Best of 2018: Horror Films

2018 has been another strong year for horror, and frankly, narrowing this list down to just 10 films was hard. Horror still has work to do in terms of becoming more inclusive, but it’s gradually getting there. Many of the films on my list feature female and foreign directors. Horror always serves as a reflection of our deeper anxieties, and many of the films  I picked  deal with the very personal, be it grief, skepticism, economic distress, or merely trying to keep your family together in the face of daunting circumstances.

10. Ghost Stories (Directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson)

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This British anthology film, based on a play written by its directors, is a quiet, slow creep, ultimately about skepticism versus belief. It has an ending that blends reality and the paranormal and is worth a watch for that segment alone. Watch the trailer by clicking here. Read my review by clicking here.

9. A Quiet Place (Directed by John Krasinski)

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Who knew that John Krasinski would direct such an inspired, creative horror film? The first 15 minutes of this film alone make the viewing experience worthwhile. What this creature feature does with sensory deprivation echoes other films like Hush and Don’t Breathe, while still featuring several nail-biting moments. You generally care for this family and their struggle to survive against creatures that are drawn to sound. This was one of horror’s biggest box office successes in 2018, so, of course, Krasinski is already writing the sequel. Watch the trailer by clicking here. Read my review by clicking here.

8. Veronica (Directed by Paco Plaza)

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This Spanish film by Rec director Paca Plaza is based on a true story about a teen, Veronica (Sandra Escacena), who was allegedly possessed. This film takes its time building its characters, especially the female lead and her responsibilities taking care of her younger siblings. There are so many scenes in this that are unsettling and downright spooky, so it would be difficult to mention just one. Watch the trailer by clicking here. Side note: I know this film was technically released in 2017, but it was distributed in the states via Netflix over the summer, hence my inclusion of it on this list.

7. Halloween (Directed by David Gordan Green)

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This is the Halloween film for the #MeToo era, featuring Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her role as final girl Laurie Strode. Curtis steals the show here, but Michael Myers is once again brutal, a force of nature, killing without reason. John Carpenter returned to the franchise to produce and score the film with his son. Recently, he said that he’s willing to help again with the inevitable sequel to David Gordan Green’s film, at least in terms of scoring it. Halloween was a blockbuster, one that may revive other horror slasher icons. Click here for the trailer. Click here to read my essay on the new Halloween and evolution of the final girl. Long live Michael Myers!

6. Cam (Directed by Daniel Goldhaber)

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Simply put, this is one of the best Internet horror films yet, one that illustrates how our online persona overtakes our life and causes us to always perform and always think about likes and Internet reaction. The film draws on the real life experience of writer Isa Mazze’s experience working as a cam girl. This story is both terrifying and sad. The duo of Mazze and Goldhaber said they plan to work together on another social horror film, so we’ll be hearing from them again soon. Watch the trailer for Cam by clicking here.

5. Apostle (Directed by Gareth Evans)

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This film about religious fanaticism is not for the faint of heart. It is brutal and gory, featuring a violence that matches the type of religious extremism showcased. For fans of folk horror, like The Wicker Man, this is a must watch. Watch the trailer here. Read my mini essay on Apostle, masculinity, and folk horror by clicking here.

4. Revenge (Directed Coralie Fargeat)

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I usually can’t stomach rape/revenge films, but this one is so  stylish, powerful, and gory, in the vein of the French extremity films from the previous decade. Director Coralie Fargeat reverses the narrative gaze here and clearly is aware of horror film tropes, including in the rape/revenge ones. She’s another young director to watch. Watch the trailer here. Read my essay on Revenge and its reversal of the gaze over at Horror Homeroom here.

3. Terrified/Aterrados (Directed by Demián Rugna)

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It was hard not to place this film on the top of the list. It is probably the most unnerving horror film I watched all year, other than my #1 pick. In the first 15 minutes, a woman is thrashed around a bathroom. In another scene, a little boy, back from the dead somehow, sits at this kitchen table, his skin brown and decayed, leaving police and paranormal investigators befuddled. Recently, Guillermo del Toro said he is interested in creating an American version of this Argentinean film, with Rugna set to direct. Here’s to hoping that happens and that any remake keeps the creepiness factor of this brilliant original. Watch the trailer by clicking here .  Read my review by clicking here.

