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2010: The Year in Horror

I really hate to sound like an old fart, but letís face it: 2010 was a shitty year for movies. Yes, there were some good films here and there, as outlined below, but nothing that really got me jumping-up-and-down excited.

     What follows is the tenth installment of my Year in Horror overview of the previous yearís genre output, good and bad. The listings, as always, include only those films legitimately released within the US, with festival screenings excluded.

     Youíll find Iíve made a greater effort than in previous years to include independently made films as opposed to the remakes and sequels favored by Hollywood. To this end Iíve deliberately avoided part 2s and 3s (meaning no PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2, HATCHET 2, MIRRORS 2 or SAW 3-D) and tried to cut back on remakes (although you will find THE CRAZIES, PIRANHA 3-D and THE WOLFMAN listed below, so I didnít completely ignore the retreads). Call me elitist, but I say that while films like ENTER THE VOID, 7 DAYS and EXAM may be little known and/or difficult to find, tracking them down will be well worth your while.

     Other flicks I missed (not by choice) include THE DAYBREAKERS, THE HORDE, MY SOUL TO TAKE and THE LAST EXORCISM. Sorry, but I just canít see everything. So on toÖ

The Best:

1. BURIED
As something of a connoisseur of buried alive movies, I can assure you that BURIED is far and away the most powerful such film Iíve experienced. Itís the first to be set entirely within the coffin wherein the protagonist (Ryan Reynolds) is interred, an incredibly ballsy choice on the part of director Rodrigo Cortes that actually works. The film is agonizingly oppressive and claustrophobic, as you might expect, yet also quite visually exciting. And hereís something I never thought Iíd write: Ryan Reynolds is GREAT in the lead role, making his characterís predicament horrifyingly immediate and displaying an impressive range of emotion in the process. Heís in literally every scene, with the other actors seen (if at all) only on the tiny screen of a cell phone Reynolds finds buried with him. There are some less-than-plausible developments, most notably the snake that somehow turns up in the coffin (was it buried with Reynolds or it did it slip in? Either possibility is highly improbable, as is the snakeís too-easy exit). For the most part, though, the film plays fair, even providing Reynolds with multi-colored light sources (a flashlight, a lighter, a glow stick) to keep things lively.

2. INCEPTION
I find this brainy thriller about on par with THE DARK KNIGHT, the previous blockbuster by writer/director Christopher Nolan: it contains many brilliant, even awe-inspiring elements, and overall is an irresistibly kinetic ride. Leonardo DiCaprio headlines as a ďdream architectĒ who together with a band of goofy sidekicks raids peoplesí dreams in order to implant ideas in their heads--in this case the son of a deceased CEO as part of a complicated act of corporate espionage. What DiCaprio doesnít tell his colleagues is that the specter of his deceased wife (Marion Cotillard) haunts his subconscious, and isnít about to stay quiet for this latest dream romp. Nolan does a fine job with this unlikely scenario, keeping things sprightly and fast paced. The copious expository dialogue is parceled out nicely, courtesy of a rookie dream architect (Ellen Page) shown the ropes by DiCaprio, and the sensation-driven second half is carried off with a great deal of diverting action. As in THE DARK KNIGHT there are probably more chases and shoot-outs than necessary, and the surrealism of the dream sequences could have been carried a little farther (I donít know about you, but when I think dreamlike, ON HER MAJESTYíS SECRET SERVICE-esque snowbound shoot-outs arenít what spring to mind!), but the film is a blast pure and simple.

3. BLACK SWAN
A gloriously unhinged near-masterpiece, a throwback to the unapologetically excessive cinema of misunderstood geniuses like Ken Russell and Andrzej Zulawski. I'm not sure this film works all that well as the modern interpretation of Tchaikovskyís SWAN LAKE that director Darren Aronofsky apparently intended (with the end credits actually identifying the characters as roles in the opera), but as an immersion in subjective insanity it nearly ranks with REPULSION and TAXI DRIVER. It pivots on an astonishing performance by Nathalie Portman that should decisively put to rest all the internet blather alleging she can't act. She plays a twentyish ballet dancer torn between an overly attentive mother (Barbara Hershey), an asshole director (Vincent Cassell) and a manipulative understudy (Mila Kunis) who none-too-secretly wants to replace Portman as the lead in Cassell's avant-garde production of SWAN LAKE. Taking a cue from the aforementioned REPULSION, Aronofsky portrays Portman's descent into schizophrenia in outsized yet disarmingly subtle fashion, with a concentration on fingernails and masterly handheld camerawork that stays trained on Portman throughout. The end result is admirably fearless and appropriately operatic.

