Best of 2019: Horror Films

I have no doubt that when we look back on this decade, we’ll consider it to be a horror renaissance. Films like The Conjuring and Insidious spawned entire franchises. Sleeper hits like It Follows, The Witch, Get Out, and Hereditary sparked the “elevated horror” debate, which I still despise, but I suspect may come to define the decade in horror. Even in TV, horror reigned supreme, with shows like “American Horror Story” and “The Walking Dead” killing  ratings and spawning massive fan bases. Furthermore, streaming services like Hulu, Netflix, Shudder, and Amazon Prime brought horror to even larger audiences and made the genre that much more international. The final year of the decade and my best-of list largely reflects these trends. My entries include work by directors who avoided the sophomore slump and created solid second feature-length films that I suspect we’ll still be talking about heading into the new decade. Like last year’s list, this one includes plenty of work by international directors who found a platform for their work thanks to streaming services. Additionally, more and more women are getting behind the camera, and that’s a good thing. There’s plenty of female representation on this list, and the horror genre is all all the better for it. Without further ado, here’s my best-of horror list for 2019!

Runner-ups

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark directed by André Øvredal. This popular book series finally came to life on the big screen, and Øvredal did a good job establishing a frightful Halloween atmosphere and bringing some of the books’ most famous monsters to life, including the Pale Lady and Harold the Scarecrow. This film, and the director’s previous work, Troll Hunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe (one of my favorite films of the decade), prove that Øvredal is one of the best directors currently working in the genre, especially when it comes to establishing mood and tone.

Child’s Play directed by Lars Klevberg. I can’t tell you why this remake of the 1988 classic underperformed so much at the box office when compared to last year’s record-breaking Halloween reboot.  Maybe Michael Myers is just more popular, and maybe Halloween grossed millions upon millions because it brought back so many familiar names, specifically Jamie Lee Curtis. Child’s Play did something drastically different and made Chucky a large-eyed AI doll. Yet, the movie fit for our time period, and the way that Chucky evolves after witnessing violence was a fascinating take on the iconic Good Guy. Mark Hamill gave the doll surprising characterization and pathos, and his voice work alone makes this one of the better horror films of the year.

The Nightingale directed Jennifer Kent. Kent is the first director on this list whose highly anticipated second film came out this year. The Nightingale is a drastic departure from her debut film, The Babadook (also one of my favorite films of the decade). Her sophomore feature is a revenge flick that is incredibly hard to watch, especially the first 20-25 minutes. It has some of the most intense violence that I’ve ever witnessed on screen. In short, the film follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict, who chases a British officer through rugged Tasmanian wilderness, hell-bent on revenge for the terrible violence he inflicted upon her family. The film has stunning cinematography and much to say about colonialism, gender, and race. This film is NOT for the squeamish.

Now, on to the top 10:

10. Little Monsters directed by Abe Forsythe. At the beginning of the decade, “The Walking Dead” reinvigorated the zombie genre, but at the end of the decade, its formula has grown stale and its weekly viewership has declined. Though Little Monsters isn’t the first movie to inject horror comedy into the zombie genre, it does so with gusto, thanks in part to the stellar performance by Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Miss Caroline, a teacher who does what she has to do to keep her kids safe, be it playing a song to calm their nerves or slaying zombies.

9. Doctor Sleep directed by Mike Flanagan. Fresh of the success of Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” Flanagan had the difficult task of being the man behind the camera for Doctor Sleep and trying to please the fan bases of Kubrick’s initial masterpiece and both of Stephen King’s novels. Largely, he succeeded. As I noted in my review for Signal Horizon, Doctor Sleep is a film that acknowledges the past, specifically the legacy of The Shining, but is not trapped by it. At its core, the movie is about addiction, be it the monstrous True Knot or a grown-up Danny Torrance, played superbly by Ewan McGregor. This is an intertextual film that’s also not afraid to make changes when they’re warranted.

