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2005: The Year in HORROR

 

It’s now January ’06, meaning 2005 is officially over.  It was an interesting year, chock full of natural disasters, political scandals, a seemingly never-ending war, at least one shocking counterculture celebrity suicide and, of course, lots of horror movies.  

     ‘05 was also the year of the big Box Office Slump, which popular opinion blames on the quality, or lack thereof, of the year’s movies.  Funny, as I found the movies of 2005 above average overall, at least compared with those of other recent years.  World class filmmakers like David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam, George Romero, Roman Polanski, Takashi Miike, Chanwook Park, Robert Rodriguez and Peter Jackson all had films released in 2005, and most were top notch.  Of course, ‘05 also saw the release of quite a few downright shitty films, not to mention many everyone-liked-‘em-but-me horror flicks: UNDEAD, KONTROLL, DEAD BIRDS, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE, HELLBENT and SAW II.  Why did I dislike those films?  See below. 

     The following encompasses my picks for the year’s best and worst horror films released in the US, theatrically or on DVD (advance screenings and film festival showings don’t count), and includes recommended non-genre and DVD releases, as well as an overview of Showtime’s MASTERS OF HORROR anthology series.  As always, several eligible films managed to slip by me this year, including WHITE NOISE, CRY WOLF, CHAOS, DEAD AND BREAKFAST, ETERNAL, BOO and LIGHTING BUG.  I can’t see everything, but did my best to make this year’s listings as thorough as possible.  Let’s start with...

 

The Best Horror Movies of 2005:

1.  A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
David Cronenberg’s latest was apparently intended as a transition from his recent artsy features to a more audience-friendly style, and the story, adapted from a graphic novel, is standard stuff in many ways, a bit like TOTAL RECALL without the sci fi wraparound.  The film, however, is ultimately every bit as dark and strange as CRASH or SPIDER.  Far from a conventional thriller, it’s an unnerving exploration of the dark impulses lurking within a seemingly contented family man...and by extension you and I.  Viggo Mortensen superbly essays said character, a coffee shop owner who brutally puts down two killers in a sequence that adroitly undercuts all the conventions of standard movie violence in its astonishingly graphic bloodletting, and the way Cronenberg refrains from providing a cathartic flourish (rather, the sequence concludes with a gruesome close-up of a victim’s splattered face).  The film continues in that vein, with a deceptively quiet atmosphere periodically broken by bursts of unnerving brutality as we’re made aware that Mortensen is actually a hitman with some outstanding debts that need to be put in order.  How this knowledge impacts his family and surrounding community provides the bulk of the narrative; in the end it’s left to us to decide whether Mortensen has managed to reconcile his violent impulses with his quiet suburban life.  A nasty, tension filled work, but also a deeply thought-provoking one that raises quite a few uncomfortable questions about aggression, family ties, the nature of evil and life itself.  One of Cronenberg’s best. 

2.  SIN CITY
I don’t believe it!  A comic book inspired movie that, for once, retains all the style, artistry and sheer outrageousness of its source material.  Even more surprisingly, it was directed by Robert Rodriguez, who I’ll confess I’d pretty much written off after those crummy SPY KIDS movies and the absolutely awful ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO.  SIN CITY was adapted from a series of graphic novels written and illustrated by Frank Miller, who co-directed the film.  Inspired by the film noir movies of the forties, Miller’s work is rendered in incredibly stark black and white illustrations that wallow in violence and mayhem, pushing any number of noir clichés to their most psychotic extremes.  All that nastiness has been transposed virtually intact to the film, which features more acts of violence than just about any other recent movie I can think of.  At the same time, though, it plays more like an art film than a traditional actioner, with insanely stylized black and white imagery dotted with carefully chosen splashes of color.  The results are fascinating and appropriately over-the-top, and come complete with a large cast--Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson, Brittany Murphy, Bruce Willis, Michael Madsen, Josh Hartnett, Rutger Hauer, Elijah Wood and Carla Gugino--who clearly understand and appreciate the tone of the piece.  If I have a complaint (a muted one, rectified on the DVD), it’s with the distracting three part structure that tries to emulate PULP FICTION...and no surprise, as Quentin Tarantino was a “guest director”.  Still, taken as a whole the movie really works, satisfying both the art film aesthete in me as well as the exploitation movie sicko. 

3.  OLDBOY
Korean horror/mystery/martial arts madness, an astonishing sensory assault and certainly one of the wildest, most outrageous movies I’ve ever seen.  It entertains through writer/director Chanwook Park’s sheer cinematic virtuosity, but his filmmaking also has a sense of playfulness that makes it a joy to watch.  The story is totally nuts from start to finish, being the undisciplined, ever-mutating account of a dude who’s locked up for fifteen years in a tiny room for no reason he can fathom.  He eventually breaks out and goes in search of his captors, an odyssey that becomes increasingly violent and surreal.  There’s a strong indication this all might be taking place entirely in the protagonist’s head, which would certainly explain the wackiness and implausibility of the story...not that I really cared, as there’s so much shock, bewilderment, surprise and sheer amazement to be had from OLDBOY. 

4.  IZO
A new Takashi Miike film that seems to have divided audiences even more than his work usually does: some proclaim it a surreal masterwork while others have written it off as pretentious cinemasturbation.  I’m definitely with the former camp, though I will concede the film’s haters may not be entirely wrong in categorizing it as complete nonsense.  If IZO is indeed that, however, it’s fascinating nonsense that’s already inspired several repeat viewings.  It’s even weirder than GOZU, Miike’s previous subconscious gorefest, and indeed pretty much anything else you can think of.  The ostensible storyline has Izo, a samurai, crucified by his enemies, but somehow he’s brought back to life and becomes caught in a time warp that thrusts him back and forth between feudal Japan and the here-and-now, during which he confronts past and present foes in a series of blood-drenched confrontations he always survives.  That’s a broad outline of this film’s hallucinatory narrative, the particulars of which will have to be sorted out by individual viewers.  Much blood is shed, with countless bodies beheaded, halved and quartered.  There’s also an entire sequence filmed upside-down and the most audacious use of CGI I think I’ve seen in any film.  Audacious is the key word here: Miike is willing to try virtually anything, and, as in his other films (his good ones, that is), creates an atmosphere that fully supports such stream-of-consciousness insanity. 

5.  THE DEVIL’S REJECTS
Rob Zombie’s sequel to his vastly overrated HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS is in every sense a superior film, but also an appreciably more vile, satanic and flat out disgusting one.  It’s an affront to taste, decency, cleanliness, Christianity and the FCC--is it any wonder I enjoyed it so much?  Amidst all the obnoxious PG-rated horror littering movieplexes, I find it downright refreshing the way Zombie so gleefully pushes his R rating with oodles of sex, sadism and foulness.  I also liked the way the film doesn’t merely aspire to the level of seventies-sploiters like THE CANDY SNATCHERS and THE HILLS HAVE EYES but actually channels their low rent essence, down to the handheld camerawork and choppy editing that uneasily juxtaposes wide shots with extreme close-ups.  It opens with a brutal shootout led by William Forsythe as a corrupt cop looking to take down the “Devil’s Rejects,” a family of psychos led by the deranged Captain Howdy (played by seventies exploitation stalwart Sid Haig--other cast members include Zombie’s sweetie Sherrie Moon, HELTER SKELTER’S Steve Railsback, THREE’S COMPANY’S Priscilla Barnes, DAWN OF THE DEAD’S Ken Foree, HALLOWEEN’S P.J. Soles and EATING RAOUL’S Mary Woronov).  The shootout only nabs a few of the rejects--the rest embark on a killing rampage with Forsythe in hot pursuit.  The Rejects here are the good guys (something that has deeply upset many critics), although Zombie cleverly plays with our sympathy throughout, particularly toward the end, with the standard lone-girl-pursued-by-a-maniac climax inverted by our knowledge that the girl is actually several times more maniacal than her attacker!

6.  LAND OF THE DEAD
While not the end-all zombie masterpiece the pre-release publicity made it out to be, George Romero’s latest living dead extravaganza is a blast, a gore-on-the-floor epic with a scope that dwarfs those of all his previous films.  Zombies, it seems, have completely overrun the world, and a crazed millionaire, (over)played by Dennis Hopper, has created a self enclosed society where the wealthy can take shelter.  The zombies, however, begin to organize themselves into a fighting unit, and all Hell breaks loose.  Despite its massive scale, this film has the same B-movie feel as Romero’s previous work; that’s not a bad thing, mind you, as his films are among the most important genre movies of the past century.  LAND OF THE DEAD, alas, has a somewhat rushed feel to it, with perfunctory characterizations, quite a few underdeveloped plot points and a rather disappointing climax.  I had a damn good time nonetheless with all the action and scares, an astounding gore quotient that dwarfs those of the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake and 28 DAYS LATER combined, and Romero’s honest-to-goodness political conscience.  Best line: John Leguizamo as a mercenary getting bitten by a zombie and observing how he’s “always wanted to see how the other half lives.”

