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              2002: The Year in Horror


Once again the year is over and itís time for my annual look back at the year in horror.  Horror movies, that is, of which there were an unusual amount this year.  Furthermore, there were a greater than average amount of good ones (a most unusual occurrence), meaning my Best of list is several entries longer than last yearís.

            Of course, there are many other changes in relation to my 2001 list.  Iíve tried to be more diligent in keeping track of everything released, and so have caught up with far more foreign imports, arthouse obscurities and big budget Hollywood releases; hence the reason for the Worst of listing and various other subcategories I didnít bother with last year.

            With that out of the way, Iíd like to take a moment to clarify why I chose these particular films.  They certainly werenít the only horror movies to be made in 2002, but they were released then. 

Some examples: BUBBA HO-TEP, a film that bears a 2002 copyright date and played the festival circuit, does NOT make the list because it has yet to be officially released in the US, either theatrically or on home video.  On the other hand, films like HERA PURPLE and DAS EXPERIMENT, which only had extremely limited engagements in major cities, or DAGON and DOG SOLDIERS, both of which premiered on home video, made the list because they received official releases in 2002.  SPIDER wonít be officially released until early Ď03, but played a one-week Academy Award qualifying run in December, which as far as Iím concerned makes it an Ď02 release.  SCARLET DIVA was made and released in most countries in 2000, but didnít turn up in the US until last year, which again for the purposes of this article makes it a Ď02 release.  The one admitted exception is DRACULA: PAGES FROM A YOUNG VIRGINíS DIARY, which played the festival and bootleg video circuit in the US, but isnít set to be officially released until early Ď03 (so itís almost a Ď02 release).  Sorry.

            Finally, to address a charge many readers leveled at me based on last yearís list, Iím NOT an art or foreign film snob!  I just like good movies, and itís not my fault that mainstream Hollywood seems to have consigned itself to an endless series of sequels, remakes and rip-offs (see my ďWorst OfĒ and ďMovies I Didnít SeeĒ lists if you donít believe me).

            So anyway, without further ado, for better or worse, here they are...    


THE YEARíS BEST HORROR MOVIES:


1. SPIDER

Youíll be hard-pressed to find a single flaw in this, the latest and quite possibly best film from David Cronenberg.  Itís a deeply unsettling, deceptively low key masterpiece with refined, stately filmmaking concealing untold layers of depravity and psychosis.  Ralph Fiennes is simply great as Spider, a shuffling, mumbling freak released from an insane asylum into the care of a shrewish old woman (Lynn Redgrave).  Subsiding in her halfway house, he thinks back on his severely disturbed childhood, scarred by the apparent murder of Spiderís mother (Miranda Richardson, who actually plays three different parts) by his alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne); but not all is as it seems, as Spiderís recollections are unreliable, to say the least.  Without giving too much away, Iíll reveal that Cronenberg has pulled off the screenís most effective use since THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI of the unreliable narrator, a literary conceit utilized by Patrick McGrath, author of the 1992 novel upon which this film is based, that for obvious reasons tends not to work on film.  Until now.

2. THE PIANO TEACHER
This ferociously disturbing French import might not technically be a horror film, but it is one of the absolute scariest flicks Iíve seen this year.  Directed by Michael Haneke (BENNYíS VIDEO, FUNNY GAMES), itís a flawlessly rendered portrait of a severely repressed womanís horrific descent into perversion and sadism.  Blood and sex intermingle freely in a peerless chiller thatís guaranteed to fry your brain.  Isabelle Huppert gives the performance of her life, well complimented by Hanekeís peerless ability to wring terror from a simple camera angle or sound effect.  Most impressive of all, Haneke and his collaborators have managed to fashion a great film from Elfriede Jelinekís overwrought and pretentious 1988 novel.  See this film--you will NOT forget it, no matter how hard you try!

