searing turns as He and She. The spectacularly uninhibited Gainsbourg (winner of the Best Actress award at Cannes) is particularly fine, creating a portrait of debilitating grief so intense it all-but burns a hole in the screen, making for a profoundly traumatizing viewing experience even without the sex and gore.

3. THIRST [BAKJWI]
South Korea’s Chan-wook Park does a vampire film, and the results are every bit as crazed, shocking and unexpected as you’d expect from the writer-director of OLDBOY. This new film concerns a priest given a blood transfusion after contracting a deadly virus--that blood, however, is infected with a vampire gene. He moves in with a friend and the latter’s dissatisfied wife, with whom the priest starts up a torrid affair. He ends up vampirizing his lover, and she embarks on an all-out killing spree, in defiance of his strict no-killing policy. Yet the priest himself inevitably breaks that commandment--and all the rest of them! THIRST is a far more audience friendly offering than is standard for Chan-wook Park, yet his signature is still in full evidence. Things like structure and discipline have never mattered much to Park, and their lack is an annoyance in THIRST’S early scenes, but I found it difficult not to be seduced by Park’s perverse invention and cinematic bravura. With a running time of 133 minutes the film is a tad overlong, and also somewhat uneven, but I can’t say it doesn’t work as the bizarre love story it is. In addition to all the erotic grotesquerie Park incorporates elements of surrealism and dark comedy, and his undisciplined approach actually works in this respect: in Park’s anything-goes universe nothing feels out of place.

4. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY
This phenomenally successful, vastly publicized no-budgeter is a skilled piece of work, and proves two things: 1) That audiences are always up for a good scare (especially around Halloween!), and 2) Marketing-wise there’s no substitute for old fashioned hype. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was the brainchild of Oren Peli, a San Diego based video game designer who made the digitally-lensed film for a reported $11,000 inside his own house. The concept is simplicity itself: a guy sets up a camera to record the presence allegedly haunting his girlfriend, and gets far more than he bargained for. The film works because of the intense atmosphere of shuddery anticipation Peli so skillfully constructs. Taken by themselves the freak-out scenes admittedly aren’t all that (fact: shadows on walls and slamming doors aren’t especially scary) but the suspense is expertly orchestrated. Each time the protagonists climb into bed the tension mounts appreciably, and the ensuing scare sequences are ingeniously edited--note the pauses that precede the shocks, which are deliberately extended to maximize the tension.

5. WATCHMEN
To my surprise, I quite liked Zack Snider’s filming of Allan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ legendary graphic novel WATCHMEN. Snider is evidently most comfortable orchestrating action and violence, but he still pays due attention to Moore and Gibbons’ stable of screwed-up superheroes and their interrelationships. Well, most of them: the figure of Ozymandias, the smartest man in the world, gets short shift, reduced from the morally complex figure of the comic to an effeminate two-dimensional bad guy, while the characters of Hollis and Sally Jupiter (pity actress Carla Gugino, nearly buried under poofy wigs and caked-on old age make-up) are all-but subsumed. But Snider knows how to set a scene with focus and economy, and without a lot of extraneous set-ups. I was certain he’d wimp out in depicting the comic’s more “mature” elements, but he definitely hasn’t; if anything Snider has actually surpassed Moore and Gibbons in the sex and violence department. His use of music is also impressive, from Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sounds of Silence” played over the funeral sequence to the drops from Philip Glass’ KOYANISQAATSI score that accompany Dr. Manhattan’s inception. There are even some performances to savor, notably those of Billy Crudup, who strikes just the right note of detached solemnity as the radioactive Dr. Manhattan, and Jackie Earle Haley, who’s simply pitch-perfect as the shady Rorschach. Ditto the representation of Rorschach’s ever-shifting facial mask, surely one of the more visually compelling superhero movie accessories on record.

6. THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS
One of the unfortunate things about the AVATAR mania currently sweeping the land is that the wondrous and extravagant IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS, the latest film by the incomparable Terry Gilliam and the final screen appearance of the late Heath Ledger, was completely swept aside. Admittedly, I’m not sure the potential audience for this film would have ever been all that vast, as it’s pure Terry Gilliam through and through--meaning a cacophonous barrage of tripped-out fantasy that’s as exhausting as it is enchanting. Moderation has never been part of Gilliam’s repertoire, as is evident in this incredibly expansive account of the thousand-year-old Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his traveling “Imaginarium.” The Imaginarium is a rickety carriage containing a mirror that people can enter into and cavort in worlds of their imagination. Parnassus has attained his powers through a deal with the Devil (Tom Waits), who still shadows him and a shady young amnesiac (Ledger) who’s attached himself to Parnassus’ show. That of course is a severely abridged summary of this film’s narrative, which also contains a love triangle and a conceit in which Ledger’s character is played at various times by Johnny Deep, Jude Law and Colin Farrell (the dramatic rationale for this is never made clear, although the reason is that Ledger died before his scenes were completed). The film is demanding, certainly, but also extremely rewarding, with a visual beauty and imaginative splendor unachievable through any other approach.