4. ENTER THE VOID
The most ambitious and provocative film yet made by IRREVERSIBLEíS Gaspar Noe, proving that truly bold, risk-taking, precedent-setting cinema is still possible. Its subject? Nothing less than the journey of the human soul after death, as elucidated in the TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD. In ENTER THE VOID Noe pulls off something that filmmakers from Orson Welles to Francis Ford Coppola have attempted over the years but never accomplished: a feature lensed entirely from a single personís POV. That POV belongs to a young Tokyo based drug dealer who is killed in the bathroom of a club called The Void; leaving his physical body behind, the guyís soul drifts around Tokyo, soaring through the air and checking in on the activities of his sister. This is one of the trippiest movies of all time: it begins with an elaborate CGI acid trip and continues in that vein throughout, with continuously swirling, gliding camerawork (operated by Noe himself) and eye-burning colors. Itís a good thing the film is so technically grounded, as the human element is somewhat lacking (the protagonist being essentially a nonentity) and the acting quite poor. Yet from a pure filmmaking standpoint ENTER THE VOID is a mind-boggling achievement.

5. 7 DAYS (LES 7 JOURS DU TALION)
The third film adaptation of the work of Quebecís Patrick Senecal (following EVIL WORDS and 5150 ELMíS WAY) and the first to achieve a legitimate U.S. release. Itís a resolutely stately and controlled study of a fatherís week-long revenge on the man who killed his daughter, with beating, strangulation and anesthesia-free surgical modifications being the order of the day. Wrenchingly violent this film is, but itís also thoughtful and artful--though thankfully never especially arty. The subject matter may recall grue fests like HOSTEL or THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, but 7 DAYS is actually much closer to the artful unpleasantness of European filmmakers like Michael Haneke and Roman Polanski--yet the film, again contrary to expectation, is never pretentious or lacking in narrative drive. You can also be sure that every conceivable moral quandary pertaining to vigilante justice is aired in impacting and compelling fashion. Obviously this doesnít make for an especially uplifting or reassuring viewing experience, so wimps should steer clear!

6. 127 HOURS
Perhaps Iím wrong in classifying this fact-based awards contender as a horror movie, but it sure plays like one. Itís a stark and appropriately grueling dramatization of the widely-publicized 2003 ordeal of hiker Aron Ralston, played here by James Franco. While tramping through a Utah canyon Ralston slipped and became trapped (literally) between a rock and a hard place for five days, eventually cutting off his right arm to free himself. Director Danny Boyle fleshes out Ralstonís horrific account with uncompromising frankness (the climactic amputation is extremely graphically rendered) and plenty of flash--indeed perhaps a bit too much of the latter. Boyle was apparently concerned we might lose interest, and so throws in seemingly every snazzy visual flourish he can think of. Yet the filmís underlying power is undeniable, and Franco is simply as good as he can possibly be.

7. EXAM
Quite a nifty little film, this, a demented British-made inversion on THE BREAKFAST CLUB with eight corporate go-getters shut up in an unnervingly antiseptic, windowless room. 28 DAYS LATERíS darkly charismatic Luke Mably essays the Judd Nelson role of the loudest and most wise-assed of the group, all of whom have 80 minutes to complete an exam. The only problem is the ďexamsĒ consist of blank sheets of paper. Thus the group comes to realize that the point of the test is to figure out the test. Lots of imaginatively wrought hijinks ensue, with roles shifting and alliances forming amid a cast of characters who are nearly all equally vile. This makes it difficult to emphasize with anyone, but there is a fair amount of suspense nonetheless. EXAM may be a mite implausible in some--okay, many--of its developments, but writer-director Stuart Hazeldine (a top Hollywood screenwriter making his filmmaking debut) lends it an infectious energy and consistently inventive narrative, as well as an ending I guarantee you wonít see coming.

8. SPLICE
Canadaís Vincenzo Natali (of CUBE and NOTHING) remains one of the most invigorating genre filmmakers on the scene, even though this, his most overtly commercial offering, is far from his best work. It stars Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley as scientists who create a mutant organism by splicing together various bits of DNA. They wind up with a fast growing part-woman creature they christen Dren (Nerd spelled backward), and all manner of trouble ensues. Natali is intent on exploring his conceptís every imaginable permutation, which makes for an oft-disjointed film whose protagonists regularly change behavior and personality based on the dictates of the ever-shifting narrative. Yet SLICE has a probing intelligence and audacity, with the more unsavory consequences of DNA-splicing--namely inter-species carnality and the possibility of shifting gender roles--delineated in admirably upfront fashion.