3. DAS EXPERIMENT
This frequently grotesque, ferociously violent and completely absorbing German thriller has split critics and audiences alike into two distinct groups.  Those who respond to DAS EXPERIMENT see it as a profound psychological study while those who donít tend to dismiss it as wannabe Hollywood fodder.  I like to think of it as the type of movie Hollywood would make if it had any balls.  Itís as thrilling as just about any movie youíll see, and has a romance, resourceful heroes and hissable villains--just like a Hollywood flick.  But this story of ordinary folks divided into prisoners and guards within a nightmarish research facility has a much deeper psychological dimension than most Hollywood product, not to mention a horrifically convincing trajectory.  Inspired by an actual late-60ís study that was abruptly called off when the ďguardsĒ turned violently fascistic; what might have happened had the experiment been allowed to continue?  See this movie and find out.

4. FRAILTY
Itís great to see that amongst all the worthless sequels and tired retreads there are still some good horror films being made in America.  FRAILTY marks a brilliant directorial debut by the veteran actor Bill Paxton (youíve seen him in supporting roles in everything from THE TERMINATOR to TITANIC), who has created a scary, disturbing and horrifically original twist on the Southern Gothic formula popularized by scribes like Flannery OíConnor.  Those are pretty formidable shoes to fill, but Paxton manages it in this account of a Texas lad terrorized by his psychotic father, who goads him and his little brother into killing folks the old man sees as demons.  Matthew McConoughey plays the kid as an adult, still carrying on his fatherís crusade.  The multiple twist endings I could have done without, but they canít diminish the peerlessly nightmarish ambiance created by Paxton and his collaborators.

5. THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS
Japanese dementoid Takashi Miike is currently the hottest thing on the cult movie scene, and after experiencing this one of a kind splatter-musical (along with other Miike extravaganzas like AUDITION, DEAD OR ALIVE and ICHII THE KILLER) I can fully understand why.  Itís the story of a Japanese clan, the Katakuris, trying to run a country inn, a task complicated by the fact that all their tenants have a habit of dying as soon as they check in!  Sex, violence, slapstick comedy and outrageous musical numbers mesh in a film that pretty much defines Over the Top.

6. ONE HOUR PHOTO
A first class example of the ď___ from HellĒ subgenre so dear to Hollywood (see FATAL ATTRACTION, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE and quite a few others).  In this extremely accomplished indie, the Hell spawn is a severely disturbed, possibly psychotic yet outwardly charming drug store photo developer who worms his insidious way into a suburban familyís life.  Robin Williams is shockingly good in the central role; he and director Mark Romanek manage to have it both ways, creating a protagonist whoís sympathetic and menacing, as well as a singularly creepy film experience.

7. DAGON
Iíd pretty much written off Stuart Gordon, the brains behind wonderful gross-outs like RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, who regrettably seemed to have lost his way in recent years with bummers like CASTLE FREAK and SPACE TRUCKERS.  Turns out, however, that heís still in the game; DAGON is a wild, crazy, fast-moving H.P. Lovecraft adaptation with gore, rampaging fish people and an ancient aquatic deity.  While far from perfect, this film works extremely well most of the time, and has a GREAT ending.  

8. DOG SOLDIERS
Along with DAGON, this English werewolf freak-out is the yearís most satisfying exercise in retro drive-in movie fun.  It doesnít earn too many points for complexity or originality (at least for anyone whoís seen THE HOWLING, SOUTHERN COMFORT, PREDATOR or STRAW DOGS), but the premise--soldiers versus werewolves (which pretty much sums up the entire movie)--is an irresistible one.  Writer-director Neil Marshall keeps the action furious and the blood flowing in a flick that is literally impossible not to enjoy.

9. FEMME FATALE
Like Stuart Gordon, Brian DePalma was a great filmmaker who seems to have lost his way in recent years.  This empty headed erotic thriller, his latest exercise in style over substance, doesnít exactly reverse the trend, but it is kinda fun.  Itís essentially a wallow in DePalmaís career-long obsessions: hot chicks, illicit sex, voyeurism (itís no surprise that one of the leads is a photographer), murder and enough ingeniously tricky camerawork to make your head spin.  Thereís also a hallucinatory edge to the proceedings that reminded me of MULHOLLAND DRIVE, my favorite film of last year, but then again, such a comparison would be giving FEMME FATALE far too much credit.