2. Mandy (Directed by Panos Casmatos)

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I never liked Nicolas Cage, and then I saw Mandy. Cage plays Red, who sets out to avenge his wife after she’s killed by a Manson-like cult. This film is awash in red tones and at times, it feels like a fever dream through the various layers of hell. Cage is stellar, even when he’s chugging vodka and screaming alone in a bathroom. If you haven’t seen Mandy yet, do it! Watch the trailer by clicking here. Read my review here.

1. Hereditary (Directed by Ari Aster)

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How could this not make the #1 spot? This is a film worth re-watching and re-watching for the cinematography and clues laced throughout each frame. Toni Collette deserves an Oscar nomination for her performance in this. She is outstanding, playing a mother dealing with one loss after another. This is one of the rare films that lived up to the hype. Watch the trailer here.Read my review over at Horror Homeroom here.

Honorable Mentions: Annihilation, The Ritual, Upgrade, Overlord, The Witch in the Window, Summer of 84

Horror TV I binged in 2018: “The Terror,”  “Channel Zero,” and even “The Walking Dead,” which has found some new life under Angela Kang’s direction

Looking ahead to 2019: Next year should be another big year for horror. Jordan Peele is releasing his next  film entitled Us. Not much is known about this film yet, but it stars Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, and Tim Heidecke.  Robert Eggers is set to release his follow-up to 2015’s The Witch. The Lighthouse is another horror film, this one shot in black and white, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Like The Witch, The Lighthouse will be released and distributed by A24. The likely blockbusters will be the remake of Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery and the second chapter of It, set for release in October.  Keep an eye out for French director Alexandre Aje’s latest film entitled Crawl, set to be released by Paramount Pictures. Meanwhile, as my list for 2018 shows, there should be several films worth watching from  young,  innovative directors as well as foreign directors. Those films will probably fly under the radar for now, so keep your eyes peeled.

Bring on 2019!

 

 

 

 

New Horror Essay Published by SVJ

I am fortunate and grateful to have an essay on early horror cinema published by The Schuylkill Valley Journal, both print an online. The essay, entitled “The Progressive Politics of Early Horror Cinema: Gender, Female Empowerment, and Sexuality,” looks at Nosferatu and James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. You can read a version of the essay by clicking here.

A Look Back at A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Over the last decade, the vampire has evolved on film. What I’m namely talking about is  Let the Right One In (2008), an adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s brilliant novel, What We Do in the Shadows (2014), a hilarious spoof, and The Transfiguration (2016). All of these films take the vampire away from the image of a Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee-type fanged, cape-wearing monster. Let the Right One In features a beautiful friendship between its child-like vampire and a bullied boy named Oskar. The Transfiguration has much in common with George A. Romero’s brilliant vampire flick Martin, in that you’re never fully sure if the protagonists are a vampire or not, but each is obsessed with the idea of being a vampire  the vampire mythos.

Classic monsters, such as vampires, need to change with the times, and their ability to do so is why they’ve been around for hundreds of years. One of the most innovative vampire films of this decade is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), a genre-bender by Iranian director Ana Lily Amirpour, who was transplanted to the states with her parent as a kid.

The plot of the film is simple. It takes place in a fictional town called Dead City, and it features a female vampire simply named Girl (Shelia Vand), who feeds to live and ultimately falls in love with a James Dean-type character, Arash (Arash Marandi). The black and white film is a lot of things- noirish, a western, horror, incredibly sleek, stylized, and subversive.  It also features one of the coolest vampire figures ever seen on screen. She skateboards,  steals jewelry from deserving victims, murders abusers and pimps, and dances around her apartment to indie pop. She warns Arash that to love her is to know and accept all of the bad things that she does. She is endearing but also terrifying, telling a young boy in one scene that if he doesn’t behave, she’ll rip out of his eyes and feed them to dogs.