9. FROZEN
Writer-director Adam Greenís FROZEN, the worldís first and only ski lift-set chiller (although I understand there was a CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM episode with an identical premise), is a wrenching and profoundly intense viewing experience. Featured are three college kids--a stud, his GF and the studís nerdy pal--who ride a ski lift to the top of a mountain one snowy night, only to have the lift break down before reaching the summit. This leaves the protagonists stranded fifty or so feet above the ground, where theyíre prey to frostbite, starvation and roaming wolves. Green and his collaborators work overtime to create a powerfully authentic atmosphere, bolstered by real snowbound locations rather than a soundstage--meaning not a lot of acting was required on the part of the cold and miserable cast members. The fluid yet restrained camerawork (a POV shot looking down at the snowy ground far below the suspended lift is particularly affecting) and judicious use of music contribute to the filmís unnervingly realistic auraÖalthough I did admittedly find myself questioning how it was that the nighttime scenes were so well lit!

10. HEARTLESS
Fans of Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman should enjoy this odd and fascinating evocation of supernatural shenanigans in modern-day London--if, that is, they can forgive the many clumsy and misguided elements! HEARTLESS is the long-awaited third feature written and directed by the multi-media artist Philip Ridley (following THE REFLECTING SKIN and THE PASSION OF DARKLY NOON) and the first to be set in his native England. It features Jim Sturgess as a twentyish punk with an ugly birthmark that covers much of the right half of his body. Heís concerned about a race of homicidal demons roaming the streets, and becomes even more concerned when they kill his mother. This leads to Sturgess becoming directly involved with the creatures, making a Faustian bargain with their leader and becoming an unwitting killer in the process. Itís a rare movie that can be said to have too much going for it (particularly these days), but thatís unfortunately the case here. Yet as overstuffed, clunky and pretentious as HEARTLESS often is, it contains moments of real beauty and artistry, not to mention enough energy and inspiration to fill three ordinary films.

11. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE)
By now youíve probably heard something about this film, categorized by many as the gross-out du jour of Ď10. It features two hot chicks whose car breaks down in a forest in Germany. The gals make their way to the secluded home of a mad scientist, who promptly drugs them for use in a freaky experiment. Specifically, the scientist creates a so-called Human Centipede, consisting of three people whose mouths are joined to the othersí anuses. Do the results live up to THE HUMAN CENTIPEDEíS fearsome reputation? Yes and no. The film is arrestingly repellent, as the idea of sewing mouths to asses is nauseating by any conceivable standard. Itís also put together with a great deal of demented gusto, which holds oneís attention even in the dull spots. I just wish there were more to it, because for all the twisted originality of its premise this film is essentially an uninspired succession of genre clichťs that ultimately goes nowhere.

12. RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE
As with quite a few foreign films, the Finnish RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE was clearly made with the lucrative American market in mind. Itís scored and paced like a Hollywood actioner, and much of the dialogue is in English. Functioning as a prequel of sorts to a couple of shorts by writer-director Jalmari Helander, it takes place at a remote outpost at the North Pole, where an American-led drilling expedition has unearthed Santa Claus. This Santa, however, isnít the ďCoca Cola SantaĒ weíve come to know but a demon who kills children who arenít nice. Years earlier Santa was hunted down by irate villagers and interred in the very area now being drilled. Itís up to a young boy and his father to save the day from this evil Santa and his equally antithetic ďhelpers.Ē Helander has turned out an exceedingly slick, bombastic and fast moving film that revels in elaborate CGI-packed setpieces that belie the obvious low budget. In other words, itís a very Hollywood-esque product, complete with a plucky kid protagonist (well played by Onni Tommila) who wouldnít feel out of place in a Disney flick.

13. BEST WORST MOVIE
A fun documentary about TROLL 2 (1990), the so-called worst movie ever made, and the cult that has formed around it. The director of this doc was Michael Stephenson, a kid actor in TROLL 2, and the main player is George Hardy, an insanely good-natured dentist who played Stephensonís father in the film. We follow these two around the country as they screen TROLL 2 for overflowing crowds, and also hear from various fans (including American troops stationed in Iraq) who unaccountably love the film. To his credit, Stephenson is careful to show that the TROLL 2 cult only stretches so far, as he and Hardy discover upon trying to flog the movie to disinterested patrons of horror and memorabilia conventions. Stephenson also deserves points for keeping his focus largely on the engaging Mr. Hardy, whoís precisely the type of person you wouldnít believe if you saw him in a non-documentary movie. BEST WORST MOVIE wonít exactly change the world, but for bad movie buffs itís an enjoyable and rewarding watch.