10. PANIC ROOM
David Fincher, one of the most innovative and brilliant filmmakers on the scene (see SEVEN and FIGHT CLUB if you donít believe me), was slumming with this big studio thriller, but he still managed to work in quite a few innovations that are already being copied by other filmmakers.  The story has Jodie Foster being terrorized in the panic room of her luxurious NYC apartment by bad guys.  Writer David Koepp works in a number of novel twists--Jodie has a kid with diabetes, the bad guys have a dissenter in their ranks, she somehow ends up in the apartment with the baddies locked in the panic room, etc.--making for an above-average time waster.

11. TED BUNDY
The latest in the serial killer biopic craze that also includes ED GEIN and DAHMER.  This look at the life and crimes of the most notorious serial killer in U.S. history takes us from Bundyís early career as a small-time shoplifter right up to his 1989 execution via electric chair.  Thereís little in the way of psychological insight, and the film is hampered by what was clearly a painfully low budget, but it has a undeniable ghoulish fascination.  Written and directed by Matthew Bright (FREEWAY), who doesnít shy away from the nasty stuff (meaning this is one film that is NOT for everyone).

12. DRACULA: PAGES FROM A YOUNG VIRGINČS DIARY
Winnipegís Guy Maddin is one of the worldís four or five most original filmmakers, and this is his latest film.  A typically idiosyncratic 70-minute take on DRACULA, itís done in Maddinís signature mock silent movie style, complete with scratched up black and white film stock, irises, hilariously anachronistic intertitles, etc.  But itís also a ballet, an art form Iíve never been too crazy about, and all the leaping and dancing left me cold.  The film is worth seeing for Maddin fans (which I most certainly am), and is an improvement over his last feature, 1997ís blah TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS, but a fast forward button is essential.

13. HERA PURPLE: DEVIL GODDESS
Misogynistic sex-horror silliness from Korea thatís very much in the mold of such Asian exploiters as ENTRAILS OF THE VIRGIN, LADY TERMINATOR and NAKED KILLER.  Itís about a housewife who, hypnotized by a shrink, reveals sheís possessed by the ancient Greek devil goddess Hera, under whose influence she periodically picks up men and screws Ďem to death.  Plenty of soft core fucking and gore follow, in a film intended by its director to ďtear away and plow through any and all (sexual) taboos in my country.Ē  Fun stuff, but your enjoyment will ultimately depend on your tolerance for extreme stupidity (obviously, mine is pretty high).

14. INSOMNIA
Iím not particularly taken with this remake of a 1997 Norwegian thriller that I was never all that crazy about to begin with.  As I remember I found the earlier film, about a murder investigation in a sun-drenched northern region, pretty conventional beneath its bravura surface.  This Hollywood remake follows the original pretty closely, and so has the same problem.  Still, it deserves credit for its complex and conflicted protagonist (Al Pacino), its equally intriguing villain (Robin Williams in his second great non-comedic performance of 2002), and for the fact that it held my interest throughout.

15. SIGNS
The latest moneymaking machine by THE SIXTH SENSE'S M. Night Shyamalan.  Youíve most likely seen this flick, so thereís no point going into the plot; Iíll just say that I enjoyed most of it, and there are a couple of GREAT scares.  The bumfart ending, though, definitely could have used some work (ponder this: if the evil alien beasties looking to take over the earth are repelled by wetness, then why bother with a planet thatís over 70 percent water?).

16. BLADE 2
Thereís no story to speak of in this hyper-violent sequel to 1998ís smash hit BLADE, but it excels in spectacularly gruesome imagery and frenzied action.  The director was the Spanish madman Guillermo Del Toro, of CRONOS and THE DEVILíS BACKBONE fame, who brings his uniquely European sensibility to the proceedings.  I just wish Del Toro also brought along the wit and intelligence of his earlier films, as neither is evident here.  