7. THE ROAD
There are stretches of undeniable brilliance in John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic bestseller THE ROAD, and also many interminable elements. Thankfully the former outweigh the latter, making for a memorable exercise in lyrical desolation. It’s been awhile since I read the novel, but what ended up onscreen largely gibes with my memory of the text, with Viggo Mortensen as an unnamed man on a quest for “The Coast” together with his young son. Their odyssey involves all manner of violence and degradation; there are some hopeful developments every now and again, but for the most part all our despairing protagonists encounter is lots and lots of oft-horrific dreariness. The photography and art direction are first rate, doing much to lift the material from MAD MAX type-silliness, and THE ROAD overall must be counted as one of the most chillingly convincing depictions of a post-apocalyptic landscape on record. As to the faults, I’m not sure if the culprit was Hillcoat or the Weinsteins, who held up the film’s release for a year (presumably to “improve” it). They’re most likely responsible for the superfluous narration and crummy ending, which is several degrees sappier than the conclusion I remember from the novel.

8. DRAG ME TO HELL
Sam Raimi’s first pure horror film in over two decades was this fun popcorn movie. It stars Alison Lohman as a transplanted Southerner laboring as a loan officer in an LA bank. She turns down an old lady’s request for a loan in an effort to impress her asshole boss, but the old woman, a severely creepy individual, curses Lohman. Animal sacrifices, a freaky séance, a parking lot smack-down and an apocalyptic struggle in an open grave follow. This film is shallow, pandering and sensationalistic, to be sure, but so are the EVIL DEAD flicks. Like them, the script of DRAG ME TO HELL is a patchwork affair that exists solely as an excuse for Raimi to indulge his gift for outrageous funny/scary setpieces. Yet Raimi’s directorial talents have increased immeasurably since his EVIL DEAD days, and in the lead role the pretty, childlike Lohman is actually fairly endearing, and even sympathetic.

9. PONTYPOOL
There’s never been a zombie movie like this funny and intense Canadian import from the always-eclectic Bruce McDonald (of HIGHWAY 61, HARD CORE LOGO and THE TRACY FRAGMENTS). It stars the terrific Stephen McHattie as a disgraced shock jock broadcasting from a tiny radio station in Pontypool, Ontario, where a bizarre event is unfolding that involves people being turned into babbling zombie-like cannibals. The culprit, it seems, is the English language itself, which has apparently become infected with a horrific contagion. Over ninety percent of the film takes place inside the besieged radio station, with much of the action conveyed through dialogue; McDonald commands attention by keeping his camera moving, particularly in the early scenes, but never excessively or distractingly so. Weird though it is, PONTYPOOL overall is a straightforward thriller far removed from the anarchic quirkiness of McDonald’s previous films. However, it contains many eccentric elements (such as a montage of contagion victims) that set it apart from the standard zombie movie fray.

10. CORALINE
The most extensive claymation feature to date, and a damn fine movie. The writer-director was A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS’ Henry Selick, adapting the popular novel by Neil Gaiman. This being a kid flick, you can expect lots of cloying and cutesy elements. However, much of the darkness of the Gaiman book has been retained by Selick, whose taste for the macabre and grotesque is fully evident, particularly in the second half. In many respects the film is more flamboyantly gothic than the book, adding elements like a giant spider web that figures unforgettably in the climax. Also, as an animated spectacle CORALINE simply cannot be improved upon: the big-headed stick-like characters have an utterly distinct look, and move in startlingly lifelike fashion. The lighting, in contrast to most claymation features, is varied and layered, and the camerawork has a verisimilitude that would impress even in a live-action feature.

11. DISTICT 9
Adapted from a well received short, DISTRICT 9 is a good movie, even if it is overblown and chaotic. Executive produced by Peter Jackson, it’s a thinly-veiled apartheid metaphor that has space aliens confined to a small section of South Africa, where they’re persecuted by the human populace and used in horrific medical experiments. First time writer-director Neill Blomkamp, who was born in South Africa, does a good job with the material, even though it--with its heavy-handed political drama, special effects-packed sci fi angle and action-intensive final third--presents challenges that would daunt most experienced filmmakers. Blomkamp doesn’t entirely pull it all off, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the ride, with its fast pacing, fun monster/transformation effects, and memorably hysterical lead performance by Sharlto Copley, playing a government agent undergoing a scary transmutation.