7.  THEY CAME BACK  [LES REVENANTS]
In direct contrast to the above, not a whole lot actually happens in this French zombie fest, but it’s still an incredibly vivid exercise in otherworldly disquiet.  The setting is a small town beset by dead folks who, as the title makes clear, come back.  These aren’t the traditional flesh-chompers of Romero and Fulci, but vacant-eyed, slow moving freaks who are allowed to uneasily intermix with live humans.  First time director Robin Campillo gets a lot of mileage out of the sheer sense of wrongness engendered by the sight of people who should be worm food walking around and rubbing shoulders with the living, and makes many potent socio-political points.  But the film works best, I believe, as a straightforward (if eccentric) creep fest, superbly made and dripping with atmosphere.   

8.  SIXTEEN TONGUES
Being the sick bastard I am, I couldn’t help but enjoy the Hell out of this demented fever dream from no-budget auteur Scooter McRae.  I was never too impressed with McRae’s debut film, the artsy zombie mash SHATTER DEAD (1993), but SIXTEEN TONGUES is something else: an unrestrained cyberpunk splatter fest of the type we’re used to seeing from Asia.  Like SHATTER DEAD, this project was shot on video with an outrageously low budget, but by the end those were only minor annoyances.  The story features Adrian Torque, a disfigured cop who’s lost much of his skin but has had it replaced with flesh from various peoples’ tongues, and Ginny Chin-Chin, an Asian babe with clitorises implanted under her eyelids to keep her violent impulses at bay.  These two nutcases, together with Ginny’s lover Alice, who spends her days plugging herself into an electrical outlet, enact a rage-and-lust fuelled psychodrama in a futuristic hotel where porn is omnipresent.  Thus viewers who aren’t offended by the copious bloodletting, metal penis blowjobs, near constant full frontal nudity, graphic S&M scenes (shot in an actual B&D club), electrocutions and ejaculating blood (don’t ask) will no doubt be put off by all the pornographic imagery visible on TV sets and posters pinned everywhere.  No, SIXTEEN TONGUES definitely ain’t for everybody, but those who can take it will find a surprisingly thoughtful, artfully made descent into cyber madness, with a superbly realized atmosphere of sordidness and sleaze. 

9.  BATMAN BEGINS
For once the hype is correct: this Batman prequel, detailing the caped crusader’s early years, is damn good, packed with style, intelligence, excitement and heart.  Finally, a film that puts the DARK into the Dark Knight, with Christian Bale delivering a pitch-perfect performance as the tortured Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman, who embarks on a crime fighting spree in the wake of his parents’ brutal murders.  Gary Oldman offers memorable support in a rare good guy part and Katie Holmes isn’t nearly as awful as I was expecting in the obligatory girlfriend role.  The director was MEMENTO’S Christopher Nolan, who once again proves himself a filmmaker of uncommon refinement and skill (although the overly chaotic action scenes leave something to be desired).  The film looks great and has a fantastic James Newton Howard score that thankfully forsakes the Danny Elfman goofiness of the previous films (let me just add here that I really wish people would stop pretending Tim Burton’s ’89 BATMAN is some kind of masterpiece--it ain’t!).  For that matter, it leaves the nonsensical comic book stylings of most of this type of fare far behind, and good riddance!

10.  KING KONG
This Peter Jackson special effects spectacle is a beautifully made, deeply felt tribute to one of the most enduring genre icons of all time.  It’s also agonizingly protracted and self-indulgent.  Certainly the concept of a new wave monster mash is a good one, and Jackson is definitely the guy to do it.  His CGI Kong is probably the most expressive movie monster I’ve ever seen, and KK’s battles with dinosaurs on Skull Island and final rampage through New York City are wonders to behold.  Also, Naomi Watts is quite appealing in the Fay Wray role.  But this is unlikely material for a three-hour epic, and Jackson pads the film mercilessly; there are far too many seemingly never-ending Kong-Watts stare downs, and the Empire State building finale drags on for what seems like eons, to the point that when Kong finally expired I was relieved the thing was finally over.  Somehow I don’t think that was the reaction Jackson, despite his valiant intentions, had in mind. 

11.  THE ROOST
This horror no-budgeter, from executive producer Larry Fessenden (of HABIT and WENDIGO fame) and first time writer-director Ti West, isn’t exactly original.  In fact there’s nothing in it that isn’t a cliché, but it’s done with such gusto I was more than willing to go along with it.  The narrative pivots on that most hackneyed of horror movie happenings, the car filled with horny teens breaking down in a rural area.  It transpires that a brood of vampire bats are loose nearby, leading to a skilled and effective mélange of shocks, laughs and grue.  I don’t know that I liked the black and white wraparound bits, with Tom Noonan as a Zachary-esque TV host who introduces and at one point interrupts the proceedings.  These scenes add little to the film outside a gratuitous post-modern angle meant, apparently, to gussy up the admittedly simple-minded narrative.  Thankfully, West manages to close out the Noonan bits--and the film itself--with a satisfying jolt, which almost makes up for the annoyance they cause.   

12.  CACHE
Austria’s Michael Haneke is one of the least compromising filmmakers on the planet.  His movies, which include THE PIANO TEACHER, FUNNY GAMES, TIME OF THE WOLF and this singularly bleak thriller, are frankly arty exercises in alienation and disconnection, yet Haneke is as schematic in his approach as Hitchcock.  The difference is that, while Hitch liked to “play the audience like a piano”, Haneke’s apparent aim is simply to fuck with his viewers.  That’s evident in CACHE’S torturously long takes where, often, nothing really happens, and then when something finally does occur it’s in a part of the frame we can’t see.  But prospective viewers shouldn’t get too comfortable with the nonaction, as Haneke has a tendency toward jarring cuts from darkness to light, silence to noise...and to sudden bursts of violence.  Indeed, CACHE contains what is without a doubt the single most shocking moment in any film this year (and had the upscale audience I viewed it with nearly climbing the walls).  The story?  It involves Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil as a bourgeoisie couple who begin receiving video tapes on their doorstep that show lengthy shots of the outside of their house.  As the tapes proliferate, their marriage begins to crumble and Auteuil has to face up to a long-buried secret.  Of course, that’s essentially the premise of David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY, which brings up the main beef I have with Haneke: that his films, despite their arty European pedigree, are fundamentally not that different from most American horror flicks, this one especially.

13.  SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE  [BOKSUNEUN NAUI GEOT]
Although OLDBOY hit US theaters first, Chanwook Park’s SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE was made earlier.  In direct contrast to the aforementioned film, this one is a bit too labored for its own good.  It’s still powerful stuff, being a wildly stylish account of a kind-hearted but none-too-bright deaf man’s efforts to finance his dying sister’s kidney transplant.  He unwisely casts his lot with a band of illegal organ peddlers, with disastrous results.  This leads him to enact a hideous revenge, but not before he’s committed an even dumber act: kidnapping the young daughter of a wealthy CEO.  Unfortunately for the protagonist, the girl drowns on his watch, his sister commits suicide and the kid’s distraught father decides to enact his own brand of revenge…which turns out to be even uglier than the one visited on the organ sellers.  As you might have guessed, this is EXTREMELY morose, graphically violent stuff that takes the notorious brutality of Park’s previous non-genre effort JSA (which also had its US debut this year) to unheard-of extremes.  I only wish Park weren’t so hung up on self conscious stylization, which often makes this film a chore to watch.

14.  WOLF CREEK
This Australian exploiter is another hard and nasty throwback to the genre flicks of the seventies, and one of the year’s better examples of such (at least until the ending), utilizing handheld camerawork and naturalistic lighting to continually startling effect.  Based on a real incident that occurred in 1999, the premise is a natural for an exploitation flick: a guy and two chicks on a trip through the Australian outback where--whouldn’t’cha know it?--their car breaks down.  A seemingly kindly resident shows up to lend them a hand (or so he claims), leading to an incredibly intense series of escapes, captures and bloodletting of the hard-R variety.  It’s all superbly carried off, and the acting is definitely above average; for once, the three protagonists actually seem like real people (thankfully, there are no SMALLVILLE cast members here!).  The one false note occurs at the end, when, after all the over-the-top nastiness, the film unexpectedly veers into Court TV mode, detailing the real, none-too-dramatic outcome.  This is pointless, considering most of the preceding action was obviously based on conjecture (no bodies, after all, were ever found), and feels like a cynical concession to something called the “True Crime Channel”, which was one of the film’s principal backers.  Good movie, crappy ending.

