2007: THE YEAR IN HORROR
 

     2007: there’s not much to say, really, except the year’s now over and it’s time for my annual Best and Worst horror movies list.  As always, it includes only those films commercially released theatrically or on DVD within the US, with mainstream movie mentions and DVD recommendations in between.  First, though, some quick observations.

     ’07 was supposed to mark the end of the horror movie as we know it, with the box office disappointments of quite a few high profile genre films like THE HITCHER, CAPTIVITY and HOSTEL 2.  Of course there were also successes like 1408, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT and SAW IV, but in Hollyweird perception is everything, and the perception that horror flicks are on the outs with audiences appears to have set in permanently.  This is especially true of the so-called Torture Porn subgenre, which from what I’ve been hearing had its last stand in 2007.  Based on the quality (or lack thereof) of most of these types of films, I can’t say I’m too broken up about that!

    One thing I will decry is the overabundance of remakes and sequels, which reached epidemic proportions in ’07.  But then again, from a long-term standpoint maybe this trend is a good thing.  There needs to be original material from which to spin sequels and remakes, after all, which is already becoming scarce (note all the part 3’s and 4’s).  This means that in another few years Hollywood studio execs will find themselves with no choice but to develop new stuff (insert evil cackle here).

     My other big complaint is with all the crappy CGI effects, which appear to have become a permanent part of modern horror flicks.  Hey, I’m trying to get used to it, but...

     Let’s get to the flicks.  As usual, I wasn’t able to see everything, and missed many smaller, independent releases, including HATCHET, BEHIND THE MASK, BLACK SHEEP and PLASTERHEAD, and a few big budgeters, such as THE NUMBER 23, THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2, RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION and the ALIEN VS. PREDATOR sequel. 

    Onto my picks for the year’s best movies, which thankfully outnumber the worst.  They are... 

The Best 

1.  GRINDHOUSE
Not too many films these days can be said to have everything, but this one comes close: it has zombies, machine guns, exploding heads, mutants, mad scientists, drugs, deadly car crashes, more-than-ample T&A, lotsa trash talk and assorted ass whippings--nearly all the things, in short, we go to movies for.  The idea of a three-hour exploitation flick does seem daunting, even to me, but Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s GRINDHOUSE is in fact a double feature in the manner of the old grindhouse movie exhibition model.  Neither portion really works as a stand-alone movie (which is why I’m less than overjoyed with the separate DVD releases), but together they’re sublime, and come complete with four side-splitting fake trailers (directed by Rodriguez, Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth).  The first mini-feature is Rodriguez’s PLANET TERROR, a fitfully over-the-top sci fi/splatter/sexploitation shoot-em-up with Rose McGowan as a go-go dancer caught up in a zombie conflagration; she loses a leg and gets it replaced by a wooden table leg...and then a machine gun.  Rodriguez was really inspired here, and has a ball with his scratched-up film stock.  The many jarring cuts and scratches are intentional, and obviously meant to replicate the tackiness of old exploitation flicks, but if you watch closely you’ll notice a definite art and rhythm to their placement.  While the piece at times feels overly self-aware in the manner of those straight-to-video B-pictures by the likes of David DeCocteau and others, Rodriguez’s enthusiasm is infectious, and makes for a fun ride.  Quentin Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF is something else entirely, a horror/revenge mini-epic with a steadily building intensity.  Kurt Russell headlines as a psychotic stunt man who uses his specially equipped “death proof” car to kill unsuspecting women.  But when confronted with some tough chicks whose ranks include Rosario Dawson and real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell (playing “Herself”), Russell finds he’s in for far more than he bargained for.  Many have complained that the film is too slow moving; in the stand-alone DVD version, yes, I fully agree.  Here though I find it quietly menacing (and a nice comedown from the jam-packed PLANET TERROR, with a looming outrageousness that all-but explodes in the final smack-down, closing the film out on a note of delirious exhilaration possible only in a good exploitation movie.

2.  ZODIAC
Yes, it's yet another serial killer movie, but the great David Fincher was the helmer, and aptly demonstrates how to do it right.  A classy and assured production, ZODIAC does what any good film of any stripe is supposed to: it impeccably transports us to another time and place, in this case San Francisco during the late sixties and seventies, when the publicity-hungry "Zodiac" killer was up to his dirty deeds.  The killer was never caught, although cartoonist/author Robert Greysmith, in his book ZODIAC UNMASKED, made a pretty compelling argument as to the Zodiac’s identity.  Fincher goes along with Greysmith's claims, but is careful to include the many loose ends and suspicious findings that to this day have never been satisfactorily explained.  The film is a stunner, as unique and distinctive as its director’s best films SE7EN and FIGHT CLUB, although it admittedly took me two viewings to fully appreciate the achievements of Fincher and his collaborators.  At first the many celebrity cameos seemed distracting and the 160-minute running time punishing, but those annoyances have since all-but melted away while the film’s core brilliance remains a blinding constant.

3.  BUG
William Friedkin’s best film in years, if not decades.  Early reviews have evoked THE EXORCIST, the director’s most famous film, in describing the schizophrenic nightmare that is BUG, but I’d liken it to a lesser-known Friedkin work: “Nightcrawlers”, a 1985 episode of CBS’ NEW TWILIGHT ZONE about a disturbed Vietnam veteran who sucks the residents of a roadside diner into an all-too-real ‘Nam flashback.  BUG has a similar aesthetic, being the wildly claustrophobic account of a psychotic Desert Storm vet (Michael Shannon) who in a manner similar to the protagonist of “Nightcrawlers” shares his delusions about ravenous bugs, mind control and other fun things with a needy young woman (Ashley Judd) who gradually comes to experience them herself.  Whether Shannon has a contagious malady, as is suggested early on, or Judd was simply crazy from the get-go is left unexplained.  In true Friedkin fashion the film is intense to an uncomfortable degree, and relentless in its unvaryingly grim trajectory, with an apocalyptic finale that contains not a hint of redemption, much less optimism.  The performances of Shannon and Judd are appropriately raw and fearless, not unlike the film itself; for Judd it’s a return to the type of daring roles (in films like NATURAL BORN KILLERS and NORMAL LIFE) she once known for, while the stocky, wiry Shannon (last seen in a supporting part in WORLD TRADE CENTER) makes a smashing debut as a leading man.  The net result of their efforts is a troubling work that will doubtless turn off many viewers, as its paltry box office returns attest (Lionsgate didn’t exactly do the film any favors with a wildly misleading publicity campaign that made it look like FOOD OF THE GODS 2).  But it is worthy.  Entertaining?  Not exactly.  Arresting and thought-provoking?  Definitely.