12. 9
The second movie of ‘09 to be adapted from a short film with a 9 in the title. Shane Acker’s impressive computer animated ‘05 short featured a squat little dude with a burlap body and a large 9 on his back chased through a nightmarish post-apocalyptic landscape by a robotic cat-thing. The look and atmosphere of the short are retained in this far more expensive animated feature, which contains dialogue and a greater retinue of scary robotic critters. The narrative, unfortunately, is painfully thin, with 9 and his companions being forever chased around by the evil beasties amidst a bevy of explosions and narrow escapes. I also could have done without the ultra-sappy interlude in which the heroes bop to “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Yet the film’s ingenuity and imagination are undeniable (even if the final image is blatantly lifted from that of Terry Gilliam’s TIDELAND). This is precisely the sort of dark, adult-oriented animated fare that would have been condemned as “too scary” a decade ago (as A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB were) but in 2009 was released with a total absence of controversy. It is indeed dark and scary, which largely explains why I enjoyed it as much as I did.

13. SURVEILLANCE
A seriously twisted film, the second by Jennifer Lynch, who’s turned in a stylish piece of work that may finally dissipate the stench of the pukeable BOXING HELENA. Executive produced by Jennifer’s father David, SURVEILLANCE centers on Federal Investigators pondering a bizarre murder that took place on a lonely stretch of highway. Three people witnessed the carnage: a shell-shocked eight-year-old girl, a young junkie and a bad cop. Through oft-contradictory interviews with these three the investigators attempt to sort out the particulars of the incident, which involved a deadly truck driven by apparently homicidal inhabitants. Flashbacks accompany the recollections, and it becomes clear that somebody’s covering up some vital bit of information about the crime, which is to say the identities of the truck’s occupants; those individuals are in fact present inside the police station, and planning on making a grand exit. The above may make this film sound like an episodic collection of weirdness, and indeed that’s how it plays at first. You might be surprised, though, at how gripping it becomes as the crime at its center is gradually pieced together and a horrific twist is revealed.

14. ZOMBIELAND
This film, the latest in a long, long line of zombie comedies, works surprisingly well. Yes, we’ve seen all the comedic shuffling and flesh-rending several hundred times before, but ZOMBIELAND succeeds largely due to its character-based narrative. The two likeable and compelling protagonists are played by Woody Harrelson as a shitkicker and Jesse Eisenberg as a college nerd, both trying to survive in an America decimated by the living dead. Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin are also quite fine as the gals who tag along with Harrelson and Eisenberg, and Bill Murray has a fun cameo. The film overall could have used a bit more meat on its bones, as it’s quite thin conceptually, but again, ZOMBIELAND’S true strengths lie elsewhere.

15. INK
Many things about this film irritated me, but I’ll go easy on it. I feel it’s vital to support crazed oddities like this Denver-lensed puzzler, which now more than ever are an endangered species. Viewing INK in the company of a paying audience, I almost felt as if I were transported back in time to a decade ago, when American made sci fi-tinged freak-outs were far more prevalent. I’m thinking specifically of DARK CITY, PI, DONNIE DARKO and even THE MATRIX, all of which would have a difficult time getting financed and/or theatrically distributed today--and all of which INK resembles in various aspects. It involves a little girl kidnapped by a hulking beak-nosed freak named Ink, who drags her through an alternate universe populated by scary dudes with monitor faces. All the while a gang of sword-wielding good guys are trying to manipulate reality in a very particular way; we don’t find out exactly what they’re up to until the end. The film is a scrappy low budget affair, and suffers from tacky digital photography that put me in mind of an MTV promo. It also, like countless other independent films over the years, slips on (to borrow a quote from filmmaker Ken Russell) the banana peel of bad acting. Yet writer-director Jamin Winans, who also composed the excellent score, has a distinct and ambitious vision, and very nearly carries it off. If nothing else, this is one film I’ll definitely be seeing again.

16. HOUSE OF THE DEVIL
The satanic panic of the eighties is given a nostalgic airing in this, the latest exercise in old school minimalism by Ti West. The setting is upstate New York in the mid-1980s, on the night of a lunar eclipse. College sophomore Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) accepts the first and easiest job she can find: babysitting for a creepy guy (Tom Noonan) who resides in a ominous secluded mansion. As in his previous features THE ROOST and TRIGGERMAN, Ti West’s filmmaking is at odds with virtually every facet of modern horror cinema: it’s uncluttered, concentrated and pacing wise extremely measured--or, if you prefer, slow. There’s a fair amount of gore, but what resonates is the carefully and thoughtfully rendered atmosphere of mounting dread. West also did a thorough job recreating the look and feel of late-seventies/early-eighties horror cinema. This is evident in the production design, the music and also the performances from seasoned pros like Noonan and Mary Woronov down to the twentyish Donahue, which are all modulated accordingly. The film loses something, however, in all the screaming and running around of the final third. It’s here that the Deviltry promised by the title makes itself apparent, which may be the problem: the Satan-worshipping angle feels tacked-on and gratuitous.