15.  WAR OF THE WORLDS
In WAR OF THE WORLDS Steven Spielberg is back in a mean mood, forsaking the mawkish sentimentality of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T. in favor of the relentlessness of DUEL and JAWS.  By keeping the focus narrow--on deadbeat father Tom Cruise and his two kids, as opposed to the multi-character ensemble of something like INDEPENDANCE DAY--Spielberg really brings out the horror-movie aspects of H.G. Welles’ classic tale of alien invasion, complete with wholesale destruction, mass anarchy and even a SOPHIE’S CHOICE-like decision Cruise has to make between his two brats.  And yes, all references to 9/11 are strictly intentional!  In my view this PG-13 rated flick could have used a bit more gore and slime (a la STARSHIP TROOPERS), and the tacked on happy ending is dispiriting, but it doesn’t blunt the nastiness of all that came before. 

16.  MAREBITO
I’m honestly not sure what to make of this film, part of the year’s J-horror movie explosion.  Directed by Takashi Shimizu (of JU-ON and its Hollywood remake), it’s a seriously weird reverie that starts out like an Eastern-styled PEEPING TOM and morphs into a NEAR DARK-like vampire thriller.  Shinya Tsukamoto (the real-life director of TETSUO and many other essential films) plays a cameraman who becomes obsessed with horror and death after he surreptitiously videotapes a man committing suicide.  Rapidly losing his already tenuous grip on reality, Tsukamoto descends into the bowels of the Tokyo subway system and discovers a subterranean world where...but I won’t reveal what he finds, as a large part of the film’s charm is its unpredictability.  Quite simply, it’s impossible to ever guess in what direction the story is going to go.  Adding to the oddness is the way it was shot, on digital video in a distinctly voyeuristic fashion, as if surreptitiously photographing the protagonist’s movements; it makes for an interesting effect, and I really wish Shimizu had done more with it.  No, the film isn’t a complete success by any means, but it is damned intriguing.

17.  GRIMM
This is the first of Dutch filmmaker Alex Van Warmerdam’s films to receive any kind of US release outside the festival circuit, even though the man has been at it nearly twenty years.  GRIMM is a twisted inversion on themes present in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, being the story of a brother and sister left by their impoverished parents to fend for themselves in a scary forest; they end up on a nightmarish journey across Spain, where they meet a number of eccentric people and suffer all manner of indignity, including rape and organ removal.  The film is reminiscent of Matthew Bright’s FREEWAY flicks, but with a dreamy aura and richly textured visuals that are all its own.  It is not, however, Warmerdam’s best work (that distinction, in my mind, would go to his brilliant surreal comedy THE NORTHERNERS), laboring as it does under a deadly middle section, depicting the heroine’s marriage to a rich scumbag, from which it never quite recovers, leading to a “that’s it??” finale. 

18.  RED EYE
Wes Craven partially redeems himself after the disastrous CURSED with this preposterous but enjoyable thriller that has pretty young thang Rachel McAdams menaced by deranged hit man Cilliam Murphy on a plane.  He wants her to use her hotel clerk job to check a diplomat and his family into a seaside room so some guys on a boat can blow ‘em up.  The story is hopelessly ludicrous from start to finish (the screenplay never satisfactorily explains why Murphy doesn’t nab McAdams before the plane takes off, which would have saved a LOT of trouble), but don’t let that put you off.  The film is snappy and fast paced, the actors are game and, at a sprightly 85 minutes, it never overstays its welcome--in other words, it’s everything KING KONG isn’t. 

19.  MIRROR MASK
An eye-popper from screenwriter Neil Gaiman and designer/director Dave McKean, best known for their comic book work but in fact two of the most vital talents in or out of the graphic medium.  Their skills are put to excellent use in this mini-epic, set in an amazing CGI universe that stretches the digital medium to its limits.  It’s just a shame that, with so much imaginative richness on display, Gaiman and McKean couldn’t come up with a more interesting premise than the ALICE IN WONDERLAND-inspired one they’re stuck with about a little girl looking to save her mother’s life.  The opening and closing wrap-around sequences, showing said girl’s life in a traveling circus, flat-out suck pure and simple.  But once the supernatural business starts up the film hits its stride: 15-year-old Stephanie Leonidas is quite enchanting in the lead and the otherworldly creatures and landscapes she encounters are without precedent in fantasy cinema.  The aforementioned ALICE IN WONDERLAND may have been the starting point, but the proceedings are far closer in tone to George MacDonald’s “dream romances” PHANTASTES and LILITH (both influences on ALICE), and indeed the film is authentically dreamlike.  In addition, it’s almost certainly the most accomplished melding I’ve yet seen of live action characters into a purely digital landscape...although I suspect it’ll look old hat in the coming years. 

20.  RENEGADE  [BLUEBERRY]
The year’s premiere guilty pleasure, this is an expensive European production that’s so unbelievably self indulgent, tripped out and plain wrong-headed it feels like something from the late sixties.  Adding to the effect is the multi-lingual cast, which includes “names” like Michael Madsen, Vincent Cassell, Juliette Lewis, Ernest Borgnine, Colm Meany and Tcheky Karyo, all crammed into a chaotic adaptation of the Moebius western comic BLUEBERRY.  It’s safe to say that the film’s lunatic director Jan Kounen (DOBERMANN) leaves his stamp on the material, fashioning a visually impressive swirl of gunplay and psychedelia.  Apparently Kounen set out to make a straightforward Western but then dropped some peyote and was so impacted by the experience he decided to take the material in a different, more psychedelic direction.  This explains (but doesn’t excuse) the fact that the characters are all woefully underdeveloped and the narrative a perfunctory mess.  What stand out are the plentiful hallucinations, which more often than not involve creepy tantacled critters that wouldn’t look out of place in a Stuart Gordon movie.  You won’t find too many other westerns like RENEGADE--it’s definitely the only oater I’ve seen where the hero and villain forego a final shootout in favor of a psychic duel!  Columbia snuck this cinemutation onto DVD in early ’05, complete with generic western movie packaging; I can only imagine how viewers who picked up the movie based on that packaging might have reacted! 

21.  THE CARD PLAYER  [IL CARTAIO]
Dario Argento’s latest is his best in some time, even if it is a far cry from his finest work.  It’s the demented account of a nut who ties attractive women up and then forces the police to play online poker with him; if he wins he kills his captives, but if the cops win he lets them live.  The shapely Stefania Rocca is eye-catching as a police inspector toiling on the case, but lacks the acting chops needed to carry the film.  Thus THE CARD PLAYER lacks a strong center, although Argento works overtime to create a suspenseful creepfest, with wildly kinetic camerawork and a gripping narrative that undergoes quite a few invigorating twists before it’s done.  I have another complaint, this one having to do with the film’s US distributor Anchor Bay, who for some reason deigned to release the film in its original Italian language, instead putting out an English version marred by hideous dubbing and extremely thick Italian accents.  Rocca in particular is nearly incomprehensible...although her vocals do have their charms, particularly when she chastises an attacker by calling him a “worthlez pez’ve sheet!” 

22.  THE FERPECT CRIME  [EL CRIMEN FERPECTO]
The latest film by Spain’s Eloy De La Iglesia, of THE DAY OF THE BEAST, DYING OF LAUGHTER and THE COMMUNITY fame, a typically twisted black comedy about murder, obsession and madness set largely in a big department store.  A dude accidentally kills his asshole boss, which is witnessed by an ugly lady co-worker who’s secretly in love with him; she blackmails him, getting him to shack up with her until he loses his mind completely and decides to off her.  In common with Iglesia’s previous films, it’s filled with extremely broad comedy that works more often than not (hiding the boss’s corpse by outfitting it as a mannequin is a touch I particularly enjoyed) and the film has all the morbid flair that really distinguishes Iglesia’s work.  Something that really annoyed me, however, was US distributor Vitagraph Films’ inexplicable title change, to the generic PERFECT CRIME, whereas the original title THE FERPECT CRIME conveys the film’s loopy charms far more eloquently.  

23.  PULSE  [KAIRO]
One of an avalanche of Kiyoshi Kurosawa films to hit the US in the last couple years, PULSE is an incredibly frustrating experience, a finely crafted, artfully photographed J-horror fest that should be a classic.  Kurosawa demonstrates, not for the first time, that he really knows how to make a horror movie.  He also shows, again not for the first time, that he likes a healthy dose of ambiguity.  Fine, but here it’s difficult to tell how much of that ambiguity was intentional, as the story is often downright incoherent.  It involves an alternate world of ghosts seeping into ours via an unearthly internet program accessed by a group of dopey teens.  There are some truly SCARY bits, but they’re often marred by indulgent direction (example: an apparition appearing in an arcade, all-but-ruined by the fact that the shot is held too long).  Good stuff that had the potential to be great. 