8. Midsomar directed by Ari Aster.  How do you follow-up the craziness and heaviness that was Hereditary? The answer: create a folk-horror film set in broad daylight that follows American college friends as they get swept up in a Swedish cult. If you haven’t seen it, see it. Then watch it again. There’s not much else I can say about this one that hasn’t been said already this year. Aster is yet another director on this list whose sophomore effort really came through.

7. Into the Dark: Culture Shock directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero. I’d be hard-pressed to find a film on this list, other than the top slot, that better defines the times we live in. Hulu/Blumhouse’s holiday horror anthology series “Into the Dark” has really been hit or miss so far, but Guerrero’s July 4th entry may be the best one yet. The film follows the journey of Marisol, a Mexican woman  (Martha Higareda) who pursues the American dream, crosses illegally into the United States, and wakes to an American nightmare. This film is so rich in visuals, especially its use of the July 4th imagery, that the cinematography alone makes it worth the watch.  Keep your eye on Guerrero. She’s poised to do great things in the genre, I suspect.

6. Crawl directed by Alexandre Aja. I can’t think of a film that kept me more on the edge of my seat this year than Crawl. If you know Aja’s work, then you know the film will have a lot of gore. In short, the flick is about crocodiles and a few survivors just trying to overcome the gators. Do I really need to say more?  Order a pizza, buy a six-pack, and watch this one with some friends.  If you want to read more, then check out the review I wrote for Horror Homeroom.

5. Us by Jordan Peele. The tethered, like the sunken place, may now be part of the lexicon, thanks to Peele, whose sophomore effort will make you think about who or what lurks underground. You’ll never look at Hands Across America the same way again. Watch this and then watch it again because like Aster, Peele is a meticulous filmmaker. There are loads of references to other horror films in this, and Nyong’o gives one heck of a performance. The dance sequence in the last 20 minutes is one of my favorite scenes of the year.

4. Ready or Not directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. For me, this film was the surprise hit of the year, and not only because it did well at the box office, but because I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. It’s campy. It’s funny. It’s gory. It has a social-political undertone that doesn’t whack you over the head. Samara Weaving plays one heck of a final girl in Grace, whose rich boyfriend lures her into some sick game where the rich hunt the lower-class bride. Believe me, you’ll root for Grace the moment she picks up the shotgun and does what she has to do in order to survive, wearing blood-splattered Chucks and a shredded wedding dress to boot.

3. Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror directed by Xavier Burgin. This horror doc is a must-see for any fan of the genre, or anyone interested in film history in general. It features countless interviews with actors and directors and looks at the history of the genre through the lens of race. If you don’t have a Shudder subscription yet, get it for this film alone and for my final two entries.

3 (also) The Lighthouse directed by Robert Eggers, Eggers proved with his debut The Witch that he can make one fine period piece. The Lighthouse is set in the late 19th Century, and it was shot using some of the same lenses from that time period. This film’s ratio and shooting techniques means it really should be seen on the big screen. Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattison play off each other SO well in this film as they slowly descend into madness and their truths/narratives never quite match up. Oh, major props to the seagull, too. Give that bird an Oscar!

2. One Cut of the Dead directed by Shin’ichirô Ueda.  Simply put, One Cut of the Dead is one of the most innovative films I have seen in a long time. It features a nearly 30-minute continuous shot as the opening scene, and from there, it’s one big love letter to indie film making, as a crew tries to complete a zombie film on time. This Japanese film will make you laugh, make you cry, and most importantly, endear you. Again, if you don’t have Shudder, what are you waiting for?

1. Tigers Are Not Afraid directed by   Issa López. This isn’t just one of my favorite films of the year, it’s one of my favorite of the decade. This is an incredibly beautiful and tragic film that calls to mind the early work of Guillermo del Toro, specifically The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Like those films, López created a fairy-tale like story to address a much deeper issue, in this case the Mexican drug cartel and a group of five children trying to survive amidst the violence after losing their parents. This film is visually stunning, heart-wrenching, and powerful. López is another director to watch. She’s already received high accolades from del Toro, who produced this film, and Stephen King, who raved about it on Twitter. Watch this, but not without a box of tissues nearby.