14. PIRANHA 3D
Q: Whatís the best one can hope for from a movie called PIRANHA 3D? A: Lots of people getting chomped by the titular critters in glorious 3D! Thatís an area in which this movie more than delivers, so Iíll have to say I was satisfied. The film DID disappoint in other areas, however! No, Iím not referring to the lack of character development (the protagonists are developed as much as they need to be and no more, for which I had no complaints) or the ridiculousness of the narrative (logic isnít really a factor in a mutant piranha movie), but rather the relentlessly self-aware tone. The original Joe Dante helmed PIRANHA may have been comedic, but it at least took itself somewhat seriously. This filmís director Alexander Aja (of HIGH TENSION and the HILLS HAVE EYES remake), on the other hand, appears anxious to let us know that heís in on the joke, and thatís just plain irritating!

15. MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE
(Okay, this is technically a 2009 release, but since it didnít reach most of us until the following yearÖ) Hereís a true dream collaboration for cult movie mavens: Werner Herzog and David Lynch! If you donít know who those guys are youíre not up on your cult cinema, of which Herzog and Lynch are two of the worldís foremost purveyors. In truth David Lynch was only a financier with little-to-no input in the actual production, but co-writer/director Herzog includes many affectionate references to Lynchís oeuvre (a suit-wearing dwarf, etc) in what is easily one of the weirdest films Iíve seen in many a moon. Itís the German bred Herzogís outrageously idiosyncratic take on a quintessentially American genre: the true crime saga. It dramatizes the bizarre case of a San Diego stage actor, played by BUGíS Michael Shannon, who killed his mother in the manner decreed by a Greek tragedy he was rehearsing. Herzog accentuates the oddness with a fractured narrative, highly eccentric pacing and the casting of quite a few cult movie mainstays (Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, Grace Zabriskie, Udo Kier, Brad Dourif). Herzog also perversely refrains from actually showing the killing around which everything revolves, which I think was a mistake. Where the film really works, though, is in its portrayal of the protagonistís deranged mindset, with what initially seem like a lot of weirdness for weirdnessí sake directorial quirks serving to convey Shannonís dementia better than any psychological profile possibly could.

16. SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD
This latest installment of George Romeroís DEAD saga is about on par with his previous efforts LAND OF THE DEAD and DIARY OF THE DEAD: flawed in many respects but pretty good for the most part. It takes place in the wake of the zombie contagion introduced in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD et al, and is set on a secluded island torn apart by a decades-old rivalry between two old men. The sparse populace is eventually joined by several well-armed soldiers, and things go kablooey among the soldiers, the islandís inhabitants and the ever-present zombies. Said zombies, alas, essentially serve as background to the human drama, and nor is the bloodletting especially novel or inspiring (especially since so much of it is--yecch!--CGI). SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD is, however, efficient and entertaining; the style and personality of Romeroís best films may be largely absent, but heís succeeded in crafting a diverting action-oriented chiller.

17. SHUTTER ISLAND
A movie I really, really wanted to like more than I did. Itís the first true genre pic directed by Martin Scorsese (not counting his ďMirror, MirrorĒ segment of AMAZING STORIES) and a landmark for that reason alone. Yet after viewing it I found myself deducing that maybe thereís a good reason Scorsese hasnít made more movies of this type. To be sure, the 1950s-set SHUTTER ISLAND is a decent enough potboiler, and contains its share of fine elements (in particular the eye-popping cinematography of Robert Richardson), yet itís also wildly overwrought and long-winded. Scorseseís new favorite actor Leonardo DiCaprio headlines as a freaked-out cop investigating a homicidal patient in an insane asylum located on Shutter Island. Along the way DiCaprio uncovers some disquieting secrets, such as the possibility that freaky experiments are being carried out on the asylumís patients and the existence of an inmate whose name doesnít appear on any rosters. Thereís a twist ending I figured out early on (as can you based on the info Iíve doled out) that puts the film firmly in CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI territory. As such it works, but I strongly doubt SHUTTER ISLAND will ever come close to displacing MEAN STREETS or RAGING BULL in the Scorsese lexicon.