24.  THE EYE 2  [JIAN GUI 2]
The Pang Brothers once again impress with this sequel to their chick-who-sees-ghosts chiller THE EYE.  This film spins a new yarn with familiar themes: a pregnant woman survives a suicide attempt, which enables her to see things nobody else can.  This leads to some genuinely chilling imagery, most notably the sight of a ghost swimming through the air and into a woman’s open legs.  The narrative, alas, never advances much beyond the tried and true ROSEMARY’S BABY formula, and the heroine is a bit unsympathetic--among other annoyances, she tries to kill herself a few too many times.

25.  THREE...EXTREMES
Anthology films tend suck IMO--this one is above average, but still something of a disappointment.  It pairs Korea’s Chanwook Park, of OLDBOY and SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE fame, with Japan’s foremost cinematic madman Takashi Miike.  Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan rounds out the trio, and delivers what is easily the weakest segment, a misogynistic ramble about an evil woman who makes dumplings from the flesh of aborted fetuses.  I understand a feature-length version of this 35-minute film exists, which hopefully rectifies the cluttered narrative.  Park’s segment is next, and it’s the stand-out, a delirious Lynchian nightmare about a moviemaker taken hostage by a psychotic extra from one of his films.  The psycho bounds the director to the wall of a freaked out movie set that looks like the red room from TWIN PEAKS, where the guy’s wife is chained to a piano and stands to get all her fingers chopped off unless her hubbie strangles a kidnapped child.  While this peerlessly demented little film isn’t up to the high standards set by Park’s features, it’s still an unforgettable piece of work that adequately demonstrates its creator’s command of the medium.  I’m not sure what to make of the ending, however, which involves a sudden identity switch...or perceived identity switch...or something.  Speaking of which, Takashi Miike’s segment contains an even more puzzling finale.  Otherwise, though, it’s fairly impressive, being a subtly unnerving account of a woman haunted by a childhood incident in which she shut her sister in a tiny box as part of a circus stunt that went horribly wrong.  Years later she’s haunted by her sister’s ghost...or is she?  The ending, you can be sure, raises more questions than the bulk of the episode.

26.  WALLACE AND GROMIT IN THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT
The first official WALLACE AND GROMIT feature.  I liked the initial W&G shorts by England’s Aardman Studios (which sadly burned to the ground during this film’s opening weekend), but was lukewarm on their feature CHICKEN RUN, which suffered from excessive cutesiness and too many wink-wink movie references.  Guess what?  This film is filled to the brim with both.  Luckily it contains all the energy and imagination we’ve come to expect from Aardman, boasting a nutty story filled with neat science fictionish inventions and state of the art claymation.  Here Wallace performs some kind of mind meld with a bunny, resulting in a “were-rabbit” that devours every crop in sight.  The action, as expected, is fast and furious, particularly in the ultra-intense rooftop-set climax.  I only hope Aardman gets itself up and running again soon, as this film, enjoyable though it is, leaves much room for improvement!

27.  HIGH TENSION  [HAUTE TENSION]
Proof that the French can make horror movies every bit as mindless and silly as those put out by Hollywood.  HIGH TENSION is a PSYCHO/TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE/HITCHER pastiche about two young women staying at one of their family’s homes in the countryside.  A burly psycho breaks in and commences slaughtering everyone in sight in a variety of creatively gruesome ways (i.e. jamming a guy’s neck in a stairway banister and decapitating him with a heavy bureau).  There’s a chase through the countryside, with one of the young women tracking her buddy, who’s been kidnapped by the freak…and there’s a totally unbelievable twist.  Much like its stateside contemporaries, what redeems this terminally stupid film is the energy and enthusiasm with which it was made, along with a cheerful willingness to go clear over the top in the gore department. 

28.  HELLAVATOR: THE BOTTLED FOOLS  [GUSHA NO BINDUME]
From Japan, a wacky sci fi/horror flick about a bunch of disparate people trapped in a vast elevator when two homicidal prisoners board, whose presence turns the proceedings into a gory free-for-all.  The art direction is bold and imaginative, achieved on what was clearly a very tight budget, and director Hiroki Yamaguchi has a strikingly off-kilter visual style (and doesn’t skimp on the red stuff!).  Overall the film has a verve and energy that favorably recall cult classics like TETSUO and PINOCCHIO 964.  Less enchanting is the cluttered narrative, which insists on introducing a superfluous conspiracy subplot that does nothing but distract from the main action, and unfavorably spotlights Yamaguchi’s amateur status. 

29.  KOMA
A confession: after years of championing Asian horror thrillers, I find I’m beginning to lose interest.  This Hong Kong genre piece is a case in point.  It’s extremely well made, certainly, and has a unique and intriguing story about two women drawn together amidst an ominous atmosphere of human organ buying and selling.  The leads--Karena Lam from INNER SENSES and Lee Sinje from THE EYE--are easy on the eyes, and the direction by Lo Chi-Leung is quite slick...but therein lies the problem.  Slick Asian thrillers are a dime a dozen these days, and KOMA ultimately doesn’t look or play all that different from the countless other Hong Kong, Japanese and Korean scare flicks out there.

30.  CORPSE BRIDE
A kiddie cartoon pivoting on necrophilia?  Only Tim Burton could get away with such a concoction (and frankly I’m a bit surprised the moral majority didn’t come out against this film the way they did with BAD SANTA and KINSLEY).  Burton conceived and co-directed CORPSE BRIDE, and his fingerprints are all over this account of a nervous groom (voiced by Johnny Depp) inadvertently calling up a dead woman (voiced by Helena Bonham Barter) who falls in love with him.  The stop motion animation is impressive and the film features many neat dark-hued vistas and endearing undead characters.  The whole thing is pleasing enough, but, as is becoming increasingly common with Burton’s films, it falls down in the script area: the poorly structured story is a mess and the finale a real flatline.   

31.  ASYLUM
An adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s 1997 novel that’s probably destined to be best known for its troubled production history, during which Stephen King wrote a draft of the script that was discarded, and Liam Neeson was set to play a pivotal role but didn’t.  The film that emerged is a solid one, with Natasha Richardson acting up a storm as a discontented housefrow embarking on an affair with a wife murdering inmate of an insane asylum her husband runs.  This naturally throws everybody’s lives into turmoil, with the inmate showing violent tendencies and Natasha finding her own mental state deteriorating.  Of course she looks GREAT throughout, with a plethora of revealing outfits and nudity a’plenty, and furthermore manages to create a fairly sympathetic character (whereas in the book the woman came off as little more than a cold-hearted bitch).  The atmosphere, alas, may be a bit too dour for its own good--this film is so grim it makes David Cronenberg’s adaptation of McGrath’s SPIDER look warm ‘n fuzzy by comparison. 

32.  INFECTION  [KANSEN]
This J-horror flick is short on coherency but excels in spectacularly gruesome imagery.  It’s set in a hospital where a freaky contagion is loose that makes people go crazy and turns their insides to green goo; the doctors try to cover up the mounting deaths but inevitably become infected themselves.  Writer/director Masayuki Ochiai (THE HYPNOTIST) really knows how to set a mood and concoct disturbing sights, but he’s far less adept at telling a story.  The film is never particularly compelling and narrative-wise all-but falls apart by the end.  It’s one seriously creepy piece of work nonetheless, playing ingeniously on our fears of hospitals, disease and doctors.

33.  STAY
This JACOB’S LADDERish hallucinatory thriller isn’t a complete success, but it is quite unique, and, considering the woeful lack of originality in most of today’s genre fare, I’m inclined to grade on a curve.  It’s about a shrink (Ewan MacGregor) treating a suicidal patient (Ryan Gosling) who somehow manages to loosen MacGregor’s already tenuous grip on reality.  The hardworking Naomi Watts is also on hand (in her fourth film of ’05), playing an art teacher somehow caught up in Gosling’s spell.  All manner of strangeness ensues, bolstered by a plethora of hallucinatory flourishes--compulsive lap dissolves, shots repeated over and over, sudden identity shifts--that become clear only in the final scene.  Provocative stuff, and the performances are solid, but director Marc Foster (MONSTER’S BALL, FINDING NEVERLAND) has bitten off more than he can chew.  He appears to be trying for something along the lines of the Nicolas Roeg films THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and BAD TIMING, but lacks Roeg’s elusive genius.  Foster also relies too heavily on CGI to make his points, which in my view is usually always a mistake--the abovementioned JACOB’S LADDER, you’ll remember, accomplished its effects in camera, and was all the more effective for it.

34.  DERAILED
Trashy fun.  DERAILED is a natural for neo-noir mavens, being the Jim Thompson-esque account of a seemingly contented yuppie (Clive Owen) who gets in over his head when he embarks on an affair with a hot chick (Jennifer Aniston) and ends up blackmailed by a slimeball (Vincent Cassel) who busts in on ‘em just as they’re about to screw.  (Moral: when in a hotel room, always bolt the upper lock!)  I’m probably giving this film too much credit by evoking the great Jim Thompson, but it does rigorously follow the noir rulebook, which states that even the most contented family man is capable of the most heinous acts of blackmail, mayhem and murder...and will go to any length to dispose of a corpse, regardless of whether he actually committed the murder, or if it might better serve him to simply call the cops.  The script also pays lip service to the noirish idea that sexually active women always have ulterior motives.  Aniston is the weak link here, failing miserably as a femme fatale--I actually found the actress who plays Owen’s wife more alluring.