Okay.  Those are my Best Horror Movies.  Now itís time for...  


THE YEARíS WORST HORROR MOVIES:

 

1. GHOST SHIP
Laughable, imbecilic, absolutely bone-headed big studio BS that tries to relocate THE SHINING to an old ship.  Like most Hollywood horror flicks these days, it puts its trust in special effects (which in this case arenít even that cool) to the exclusion of all else.

2. FEAR DOT COM
Many have criticized this messy, cheap and incoherent flick for its disturbing imagery, while a few (very few!) others have praised its atmospheric photography.  Neither factor registered with me, as I was merely anxious throughout for it to be OVER!  The only enjoyment I had was in noting the many, many movies it rips off: HELLRAISER, POLTERGEIST, THE CELL, KILL BABY KILL, SEVEN, INFERNO, THE MATRIX and countless others. 

3. THE RING
Itís inconceivable to me that THE RING has become such a big hit, as itís not merely bad but insulting.  Itís a remake, after all, of a Japanese film that was near perfect to begin with; the premise--teens get a hold of a video that, once watched, causes the viewer to die a week later--was a grabber, while the storyís (intentional) ambiguities only made it that much more compelling.  The makers of this version err in trying to explain pretty much everything the original left unsaid, ending up with a vastly overdone and plain annoying film that overstays its welcome by at least a half-hour.

4. THE MOTHMAN PROPHESIES
This could be a new bad movie classic; itís certainly wildly (and unintentionally) funny, as Richard Gere, egged on by psychic ďmothmen,Ē tries to save folks from a collapsing bridge.  The film, adapted from John Keelís allegedly nonfiction book, actually takes its supernatural premise seriously.  What I want to know is if these mothmen were real then where were the Hell were they on 9/11/01???

5. BELOW
I apologize to anyone who sat through this one based on my anticipatory recommendation, but I think I was justified in expecting more from this undersea chiller by director David Twohy (PITCH BLACK) and co-writer Darren Aronofsky (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) than the hokey melange of cheap scares and submarine movie cliches (these guys have clearly studied DAS BOOT!) theyíve turned out.

6. RED DRAGON
I canít believe so many mainstream critics praised this cynical and unnecessary remake of Michael Mannís MANHUNTER, adapted from Thomas Harrisí classic 1983 tome.  Audiences, for once, seemed to know better, as evinced by RDís disappointing box-office returns.  Yes, Mannís 1986 film is dated in many ways, most notably its 80ís pop tunes, but remains leagues ahead of this Brett (RUSH HOUR) Ratner production.  In place of Mannís chilling low-key approach, Ratner has substituted excessive sentimentality and far too many telegraphed scares.  Worse, screenwriter Ted Tally has made the central character, played by the usually reliable Edward Norton, way too nice a guy (in direct contrast to the intentions of Harris, which were faithfully interpreted by Mann), and even has the nerve to throw in a ludicrous shock climax that wasnít in the novel.

7. WENDIGO
If John Cassavettes made horror movies, theyíd look like the films of Larry Fessenden.  I strongly doubt, however, that Cassevettes would make anything this lame.  WENDIGO is about a suburban family vacationing in upstate New York who come into contact with the eponymous otherworldly critter.  Fessendenís jittery handheld camerawork, heavily improvised dialogue and naturalistic atmosphere are compelling (just as they were in his previous films NO TELLING and HABIT), but they canít save a story that promises much yet ultimately delivers very little.  And the Wendigo, once it shambles into view, is about as scary as, well, a guy draped in a rug with a horned helmet on his head (a fairly literal description of what weíre shown).