17. OFFSPRING
The fourth film adaptation of the work of Jack Ketchum, 2009’s OFFSPRING is, like the other three (THE LOST, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, RED), not bad. But then again the film, about inbred cannibals living in a seaside cliff in Maine, isn’t at all great either! Ketchum’s novel OFFSPRING, initially published in 1991, was a sequel to his infamous 1980 splat fest OFF SEASON. Both novels are stripped-down, minute-by-minute accounts of normal folks coming into contact with a cannibal clan, resulting in unspeakable carnage. OFF SEASON was apparently unfeasible as a film due to “rights issues,” meaning the OFFSPRING movie appeared first. Ketchum did the screenwriting duties himself for producer-director Andrew van den Houten, who does a good job distinguishing the film from the rabble: it has an appealingly spare vibe, and isn’t padded in the least. The action is brisk and meaty, and for once doesn’t rely on insistent music to move forward. However, the low budget severely compromises the proceedings, and there’s also the problem of uneven performances by a cast of wildly divergent experience. So while the film deserves credit for its off-Hollywood boldness and ingenuity, it’s hampered by limited resources.

18. GRACE
A very good, if paper-thin, film exploring the horrors of motherhood that compares favorably with classics like ROSEMARY’S BABY, BABY BLOOD and INSIDE. GRACE began life as 2006 short written and directed by Paul Solet. This feature version came about largely due to HATCHET director Adam Green, who had a multi-picture deal with Anchor Bay Entertainment and chose GRACE as one of those pictures. The bright and attractive Jordan Ladd essays the lead role of a young woman whose unborn child is killed in a car accident. She carries the baby to term anyway, and manages to will it back to life--but it’s a zombie infant requiring human blood to survive. What’s surprising about GRACE is how artfully crafted it is, being everything a film like the aforementioned HATCHET isn’t: quiet, subtle and character centered. But the film, in common with most features adapted from shorts, is disappointingly scant and predictable, and ends on an unresolved note. GRACE, in other words, is quite impressive in most respects, but just needs…more.

19. THE BOX
Further proof, after SOUTHLAND TALES, that nobody else makes a bad movie quite like Richard Kelly. THE BOX, adapted from the story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson, is supposed to be Kelly’s most audience friendly offering, yet it’s just as crazy-weird as SOUTHLAND TALES and DONNIE DARKO (Kelly’s first and thus far only legitimately good movie). Leave it to Kelly to take Matheson’s short and succinct parable, about a couple offered a million dollars to press a button that will allegedly take the life of someone they don’t know, and turn it into a torturously convoluted metaphysical nightmare involving government conspiracy, alien invasion, body snatching, inter-dimensional travel, physical mutation and enough existential angst to make Jean Paul Sartre (who’s explicitly referenced throughout) blush. The script is every bit as confused as I was viewing this mess (what precisely is the significance of those watery doorways?), while Cameron Diaz (affecting a ludicrous fake Southern accent) is plain awful in the lead role. James Marsden isn’t much better as her hubbie, and nor does Frank Langella fare especially well as the creepy dude who sets everything in motion (his face, for starters, is defaced by crappy CGI). Yet I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the film, whose craziness comes from an excess of inspiration rather than the standard lack thereof.

20. THE LOVELY BONES
Peter Jackson adapts Alice Sebold’s 2003 yuppie mainstay THE LOVELY BONES with mostly good results. It’s about a girl (15-year-old Saoirse Ronan) who’s murdered early on and spends the rest of the film in Heaven (or something like it), looking in on her family and the scumbag who killed her. It’s all very overwrought, as you’d expect from Jackson, who in recent years has seemingly become obsessed with bludgeoning his viewers into submission. Here that tendency is allowed to run riot, especially in the final scenes, which go overboard in sentimentality and multiple fade-outs (although in all fairness that may also be the fault of executive producer Steven Spielberg). Yet the film has many good things, including committed performances, arrestingly bizarre Dali-esque imagery, and a strong (if cluttered) narrative drive--something the novel woefully lacked.

21. DEAD SNOW [DOD SNO]
There’s very little to this Norwegian splat-fest, which works solely because of its unfailingly enthusiastic, go-for-broke attitude. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s early films you’ll have a good idea what to expect, although that’s far too generous a comparison. DEAD SNOW features the requisite bunch of horny morons camping out in a snowbound cabin, unaware they’re in the midst of a gaggle of NAZI ZOMBIES! As you might guess, lotsa ultra-gory (though indifferently staged) set pieces follow. My favorites were the chase through the woods that ends with the unfortunate non-zombified victim getting an intestine caught on a tree branch, and the final splatterthon, with everything from chainsaws to snowplows used against the zombie hoards. This film was reportedly a favorite at Sundance, although I can’t help but conclude that’s because it’s in a foreign language and subtitled. Were this an American film, in other words, I feel the reception would be far more tempered!