35.  HOUSE OF WAX
The latest from Dark Castle productions, the Joel Silver/Robert Zemeckis run outfit responsible for bummers like the THIRTEEN GHOSTS and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL remakes, as well as GHOST SHIP and GOTHIKA.  HOUSE OF WAX is probably DC’s most accomplished film to date, but it went down in flames at the box office.  That’s largely due, I would guess, to the boneheaded casting of Paris Hilton in a supporting role, which nearly put me off seeing it.  I’m kind of glad I managed to overcome my reluctance, as it contains lots of memorably yucky imagery, particularly during the climax, wherein the title environ literally melts (it ain’t called a House of Wax for nothing) in a scene worthy of Terry Gilliam.  Yes, I wish the film had more of a story, and that the characters weren’t so relentlessly one-dimensional, but it’s encouraging to see a Hollywood genre fest that so proudly flaunts its R rating. 

36.  DOMINION: AN EXORCIST PREQUEL
I’ll admit that initially I didn’t much care for this, the original Paul Schrader version of the EXORCIST prequel that was reshot and recut (poorly) by Renny Harlin last year.  Schrader’s film has stayed with me, however, particularly the ending, when Stellan Skarsgaard as a young Father Merrin stops schlepping around an African village (as he does for most of the movie) and gets down to confronting evil in a surprisingly poetic special effects packed showdown.  The film certainly looks good, having been photographed by the great Vittorio Storaro, but it’s far from the thoughtful horror fest it was advertised as, being more of a tortured rumination on faith and evil with all the charm of Ingmar Bergman on downers. 

 

And so ends my Best list, but while we’re on the subject, do check out these...

Other Recommended Movies from 2005:
 

OLIVER TWIST  
American moviegoers completely ignored Roman Polanski’s tough, gritty adaptation of Dickens’ classic, but it’s a memorable piece of work that proves the old perv has lost none of his filmmaking prowess.  

CRASH  
This unabashedly bombastic, melodramatic ensemble piece contains echoes of filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Lee, but manages to distill the best of both...even if there does exist a much better film bearing the same title! 

THE CONSTANT GARDNER  
Not quite the masterpiece so many critics branded it, but still a powerful thriller with good performances and impressive filmmaking by CITY OF GOD’S Fernando Meirelles.  

KISS KISS, BANG BANG
Many critics again made more out of this one than it deserved, but its enjoyable fluff from writer-director Shane Black, who knows his way around the neo-noir landscape and has a real flair for comic dialogue. 

3-IRON  [BIN-JIP]
From Korea’s foremost cinematic madman Kim Di-Duk, a quirky love story with deeply unsettling overtones that should resonate with viewers of previous Duk freak-outs like THE ISLE and BAD GUY.  

WHERE THE TRUTH LIES
Canada’s brilliant, idiosyncratic Atom Egoyan works his unique magic on this complex account of secrets and lies in seventies Whoreywood.  

PALINDROMES
The latest from Todd Solandz, and one of ‘05’s absolute weirdest releases, about an odyssey through hick America taken by a young woman played by several different actresses. 

GRIZZLY MAN
A fascinating Werner Herzog documentary about the late Timothy Treadwell, a Grizzly Bear fanatic who, Herzog makes clear, was totally deluded in his views, a delusion that cost him his life.  

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (Uncut)
The three-hour version of Ridley Scott’s epic, briefly released in LA around Christmastime and soon to make its way onto DVD, is a BIG improvement over the heavily cut abomination that played last summer. 

WAL-MART: THE HIGH COST OF LOW PRICE
An admirable muck-raking documentary that examines one of the most insidious forces at work in America today: the vile, money-grubbing superstore chain Wal-Mart.  For those interested in a real horror story. 

CYPHER  &  NOTHING
Two visionary and imaginative sci fi mindbenders from CUBE director Vincenzo Natali.  The paranoid CYPHER suffers somewhat from an overly complicated storyline while the darkly comedic NOTHING labors under a misconceived first act, but both come highly recommended nonetheless. 

 

And, as if that weren’t enough, let’s check out some...

 

Recommended DVD Releases from 2005:
 

BAD BOY BUBBY
Rolf de Heer’s demented 1994 Aussie masterpiece is an absolute must-own for any true horror fan--regarding Blue Underground’s DVD release, my only question is: what the Hell took so long? 

KING KONG
You can’t go wrong with the big guy, in his original and definitive form, complimented by well chosen extras. 

THE DEVILS
The DVD transfer, by an independent outfit I’ve never heard of, leaves much to be desired, but it includes many long-censored bits, and this Ken Russell classic is essential viewing in any form. 

THE KINGDOM
FINALLY, Lars Von Trier’s incredible Danish mini-series (the inspiration for Stephen King’s middling KINGDOM HOSPITAL) makes its way to domestic DVD. 

THE “NEW” TWILIGHT ZONE  (SEASONS 1 & 2-3)
Essential acquisitions for any genre buff, these two multi-DVD sets comprise the entire run of CBS’s ground-breaking (and still-unsurpassed) TWILIGHT ZONE redo from the mid eighties.  

THE MANSION OF MADNESS
Near-indescribable surreal insanity from Mexico’s Juan Lopez Moctezuma, now readily available from the good folks at Mondo Macabro. 

CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST
The granddaddy of all cannibal movies gets the deluxe DVD treatment courtesy of Grindhouse Releasing.  A must.   

AFTERMATH / GENESIS
Two eye-opening shorts from Spain’s Nacho Cerda, a true cinemaniac.  Take heed: the deeply felt yet deeply disturbing AFTERMATH contains some of the most intense gore you’ll ever experience.  

WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?
Another independent DVD release of an essential film, this one a creepy Spanish horror-fest presented in a surprisingly good transfer and, more importantly, uncut! 

THE CANDY SNATCHERS
A grindhouse classic digitally mastered in stellar form and featuring frank audio commentary from two of its principal actresses (one of whom admits she “could have lived without it”). 

FREAKED
This whacked-out Alex Winter/Tom Stern yukfest, a longtime fave, makes its long-awaited bow on DVD, complete with a mind-blowing assortment of extras. 

CRAZY LOVE
A sensitive and romantic Belgian import pivoting around masturbation, physical deformity and necrophilia--there’s never been another film like this one!  Thanks again to Mondo Macabro. 

LONG WEEKEND
Synapse did its usual exceptional job on this atmospheric Australian genre classic, with a disk that looks and sounds top notch. 

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE
A two-disk special edition of Dario Argento’s debut thriller from the late sixties.  Quite simply: you need one!! 

SEASON OF THE WITCH
This isn’t George Romero’s best film, but is worth a look for discerning horrorphiles--plus, as a bonus, Anchor Bay’s DVD release contains Romero’s “lost” seventies drama THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA. 

A BELL FROM HELL
A better-late-than-never release of a true masterpiece of Spanish horror.  I just wish Pathfinder’s print were more complete (it runs 92 minutes, far less than the initial running time of 106). 

LEOLO
This grotesque yet undeniably fascinating free-form ramble from French-Canadian auteur Jean-Claude Lauzon is another must-own, even if Image gave it a little-publicized release that will probably go out of print very soon...so grab one ASAP! 

SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST
Easily one of the strongest, most stylish nunsploitation flicks I’ve seen.  Kudos to Cult Epics for digging up this little-known Japanese classic. 

THE FERNANDO ARRABAL COLLECTION   
Another breathtaking Cult Epics release, this box set brings together three films by the Spanish genius/madman Fernando Arrabal: VIVA LA MUERTE, I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE (surreal masterworks both) and THE GUERNICA TREE (not as potent, but still well worth your time). 

  

And so there end my recommendations.  Now it’s time to turn to the opposite end of the spectrum--let’s give a big Bronx cheer for...

 

The Worst Horror Movies of 2005:


1.  THE JACKET
Perhaps I’m wrong in picking this faux indie as the worst of the year, as it’s reasonably well done from a visual standpoint, but the fact is no other film from ‘05 irritated, insulted and infuriated me like this one.  It features one of the year’s best casts (Adrien Brody, Keira Knightley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kris Kristofferson) and what looked like a substantial budget in service of a hopelessly half baked, unimaginative script that cribs freely from TWELVE MONKEYS and DONNIE DARKO (I’m tempted to add Jack London’s 1915 novel THE STAR ROVER, as its basic premise has much in common with this film’s, but I don’t entirely believe its makers can read).  Brody plays a Gulf War vet who becomes the subject of an experimental psychiatric treatment that involves being put in a straightjacket and shut in a tiny space.  This apparently gives him the ability to travel through time (time travel is all the rage in recent indie flicks), during which he meddles with the life of a depressed waitress (Knightley).  There’s a happy ending, of course, and an obnoxiously sappy one at that.  An exceedingly smug and cynical product that doesn’t leave a single cliché unturned, this bummer was one of the most widely publicized releases at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, which says much about the state of independent filmmaking in America, none of it encouraging. 