4.  JACK KETCHUM’S THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR by Jack Ketchum is one of the roughest, most numbing horror novels of all time, and one I wouldn’t believe could be adequately translated to film.  Yet director Gregory M. Wilson handily accomplished that task, delivering an arresting adaptation that may well be the year’s most disturbing movie.  It’s based on the torture-murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Lykens in early sixties Indiana, transposed to New Jersey in the late fifties (the time and locale of Jack Ketchum’s own childhood).  As with the book, the film tells the story through the eyes of David, a precocious young tyke in love with pretty 14-year-old Meg, who’s just moved in next door.  But Meg’s life is less idyllic than it might seem: her guardian Ruth, a troubled divorcee, is abusing Meg and her younger sister.  The abuse steadily escalates from uncomfortable to unbearable, with Ruth’s four sons enthusiastically joining in the torture and David the shocked witness to it all.  The film, as scripted by Daniel Farrands and Philip Nutman, fully retains the book’s arc and structure, while omitting some of the more horrific passages (such as a winsome bathtub torture).  Unfortunately Wilson also monkeys with Ketchum’s ending, resulting in an abrupt and unsatisfying finish to an otherwise impeccably crafted descent into the heart of suburban darkness.  Acting honors go to the amazing Blanche Baker as the evil Ruth, surely among the most terrifying modern screen villains, and Blythe Auffarth as Meg, who’s both victim and hero.  For those who can take it, JACK KETCHUM’S THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is a nasty but necessary film, a grisly yet staunchly moral work that will stay with you for days, if not years.

5.  THE MIST
Who’d have thought the mild-mannered Frank Darabont, writer-director of uplifting fare like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE MAGESTIC, would create the most hotly debated horror movie of 2007?  Outside Brian De Palma’s REDACTED (which, for the record, I haven’t seen), I don’t believe any film this year has inspired more strife than THE MIST.  The controversy seems to center upon the ending, a Darabont-concocted addition to an otherwise scrupulously faithful transposition of Stephen King’s 1980 novella.  Without revealing any details, I’ll disclose that said ending is easily the most cold-blooded in recent memory (the polar opposite of SHAWSHANK’S feel-good coda), and contains some profoundly discomforting political implications.  I’m not entirely sure that’s the best capper to a film about monsters emerging from a mist to rip people’s faces off, but I’ll give Darabont credit for really freaking people out--this is a horror movie, after all, and as such is supposed to be make us apprehensive!  But about the rest of the movie: it’s quite fine, benefiting from Darabont’s admirably concentrated, no-frills approach.  It’s refreshing to find a genre film that isn’t a satire, homage, remake, sequel or rip-off.  Rather, THE MIST is simply a good, unapologetic scare-fest with virtually everything one could possibly want in such a movie: gore, body parts, giant spiders, tentacles, mass hysteria and human sacrifice, all pulled off with a nice mixture of chills and B-movie goofiness. 

6.  28 WEEKS LATER
After sitting through so many shitty sequels I find it downright shocking when one actually gets it right.  Such is the case with this follow-up to the effective but overrated 28 DAYS LATER, which if you ask me is everything that film should have been.  It’s a genuinely dark, subversive vision packed with very real allusions to our post-9/11 world.  It begins with none-too-happy homemaker Robert Carlisle in a desperate fight with sufferers of the “Rage Disease” that finished off Great Britain in the first film.  Now, 28 weeks later, the epidemic has been contained and normal life is gradually starting back up for the survivors, including Carlisle and his children.  But as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, there’s a reemergence of the plague which throws everything into turmoil--although just how and why that happens is something you won’t be able to predict, and which will very likely knock you for a loop when it occurs.  Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo was previously known for INTACTO, a film I’m not a huge fan of, but here he’s conjured a genuinely alarming depiction of a societal breakdown that shocks because it’s so uncomfortably true-to-life.  It’s like a horrific variant on last year’s CHILDREN OF MAN, though not quite as potent.  Missteps include an out-of-place techno score and an over reliance on substandard CGI (which has become an epidemic in itself).  But all things considered this is a grimly powerful work--for those wanting a real horror film, here it is!

7.  SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
One of the year’s odder movies, a big budget Tim Burton directed adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s famed musical SWEENEY TODD, the bloodiest production in Broadway history.  It tells the sorta-true story of the British Sweeney Todd, the Eighteenth Century “Demon Barber” who, driven mad by the death of his wife, takes to cutting the throats of his clients, whose bodies are then ground up and used in meat pies sold in the shop below Todd’s salon.  Having viewed a production of the stage version on DVD (the Warner Bros. release with Angela Lansbury, to be exact), I’ll have to conclude that Burton has done the best possible job filming the material.  The visual design is impeccable, Johnny Depp delivers a lip smacking turn as Todd, and there’s a higher-than-expected bloodletting quotient...and yet I still found the proceedings cold and largely uninvolving.  My conclusion?  The material works best on the stage, with a live orchestra and performers who are actual singers (as Depp and co-stars Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman definitely aren’t)--but this film shoooooore does look good!

8.  IT IS FINE!  EVERYTHING IS FINE.
Crispin Glover’s second directorial effort, following on the heels of his unforgettable surreal shockfest WHAT IS IT?, is a typically wild, obsessive and plain demented piece of work.  It’s an allegedly autobiographical portrait of writer/star Steven C. Stewart, a real-life cerebral palsy sufferer confined to a wheelchair.  As the film opens this mush-mouthed sad sack (just try and understand anything he says) is trapped in a nursing home; there he bonks his head and imagines himself an irrepressible ladies man.  As such he seduces several alluring gals, who of course find themselves powerless to resist his advances...and then he kills ‘em.  Thus we have a movie featuring a handicapped protagonist that for once doesn’t present him as an optimistic, asexual hero.  Stewart in this movie is portrayed as a misogynistic lunatic, and performs a couple of sex scenes that cross the line into out-and-out pornography.  Glover gives the material his own freaky spin, with harsh, lurid lighting and asynchronous sound design similar to that of his previous film, along with a fractured narrative chronology and many mind-twisting surreal interludes.  The results often feel like the home movies of a maniac, with deliberately kitschy, artificial sets and loony dialogue like “You may be crippled, but you’re still a man!”  It all adds up to...something. 