22. PROMETHEUS TRIUMPHANT
A modern silent that tries very hard to recreate the style of bygone films like NOSFERATU and THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. The setting is 1890s Plague, where a mad doctor whose sweetie has succumbed to plague brings her back to life via science, but has to contend with the fact that she can’t remember anything of her former life. The filmmakers were sincere in their efforts to ape silent-era filmmaking, but the illusion rarely comes off. Unlike Guy Maddin, who makes his silents utilizing film stock and equipment comparable to those of the archaic cinema he replicates, this film was shot on digital video with the color values reversed and added artificial grain. There are occasional moments when the results seem like an actual silent film (such as a sepia-tinted riverbank flashback), but for the most part PROMETHEUS TRIUMPHANT looks just like the tricked-out digitally lensed no-budgeter it is. The film is, however, well made and unique, and there are some genuinely haunting images, notably the sight of the resurrected babe staggering around stark naked.

23. MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS
B-movie goofiness is something we all need more of, and this endearingly dumb-assed movie, directed by AMERICA’S DEADLIEST HOME VIDEO’S Jack Perez and starring eighties teen queen Debbie Gibson, fits the bill. It’s no GIANT CLAW or REPTILICUS, being too slick and self-aware for its own good, but still contains a fair amount of no-budget fun. I enjoyed the sight of the giant shark leaping out of the water to snatch a plane out of the sky (even though the special effects are hardly special) and the final shark-octopus mano-a-mano (even though it repeats the same shots over and over). As for Ms. Gibson in the lead role of a babe scientist, well…she’s pretty, at least.
 

     And so ends my Best list, meaning it’s time to move on to…

Other Recommendations:

CHANDI CHOWK TO CHINA
The first-ever Bollywood movie to get a decent release in the US. Far from the best such film, but it contained more than enough action and craziness to keep me happy.

OBSERVE AND REPORT
Imagine TAXI DRIVER reconfigured as a gross-out comedy and you’ll have the gist of this twisted gem, a gratuitously violent, occasionally offensive and often quite sad film. The ending is among the year’s best.

ADORATION
A new film by Canada’s brilliant, idiosyncratic Atom Egoyan about several eccentric characters caught up in a scam involving a terrorist bomb. Not great, but even mid-level Egoyan is superior to most other filmmakers’ best work.

PUBLIC ENEMIES
A very good movie by Michael Mann about the crimes of John Dillinger (as incarnated by Johnny Depp). See it, but be sure and catch John Milius’ fabulously down and dirty 1971 take on the Dillinger saga first.

THE HURT LOCKER
A gripping account of bomb diffusers in Iraq, and director Katherine Bigelow’s best work since NEAR DARK (1987). It’s a bit too episodic and uneven for my tastes, but well worth seeing nonetheless.

ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL
One of the year’s most inspirational flicks, a documentary about the pioneering Canadian metal band Anvil, and its members’ oft-hilarious struggles (after three decades in the biz!) to find fame.

LIFE IS HOT IN CRACKTOWN
From COMBAT SHOCK’S Buddy Giovinazzo, a gritty and impacting look at big city despair that unfortunately fails to approach the overpowering brilliance of Giovinazzo’s 1992 book of the same name.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
How can you go wrong with a Quentin Tarantino WWII movie? You can’t! Featuring good dialogue, lotsa bloody action, a better-than-average Brad Pitt, a couldn’t-be-better Christoph Waltz, a blessedly short Mike Myers cameo, and Diane Kruger’s feet.

A SERIOUS MAN
Any movie by the Coen Brothers is worth seeing, even if it’s as perverse and self-indulgent as this one. Here the Coens recreate their Jewish upbringing in odd and unpredictable--and, it must be said, a mite dull--fashion.

RED CLIFF [CHI BI]
John Woo’s latest, an insanely extravagant period epic made in his native China, was released in truncated form in the US, but is still worthy as a spectacle of the type we haven’t seen much of since the likes of SPARTACUS and CLEOPATRA.

FROWNLAND
Over the past two years this 2007 no budgeter has become a veritable legend on the underground circuit. A love-it-or-hate-it experience, it’s stylish, quirky, keenly observed and often downright skin crawling.

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS
A Werner Herzog directed, Nicolas Cage headlined remake of Abel Ferrera’s BAD LIEUTENANT (1992)? If there was a nuttier flick released in ‘09 I don‘t know what it was. No, it’s not especially good, but for sheer craziness this film has few equals.

NINJA ASSASSIN
There’s not a lot of depth to this old school chopsockey fest, and director James McTeague over relies on CGI, but come on: it’s called NINJA ASSASSIN and has someone getting sliced up every few minutes. A splat-happy blast!

PRECIOUS
Don’t let the Oprah Winfrey connection put you off this riveting and unflinching depiction of urban desperation, which often plays like a distant cousin to COMBAT SHOCK.

 

     Blu-Ray? I still haven’t gotten around to buying a player. I may do so eventually, but in the meantime (as we wait for internet downloads to be perfected and decimate the home viewing experience as we known it) there were many must-own DVDs released in 2009...

Recommended DVD Releases:

THE SINFUL DWARF [DAVAERGEN]
Words simply cannot do justice to this 1974 Swedish sickie, surely one of the bleakest, ugliest films in the history of Euro-sploitation.