 

In an interview with Wired back in 2014,  Amirpour didn’t downplay the feminist underpinnings of the film, saying,  “I think [the film] can be feminist if that’s what people think,” adding, “People also say, ‘Is it political? Are you making a political statement?’ I just know what I am; I don’t know what everyone else is.”

It’s hard not to acknowledge some of the feminist undertones of the film, especially if you accept that Dead City is supposed to be in Iran, a county not exactly known for women’s rights. Even the title and the fact the female vampire skateboards or walks alone at night is significant. Furthermore, Girl dances and wears eye-shadow and  lipstick. Some of her victims are so ridiculously masculine that it’s hard not to laugh at their absurdity. For instance, one of her first victims, Saeed (Dominic Rains), invites her to his pad, which looks like a scene from Scarface, including a coffee table dusted with cocaine and a gun. He dances in front of the mirror to thumping techno music, gazing at his muscular body, before advancing on Girl, who gives him what he deserves.

In another scene, Girl avenges Atti (Mozahn Marno), a prostitute who is shot up with heroin by Arash’s father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh), a junkie. Besides Arash, Atti is one of the only relationships that Girl has  and admits that she watches her and notices her sadness.  Girl says to her, “You’re sad. You don’t remember what you want. You don’t remember wanting. It passed long ago. And nothing ever changes,” to which Atti responds, “Idiots and rich people are the only ones who think things can change.”

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Girl (Shelia Vand) and Atti (Mozahn Marno)

While Atti’s dialogue fits her character, someone hardened from a life on the streets, the actions of Girl  as both a female avenger and subversive portrayal of feminine power in a restrictive culture, show that resistance can exist, even in the most oppressive societies. Furthermore, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes the image of the vampire, traditionally masculine, and subverts it as much as Let the Right One In did. This is probably why when Girl first meets Arash he’s wearing a cape and vampire fangs, stumbling home from a costume party. He’s a parody of the male vampire figure in that scene, in such a drunken state that he can’t even find his home, say his name without slurring, or cause any harm to Girl. He is totally powerless.

Since the release of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Amirpour already has another film under her belt, The Bad Batch, and she directed an episode of “Castle Rock.” Here’s hoping that she continues directing horror films because the genre, and film in general, needs more women behind the camera, especially ones like Amirpour, willing to make previous horror staples, like the vampire, unique and interesting.

 

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My 2018 Zombie Film Recommendation

Confession: I am tired of the zombie subgenre of horror. I think that “The Walking Dead” should have been canceled at least 2-3 seasons ago. I can’t think of a zombie film I watched all that recently that I found that innovative or attention-worthy, other than Cargo (2017), available to stream on Netlflix. Most of the more interesting zombie films, such as 28 Days Later or Shaun of the Dead, belong to the previous decade. Zombie films tend to come in waves, but this most recent wave has limped along for far too long, like a  corpse waiting to be put out of its misery.

With all of that said however, there is one zombie film released this year that warrants viewing, Night Eats the World by French director Dominique Rocher, an adaptation of Pit Agarmen’s novel. Sure, the film checks off a lot of the cliches, including a sudden outbreak and loose social commentary, but more than anything else, the film is a meditation on loneliness. It begins when moody protagonist Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie) attends a party hosted by an ex. He heads into an empty bedroom by himself, falls asleep, and wakes up to a zombified world, including the apartment caked in blood. He sees some of the party’s stragglers wandering outside, roaming the streets, hungry for human meat.  Suddenly, he realizes that he’s trapped in a building alone with little possibility of escape.

The rest of the film mostly includes quiet scenes, including shots of Sam running around the mostly vacant building to stay in shape. Days, weeks, and possibly months pass. Sometimes, Sam ventures into one of the units to stock up on canned food, but is forced to bolt the doors shut after encountering more of the living dead. He forms a relationship of sorts with a balding zombie trapped in an elevator. This gnawing corpse is played by Denis Lavant, who, though he has no speaking parts, is utterly stellar through his haunting facial expressions. This zombie is humanized and distinct, like Bub in Romero’s Day of the Dead, and in his milky eyes, Sam sees a reflection of his isolated, melancholy state.  Who is really worse off in this situation?