2.  A SOUND OF THUNDER
Ray Bradbury’s classic story “A Sound of Thunder” was about men from the future traveling back in time to shoot a dinosaur, during which one of them inadvertently steps on a butterfly, which changes the course of history.  With this film, Hollywood did what it usually does with great (or even good) fiction of any stripe: gutted and dumbed it down exponentially.  Here, instead of returning to a changed future after crushing the butterfly, the protagonists arrive back in the same world they left, but their meddling in the past has somehow unleashed “time waves” that change everything gradually, thus providing for some showy special effects.  Correction: the effects here are hardly special.  In fact, this film contains quite possibly the shoddiest CGI work I’ve ever seen, with goofy looking dinosaurs apparently on loan from THE LAND OF THE LOST and futuristic cityscapes that belong in a video game.  I won’t even go into the hopelessly implausible and inconsistent narrative, which ignores any and all time travel laws (how is it, for instance, that the heroes are able to time travel back to the scene of the dinosaur killing again and again but not see themselves?) or the hopelessly befuddled performances (this is the only time I’ve ever felt sorry for the much-hated Edward Burns).  For all that, I’m actually surprised Warner Bros. dumped the film.  It is, after all, everything modern studio executives seem to strive for: relentlessly moronic, derivative, contemptuous of its audience and all-too-eager to cut costs when and wherever it can--in short, virtually the apotheosis of modern day Hollywood moviemaking. 

3.  BOOGEYMAN
A kid’s dad is killed by a scary critter who lives in his closet; years later, as an adult, the protagonist still finds himself haunted by the thing and-—oh, why bother recounting this lame movie’s plot?  There really isn’t one, after all, just a bunch of overdone “scare” scenes in search of a narrative (gotta watch out for those cats jumping outta closets!), leading to a none-too-climactic climax involving one of the goofiest looking CGI monsters on record.  Produced by Sam Raimi, who refused to allow his name to appear in the credits of the mini classic DEAD NEXT DOOR, which he financed, yet proudly lent to this turd.  (Go figure.) 

4.  THE AMITYVILLE HORROR
A perilous waste of celluloid that wouldn’t scare a fly.  Not that the original AMITYVILLE BORE was all that great or even good, but it’s a masterpiece compared to this remake.  Ryan Reynolds embarrasses himself as George Lutz, who inspired this “true story” about morons who move into a scary house where years earlier a nut murdered his family.  The dead folks still haunt the house, of course, thus allowing the filmmakers to borrow liberally from the Asian horror boom (a pasty little girl has a tendency to appear out of nowhere a la THE EYE and THE GRUDGE), which woefully fails to prop up this uninspired spectacle. 

5.  THE FOG
Another remake of a film that wasn’t great to begin with.  The simple fact is, fog rarely ever makes for a compelling nemesis.  Exceptions to that rule include James Herbert’s 1975 novel THE FOG and Stephen King’s novella THE MIST, either of which would make for excellent movie source material, unlike John Carpenter’s lackluster 1980 flick THE FOG.  That film, you’ll remember, was about ghost pirates who menace a seaside town through fog; so is this one, an overdirected and underwhelming would-be chiller, with SMALLVILLE’S Tom Welling looking barely awake in the lead role. 

6.  THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE
A seriously dull, by-the-numbers exorcism drama whose charms are adequately summed up by the absurdly literal title.  Notable only for fact that the filmmakers inexplicably managed to rope in top flight actors like Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson (I hope they were well paid), and that Sony milked some serious box office revenue by aggressively marketing to the same religious crowd who lined Mel Gibson’s pockets a year earlier. 

7.  THE CAVE
A bunch of dweebs descend into an underground cave, where they’re menaced by dimly seen critters.  That’s pretty much all there is to this tenth-rate ALIENS wannabe.  THE CAVE is barely passable as straight-to-video product, so how in God’s name did it get a wide theatrical release?  Possibly because studio executives knew moviegoers would have a fun time shouting out the character’s names along with the actors (“Jack!” “Charlie!” “Tyler!”)--and indeed, on that level, at least, I enjoyed it.   

8.  HIDE AND SEEK
HIDE AND SEEK is another uninspiring (to say the least) effort, with acting-legend-turned-paycheck-whore Robert De Niro as the father of a weird Kid (Dakota Fanning) who’s retreated into her own world after the death of her mother.  She develops an imaginary friend named Charlie, and more killings occur.  There’s a “twist” ending of course (which I figured out in the first five minutes), followed by a ridiculous nighttime chase.  Thus we have THE SIXTH SENSE meets THE SHINING, a pitch that must have pleased Fox executives to no end, but makes for a deadening viewing experience. 

9.  DOOM
DOOM was one of the most ground-breaking and influential video games of all time, so of course Hollywood had to go and spend nearly $100 million on a movie version that’s undistinguished in every respect.  What passes for a story is little more than a succession of clichés about folks in an underground fortress getting chased around by monsters.  The one time the filmmakers explicitly reference the first person carnage of the game is in a climactic bit that only lasts a few minutes, a clear-cut case of too little, too late.   

10.  DARK WATER
Rarely has there ever been a more clear-cut cinematic disaster: the original Nabuo Nakagawa helmed DARK WATER was mediocre at best, and Hollyweird J-horror remakes rarely ever approach, much less surpass, their source material.  Nor did it help matters that director Walter Salles publicly distanced himself from the film before it even opened.  And is it just me, or is Jennifer Connolly here playing essentially the same dour, brooding role she did in her last four or five films?  This is every bit the clunker I was anticipating, a nonsensical, water-logged account of a disgraced (though extremely photogenic) single mother and her kid moving into a creepy building where a ghost is afoot.     

11.  UNDEAD
Aussie horror: an extraterrestrial conflagration invades a small town, causing its inhabitants to rise from the dead.  Yes, it’s yet ANOTHER zombie flick in a movie season that has already seen more than its share.  The film is every bit as dull and derivative as you might expect, and has more cheesy CGI effects than just about anything in recent memory.  There are some interesting developments in the third act, in particular a flight through a mass of floating zombies, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the whole thing is so tired.  It’s possible I might have enjoyed UNDEAD more had I not already seen EVIL DEAD 2, SHAUN OF THE DEAD and the entire filmography of Peter Jackson, but I have and I didn’t. 

12.  MAN WITH THE SCREAMING BRAIN
Here it is, the long-awaited feature directorial debut by the “King of all horror media” Bruce Campbell, and I wish I could say it was even kind of good.  I can forgive the cheesy digital stock, tacky synthesizer score, laughable special effects and stilted performances (the film was produced by the Sci Fi Channel after all, for whom such things are par the course).  What I can’t forgive is the fact that this alleged horror-comedy just doesn’t contain many laughs.  Bruce Campbell, as anyone who’s ever read his books (IF CHINS COULD KILL and MAKE LOVE THE BRUCE CAMPBELL WAY) or seen his convention appearances well knows, is a damn funny guy.  Furthermore, a retro B-movie about an American asshole who gets stabbed to death by a psycho bitch from Hell and then brought back to life with the brain of another of the PBFH’s victims, a Bulgarian communist, “Lincoln Logged” to his own, would seem like a natural for the star of BUBBA HO-TEP.  All he provides, however, is a snail paced succession of lame gags…and I know he can do better!

13.  THE BROTHERS GRIMM
Easily the worst movie Terry Gilliam has ever made.  Perhaps that’s due to the fact that it came seven years after Gilliam’s last completed movie (‘98’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS), or maybe it was the fault of the Brothers Weinstein (Gilliam: “I’m used to riding roughshod over executives, but the Weinsteins ran roughshod over me”).  In any event, the film is a rare misfire from one of my all-time favorite filmmakers.  The Brothers Grimm are fascinating historical personages, so why the HELL did Gilliam and screenwriter Ehren Kruger ignore the Grimms’ real-life history and concoct a dumb-assed story that clumsily weaves in themes from several of the Grimms’ most famous tales?  Matt Damon and Heath Ledger in the lead roles woefully fail to create memorable characters, and the narrative is nonsensical, involving Monica Bellucci as a decaying queen looking to reform herself via cheesy CGI.  Gilliam’s visual genius shines through here and there (near the end there’s a neat bit involving a broken mirror and a perverse riff on “The Gingerbread Man”), but this is a disaster he really should have seen coming.  Hopefully his upcoming TIDELAND will be better.