 

That does it for the good stuff, but there were of course quite a few non-horror releases in 2010 that areÖ

Also Recommended:

A PROPHET (UN PROPHETE)
Quite simply the yearís best film, a stunningly gritty and absorbing French underworld drama that ranks with GOODFELLAS and SCARFACE.

THE GHOST WRITER
This intellectual thriller isnít the best film by Roman Polanski, being overlong and often quite ponderous, but it does prove that the old perv hasnít lost his talent for crafting vigorous and absorbing cinema.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (MAN SOM HATAR KVINNOR)
A good, nasty, sexy Danish thriller based on the popular novel by Steig Larsson, with an imposing performance by the lithe Noomi Rapace in the title role.

TRASH HUMPERS
A punishing, confrontational, offensive, rambling and irredeemably crazed production--in short, a Harmony Korine film! Often downright agonizing to sit through, but this plotless ramble does haveÖsomething.

ďTHE COMPLETEĒ METROPOLIS
This latest restoration of Fritz Langís 1927 METROPOLIS isnít entirely ďComplete,Ē but is still the most authoritative version weíre likely to see, with half an hoursí worth of newly discovered footage.

THE CLIENT LIST
Typical Lifetime network trash with Jennifer Love Hewitt, who canít act a lick but looks damn good as a suburban prostitute who talks dirty and wears plenty of revealing outfits. Need I say more?

LIFE DURING WARTIME
The latest film by Todd Solandz, a sort-of sequel to his corrosive 1998 masterpiece HAPPINESS thatís cynical and darkly amusing, yet also curiously touching.

LEBANON
This Israeli film portrays modern warfare entirely from inside the confines of a tank. Like DAS BOOT itís suspenseful and immersive, with excellent photography and sound design.

MACHETE
An outrageous Robert Rodriguez helmed action fest, adapted from one of the fake trailers from GRINDHOUSE and packed with wholesale slaughter, copious explosions and a goodly amount of female pulchritude.

MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT / MESRINE: PUBLIC ENEMY #1
These interlocking French crime sagas are nearly as fine as the abovementioned A PROPHET--and that, my friends, is about as good as movies come!

A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP (SAN QIANG PAI AN JING QI)
A wholly unlikely concoction: a Chinese remake of the Coen Brothersí BLOOD SIMPLE by HEROíS Zhang Yimou. The surprise is that this film actually works quite well in its wholly unique combination of rapturous imagery and pitch-black comedy.

MARWENCOL
A documentary profile of one Mark Hogancamp, who after suffering severe brain damage in a beating created a miniature WWII-era town in the backyard of his New York state trailer. Fascinating and bizarre, as only reality can be.

UNSTOPPABLE
Iím always up for an unpretentious meat-and-potatoes actioner, and this Tony Scott directed runaway train fest more than fits the bill.

TRUE GRIT
The Coens were quite inspired this time around, remaking a musty John Wayne vehicle with style, wit and terrific performances all around.
 

Recommended DVD Releases:

Yes, I know DVDs are supposed to be on the way out, but that hasnít stopped quite a few outfits from continuing to put out old films in digital form. My question: when is the oft-predicted internet downloading revolution going to happen? Because I vividly recall hearing it would certainly occur within the next five yearsÖand that was five years ago!

HOUSE (HAUSU)
Nobuhiko Obayashiís Japanese-made haunted house extravaganza, here given the deluxe Criterion treatment, remains one of the absolute craziest movies of all time!

THE FERNANDO ARRABAL COLLECTION 2
The second Cult Epics-packaged collection of Fernando Arrabal films. These four films arenít as resonant as those of the first Arrabal collection, but are still must-viewing for fans.

GRINDHOUSE
Itís taken over three years, but Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguezís mind roasting two-part tribute to 1970s exploitation cinema is finally available on DVD in its full and definitive form!

RIVALS
Iíve long been impressed with this little-known seventies-sploiter, featuring Scott Jacoby and comedian Robert Klein in a perverse and disturbing drama with intimations of incest and madness.

GALAXY OF TERROR
Perhaps the most memorable of the early-1980s ALIEN wannabes, and the only movie where HAPPY DAYSí Erin Moran gets turned inside-out!

ONE DEADLY SUMMER (LíETE MEURTRIER)
The delectable Isabelle Adjani headlines this darkly compelling 1983 French psycho fest. Definitely worth a look.

SZAMANKA
One of the most outrageous films ever made by Polandís inimitable Andrzej Zulawski--and believe you me, thatís no small claim!

MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE
Hereís a DVD Iíve been awaiting seemingly forever: Duke Mitchellís irresistible no-budget mafia slaughter fest, previously available on VHS as THE EXECUTIONER.