There are times when Sam’s frustration erupts, including a scene where he launches into a pounding drum solo that draws a horde of zombies to the apartment complex. Yet, scenes where Sam is truly in danger of becoming zombie meat are relatively few and far between. Instead, the film focuses on what it would be like to be a survivor in a zombie apocalypse, when, as far as you know, all of your family and friends are dead. How do you go on living?  Throughout the film, time becomes elastic, and it’s unclear how much time has even passed between the beginning of the film and its conclusion. Will Sam even be better off if he makes it to the final scene? That much is unclear.

Stephen King called The Night Eats the World “a perfectly amazing film” a few weeks ago on Twitter, adding that it will “blow your mind.” I think King’s praise of the film is a little overblown, but I will say that the film deserves attention and has fallen under the radar, unfortunately. It tries to do something different with the zombie genre, and it generally succeeds.

 

In Defense of 2018’s Horror Offerings

Last week, Vogue posed the question, remember when horror was good? The question was followed with the blanket statement that 2017 was a far superior year for horror, due to It, Split, and lesser-known indie and foreign flicks such as Raw and It Comes at Night. The writer, Taylor Antrim, also labels Get Out a “masterpiece of social horror,” but then surmises that because Get Out didn’t win the Oscar that year (Jordan Peele did, however), that the air went out of the genre. If anything, I would argue that 2018 was another strong year for the genre, extending the new golden age.

First, Antrim admits that A Quiet Place, Hereditary, and Suspiria are good films, but the writer tries to remove the horror label from them and instead calls them thrillers. This is what some critics tried to do last year when Get Out earned Oscar nods. There were articles about “post-horror,” socially conscious films concerned with bigger ideas than guts and gore. The genre, they argued, couldn’t handle such serious themes! I guess they never watched any of Romero or Hitchcock’s horror films. It is beyond me how Antrim can see these new films as anything but horror. The first 15 minutes of A Quiet Place are some of the most nerve-jangling scenes I witnessed in cinema all year. The rest of the film features creatures terrorizing a family. Citing Hereditary, Antrim says that the genre could use a dose of humor and fun. On the one hand, I’ll admit that humor and dark delight do have a place in horror. Get Out is a good example, as well as classics like Re-Animator and Dawn of the Dead. Other genre staples, though, like The Exorcist and Night of the Living Dead are pretty short on the jokes.  Would anyone question their importance to the genre because they lack punch lines?

Antrim saves most of the criticism for Halloween, this year’s highest-grossing horror film. The author’s main gripe is that the film simply wasn’t scary. I beg to differ. David Gordon Green’s film returns Michael Myers to a force of nature, and his kills are brutal without being gratuitous, unlike Rob Zombie’s two Halloween films. Perhaps more importantly, the reboot gives substance to the Final Girl, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), making her the hunter who wants to overcome her trauma. Even Antrim admits that the film is relevant in 2018 and the era of #MeToo.

Within the article, Antrim  says that Hereditary, A Quiet Place, Suspiria, and even the French film Revenge are good films, while trying to dislodge them from the horror label. All of these films belong to 2018, and all of these films fall within the horror genre. Vogue’s article is a continuation of the flurry of pieces last year that tried to discredit the genre. 2017 was indeed a great year for horror, but so was 2018. Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and Halloween raised a heck of a lot of money at the box office while being interesting films, short on jump scares. The year also produced a number of wonderful foreign and indie films, including Revenge, Terrified, The Witch in the Window, Ghost Stories, among others. As horror continues to do well at the box office and earn praise, it’s likely articles like Antrim’s will continue to be published. To that, I say, may the new golden age of horror extend well into 2019!