BLACK MAGIC 2 [GOU HUN JIANG TOU]
Among the stand-out entries in Hong Kong horror, nicely mastered in a brand new widescreen version!

COMBAT SHOCK
A new edition of this lacerating classic that includes the original cut of the film (titled AMERICAN NIGHTMARES) and linear notes by SHOCK CINEMA’S Steve Puchalski. Get one NOW!!!

MESSIAH OF EVIL
One of my favorite seventies horror fests, a genuinely dark and hallucinatory freak-out from the creators of HOWARD THE DUCK (which FYI also made its long-awaited DVD bow in ‘09).

SEEDING OF A GHOST [ZHONG GUI]
Yeah! A widescreen DVD edition of this legendary Shaw Brothers grue-fest!! You know you want one (or more) of these!!!

BORN OF FIRE
Weirder-than-average British-made/Asian-set eighties horror given the colorfully packaged Mondo Macabro treatment.

BOLLYWOOD HORROR COLLECTION VOL. 2
Also from Mondo Macabro, a two disc set of the Ramsey Brothers classics VEERANA (1988) and PURANI HAVELI (1989). A must!

A CAT IN THE BRAIN
Not Lucio Fulci’s best film, although this mind-boggler, composed largely of footage from other movies(!), is one of his absolute nuttiest, being the loopy account of a homicidal film director played by Fulci himself.

THE STEPFATHER
The original and definitive STEPFATHER is finally out on DVD, affording an ideal opportunity to savor Terry O’Quinn’s superbly chilling performance.

THE WILLIAM CASTLE FILM COLLECTION
A Sony distributed collection of several William Castle films, many of them new to DVD. A must-own set, though (at 80 bucks a pop) a mite expensive for my tastes!

THE CREMATOR [SPALOVAC MRTVOL]
Juraj Herz’s Czech classic is a veritable masterpiece of artistic horror, and, thanks to Dark Sky Films, we can finally throw away those crappy bootleg copies.

JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN
I’ve never been all that enamored with Dalton Trumbo’s amateurish filming of his classic novel, but it is a chilling and macabre vision nonetheless.

REPULSION
Polanski’s masterpiece gets the decked-out Criterion treatment! My only question: what took ‘em so long??

 

     And now, I’m afraid, we’re at that point. The good stuff, in other words, has been put to rest, leaving us with…

The Worst:

1. FRIDAY THE 13th
A pointless, interminable remake of a pointless, interminable original. This new FRIDAY THE 13th actually encompasses the first three FRIDAYS, with the demented mother of part 1 appearing in a prologue, followed by her son Jason, who initially wears a bag over his head (as in part 2) and then switches to a hockey mask (introduced in part 3). In the process we get a potent reminder of just how nonsensical this series always was, with a bunch of young twerps getting stalked and killed in various ways--and little else. It’s also poorly made: there are too damn many close-ups, and the final shot, a clumsily staged updating on the famous shock ending of the original FRIDAY, is flat-out pathetic.

2. THE FINAL DESTINATION 3-D
This latest FINAL DESTINATION is several degrees more pointless and nonsensical than its forebears. Once again we have a bunch of good-looking twerps outrunning death, which invariably catches up with them in a series of outrageous rube Goldberg-styled accidents. Fire, nails, a car wash and an escalator are among the deadly contraptions, with the film’s major gore set piece, involving a dude’s insides sucked out by a pool pump, blatantly lifted from Chuck Palahniuk’s infamous story “Guts.” Director David Ellis has proven himself a competent purveyor of grade-B horror in pictures like CELLULAR and SNAKES ON A PLANE, but appears to have lost (or willfully surrendered?) whatever talent he once possessed.

3. JENNIFER’S BODY
This movie sucks, pure and simple. It’s poorly constructed, self-satisfied and bland, being a ho-hum run-through of bad girl clichés established by the likes of CARRIE, HEATHERS and last year’s TEETH, all of which far outpace this limp offering. It features MAXIM fave Megan Fox as a hottie who’s become a man-killing demon, and Amanda Seyfried as her nerdy friend. I’m not a fan of JUNO and so was not the intended audience for JENNIFER’S BODY, which was scripted by the former film’s writer Diablo Cody. It’s formless and choppy, feeling like several different movies, and falls apart entirely in the misconceived conclusion, which is so protracted and plain clumsy that several pivotal bits of information are parceled out over the end credits. That’s not even taking into consideration the plain obnoxious dialogue, which (as in JUNO) is concerned with hip cleverness above all else. All the characters are impossibly self-aware, and can always be counted on to deliver lengthy pop culture-inflected dissertations at any occasion, no matter how unlikely (i.e. when they’re about to kill or be killed).