8. REFLECTIONS OF EVIL
This shot-on-video epic by underground filmmaker Damon Packard had a unique distribution pattern: DVD copies were given out for free at various L.A. locations.  That doesnít surprise me, as ROE is little more than an ass-numbing 137 minutes(!) of NOTHING.  To be fair, it does have some striking moments (such as an apocalyptic walk down a street lined with barking dogs, fighting people and helicopters circling overhead), but theyíre ultimately cancelled out by endless and repetitive footage of Packard schlepping around city streets and annoying people, who more often than not try and beat him up.  After sitting though this obnoxious swirl of self-indulgence, I know how they feel!

9. DAHMER
I gave DAHMER a nod in my ďProgress ReportĒ a few months back, but thinking back on it Iíve decided to change my vote.  An overly artsy account of the life and crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer, itís well made (with good photography, acting, editing, etc.), but the approach is all wrong.  Seeing as how Dahmerís crimes were so horrendous, I donít see the wisdom of its subdued depiction that leaves out most of the gory details--if the filmmakerís wonít tell the whole story then why bother at all?  The narrative tends to jump around in time, another decision I find inexplicable, as it denies us what is possibly the most horrifying aspect of Jeffrey Dahmerís odyssey: his sheer, unholy progression from screwed-up young man to cannibalistic mass murderer.  Ultimately the film isnít much better than the tawdry 1993 straight-to-video production THE SECRET LIFE: JEFFREY DAHMER (which, FYI, was recently released on DVD).

10. RESIDENT EVIL
Iíd think it would be impossible to go wrong with a movie featuring zombies, gore, big guns, the apocalypse and a scantily clad Milla Jovovich, but writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson manages it in this aggressively noisy and obnoxious PC game adaptation.  Like most Hollywood movies these days, itís so terminally empty-headed I forgot most of it upon exiting the theater last Spring.  Nowadays, all I really remember is a (seemingly unintentional) glimpse of Millaís coochie near the end.  

And so (thankfully!) ends the Worst-of-the-Year list.  Now for some miscellaneous categories:
 

The Yearís Best Horror DVD's:  

VIVA LA MUERTE
&
I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE
These crazy, surreal, horrific, absurd and outrageous seventies masterworks by the Spanish playwright/novelist/sometime filmmaker Fernando Arrabal are two of the FREAKIEST flicks of all time, and their long-awaited arrival on DVD, courtesy of Cult Epics, is a major event, as far as Iím concerned.  The resounding silence that greeted their releases in late Ď02 was dispiriting, but Iím counting on interest to build steadily.  Youíd certainly be hard-pressed to find ANYTHING comparable to the sight of a guy dressing up in his motherís lingerie and giving birth to a human skull (from I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE).  Or a woman squatting atop a giant cage taking a dump on her husband standing inside (from VIVA LA MUERTE).  A kid flooding a town by taking a whiz off the edge of a lighthouse (MUERTE).  A blasphemous wedding performed by a lamb and a court comprised of bewigged cows (I WILL WALK...).  The only possible comparisons to these mind-blowers are the peerlessly loopy films of Alejandro Jodorowsky (who, no surprise, was once a cohort of Arrabal, and even based his first film FANDO AND LIS on a play by the great man).  Both DVDs feature widescreen/subtitled versions of the respective films (a BIG improvement over the crappy unsubtitled bootlegs Iíve had to make do with for so many years) and wonderfully wigged interviews with an obviously plastered Arrabal.

Other great horror DVDís from 2002: AUDITION, MAN BITES DOG, BLOOD FREAK (a MUST see!), BLIND BEAST (likewise!), HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, CAT PEOPLE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET, THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (no special features, though), HITCH HIKE, TWILIGHT OF ICE NYMPHS (which includes two feature films and a short), THE DEVILíS BACKBONE
 

Best Horror-Themed TV program:  

9/11
A truly amazing document, a video made by two French filmmakers that began as a documentary about NYC firefighters but ended up as something else entirely when one fateful day their camera unexpectedly filmed a plane flying into the World Trade Center.  What follows takes us to the bottom floor of one of the towers as the other collapses and to the resulting devastation on 9/12.  If this doesnít scare you, nothing will.