FANTOMAS
Louis Feuilladeís immortal FANTOMAS (1913) has been available on DVD in France and the UK for years, and has now FINALLY made its way to the U.S.!

THE CARRIER
Seriously weird 1980s low budget nuttiness, complete with a back cover blurb from yours-truly!

THE MAFU CAGE
Those of you wanting weirdness can certainly do worse than this ďterrifying love storyĒ with Lee Grant, Carol Kane and a giant bird cage.

GIRLS ON THE ROAD
More wild seventies-stuff with hitchhiking teenagers becoming ensnared in a hippie commune where a serial killer is on the loose!

 

And that, Iím sorry to say, ends the good stuff listings. That means itís time to quit stalling and face up toÖ

The Worst

1. THE CRAZIES
I've never been crazy about George Romero's THE CRAZIES (1973), and this remake didn't do much for me either. One thing I will say for Romero's film is that it at least had an original angle in its account of the citizens of a small town turning into homicidal maniacs due to chemical contamination, with the focus ultimately on the horrors of martial law rather than the so-called Crazies. This new filmís opening scenes follow a similar trajectory, but before long the non-crazified protagonists escape the clutches of the military usurpers and the clichťs begin piling up, from a dying man telling a friend to "look behind you!" before breathing his last to an infected person falling down to reveal another standing directly behind her to the big CGI explosion that climaxes the film. Yawn.

2. THE BOOK OF ELI
This shockingly lugubrious movie would seem to conclusively prove, in the wake of DOOMSDAY and TERMINATOR SALVATION, that there's nothing new in post-apocalyptic cinema. The narrative, about a blind tough guy (Denzel Washington) roaming the wastelands in the wake of some never-explained catastrophe, is nothing to shout about. What's truly fascinating about this film is how seriously its directors, MENACE II SOCIETYíS the Hughes Brothers, take it. Yes, there's plenty of flashy violence and show-offy camerawork (those things I expected), but it's the bloated self-importance of the whole thing that ultimately resonates, and that's to the film's great detriment.

3. DEVIL
Yet another of those situational claustrophobia fests so popular in Ď10, this one pivoting on a stopped elevator inhabited by several people, one of whom is apparently the Big D. I viewed this film immediately after BURIED, which did DEVIL no favors. Unlike the former film, DEVIL keeps us at a remove from its horrors by intercutting the elevator action with cops and others outside, thus lessening the tension considerably. Another problem is with the narrative, which, intriguing though it initially is, devolves into a sappy, elegiac mess that limps to a thoroughly awkward fade-out.

4. THE WOLFMAN
If pretty sets and lighting were enough to make a movie succeed than this expensive WOLFMAN remake would be a classicÖbut they arenít and it isnít! Itís dull and by-the-numbers all the way, despite the eye-pleasing visuals, strong cast (Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt) and R-rated levels of grue. I liked the scene with Del Toro freaking out in the asylum theater, and also the final showdown between the two Wolf Men, but little else. Even the great Rick Bakerís elaborate transformation effects had little kick to them. Imagine SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999) without Tim Burtonís quirky genius and youíll have the gist of this bummer.

5. S&MAN
A highly uneven part-documentary exploration of one of the more squalid corners of the horror landscape: the so-called fetish videos that dwell upon misogynistic violence without letting things like narrative or craftsmanship get in the way. Filmmaker J.T. Petty explores two actual purveyors of this sort of thing and another who isnít real (although weíre not supposed to know that). The latter is a dorky guy named Eric Rost (actually actor Erik Marcisak) who makes a video series called S&Man, consisting of himself stalking and pretending to kill various women--killings Petty comes to believe arenít entirely fake. Iím sure a good movie could have been made from such material, but this isnít it. As a mock-doc it fails, as I was never at all convinced by Marcisakís overwrought portrayal or the supposedly real S&Man clips weíre shown. Petty also includes much patronizing commentary by a bunch of stuffy professorial types analyzing the issues brought up by these films (including the Earth-shattering revelation that theyíre appreciated primarily by guys who canít get laid), but S&MAN ultimately says little of any consequence.