4. HALLOWEEN 2
How bad is this film? Well, let’s consider all the things it ISN’T: scary, compelling, suspenseful or even coherent. I understand the production was plagued by disasters (bad weather, a tight budget, the Brothers Weinstein), but that doesn’t excuse the sheer awfulness of the project. It proposes to pick up where Rob Zombie’s previous HALLOWEEN remake left off, yet here everything has been transmuted from the suburban milieu of the last film to the grungy white trash universe of THE DEVIL’S REJECTS--wherein “Fuck” is used so often and in so many permutations it nearly becomes a running joke. The opening scenes are promising, I will admit; bad filmmaking aside, they have a genuine nightmarishness to them (which makes sense, as it turns out they are a nightmare experienced by the heroine). It’s all downhill from there, however, as Zombie’s directorial skills haven’t improved since his last HALLOWEEN. They’ve actually gotten appreciably more amateurish and non-professional, as oft-times it’s a chore simply making out what’s happening; among other problems, Zombie has an unfortunate penchant for shooting underlit scenes in close-up with handheld cameras.

5. THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EL SUPERBEASTO
Rob Zombie’s premiere venture into animation was this goofy film based on Zombie’s comic book of the same name. For what it is (essentially a horror-themed riff on FAMILY GUY) it’s a success, I guess, but I found the whole thing tiresome. It has El Superbeasto, an El Santo-like masked wrestler, taking on an asshole named Dr. Satan who among other things is looking to resurrect Hitler. There are some laughs here and there, but it’s all very one-note and forgettable, not to mention top-heavy with pop culture references that will be out of date in another year or two.

6. 100 FEET
Those who bitch about the lack of polish and special effects in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY should take a look at this film, as it’s what PARANORMAL would play like if it had those things. And it’s simply not very good. To be sure, 100 FEET is probably the slickest and most polished film ever made by writer-director Eric Red (still best known for scripting the original HITCHER and NEAR DARK), and features a solid lead performance by Famke Janssen. She plays a hottie arrested for killing her abusive husband and confined under house arrest in her big city apartment. The problem is there’s another tenant: the ghost of Janssen’s murdered hubbie! Cue the obligatory CGI scares, with Janssen getting chased and prodded all over the apartment. A potential love interest presents itself in the form of a studly ex-con, but he’s beaten to death by the ghost (in the film’s most startling sequence). Red and his collaborators clearly gave this their best effort, but the results are uninspired.

7. THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT
This (loosely) based-on-fact haunted house chiller is actually pretty solid in most respects. It’s well acted by an unusually strong cast (Virginia Madsen, Martin Donovan, Elias Koteas) and made with a modicum of care and savvy. Yet it left me cold. The problem is the chills are all entirely routine, caused by the type of angry spirits we’ve already become accustomed to from THE (original) HAUNTING, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and the thousand or so like-minded films that followed in their wake. Still, I’ll have to give a shout out to Miss Madsen, who provides the proceedings with a strong and dignified anchor--an especially impressive accomplishment considering she’s spent much of her career playing bimbos.

8. OBSESSED
Ho-hum. Proving that Hollywood will apparently never get over the spell of FATAL ATTRACTION (the unacknowledged inspiration behind most 1990s-era thrillers), OBSESSED features a successful businessman (Idris Elba) targeted by a smoking-hot temp (Ali Larter) who screws up his relationship with his wife (Beyonce Knowles). It would have been more interesting if Elba, like FATAL ATTRACTION’S protagonist, actually had some stake in the madness rather than being simply a victim of Larter’s insanity. A dull and by-the-numbers film all the way, although I must say both leading ladies look damn sharp, and their final smack-down (in which the male lead, in a sharp reversal of traditional thriller etiquette, remains offscreen) is memorable.

9. I SELL THE DEAD
I know pundits are praising the fuck out of this film, a comedic account of an 18th Century grave robber (Dominick Monaghan) recounting his exploits selling corpses and dealing with zombies. The praise I believe is due mostly to the esteem in which its producer/co-star Larry Fessenden is held. I admire Fessenden’s work a great deal myself, but got very little out of this film. From a stylistic standpoint it’s impressive, with a sustained comedic tone bolstered by a wacky music score, animated segues and a surprisingly skilled performance by the New York-bred Fessenden as Monaghan’s English accented partner. But the film is never very involving, much less funny: the gory gags are overly broad and telegraphed, while the episodic narrative is perilously thin.

10. TERMINATOR SALVATION
I’ll confess I enjoyed TERMINATOR SALVATION while viewing it (to me any movie with giant attack robots is guaranteed to be fun on some level) but thinking back over it the whole thing falls apart. It is of course the latest James Cameron-less TERMINATOR sequel, set in a startlingly nondescript post-apocalyptic landscape. Here the thirtyish John Conner (Christian Bale), a kid in the previous two installments, leads a ragtag resistance against the machines that have taken over the Earth--well, not that ragtag, as the humans possess all sorts of advanced weaponry and even a submarine. McG has never struck me as a particularly good director, and his highly inconsistent, distractingly show-offy work here confirms my low opinion. There’s also the matter of the unimaginative script that over-relies on coincidence and happenstance. How is it that the heroes are able to create traps that dump masses of junk onto the evil robots, thus predicting in advance the precise spot the ‘bots will be in? And why is it that one giant ‘bot, after blasting the shit out of everything in sight, dispatches robotic motorcycles after the heroes rather than doing the same to them? Sorry, but even a TERMINATOR movie needs some semblance of logic!