9.  BRAND UPON THE BRAIN!
Here was a unique moviegoing experience: a screening of BRAND UPON THE BRAIN, Guy Maddin’s latest silent movie freak-out, at Hollywood’s Egyptian theater, filled out by onstage foley artists, an 11-piece orchestra, an alleged castrato and a live narrator who in this case was the incomparable Barbara Steele (on other nights Daniel Handler and Udo Keir handled the narration, while Isabella Rossellini does the honors in the non-live version).  I’ll confess I often had a hard time keeping my attention on the screen, as it was constantly drawn to the sixtyish Steele, seated at the head of the stage, who fully retains the unearthly beauty that graced classics like BLACK SUNDAY and 8½.  As for the film itself, it’s a black and white surreal-fest involving a man--named Guy Maddin--who travels back to his childhood home on a secluded island.  Flashbacks fill us in on the particulars of Guy’s twisted childhood, lived in the shadow of his mad scientist father and domineering mother.  There’s also a harp-playing woman detective in drag (don’t ask), at least one love struck sibling, an intrusive lighthouse and a pivotal character who’s brought back from the dead several times.  It’s a campy, deliberately archaic, wild yet heartfelt concoction, a brutal rejoinder to those who thought Maddin was going commercial after his (somewhat) audience-friendly 2003 feature THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD.  BRAND UPON THE BRAIN will likely only appeal to Guy Maddin fans accustomed to his off-kilter sensibilities; I happen to be one of those fans, and so enjoyed the film unreservedly.  Of course what really made it work was the live show, which few of you, regrettably, will ever get a chance to experience.

10.  1408
This Stephen King adaptation is good scary fun for the most part, with John Cusak proving quite engaging as a hack writer who elects to stay in a haunted hotel room.  There are some annoyances, most notably the clichéd dead kid subplot, which leads to the equally clichéd estranged spouse subplot.  But the moviemakers work up a great deal of shivery suspense, and toy with reality in a manner that at times puts the film in Philip K. Dick territory; readers of the latter’s hallucinatory masterpiece THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRICH will notice a similar bent, particularly during a tricky sequence in which Cusak thinks he’s escaped the room.  I also liked the creepy guy in the window, the bleeding wall, the unseen crying baby in the next room, and the possessed alarm clock that’s always blasting annoying Carpenters tunes--now there’s real horror for you! 

11.  VACANCY
In an Ain’t-it-Cool-News write-up on this film a reviewer complained vehemently about disruptive audience members sitting behind him.  I had a similar experience viewing VACANCY on a big screen, although in this case the rude assholes were seated in front of me, chattering, rustling and, for maximum annoyance, blocking my view by sticking their hands in the air (a Village People imitation, perhaps?).  Like the AICN guy, I tried to get ‘em to shut up repeatedly, but to no avail; also like the AICN guy, I found the film compelling enough to nearly hold my attention despite the tumult.  A fast, violent suspensor, it has bickering couple Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale stuck in a strangely deserted roadside motel one night after their car breaks down (horror movie heroes should really get their vehicles serviced before embarking on road trips!).  They end up in a fight for their lives against a murderous band of snuff movie makers.  Hungarian director Nimrod Antal (KONTROLL), making his English language debut, has a crisp and confident visual sense, and keeps things moving at a kicky pace.  Of course the narrative makes very little sense, but with all the commotion in the theater I wasn’t able to give it much thought.

12.  I AM LEGEND
I was primed to detest this latest adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic novel I AM LEGEND (previously filmed as THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and THE OMEGA MAN) but, to my great surprise, actually kinda liked it.  It features Will Smith as Robert Neville, the mast man on Earth, or at least New York City, which as this film opens is totally deserted.  But there are tribes of disease-ridden humans called Dark Seekers who come out each night in search of flesh and blood.  It’s with the Dark Seekers (vampires in the book) that the filmmakers go wrong, portraying them as, essentially, the berserk almost-zombies of 28 DAYS LATER.  Then there’s the fact that the things are rendered as big-mouthed CGI monstrosities, a lousy artistic choice that seriously affects the quality of the film overall.  That’s a shame, as director Francis Lawrence (CONSTANTINE) is on the money in virtually every other department, delivering a superbly paced, highly atmospheric shockfest.

13.  MR. BROOKS
An intriguing variation on the age-old seemingly-normal-guy-who’s-actually-a-serial-killer motif, or at least what passes for such in today’s Hollywood: a wealthy CEO (Kevin Costner) with a wife and daughter...and an overpowering compulsion to stalk and kill people.  This is just the starting point of MR. BROOKS, which by the end nearly collapses under the weight of its many subplots, including one in which Costner’s daughter is implicated in a killing, another with Demi Moore as a police investigator attacked by scumbags from her past, and still another featuring a nutcase (Dane Cook) who spots Costner doing his dirty work and longs to emulate him.  You can rest assured, though, that all the various strands come together (not always satisfyingly) in the end.  Costner is quite good in the lead, and director Bruce A. Evans (who also scripted, together with longtime partner Raynold Gideon) has turned in a stylish piece of work with lots of pleasingly eccentric touches (such as William Hurt recycling his HISTORY OF VIOLENCE shtick as Costner’s imaginary partner--yet another subplot!).

14.  DAY WATCH  [DNEVNOY  DOZOR]
The second installment in Russia’s blockbuster Watch trilogy, and several times flashier, noisier and more overpoweringly commercial than the first.  The plot, as in NIGHT WATCH (which hit US screens last year), centers on supernaturally endowed humans called Others, divided into light and dark factions.  The lights are charged with maintaining a Night Watch and the darks a Day Watch, thus keeping one another at bay.  DAY WATCH picks up where NIGHT left off, with the self-cursed gal from that film graduating to a full-fledged Night Watcher, and an errant Night Watchman’s son becoming a dark Other.  Director Timur Bekmambetov’s helming is once again fast and furious, and his storytelling quite jumbled, with the main plot point, about the Night Watcher’s son investigated on suspicion of a string of mysterious killings, frequently lost amid all the clamor.  And don’t expect much lip service paid the source material, Sergei Lukyanenko’s 1999 novel (which appeared in English around the same time this film did), as Bekmambetov largely jettisons it.  At least the actors get a chance to shine this time around, particularly the bewitching Mariya Poroshina, who makes an indelible impression.  With all the wizardly low-budget CGI effects, pretty gals and eye pleasing visuals, it’s clear Bekmambetov was desperately eager to please above all else--and despite the film’s many annoyances, pleased is something I definitely was.