6. GIALLO
The best I can say about this film is that it isnít quite as awful as I was expecting, seeing as how its director and star have both publicly disowned it. Still, I canít say I blame the once-great Dario Argento or Adrien Brody (who sued to halt GIALLOíS distribution in the U.S.--and won) for distancing themselves from this slog. Itís a Rome-set updating of Argentoís thrillers of the seventies, with Brody playing both a jaundiced killer named, appropriately enough, Giallo (or Yellow), and also the police inspector on his trail. Emmanuelle Seigner provides the requisite eye candy as the sister of one of Gialloís victims, a fashion model he kidnaps and subjects to all manner of nastiness. Thereís much gratuitous gore but only a hint of the artful visuals and atmosphere that have become Argentoís trademarks. The whole thing is routine and uninspiring, and not even the suggestion that the police inspector may himself harbor murderous impulses does much to lift GIALLO from its malaise.

7. MONSTERS
Viewing this promising low-budgeter I couldnít help but speculate that writer-director Gareth Edwards had something far grander in mind when he conceived this film. In a set-up that directly recalls both SECTION 9 and Andrei Tarkovskyís STALKER, a gaggle of aliens land in upper Mexico and the entire area is immediately quarantined, with a giant wall built around it. The ďheroĒ is a photographer who, through an extremely lengthy and overly involved chain of circumstances (Iím all for building suspense, but itís never a good idea to bore the shit out of your audience before the action gets going), finds himself traversing the quarantined area on foot, together with the inevitable comely lady companion. This would seem to set the stage for all sorts of promising developments, yet the shockingly inert proceedings make the famously uneventful STALKER seem like a Michael Bay movie by comparison. Thatís too bad, as MONSTERS is well photographed and has an appealingly naturalistic air. It was evidently conceived as a metaphor for the violence that has overtaken Mexicoís outer regions (and the fear that it may spill over onto our shores), yet the filmís alien-haunted world is thoroughly detailed and convincing--which makes it all the more aggravating that the narrative is so fatally underdeveloped!

8. FEAR ME NOT (DEN DU FRYGTER)
FEAR ME NOT was directed by Dogma 95 alumni Kristian Levring (THE KING IS ALIVE) in tight and intense fashion, with top-flight actors (Ulrich Thomsen, THE SUBSTITUTEíS Paprika Steen) in the lead roles--meaning it should be far better than it is! Thomsen plays a dissatisfied man who agrees to take an experimental antidepressant. Shortly after he begins the treatment the experiment is halted due to the unpredictable reactions the drug engenders, but Thomson elects to continue taking it. The results, as you might guess, are pretty disturbing, although in truth nothing Thomson does, aside from turning up the thermostat and scalding his wife in the shower, is all that terrible. This filmís real problem, however, is that neither the protagonist or his dilemma (he merely wants a change in his life, which seems insufficient reason to take antidepressants) are compelling enough to sustain interest.

9. MEGA PIRANHA
Itís not surprising or even noteworthy that this mutant piranha potboiler, from the aptly named production outfit The Global Asylum, is complete and utter shit. Much like the abovementioned PIRANHA 3-D, I think you can figure out from the title alone that this film will never be confused with THE SEVENTH SEAL and adjust you reactions accordingly. What really bothered me about MEGA PIRANHA was, simply, the cut-rate CGI effects. This material all-but calls out for the tacky models and/or puppets of old school B-movies, whereas the sight of computer generated piranhas leaping out of the water and crashing into buildings just feels wrong. The film, in any event, is best viewed whittled down to ten minutes, as presented here. Pity those of us who suffered through the full 92-minute version!

10. PREDATORS
For its first half this latest PREDATOR entry seemed like it might just end up a good movie (something you canít say for too many of the other films in this franchise). Smoothly and efficiently directed by KONTROLLíS Nimrod Antal, itís the umpteenth variant on THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, with a bunch of military men and women (Adrien Brody, Alice Braga, Tophor Grace, Danny Trejo) dropped onto a jungle planet along with several Predators. The hows and whys of this occurrence are never explained, but thereís enough action and gore to keep one diverted--for a while, at least. The narrative only really works if you donít think about it too hard (among other implausibilities, the protagonists appear to have limitless supplies of ammo); worse, it falters around the midway point, with the appearance of a scenery-devouring Laurence Fishburne, and never regains its footing.

11. CENTURION
This blood-and-guts historical epic, the latest and most ambitious film by Englandís Neil Marshall (THE DESCENT, DOOMSDAY), is spurious in many respects. Set in the outer territories of Ancient Rome, the film is excessively bombastic and lacking in character development, with protagonists who all look alike. Those protags are Roman soldiers on the run from a band of kill-happy renegades in Northern England, leading to plenty of limb slicing and head lopping. Taken purely as a testosterone-fuelled gore fest the film delivers. Say what you will about Marshallís filmmaking skills, but he really has a way with gory mayhem--which is unfortunately all this film has to offer.