11. THE UNINVITED
The Hollywood remake of the Korean A TALE OF TWO SISTERS. It must be said that THE UNINVITED’S makers tried to create something beyond most Hollywood horrors, but what they’ve come up with, in contrast to the complexity and uniqueness of the original film, is a hokey gothic melodrama. It has the fragile young Anna moving in with her father, older sister and stepmother, who it seems has a disquieting hidden side. The performances of David Strathairn and Elizabeth Banks are solid, and Emily Browning is quite winning in the lead role. The build-up is also impressive, accomplished with real suspense and character development--then again, though, the filmmakers can’t seem to refrain from punctuating the action with noisy shock scenes involving bloody corpses.

12. DEADGIRL
I’ve been wavering on this one. While DEADGIRL is genuinely freaky in spots (containing moments nearly equal to the most disturbing portions of MARTYRS), for the most part it’s inert and uninspired. It features a couple teen morons breaking into a deserted asylum and finding the body of a zombie girl, which is appealing to one of the teens because it means he can kill the gal over and over again. Naturally these two idiots end up inviting a number of their pals to rape and torture the dead girl, making a huge mess and creating new zombies in the process. The acting by the leads is passable, but the performances of much of the supporting cast are inexcusably awful, and the whole thing is lugubrious and uninvolving (it’s paced like a Tarkovsky movie in slow motion). Yes, this film may have some good things, but they’re outweighed by the not-so.

13. THE ORPHAN
It’s really too bad this film deteriorates like it does, because for the most part it’s quite good: cannily filmed, atmospheric and solidly performed, with stand-out work by its child cast members. It’s the umpteenth redo of THE BAD SEED, with a distraught couple (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) adopting a pretty Russian orphan (Isabelle Fuhrman, just 11 years old yet comporting herself like an old pro) who turns the lives of her adopted family upside down. It seems a mite implausible that this couple would be able to so easily gain custody of the girl in light of Farmiga’s past drinking problems, but that’s nothing compared to the film’s later developments. Among other things, Fuhrman commits numerous brutal killings, puts her own arm in a vice to make it look like she’s been abused, comes onto her adopted father, and repeatedly dies and then springs back to life in the TERMINATOR-esque climax.

14. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT
A good/bad movie. It’s a remake of Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, the legendary 1972 gut-punch about teenage girls raped and killed by a quartet of scumbags, who in turn get their comeuppance at the hands of one of the girl’s parents, whose house the killers unwisely choose to bed down in. This new version, produced by Craven and directed by Dennis Iliadis, is extremely well made, with good performances, an admirably fleshed out script and a great deal of suspense. The film thankfully drops the annoying goofy cop interludes of the first LAST HOUSE, and contains a rape/murder sequence nearly as unpleasant as that of the original. The climactic revenge killings, alas, are a mite over the top, particularly in light of the revamped climax that has one of the girls live; it seems particularly pointless and irresponsible that the parents elect to stalk and kill the scumbags when their brutalized daughter is in desperate need of medical attention. Moreover, do we really need a slick LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT? I say the material works best as grungy seventies-sploitation, without apology and with its raw edges intact.


     And now we’re done--or almost done. Before going I feel duty-bound to mention some 2010 releases I’m particularly anticipating:

SHUTTER ISLAND
Martin Scorsese’s first true genre film was supposed to have been released back in October but got pushed back to February. I’m exited.

THE WOLFMAN
Another holdover from ‘09, this one the hotly anticipated WOLF MAN remake starring Benicio Del Toro.

THE GHOST WRITER
Yes, this is the latest film by Roman Polanski, which according to one news outlet is currently “set to be released before he is.”

FROZEN
Adam Green’s latest, a ski lift-set chiller. Beyond that I know very little about this film, but I’m definitely intrigued.

PIRANHA 3-D
Looks stupid, I know, but it was directed by the talented Alexander Aja, so it could conceivably be worthwhile.

INCEPTION
A new mind fuck from Christopher Nolan. I’ve no idea what it’s about, but the trailers I’ve seen look damned intriguing!

HEREAFTER
Clint Eastwood’s premiere foray into genre filmmaking, starring Matt Damon and some other famous folk.

THE WARD
Well, well, well…John Carpenter’s back in the feature filmmaking game at long last, and this new film is supposed to be quite good. Again, I know little about it, but I’ll most certainly be there--as, I’m hoping, will you. 

 

--1/13/10 

     

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