15.  BEOWULF
This Robert Zemeckis 3-D extravaganza, shot for an ungodly amount of money with the new motion capture animation system, would seem to have everything going for it.  The film looks great without question, has lots of action and freaky monsters, not to mention a fair allotment of gore for a PG-13 movie, and as a bonus features a fully nude Angelina Jolie (albeit with all the naughty bits obscured).  The problem is there’s just not a whole lot to it outside those things.  Zemeckis follows the ancient poem you were taught in high school reasonably closely for the first two thirds, with an evil creature named Grendal (Crispin Glover) terrorizing a medieval community, and a heroic warrior named Beowulf (Ray Winstone) taking on the Big G and doing him in--and then going after Grendal’s even-nastier mother.  The screenwriters Roger Avery and Neil Gaiman add some wrinkles to the story, such as making Grendal’s ma (Jolie) an irresistible seductress, and giving Beowulf a wife and mistress.  None of it helps, though, leaving us with a fairly enjoyable but hollow epic.  Even the 3-D effects grow old quickly (with nearly everything in sight thrust at the screen), as does Zemeckis’ constantly swooping, swirling, look-at-me camerawork. 

16.  THEM  [ILS]
From Belgium comes another of those determinedly retro horror fests that gets by solely on the strength of its skilled and resourceful filmmaking.  In that respect it plays very much like HIGH TENSION, WOLF CREEK and THE ROOST, all extremely minimal efforts with little in the way of originality, but which succeed nonetheless.  THEM begins with a riveting variation on the moldy broken-down-car-in-the-wilderness setup, turns into a nerve-wracking home invasion thriller, and concludes with a violent sewer-set showdown.  The pic has drive and intensity to spare, with a taut, pared-down narrative and an admirably pointed visual style.  Still, I can’t help but wonder how the film might have played had the writer-directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud come up with a story to match their moviemaking prowess. 

17.  PAPARIKA
This brain-twisting anime feature from writer-director Satoshi Kon is even crazier than his trippy classic PERFECT BLUE.  PAPRIKA is about a woman scientist who helps invent a machine that can record and broadcast dreams...but the construct is inevitably stolen, launching us on a wildly hallucinatory trip in which conventional reality is left far behind and dream-imagery, much of it horrific and disturbing, takes over.  I’ll confess that after awhile I lost track of the narrative (adding to the weirdness was the fact that the fourth reel of the screening I attended was projected backwards, making everything run upside down and in reverse), but I imagine it will become a little clearer after another viewing or two (ideally with all the reels in proper order!).  The animation is certainly impressive, proving that what makes the medium great is the simple fact that anything can happen--which in PAPRIKA does! 

18.  RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR
Let’s hope this film is a far-fetched piece of alarmism, because otherwise you’d best head for the nearest fallout shelter ASAP!  RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR depicts what transpires when several “dirty” bombs are detonated across Los Angeles, releasing poisonous spores into the air.  Lacking the budget to properly dramatize the full (or even partial) scale of the attack and attendant chaos, writer-director Chris Gorak concentrates on Rory Cochrane as an unemployed musician forced to seal himself up in his house.  Things get sticky when Cochrane’s wife Mary McCormack shows up and he won’t let her in, resulting in a teary drama that’s extremely stagy and more than a little contrived.  After a while I decided Cochrane would be far better off trying his luck outside, particularly in light of the spectacularly grim finale.  But the lead actors are both quite good and Gorak directs with admirable intensity--and admirably refrains from the type of political sloganeering you’d expect in this type of fare. 

19.  FIDO
This clever and enjoyable Canadian import takes a concept introduced at the end of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, of zombies used as indentured servants, and spins an entire feature from it.  The filmmakers have trouble sustaining this one-joke premise over ninety minutes, but the film still plays far better than it has any right to.  The fifties-era setting is convincingly rendered on an obvious low budget, the actors--including Henry Czerny and Carrie Anne-Moss--are game, and the human-zombie interactions quite imaginatively worked out.  That’s in addition to many honest-to-goodness laughs, even if a disproportionate number of them occur in the first few minutes (taken up by an impeccably executed fake newsreel).  There are also some decent gore effects on display, in scenes where the living dead inevitably escape their confines and do what zombies do best. 

20.  HOSTEL 2
Years from now this Eli Roth chunk-blower will likely be viewed as some kind of high (or low) point in gross-out cinema--or, if you prefer, torture-porn.  I can usually be counted on to jump to the defense of Roth and other filmmakers tagged with the lazy, dismissive torture-porn moniker, but after seeing HOSTEL 2 I’ll have to admit Roth’s detractors may well have a point.  The film, after all, is a vapid gorefest that makes the average splatter flick seem downright profound.  But in Roth’s defense, he outdoes the original HOSTEL in nearly every respect, with more compelling protagonists (three hot chicks this time), a more confident visual style, a much better ending, and, perhaps most importantly, more nauseating shock sequences...meaning that, if nothing else, HOSTEL 2 delivers exactly what it promises. 

21.  THE LAST WINTER
The latest brainy horror fest from the staunchly idiosyncratic Larry Fessenden, following the dazzling HABIT and the overrated WENDIGO.  THE LAST WINTER is Fessenden’s most ambitious production to date, set on an oil drilling project in snowbound Alaska.  Ron Perlman is the expedition’s gung ho leader and James Le Gros the environmentalist opposing Perlman.  But there’s another presence afoot: it seems that with global warming facilitating the melting of the permafrost, a malevolent thousand-year-old something is being unearthed, with dire consequences for all involved.  Yes, this is an unabashedly environmentally-minded thriller, and makes no apologies for it (this film can be grouped into a small but growing eco-horror subgenre that includes Fessenden’s own NO TELLING and the novel THE BRIDGE).  From a filmmaking standpoint the pic is tighter and leaner than Fessenden’s earlier work, with an eerie, disquieting aura worthy of the best work of Carpenter or Romero--although some distractingly cut-rate creature FX, the Achilles heel of WENDIGO, rear their unfortunate heads in the shoulda-been-better climax. 

22.  BROKEN
I have to give this vile little film from our friends Down Under credit: it works.  It begins like yet another cookie-cutter SAW wannabe, but gradually evolves into something uniquely disgusting.  It has a young mother kidnapped by a misogynistic scumbag, who drags her into a forest and commences his torment by sewing a razor blade into the woman’s stomach--and then forces her to dig it out!  We also see the gal slice the tendons behind her tormentor’s knee and get one of her legs splintered.  Another unfortunate woman joins in the fun, getting her tongue ripped from her mouth and tossed into a fire pit.  The film, a seriously bleak and depressing evocation of psychosis and despair, is well-made by any standard and quite effective in its way.  Plus the Dimension DVD box has a grosser-than-gross slide-up cover that’s sure to grab your attention--just try not to loose your lunch in the process! 