 

Worst Horror-Themed TV program:  

ROSE RED
This lousy Stephen King-scripted miniseries once again proves the old adage that Steve ďcouldnít write a script to save his soul.Ē  It concerns a buncha folks investigating a haunted house, where theyíre besieged by a shitload of lame CGI effects.  Originally supposed to have been produced by Steven Spielberg, and nearly as awful as the latterís 1999 HAUNTING remake.


Best Documentary:

HELL HOUSE
About a Christian run Halloween maze in Texas set up to literally scare the Hell out of its patrons.  Director George Ratliff takes us through the preparation and construction of Hell House, culminating in its October Ď00 opening night, where guests were greeted with depictions of suicides, drug overdoses, botched abortions and the horrors of AIDS.  A thought-provoking and admirably non-judgmental film that truly must be seen to be believed.

 

Best Non-Horror Movie:  

NAQOYQATSI
A stunning indictment of mankindís over-reliance on technology that, like its predecessors KOAANISQATSI and POWAQQATSI, utilizes hypnotic imagery and superb Philip Glass music in place of a traditional narrative and dialogue.  Itís been heavily criticized for director Godfrey Reggioís unrelentingly pessimistic worldview, but I found its apocalyptic arc potent and even refreshing in light of the smug, empty-headed nihilism of so many recent movies (THE RULES OF ATTRACTION, anyone?).  By far the yearís most visionary and unprecedented achievement.


Horror movies I did NOT see...and have NO plans to:

JASON X, HALLOWEEN RESURRECTION, HELLRAISER 5, AMERICAN PSYCHO 2, QUEEN OF THE DAMNED and anything with ďWes Craven PresentsĒ in the title!


M.I.A. Horror Movies

(Worthy films that, for various unfathomable reasons, remain unreleased):  

BUBBA HO-TEP, TROUBLE EVERY DAY, THE ISLE (which, like the former film, was supposed to have been released in Ď02 but never showed up!), CHARLIEíS FAMILY, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, IRREVERSIBLE--where are they???
 

And Finally:  

Letís take a look at some of the yearís other great movies.  They may not be horror movies, but theyíre definitely close:

DEATH TO SMOOCHY
Dueling kid show hosts, dildo cookies, ice skating Nazis and a kiddie sing-along called ďMy stepdadís not mean, heís just adjustingĒ!  

AUTO FOCUS
Paul Schraderís disturbing look at the deranged life and obsessions of HOGANíS HEROESí porn-obsessed star Bob Crane, superbly played by Greg Kinnear.

THE DIARIES OF VASLAV NIJNSKY
A hallucinatory collage depicting the disturbed inner world of the schizophrenic Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky; an extremely demanding film, but quite fascinating nonetheless.

ARARAT Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyanís multi-layered, endlessly thought-provoking account of the WWI massacre of thousands of Armenians by Turkish soldiers.

SCARLET DIVA
A wonderfully excessive X-rated swirl of autobiographical self-indulgence written/directed by and starring Asia Argento, Darioís little girl.

GANGSTER NUMBER ONE An ultra-violent British mob movie that includes one of the most upsetting torture-murders Iíve ever seen.

SECRETARY A surprisingly potent, darkly comic look at a sadomasochistic relationship with a pitch perfect, full-bodied (pun intended!) performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS I found the first Harry Potter movie deadlier than deadly, but sorta got a kick out of this much darker sequel, which has giant spiders, monster trees and a story that plays like a kid friendly production of Bram Stokerís LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM.

___ ___


            And so my second annual year-end review comes to an end.  Hope you enjoyed it. 

            What is there to look forward to in 2003?  Well, along with the possibility of increased terrorist attacks, we have a shitload of remakes (Iím not sure which option has me feeling more apprehensive), with new versions of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and DAWN OF THE DEAD, an EXORCIST prequel and the dreaded, long-in-the-works JASON VS. FREDDIE.  Letís hope some invigorating and original films manage to slip through, just as they did in í02, and that somebody finally picks up BUBBA HO-TEP for release!

 


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