12. DON'T LOOK BACK (NE TE RETOURNE PAS)
This French mind-twister's primary reason for being is the remarkable CGI-enhanced sight of one ageing Euro beauty (Sophie Marceau) literally morphing into another (Monica Bellucci). Beyond that, however, writer-director Maria de Van (of IN MY SKIN) doesn't appear to have fully thought out this slick but severely half-baked film. Marceau plays a novelist who finds her sense of reality unaccountably shifting until she for some reason turns into Bellucci, a troubled Italian woman who may or may not have died years earlier. The morphing, I should add, isn't instantaneous but gradual, with Bellucci's features slowly overtaking Marceau's in arrestingly grotesque fashion. As for the rest of the film, De Van tosses enough what-is-real loops our way to give David Lynch a headache. The whole thing is extremely tiresome, to the point that by the time Marceau/Bellucci's surroundings began to stretch and mutate a la ALICE IN WONDERLAND I had completely lost interest.

13. THE KILLER INSIDE ME
The fact that this adaptation of Jim Thompsonís 1952 pulp masterpiece freaked out so many people at Sundance (at which, during a post-film Q&A, a woman blurted out ďHow dare you? How dare Sundance?Ē) just shows how wimpy independent films have gotten. Sure, there are a couple genuinely jolting depictions of brutality, but theyíre actually a small portion of this otherwise uninspiring film, which closely follows the novelís narrative but utterly misses its pulpy energy. Casey Affleck, it must be said, is quite fine as Lou Ford, an outwardly mild-mannered small town sheriff who harbors some genuinely unsavory predilections. The director was Englandís Michael Winterbottom, who creates a crisply lensed, atmospheric fifties-era small town packed with sharp supporting players (Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Simon Baker, and, as the primary victims of Louís psychosis, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson). Unfortunately Winterbottom woefully fails to work up much dramatic tension. The overwrought ending is also a bust, being a literalization of a sequence that Thompson evidently intended as a hallucination.

14. LET ME IN
Writer-director Matt Reeves (CLOVERFIELD) and his youthful leads Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz do their best with this Americanized remake of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, but really: what exactly is the point? The former film was one of the most popular foreign movies of recent years, and is barely two years old. LET ME IN is virtually identical in look, tone and narrative to LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, although it lacks the poetry and innovation director Tomas Alfredson brought to that film. Yet Reeves has come up with a sensitive and compelling work that hits all (or at least most of) the right beats. As for the story, it is, again, exactly as in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN: a bullied boy befriends a vampire girl who becomes both his protector and possible destroyer. Among the additions are an early 1980s time frame and the recurring use of Now and Later candy, with which Reeves is evidently obsessed.
 

And that does it for the horror cinema of 2010. But as always, before leaving Iíll take a brief look at some promising upcoming releases, includingÖ

COWBOYS & ALIENS
Harrison Ford in an alien invasion movie set in the old West? How can you go wrong??

THE WARD
John Carpenterís newest film, which was supposed to be released last year but got pushed back. I sincerely hope thatís not a reflection on THE WARDíS qualities (or lack thereof)!

BLACK DEATH
A Bubonic Plague themed horror fest from the director of CREEP. Early reviews have been mixed, but I must say Iím intrigued.

TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN
The long-awaited third installment of Shinya Tsukamotoís magnificently hallucinogenic TETSUO cycle. If youíve seen the first two youíll understand my anticipation for this new entry.

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (SOMOS LO QUE HAY)
Iíve heard quite a few interesting things about this quirky cannibal fest from Mexico.

A DANGEROUS METHOD
The one and only David Cronenberg directed this historical drama exploring the ďintense relationshipĒ between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbinder).

THE TALL MAN
A supernatural-tinged kidnapping drama from MARTYRSí Pascal Laugier, with a cast that includes Jessica Biel and PONTYPOOLíS Stephen McHattie.

DREAM HOME (WAI DOR LEI AH YUT HO)
A category III (meaning adults only) Hong Kong gore fest thatís gotten some promising (if not especially positive) early press.

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU
Another movie that was supposed to be released last year but wasnít. Itís based on a Philip K. Dick story, and early reports suggest that PKD buffs (here, here!) are quite partial to this film.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES
Iím pretty sure Iíll be let down, but Iím a fan of the Tim Powers novel upon which this new PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN is based, so Iím actually looking forward to it despite my better instincts!

 

--1/16/11 

     

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