23.  P2
A spirited take on the ever-popular defenseless-woman-trapped-in-a-confined-setting-with-a-maniac setup, which never seems to grow old.  The babe here is a pretty blond secretary (Rachel Nichols) whose car conks out in her building’s parking structure on Christmas Eve, leaving her alone with the psychotic attendant (Wes Bentley).  Yes, the proceedings are every bit as silly, overwrought and implausible as you might reasonably expect, but P2 doesn’t present itself as a documentary, just a fast, bloody, suspenseful exercise in B-movie delirium.  As such it succeeds admirably, making good use of its minimal locations and featuring many imaginative developments (such as a flooding elevator) courtesy of an inspired script co-written by HIGH TENSION’S Alexander Aja. 

24.  THE LAST SUPPER
Did I say HOSTEL 2 was sick?  Sorry, but I think Eli Roth will have to take a step back, as this year the Japanese have got us beat in the gross-out sweepstakes.  This film is tacky and labors under crappy gore effects, but it’s so very, very over the top!  It has a plastic surgeon who finds himself addicted to eating female flesh, and keeps a bevy of severed heads in his freezer for whenever his stomach happens to growl.  He steps up his obsession upon making contact with a society of freaks who share his perversion, along with several women who get off on being eaten--one of whom even assists the doctor in slicing up a victim.  But the puke de resistance doesn’t occur until near the end, when--!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!--our “hero” disrupts a posh wedding party with a specially-made human body part sculpture.  There’s more, of course, but I think you get the drift.  Based on an allegedly popular novel. 

25.  MACBETH
Geoffrey (ROMPER STOMPER) Wright’s Aussified take on MACBETH was trounced by most critics, but I got a mild kick out of it.  It’s a blood-spattered updating that puts Shakespeare’s words in the mouths of 21st Century Australian crime lords and their molls.  The effect is far from Shakespearean, as the film ultimately has very little to offer outside plentiful sex and gore.  The photography is cheap-looking and the performances largely unimpressive, and there’s also the simple fact that Shakespeare orated in the laid-back Australian idiom frankly doesn’t come off.  But as a grungy, nasty, attention-grabbing spectacle the film works, outdoing Roman Polanski’s infamously down ‘n dirty 1971 adaptation in nastiness, if not quality.  If nothing else, this MACBETH will make a good rental on those nights when all the Steven Segal movies happen to be checked out.  

26.  DARK CORNERS
A mind-bender that favorably recalls classics like JACOB’S LADDER and LOST HIGHWAY.  Not that DARK CORNERS approaches them--first time writer-director Ray Gower includes too much gratuitous gore and an obnoxiously bombastic score--but it does acquit itself well as original, thought-provoking entertainment.  The always-appealing Thora Birch (of AMERICAN BEAUTY and GHOST WORLD) stars as Susan, a contented housefrow who has “nightmares” that she’s living another life as Karen, a drugged-out coroner’s assistant.  The question of which reality is actual and which is imaginary, and what precisely is happening in each, is left up to the viewer to decide for him/herself.  Suffice it to say the film is good enough, with impressive visuals and a memorable dual performance by Birch, that it seems worth the effort required to figure it out. 

27.  MASTERS OF HORROR: PELTS
These days, it seems the most we can expect from the once-great Dario Argento are over-the-top gorefests like this MASTERS OF HORROR segment.  It’s easily one of the silliest films Argento has made, and very likely the wettest, with meticulously depicted eviscerations and lotsa spurting blood geysers.  Based on a story by F. Paul Wilson, it features Meat Loaf as a furrier who comes into contact with a bunch of raccoon furs, unaware that whoever touches them goes into a murderous frenzy.  Left unexplained is why it takes Meat until the end of the piece to go nuts, since everybody else has a tendency to beat others to death, put their heads in bear traps or sew their noses and eyelids shut immediately after handling the pelts.  A definite guilty pleasure, complete with a major role filled by a lesbian stripper, thus providing some gratuitous T&A to go with the grue. 

28.  DISTURBIA
A sprightly and enjoyable excursion in old fashioned Hitchcockian suspense, with a story that directly apes the maestro’s REAR WINDOW: a wayward teen (Shia LaBouf), confined to his home due to a house arrest, believes his shady next door neighbor (perennial Hollywood bad guy David Morse) is a murderer...but of course LaBouf can’t get anyone to believe him.  What transpires is disposable but fun, and contains some truly head-snapping twists.  There’s nothing here especially brilliant or ingenious, but we don’t go to movies like this for great cinema, just tense escapism, which DISTURBIA provides in abundance.

  

     That does it for 2007’s best horror movies.  But there were other quality films I’d like to bring to your attention.  They are:

Also Recommended

BLACK SNAKE MOAN
A so-so movie at best, but worth it for Christina Ricci as a distraught nymphomaniac, a role essayed with a gusto that leaves just about every other modern screen siren in the dust. 

BLACK BOOK  [ZWARTBOEK]
ROBOCOP’S Paul Verhoeven returned to his native Holland to make this blistering WWII picture, an unprecedented take on the holocaust that will doubtless ruffle many feathers--and indeed has.

CRAZY LOVE
One for the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category: A documentary about the forty-year romance of Burt and Linda Pugach, which has endured despite his blinding her with acid back in 1959, and the fact that both are evidently complete loons! 

SUNSHINE
Many sci fi clichés are given a good workout in this sleek space opera from TRAINSPOTTING’S Danny Boyle.  Lots better than its tepid box office would suggest. 

GOYA’S GHOSTS
Not a ghost story, though very likely the darkest film ever made by AMADEUS director Milos Foreman, a bleak historical chronicle set amid the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. 

THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS
Q: Can it really be true that this documentary about a Donkey Kong video game competition is one of the best, most gripping movies of the year?  A: Yes, it can and it is!

DEATH SENTENCE
A good bloodthirsty revenge movie of a type we haven’t seen much of since the seventies.  Far superior to the higher-profile THE BRAVE ONE, the year’s other retro vigilante fest.

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
Julie Taymor’s Beetles-centered musical romp isn’t great, but excels as a goofy psychedelic spectacle that often plays like a PG-rated take on Oliver Stone’s THE DOORS.

EASTERN PROMISES
David Cronenberg’s latest stab at mainstream respectability appears to be loved by those who disliked A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and vice-versa.  I’m a huge HOV fan, so you can guess where I stand on EP.  It has some GREAT moments, I’ll give it that. 

INTO THE WILD
Sean Penn’s fact-based drama about a young man who abandoned the trappings of society, only to starve to death in the Alaskan wilderness, is a spellbinder.  I fully believe it had the potential to be the new EASY RIDER if only more had bothered to see it. 

BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT
I know purists are frothing over this latest cut of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, still the ultimate in sci fi noir, but at least it afforded a chance (if you lived in or near a major city) to experience BLADE RUNNER on a big screen. 

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
With this grim existential thriller the Coen Brothers, after several duds, are back in fighting form.  The extreme violence and unresolved finale appear to have seriously riled up moviegoers--all the better, methinks! 

SOUTHLAND TALES
Writer-director Richard Kelley’s long-awaited follow-up to DONNIE DARKO is a mess: overconceived, ludicrously convoluted and disjointed.  But those things are also what make this maniacally inspired, feverishly inventive epic worth seeing. 

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH
Another misguided but not-uninteresting epic, this one from F.F. Coppola, who provides an indigestible morass of sci fi, surrealism, intellectual speculation and picturesque adventure--in other words, a film right up my alley! 

THERE WILL BE BLOOD
An Oscar-grabber to be sure, but the surprise is just how remarkably grim and nasty this handsomely mounted period drama is--and am I the only one who noticed the title is an oft-repeated quote from SAW?

 

     Moving right along, we come to my overview of notable horror-themed DVDs.  This past year, like the last few, echoed with all the now-standard claims about the imminent death of the DVD format.  To repeat what I said on this subject last year: I’ll believe that when I see it!

    The fact is 2007 saw the bow of quite a few must-have Digital Versatile Discs.  True, there’s been some bottom-scraping among the smaller companies (sorry, but FUTURE-KILL and BLACK ROSES remain crappy movies regardless of their spiffed-up packaging), but that doesn’t negate the many worthy films mentioned in the following list, which begins with arguably the most important home video release of the decade... 

Recommended DVD releases 

THE ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY COLLECTION
Holy shit!!!  A multi-disc set featuring Alejandro Jodorowsky’s long unavailable masterworks EL TOPO and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN!  For Chrissakes just buy one, or better yet two or three! 

KIDNAPPED / RABID DOGS
Mario Bava’s “lost” seventies suspensor RABID DOGS is given the stellar Anchor Bay treatment.  Included is a new version, entitled KIDNAPPED, put together by Bava’s son Lamberto; I prefer the original, although the film is required viewing in any form.

THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION
While on the subject of Bava, here are two must-own Anchor Bay collections containing over a dozen of his films.  All have been released on DVD previously, but it’s great having them back in print.

PERFORMANCE
Not a horror movie per se, but this 1971 freak-out is required viewing for all true genre buffs.  PERFORMANCE has taken a LONG time to make it to DVD, but I’m glad it’s finally here, and in a version that restores many of the things cut from the VHS print.  

THE FACE OF ANOTHER
I consider this Japanese shocker a masterpiece, even though it’s little known.  Hopefully, with Criterion’s stellar DVD release (together with two other films by the same director), that situation will change! 

MALPERTUIS
A surreal classic from the seventies, available at last in a newly restored director’s cut.

MYSTICS IN BALI
It’s taken some time, but this nutzoid Indonesian masterwork is domestically available at last.  You need one, pure and simple!

HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN
A legendary Japanese sickie finally makes it to DVD.  A “surreal masterpiece”?  Nope.  The “greatest unsung classic in the history of Japanese cult cinema”?  Hardly.  Worth seeing, though!

FROM BEYOND
You simply can’t go wrong with Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraft-inspired eighties classic.  A grade-B blast, newly restored with much never-before-seen footage. 

CALIGULA
Bob Guccione’s notorious porn epic gets the deluxe 3-disc treatment.  Worth it for the audio commentaries by Malcolm McDowell, who rakes Guccione over the coals, and Helen Mirren, who (surprisingly) defends the film and its makers.

WITCHFINDER GENERAL
Michael Reeves’ startlingly brutal British classic got stellar treatment by MGM.  Previously released in several different versions, but this is very likely the definitive one.

ALLIGATOR
I’ve always liked this 1980 flick, surely the CITIZEN KANE of mutant alligator films, and it’s now available in a sleekly remastered edition. 

     Okay, enough stalling!  It’s time to unveil my choices for the worst horror movies of 2007--and believe me, this crop IS quite shitty!  Here they are:

The Worst

1.  HALLOWEEN
If you ask me this Rob Zombie HALLOWEEN remake was misconceived from the start.  The idea of filling us in on the twisted details of Michael Myers’ childhood (left vague in the original) might have worked had the film followed through on it in a meaningful way, but it doesn’t.  Instead Rob recycles the Boogeyman concept of the first HALLOWEEN, with Michael somehow sprouting into a faceless seven-foot killing machine at around the halfway point (whereas the kid who played him is rather stumpy).  He’s apparently looking to reunite with his long-lost sister, but this is never clarified--toward the end the heroine tells Michael she “doesn’t understand” his quest, and frankly neither did I.  But Rob doesn’t seem too interested in plot details anyway, lavishing his attention on the many elaborate gore set pieces, which for me grew tiresome quickly.  There’s also the fact that despite the film being set largely in suburbia, all the characters talk and act like the Devil’s Rejects.  Sorry, but I find it difficult to believe a cheerleader would blithely dismiss a looming maniac as “just some pedophile trying to catch a glimpse of underage poontang. 

2.  THE REAPING
For this effort the notorious Dark Castle Films (creators of the HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THIRTEEN GHOSTS and HOUSE OF WAX remakes, as well as GHOST SHIP and GOTHIKA) went the upscale route (or tried to), with a Biblically-inspired storyline, slicker-than-average production values, and, in two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, an A-list starlet in the lead.  It’s all for nought, as the end result is a dull and overblown spectacle.  Swank plays a former minister who now attempts to debunk miracles; she’s jolted, then, upon entering a backwoods town where a lake has turned blood red.  In short order the town is visited by all the stages of the apocalypse outlined in the bible, including a rain of frogs, swarms of locusts and an epidemic of boils.  It all has something to do with a freaky cult operating in the area and a young girl who always shows up at opportune moments and then vanishes.  An ambitious film but also a lifeless one, complete with a tired and wholly gratuitous CGI-packed climax that has little-to-no bearing on the preceding narrative. 

3.  SAW IV
Let’s face it, the SAW franchise officially ran out of steam two entries ago (at least)This slapdash fourth installment is a tired slog through all the clichés established by the first three, with Tobin Bell as Jigsaw creating ludicrously elaborate torture instruments for use on a new batch of scumbags.  There’s no point going into the plot or the cast (which includes eighties horror mainstay Betsy Russell and GILMORE GIRLS regular Scott Patterson), although I have to give the moviemakers props for their apparently limitless ability to come up with demented methods of tormenting their characters.  My favorite was the guy forced to thrust his face into a mass of knife blades to dismantle a device that will otherwise slit his wrists--of course, it’s best not to think much about the hows or whys of such a concoction, which holds equally true for everything else herein.