14.  HELLBENT
A slasher flick of note because it’s a gay splatter film set during a celebration in West Hollywood, or “WeHo”, apparently the gay capitol of the universe.  Many commentators have overrated this film due, I assume, to political correctness, but in reality it’s every bit as mindless and trashy as most hetero splatter flicks.  It does, however, have its moments: the many graphic beheadings are well carried off, there’s an ingenious gag involving a glass eye and the color scheme is gaudy enough to give SUSPIRIA a serious run for its money in that area.  That’s in spite of the cheap digital photography, which, combined with all the guy-on-guy action, often gave me the uncomfortable feeling I was watching gay porn.  

15.  THE TOOLBOX MURDERS
Apparently Tobe Hooper’s “comeback” film.  Gee, I thought LIFEFORCE was supposed to be his big comeback--no, wait, it was THE MANGLER.  No, it was SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION.  In short, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS is actually the latest in a long line of Hooper films meant to finally make good on the promise of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE...and, like all the others, it’s a bust.  Actually, it’s not a total bust, as it’s at least well cast, with MAY’S lovably quirky Angela Bettis doing wonders with the underwritten lead role.  Also appearing are the equally quirky Juliet Landau (late of ED WOOD), Rance Howard (Ron’s dad) and Sherri Moon (Rob Zombie’s beau, also in THE DEVIL’S REJECTS).  All do what they can, but the film is dumb, uninspired and clichéd, with Bettis moving into a creepy apartment building where a nut is loose who mutilates babes with household appliances.  This is of course an extremely loose remake of the old grindhouse flick of the same name, but that film, while no masterpiece, was at least unique, unpredictable and genuinely shocking--all things this one isn’t.

16.  CURSED
Wes Craven’s CURSED, from a script by SCREAM’S one-trick-pony Kevin Williamson, might as well be called SCOOBY DOO 3.  Scooby Doo, after all, seems to be Williamson’s prime inspiration, with plucky teens trying to solve a spooky mystery, topped off by a silly twist ending where the baddie is unmasked--this being a werewolf movie, there are also talking dogs, thus completing the Scooby Doo analogy.  Here Craven and Williamson desperately try to recapture the SCREAM magic with a vacant-eyed teenybopper cast plucked largely from WB programs (fans of THE GILMORE GIRLS, SMALLVILLE and DAWSON’S CREEK will notice many familiar faces), lots of self-consciously “clever” pop-culture inflected dialogue and a gratuitous guest appearance by Scott Baio (in place of SCREAM’S Henry Winkler).  Since I hated SCREAM from the start you can guess what my feelings for this PG-13 rated film are.  From a first-time filmmaker it might be tolerable, but from a thirty year veteran like Wes Craven it’s downright embarrassing.  CURSED does, however, contain one invaluable asset: a sleek and seductive Christina Ricci in the lead role, proving once again that she’s one of the most vital young actresses on the scene, even if her script choosing abilities are about on par with those of Pauly Shore. 

17.  ONE MISSED CALL  [CHAKUSHIN ARI]
Takashi Miike tries his hand at a RING wannabe (apparently we haven’t seen enough of those already) with underwhelming results.  ONE MISSED CALL starts out promisingly, with atmospheric visuals and a premise involving a series of suspicious cell phone calls with future call dates; when that future date arrives, the phone’s owner invariably meets his or her end.  Intriguing stuff, although the deaths are pretty silly and always involve lame CGI.  That’s nothing, though, compared to the chaotic third act, in which ghosts show up with fingers that bend all the way back, sharp spears are stuck through peepholes, a woman tortures a man in a hospital bed and a secret is revealed.  It seems Miike was unsure of how to end the film and so decided to just throw everything and the kitchen sink into the mix. 

18.  THE SKELETON KEY
One of three crummy Ehren Kruger scripted flicks from ‘05--THE BROTHERS GRIMM and RING 2 are the others, both of which also made my worst list.  Gee, you think maybe this guy might not be the horror genius Hollywood seems to think he is?  To be fair, THE SKELETON KEY has impressive visuals courtesy of director Ian Softly, and Kate Hudson (normally not one of my favorites) is quite engaging in the lead, but both are in service of a dopey story about witchcraft in Louisiana that concludes with yet another completely unbelievable twist (as if there weren’t enough of those already in this year’s movies).  Nowadays the film, shot in and around New Orleans, works best as a time capsule, although a climactic flood has disquieting associations unintended by the moviemakers. 

19.  KONTROLL
A good looking but ponderous Hungarian thriller that falls somewhere between THE WARRIORS and SUBWAY.  It takes place entirely within the confines of a big city subway system, whose employees lead a rough and tumble existence.  We see them attempting to get passengers to show them their tickets in scenes that drag on far too long and invariably climax in breakneck action set pieces.  One employee sleeps on subway platforms and becomes involved in a supernatural drama involving a cute chick who runs around in a bear costume and an otherworldly presence that has a tendency to push people into the paths of oncoming trains.  In its favor, the film has fantastic visuals bequeathed by ever-present neon lighting and director Nimrod Antal’s impeccable eye for composition, but otherwise it’s not very compelling. 

20.  MINDHUNTERS
This Renny Harlin film, which sat on the shelf for over a year prior to its US release, is a slick and enjoyable B-movie, at least until script deficiencies overwhelm it.  The players are a colorful gang of FBI profilers who find themselves trapped on a tiny island during a seemingly routine training exercise, where they’re killed off by an unseen assailant.  Evidently this killer can read all the participants’ minds and predict exactly when they’ll be in a particular place (ticking clocks figure a lot in this film, and always seem set to the exact time the designated victim arrives at his or her place of death).  There’s also a hokey fight that wraps things up on a low note; a shame, since most of the film is quite well made and has some truly startling moments, most notably the early death of a pivotal character, as shocking in its own way as Samuel L. Jackson’s infamous demise in Harlin’s DEEP BLUE SEA. 

21.  FLIGHTPLAN
A seriously dumb airplane-set thriller, something of a companion piece to the year’s other silly air travel horror pic RED EYE.  FLIGHT PLAN isn’t quite as persuasive, however, and in the end makes RED EYE seem like a model of intelligence.  The set-up has Jodie Foster as a recently widowed woman traveling with her young daughter on a state-of-the-art plane she designed.  Actually, the plane in this movie is closer to a flying cruise ship, which leaves plenty of places for Foster and the flight crew to search through when her kid goes missing.  But then crewmembers begin insisting the kid never boarded the plane, and in fact died several days earlier.  All this is cheesily entertaining enough, but the third act, in which the explanation to the disappearance finally makes itself apparent, is plain ludicrous, bringing up far more questions than it answers. 

22.  DEAD BIRDS
A Civil War-set account of bank robbers getting their comeuppance in a haunted house, a film everyone and their grandmother has been proclaiming a horror masterpiece.  The photography is good, I’ll give it that much--for once the night-for-night shots actually look like real night, with nary a blue filter in sight--but the narrative consists largely of a repetitive series of stalk ‘n scare scenes of the type we’ve all seen a billion times.  Worse, I couldn’t work up an iota of interest in any of the characters, all of whom suffer from the Mumbling Actor syndrome.  (Note to performers: it doesn’t matter how “realistically” you deliver your lines if nobody can hear ‘em!)  

23.  THE RING 2
First of all, this film isn’t quite as awful as everyone says it is.  The director was Nabuo Nakagawa, who directed the Japanese RINGU films, and graces this movie with compelling dark-hued visuals far beyond those of the Gore Verbinski-helmed RING.  But then there’s the issue of the crummy Ehren Kruger script, which is little more than a retread of the previous RING, complete with a climactic climb up an old well.  I understand a RING 3 is in the works--here’s an idea: why not go back to the original RING novels by Koji Suzuki, which have recently been published in English, in scripting the upcoming film?  They’re far beyond anything Kruger seems able to come up with, after all. 

24.  HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE
It seems that by now the truth is out, or should be: Harry Potter on screen simply ***does not*** work.  No, I haven’t read the books, but their translations to film always seem to come with plot holes the size of New Orleans, innumerable incoherencies and perfunctory characterizations...and this one, supposedly the best of the series, is no different.  Certainly director Mike Newell accomplishes some interesting things herein--unlike the previous helmers Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuaron, Newell is a Brit, and this is the only one of these British-centric films that actually feels British--but there’s only so much he can do with a script so hopelessly fragmented and inconsistent.  Example: just what are Harry P.’s friends doing floating at the bottom of that lake?  It’s something I understand was fleshed out in the book, but comes off muddled and incoherent in the film.