 

 

Review: Atterrados/Terrified, One of 2018’s Best Horror Films

Halloween is over and all that remains is leftover candy.  As 2018 winds down, the best-of lists will come into sharper focus. Though I haven’t yet produced a best-of list for horror films (I will at some point), I am certain that I will include the Argentinian film Atterrados/Terrified, one of this year’s most visceral and chilling films that no one is talking about.

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It’s easy to see why Terrified was overlooked. 2018, like its predecessor, had a lot of mainstream horror hits and box office success, including Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and the rebooted Halloween. While those films were all great in their own way, 2018 proved that indie and foreign horror films like Revenge and Terrified bode well for the future of the genre. Director and screenwriter Demian Runga’s film pays tribute to the genre with callbacks to staples such as Pet Cemetery and The Grudge, while creating unique visuals and set pieces that are nightmareish and warrant sleeping with the lights on.

Set in a Buenos Aires neighborhood, Terrified follows three neighbors who are besieged by the paranormal. The first narrative focuses on a wife who hears voices in the kitchen. Shortly after dismissing the wife’s fears, the husband witnesses her body levitating mid-air in the bathroom, banging against the shower walls, leaving streaks of blood. This early set piece and disturbing visual sets the tone for the remainder of the film.

The middle of the film contains the most developed and haunting story. After a  little boy is hit by a bus and his mother is left to grieve, his corpse returns and sits at the kitchen table before a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk. As paranormal investigators and an ex-cop try to make sense of the situation, the camera zooms in on the boy’s rotting, decayed flesh. The viewer is left wondering if the boy moved on his own.  Are the dirty footprints the boy’s, or do they belong to a mother so grief-stricken that she dug up the corpse of her son? The physical manifestation of grief is why the film’s middle narrative is the strongest.

As the paranormal disturbances increase, there are no Ed and Lorraine Warren-type characters to solve the problem. Even the paranormal investigators and police officers view the situation in a rational fashion, deciding it best to rebury the corpse and be done with it. This is where the film breaks from The Conjuring, Poltergeist, and other demonic/haunted house type films. No one comes to save the day, essentially. The cops and paranormal investigators don’t try to defeat the evil. They merely accept it and try to resolve it, even if that means weighing down the corpse of a boy with cement so he can’t claw his way out again.

Terrified follows a less traditional narrative structure than most films, and at times, it feels like an anthology. The only connection between the characters is that they share the same neighborhood. No explanation is given for the evil, and yet, somehow the film works without it. The first story is a full-throttle assault on the senses, and from there, the viciousness and scares are unrelenting. Terrified is one of 2018’s must-see horror films.

 

 

 

 

 

Some Poetry for Halloween

Months ago, I announced that Moon Tide Press was putting out an anthology of poems inspired by horror films. Well, the anthology is out! It features 66 poets and has wicked cool cover art by Leslie White.

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If you’re interested in ordering a copy, you can do so through Moon Tide’s website here, or through Amazon here.

I have three pieces in the anthology, and as a little preview, here is one of the poems:

Imagining One More Romero Movie

 

I’d like to see Romero’s take on this moment,

a time as uncanny as the dead rising,

groaning, and slow-walking towards a meal.

The elite already live in towers,

like in Land of the Dead.

The president has a tower in NYC,

barricaded by police in all-black riot gear,

like the beginning of a movie

where everything is about to go wrong.

The working-class hustle below,

their hands hard and calloused, their clothes

rife with the smell of gasoline, oil, or dirt.

Sometimes, they crane their necks, stare

at those towers, maybe to imagine a gold nameplate,

a desk, leather chair, and air-conditioned office.

 

If Romero directed one more sequel,

I wonder where he’d place the survivors.

Shopping malls are too 1980s, but maybe Starbucks,

staring at their smartphones, plugging in

before the dead bust down the doors,

rip out espresso machines, gnaw on flesh,

or maybe he’d have a horde overtake DC,

while a few remaining politicians and lobbyists

flee down K Street under a harvest moon,

until the working-class, turned, drop the gas pumps,

hammers, or call center headsets and devour the living, fed up

with slumping and staggering from job to job.

 

Happy Halloween!