4.  THE TRIPPER
Actor David Arquette’s directorial debut was this satiric clunker featuring a nut in a Ronald Reagan mask hacking up hippies at an outdoor rock ‘n roll festival.  The gore effects are cheesy, the décor tacky and none of the so-called hippies are the least bit convincing.  Notable only for the many name actors Arquette managed to rope in (Balthazar Getty, Jamie King, Thomas Jane, Paul Reubens, and, in a cameo, the director’s wife Courtney Cox) and the overt political angle--in case you don’t notice the latter, the end credits unfold over an anti-Reagan diatribe and a montage of political posters.  But the film is ultimately little more than a standard shot-on-video gorefest, of which there already exist far too many.

5.  THE HITCHER
Another case of a remake that wreaks so many “sensible” changes it negates any and all interest the material had to begin with.  The first HITCHER, from 1986, was a demented variant on DUEL, with C. Thomas Howell as a naïve young man on a cross country drive menaced by a psychotic, and apparently supernatural, hitchhiker, played unforgettably by Rutger Hauer.  This remake gives the Howell character a girlfriend, thus removing the creepy homosexual overtones from the story--in other words, one of its primary reasons for being.  And unlike Hauer’s towering monster from the id, the hitcher here (Sean Bean) is very much a garden variety flesh-and-blood serial killer.  This approach renders the material even more implausible than it was to begin with, with the Hitcher able to make all manner of exotic weaponry materialize on command and turn up in several different places at once (the fact that the movie now has two protagonists instead of one does nothing to simplify matters).  The net result is a thoroughly routine slasher flick--albeit an unusually noisy and aggressive one.

6. PIRATES OF THE CARRIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END
Once again I find myself scratching my head over the continuing popularity of this series, of which this third installment is the most bloated, incoherent and pointless of the lot.  Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom all return, but they’re overshadowed by the ten thousand or so supporting players, including Bill Nighy as the tentacle-faced Davey Jones, who gets far too much screen time.  Speaking of which, Keith Richards’ cameo as Depp’s father is simply pathetic, an utterly superfluous appearance in a movie that already contains more than its share.

7.  THE INVASION
Not the total bust it’s been made out to be, although this third INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS remake is heavily flawed and largely unnecessary.  It stars a too much make-up wearing Nicole Kidman as a shrink battling alien spores that turn everyone around her into emotionless drones.  Yes, you’ve seen it all before, and done lots better.  In place of the slimy pods and wormy tentacles of the previous films, this one has the infected people spitting on others to pass the germ along, which doesn’t have nearly the same shivery/grotesque effect.  The breakneck action sequences, choreographed by German filmmaker Oliver Hirschabel (of DAS EXPERIMENT and DOWNFALL), are fairly good, and the film has a nice punchy pace--if overly frantic at times.  That latter problem may be due to the heavy reshooting and reediting job the film underwent at the hands of the Wachowski Brothers and V FOR VENDETTA director James McTeigue.  The movie’s a bummer, however, no matter who’s ultimately at fault.

8.  THE HOST  [GWOEMUL]
Another case of a film that’s received such overwhelming adulation from seemingly everybody that I’m a little embarrassed to admit I was unimpressed.  It’s a Korean movie about a sewer-dwelling sea monster that makes periodic above-ground trips to wreak havoc and drag unwilling victims back to its lair.  The CGI creature is a marvelous creation, and the sequences of it loose amidst dozens of screaming extras are great.  But those scenes are only a small portion of the film, which is concerned largely with the government’s ham-fisted attempts at containing the traumatized victims and a family’s search for a girl carried off by the critter.  It’s inconsistently paced and overall quite a dull viewing experience (director Joon-ho Bong seems especially partial to the sight of people eating).  Most of the time, to borrow a long overused phrase, I was rooting for the monster. 

9.  GHOST RIDER
I’m not familiar with the comic book of GHOST RIDER, but I found the character--a biker with a perpetually flaming skull-head--rather goofy-looking.  The movie is mediocre, a by-the-numbers comic book run-through that hits all the expected bases.  To be fair, it is a little darker overall than most of these movies, with a protagonist who revels in mean-spirited vigilantism and a fun supporting turn by Peter Fonda as the bad-ass who puts everything in motion.  But that doesn’t make up for the lackluster lead performances of Nicholas Cage and Eve Mendes, or the substandard CGI, which (as usual) is way overused.  It’s like a mean variant on SPIDERMAN, but with a fraction of the budget and inspiration.

10.  MASTERS OF HORROR: VALERIE ON THE STAIRS
The second MASTERS OF HORROR segment helmed by the program’s creator Mick Garris, who was far more inspired than he was for his previous MOH effort CHOCOLATE.  VALERIE ON THE STAIRS was adapted from a Clive Barker story that takes the basic premise of Barker’s movie theater-set tale “Son of Celluloid” and relocates it to a secluded writers’ colony, where a ghostly beauty named Valerie and a demonic creature are invoked by the inhabitants’ distraught imaginations.  Garris does a fairly good job with the segment, but it’s missing something.  Quite simply, it’s never as horrific, imaginative or perverse as it should be. 

11.  FRACTURE
This anemic courtroom drama is standard Hollywierd BS in most respects: Anthony Hopkins, as a devious man on trial for allegedly trying to murder his wife, shamelessly recycles his Hannibal Lecter shtick, while Ryan Gosling puts his acting talent largely on hold to slum his way through the role of the idealistic young attorney looking to take Hopkins down.  But the film at times threatens to become interesting, mostly due to Gosling, who’s best known (by me) for playing psychos and/or miscreants (see ‘02’s THE BELIEVER, in which he essayed a disturbingly convincing skinhead).  Here Gosling often seems as nutty in his own way as Hopkins, which adds a note of (unintended?) complexity.  Not that this helps much, as the heavily publicized twist ending isn’t very twisty--like the rest of the movie it promises much, but delivers woefully little. 

12.  I KNOW WHO KILLED ME
This odd psychothriller, apparently inspired by Krzysztof Kieslowski’s DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE, is competent enough but left me cold.  The director was Chris Sivertson (of THE LOST), who knows his stuff, and the star Lindsay Lohan, a gifted actress regardless of her offscreen exploits.  Here Lohan exudes the worn-out, world weary aura of a person twice her age; that works with one of her characters, a jaded stripper, but definitely not the other, a sheltered schoolgirl.  The story, you see, has Lindsay playing twin sisters unaware of the other’s existence yet sharing a psychic bond--which becomes all-too-apparent when one of them is abducted by a serial killer.  Lots of good things here, but the film just never came together.  See DARK CORNERS for a far more resonant take on similar themes. 