25.  SAW II
Many pundits claim this sequel to last year’s SAW is superior to the original.  I don’t concur.  Yes, this SAW has a more streamlined narrative and some genuinely demented grue (quite a few mainstream critics were freaked out by this film, seeing it as a harbinger of the apocalypse, a sure sign it’s doing its job), but lacks the energy of the previous film, which despite its flaws was at least made with gusto.  Here a bunch of ex-cons are shut in a house infected with nerve gas, and have to find an antidote before they all drop dead or kill each other off.  Fun, bloodthirsty stuff marred by sub par direction that insists upon telegraphing horrific moments with pointless jump cuts that accomplish nothing but annoyance. 

26.  CONSTANTINE
CONSTANTINE is the Hollywood adaptation of DC’s HELLBLAZER comics, and while the film is far from perfect, it’s interesting enough to nearly overcome the patchwork screenplay and woeful miscasting of Keanu Reeves in the title role.  First time director Francis Lawrence has a flair for horrific visuals, and the film has real style, with CGI that for once manages to startle, long after (having sat through the deadening VAN HELSING and many of the films listed above) I’d concluded that was no longer possible.  I just wish the film had a better script than the one it’s saddled with, a confused and confusing mess that seems determined to twist the material into a horror themed MATRIX redo.  With all the infernal brilliance on display in the comics, it seems downright inexplicable that this is the best the screenwriters could do.  I said the script was confused, which is evident in Constantine’s final voice-over where he recalls being killed twice, when in fact I counted at least three deaths.  Two pivotal characters aren’t even introduced until the last twenty minutes and another is totally forgotten by the time the final good-evil confrontation rolls around, while the ending is such a jumble that a crucial event is saved until after the end credits.  I’d recommend reading the novelization by John Shirley, which doesn’t overcome the script’s clumsiness, but at least clarifies some of it. 

27.  CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
This Tim Burton remake of WILLIE WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY has great moments, and at times looked like it might surpass the original, but ultimately lost ground with scripter Jon August’s obnoxious screenwriting 101-tinged reworking of the story.  This movie’s Willie Wonka isn’t allowed to be a mysterious eccentric like he was in the original book and film (both of which worked fine, thank you very much!) but is given a dumb back story with problems that are meticulously (and unconvincingly) worked out.  It also annoyed me that we had to see the bad kids leaving the factory in the end, when our final view of them getting their just desserts inside would have worked far better, as it did in the book and previous film.  Burton and August also insert a heavy-handed message about the importance of family, when the material already had its share of messages to begin with!  That said the film contains quite a few wonderfully imaginative, eye popping elements, and overall has a far darker, scarier tone than the original.  Furthermore, Danny Elfman’s score is one of his best in some time.

 

Thankfully, that ends my Worst list.  In the meantime, we’re
 

Still Waiting On...

A SCANNER DARKLY
Richard Linklatter’s Philip K. Dick adaptation was supposed to be released last spring but got pushed back a year. 

TIDELAND
Terry Gilliam’s latest, made concurrently with THE BROTHERS GRIMM. 

V FOR VENDETTA
The release of this Wachowski Brothers penned film version of Alan Moore’s graphic novel was delayed in the wake of the London subway bombings. 

VITAL
Shinya Tsukamoto’s latest, which alone should be enough of a recommendation. 

SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE
Chanwook Park’s latest, which should likewise be all the info you need. 

NIGHT WATCH
The Russian special effects extravaganza that was supposed to be released last summer by Fox, who launched an expensive publicity blitz--what the Hell happened to it???

 

And finally...
 

THE MASTERS OF HORROR: An Overview

     I usually don’t bother including TV reviews in these lists, as horror television normally isn’t very good (I haven’t watched SUPERNATURAL or GHOST WHISPERER, and don’t exactly feel deprived) and anyway I tend not to have time to watch much of it.  In 2005, however, there was one small screen development too important to ignore: Showtime’s MASTERS OF HORROR anthology program.  Created by Mick Garris, it gave genre legends like Carpenter, Dante, Argento, etc. each a ten day shooting schedule, an hour-long running time and total creative control.  The series hit the air in October of ’05, and, predictably, the internet was immediately flooded with missives about how much it sucked.  I don’t agree, but will acknowledge the series has been somewhat disappointing. 

Here’s my brief (and admittedly incomplete--I haven’t seen all the episodes broadcast thus far) overview of the series:

     “Incident on and off A Country Road” has BUBBA HO-TEP director Don Coscarelli going back to BUBBA creator Joe Lansdale for inspiration.  Lansdale’s story is one of his more outrageous tales, being a wild and unfettered account of a survival trained woman going up against a freak called Moonface in a nighttime confrontation that grows increasingly outrageous--at one point the gal wards off Moonface with the corpse of a baby!  I’ve thought about adapting this story myself, and so had a vested interest in how this episode would turn out.  My verdict?  Not bad, although Coscarelli leans a bit too heavily on hoary genre clichés (like the cheesy lightning flashes that occur every few seconds) and Moonface’s tacky dial-a-monster makeup is a constant annoyance.  Still, Lansdale’s wild imagination has been transferred to the screen virtually intact, including the essential baby corpse gag.

     In “Dreams in the Witch House” Stuart Gordon once again adapts H.P. Lovecraft, although Gordon’s B-movie sensibilities are so far removed from Lovecraft’s fiction I wonder why he even bothered.  The story was a subtle and unnerving exercise in otherworldly disquiet, while Gordon’s adaptation is a sleazy outpouring of blood, nudity and human sacrifice.  It’s somewhat dopily entertaining, but makes previous Gordon features like FROM BEYOND and DAGON look downright refined in comparison. 

     The once-great Tobe Hooper directed “Dance of the Dead”, adapted from a Richard Matheson story by the latter’s son Richard Christian, an extremely accomplished writer in his own right.  Unfortunately the episode, about out-of-control teens loose in a futuristic society decimated by a manmade plague that causes the dead to rise, is curiously lifeless.  That’s despite the extremely slick, even show-offy direction by Hooper (a long way from the down ‘n dirty aesthetic of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE).

     Next up was Dario Argento’s “Jenifer”, a titillating bit of nonsense about a cop (Steven Weber, who also scripted) who becomes involved with a carnivorous catwoman.  The episode’s sole reason for existence appears to be the copious sex and gore, as the story is a one note affair that concludes in the most predictable manner imaginable.  Mildly entertaining, I guess, provided one is willing to completely shut down one’s brain for an hour. 

     Mick Garris wrote and directed “Chocolate”, a TWILIGHT ZONE-ish lark about a guy (Henry Thomas) who enters into a woman’s consciousness, seeing and feeling everything she does.  As you might expect, there’s a twist ending.  Slick, inoffensive and ultimately pretty forgettable stuff. 

     Joe Dante’s “Homecoming” is by far the most widely discussed of all the episodes, being a biting political satire.  It’s about zombies of soldiers, killed in an overseas war waged by a corrupt American president, who rise up in an effort to vote the Pres out of office.  In case you don’t get the real-life analogy, there’s also a miniskirted bimbette who shills shamelessly for the Republican Party (Ann Coulter, anyone?), and a right wing spinmeister who essentially functions as the president’s brain (Karl Rove?).  "Homecoming" has already proven quite controversial, with those who appreciate Dante’s broad political satire (the Village Voice crowd went apeshit over it) opposed by those who’d have preferred he put his ideas into code.  As for myself, I just wish “Homecoming” were a little better: it fails completely as horror, and there really isn’t much to it outside the wildly audacious premise--in other words, you’d be just as well off reading a plot summary as you would actually sitting through it.  Plus, the lead actress is far too attractive to be convincing as a stand-in for the bony, self infatuated Ann Coulter.

     Last is John Carpenter’s “Cigarette Burns”, which showcases some of JC’s best work in years.  While many of the other filmmakers seemingly regarded their segments as diversions between their feature gigs, Carpenter, who hasn’t directed a movie in over five years, gave his all.  His is the most thoughtful and atmospheric of all the episodes, and the creepiest by far, graced with a literate and imaginative script co-written by Drew McWeeny (a.k.a. Ain’t it Cool News’s Moriarty).  It plays a lot like Carpenter’s 1994 flick IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, with a movie buff contacted by a rich eccentric to track down an obscure film that drives whoever sees it into a murderous frenzy.  As compelling as that premise is, it poses an inherent problem for the filmmaker: at some point he’ll have to show us at least part of the film in question, leading to inevitable disappointment.  That was the case here when, toward the end, Carpenter grudgingly gives us a glimpse of the forbidden film, which did NOT drive me into a murderous frenzy.  Nor does it help that, as in IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, the final twenty or so minutes are taken up with an annoying succession of dreams within dreams that resolve nothing (VIDEODROME this isn’t).  Still, the episode leaves a profoundly disquieting impression, demonstrating what’s possible in the hands of a true master of horror working at the height of his powers.

 

--1/15/06


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