13.  ROMAN
MAY’S Angela Bettis made her directorial debut with this arty horror fest scripted by the former film’s director Lucky McKee, who also essays the title role.  Bettis directs much like she acts: with an ever-roving eye for quirky details.  This means many distracting music video segues, unmotivated close ups and wildly off-kilter camera angles.  But the real problem is that McKee’s script, which he reportedly wrote over the course of a weekend during his college days, just ain’t that great.  It has Roman, a socially inept loser, accidentally killing a young woman (VERONICA MARS’ Kristen Bell) who has the misfortune to respond to his fumbling advances.  Roman keeps her body on ice in his bathtub, which becomes a problem when another gal (the fetching Nectar Rose) comes onto him.  That’s really all there is to the story, in a film that depends almost entirely upon the lead performance for its effectiveness.  Lucky McKee is solid, but, unlike Bettis in MAY, fails to ever make Roman into a very interesting or sympathetic individual. 

14.  SEVERANCE
A British-made horror-comedy about office workers on a wilderness outing that turns deadly.  The stage would seem to be set for a darkly comedic skewering of the cutthroat world of office politics, and the filmmakers appear to think they’re doing just that.  The problem is the proceedings are just never all that clever, much less coherent, with a collection of jokey gore setpieces in search of a narrative, spiced with gratuitous over-the-top touches like a severed head’s POV.  It’s slick, certainly, but lacks the wit, intelligence and unifying vision a film like this requires.   

15.  SYNESTHESIA  [GIMI HEBUN]
This J-horror fest is centered on Synesthesia, a rare sensory disorder that scrambles one’s senses and leads to certain insanity.  The synesthete here is a serial killer who dubs himself Picasso.  This freak lures his victims through a trance-inducing video game, which reaches the surveillance-obsessed hero, a synesthete himself with an unsettling connection to Picasso.  The film has many good things--a surprise-packed storyline, a vivid and unnerving atmosphere--which makes it all the more frustrating that director Toru Matsuura screws it up with his irritating self-indulgence.  Examples of the latter include a too-leisurely pace and an obnoxiously overlong 2-hour running time.  If nothing else, the film is a sure candidate for a Hollywood remake. 

16.  AWAKE
This movie is based on the profoundly horrific (to me) fact that each day one out of every 700 surgical patients wake up during their surgery.  AWAKE has a character (Hayden Christensen) coming to while undergoing a heart transplant, in a sequence I’ll admit made me squirm, even though it isn’t particularly well done (with its ludicrous intercuts of co-star Jessica Alba frolicking on a beach).  But it takes far too long for the moviemakers to get their protagonist into the operating room, after which things grow increasingly dumb, as Christensen discovers the surgeons are plotting to kill him and sell his organs.  Here we have a case where reality-based horror and B-movie silliness simply don’t mix!

17.  MASTERS OF HORROR: PRO-LIFE
John Carpenter’s second MASTERS OF HORROR segment, following 2005’s triumphant CIGARETTE BURNS, was this considerably lesser work.  It has an interesting premise involving a young woman about to birth a demon in a secluded hospital, just as the girl’s gun-toting anti-abortionist father and like-minded brothers mass outside.  Think IT’S ALIVE meets ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13.  Unfortunately the execution is clumsy, marred by several poorly staged shoot-outs (Carpenter it seems will always fancy himself an action director, even though it’s been made clear time and again that’s not where his strengths lie).  Other problems include a lot of overdone gore effects that seem like desperate attempts at goosing up the largely flaccid narrative, and a seriously goofy monster that shows up near the end.  Carpenter claims he initially thought he was making a comedy but then apparently decided he wasn’t, which may explain why the piece feels so scattershot and unsatisfying. 

18.  30 DAYS OF NIGHT
An ambitious film that transposes the popular Steve Niles/Ben Templesmith graphic novel to the screen largely intact.  But while the GM was a smooth, streamlined piece of work, the flick is choppy, proceeding in fits and starts.  It’s about vampires invading a small town in Northern Alaska where the winter night lasts 30 days, thus allowing the vamps to do their dirty work without having to worry about daylight spoiling their fun.  This of course means lots of gory human/vampire showdowns, which after a while grow monotonous, what with the film’s unvarying tone and colorless narrative.  But director David Slade was aiming for something beyond standard horror movie stuff, and presents a vivid, even atmospheric portrayal of a haunted snowbound landscape--and wisely leaves Niles and Templesmith’s dark finale alone. 

19.  CAPTIVITY
A surprise: this heavily maligned SAW wannabe was almost good!  In fact, the first two thirds are fairly solid, with Elisha Cuthbert as a gorgeous model kidnapped by a perv and locked in an insanely elaborate torture chamber.  The director was the Oscar-winning Roland Joffe, of THE KILLING FIELDS and THE MISSION, who relates this twisted tale through a series of impeccably composed, superbly edited images without a lot of expository dialogue or subplots (something you can’t say of the SAW flicks).  But the film turns to you-know-what in the final half hour, with a thoroughly ridiculous twist and clichéd face-off between Cuthbert and her attacker...and the ending flat-out sucks.

20.  HANNIBAL RISING
I persist in calling Thomas Harris’ novel HANNIBAL RISING, about the early years of Hannibal Lector, the worst book of 2006, but found this movie adaptation a bit more resonant.  Certainly it has its share of problems, including a cartoony villain, an overbaked atmosphere, a predictable storyline and the inexplicable fact that everyone speaks English despite the film being set in France, Russia and Quebec.  All that, of course, is in keeping with the novel, a wretched piece of work by any standard, and the filmmakers’ biggest stumbling block.  What the movie has in its favor is an arresting lead performance by Gaspard Ulliel as young Hannibal; no, he’s no Anthony Hopkins (or Brian Cox, who played the role in Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER, the first and in my view best film of the franchise), but Ulliel does have a presence that’s both dangerous and dangerously charismatic.  There is also some genuinely startling grue that at times captures the type of no-holds-barred insanity Harris was apparently trying for in the novel.

 

     And we’re finished!  I’m satisfied now that 2007’s good, bad and indifferent have been covered, so we can now look ahead to 2008.  Some promising-sounding films are coming up, including the Clive Barker inspired MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES, the hotly anticipated giant monster fest CLOVERFIELD, and many more.  You can expect my thoughts on them around this time next year.  Until then...

  

--1/18/08