Finally, I want to add that I considered adding Parasite to the list, in part because it has some light horror elements and its director, Bong Joon-Ho has created horror films in the past, most notable The Host, but the film is more of a drama comedy than anything else, and it’s already on a number of best-of 2019 lists. It very well may snag some Oscar nominations, deservedly so.  I tried to stick to the horror and offer a few films that deserve more attention.

In the coming days/weeks, I’ll post about which horror films I’m most excited about in 2020, as we enter a new decade.  Have a wonderful holiday season and happy new year! Please feel free to share your own favorite films of 2019 by commenting below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midsommar: A Stylish, Hellish Folk Horror Gem

Ari Aster’s Hereditary was the breakout horror film of 2018, bolstered by the stellar performance of Toni Collette as Annie, a grief-stricken parent dealing with the unraveling of her family as tragedy after tragedy unfolds. With Hereditary, Aster flirted with some elements of folk horror, namely occultism and the use of landscape. Midsommar, however, showcases the folk horror influences far more directly, namely the original Wicker Man and the extensive research on midsummer traditions that Aster did.  In some ways, Aster’s second film is more ambitious and unrestrained, especially in its cinematography. For months, the film has been hyped, to the point that director/writer Jordan Peele called it “atrociously disturbing” and a “masterpiece” in a conversation with Aster for Fangoria magazine. So, the question is, does Midsommar live up to the hype? The short answer is yes and no. At 2.5 hours long, Midsommar is a lot to unpack. It is a film that warrants repeat viewings for those who have the patience, and, like Hereditary, it is a film rooted in female trauma.

Aster has described Midsommar as a break-up movie that unravels into a folk horror nightmare. When trying to assess the film, that’s a good starting point. We’re essentially aligned with psychology grad student Dani (Florence Pugh) from the get-go, as she frantically emails her bi-polar sister and begs her to respond, fearing the worst. Early on, we’re also introduced to her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), whose friends encourage him to break up with Dani and accuse her of “abusing” him by demanding so much of his time. Not long after, Dani is orphaned in a visually jarring and disturbing scene that is one of many throughout the film. This narrative serves as the core plot line. Essentially, this is Dani’s story, and though there are other narrative threads and many pagans in white robes, the protagonist’s trauma is the real anchor. We’re with her each and every time she’s about to have a panic attack, be it in a cramped restroom on a plane or when she and Christian’s friends take mushrooms shortly after they arrive at a Swedish commune for midsummer celebrations.

In commenting on the relationship between Dani and Christian, Aster told The Hollywood Reporter that he aimed to “present a dynamic in which neither party is awful to the other one, but they’re absolutely wrong for each other. By virtue of the fact that we’re aligned very clearly with one character in the film, the other is immediately reduced to an antagonist.” It is true that Christian never specifically does anything horrible to Dani. He is callous and often distant, but he can’t really be accused of ill-intent. They are simply wrong for each and floundering in a stagnant relationship.

Image result for midsommar

Dani (Florence Pugh)

It’s unclear why Dani stays with Christian, but after losing her family, he’s all that she has left. The pagans sense this, specifically fellow student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who leads the graduate students to the rural Swedish town where the nightmare unfolds. Pelle sees the pagans as a real family. He tells Dani that no one takes anything for themselves and they share everything.  In this context, he specifically is talking about Dani, especially since he’s sitting with her on a bed while his hand moves to her thigh. He tries to disrupt the monogamous relationship that she has with Christian and offers an alternative lifestyle.

In that sense, the film presents two very different lifestyles that are destined to clash. There is the lifestyle of Pelle’s ancestral cult the Hårga and the lifestyle of the Americans. One of the white-robed Hårga tells the grad students that what matters most is being in harmony with nature. The Hårga also do everything together, from raising babies to eating. In fact, some of the eeriest scenes involve everyone seated at long wooden tables, staring at each other, waiting and watching for one of the elders to unfold their napkin before everyone else does the same in harmony. The penetrating gazes of the Hårga are unnerving.

On the other hand, there is the lifestyle of the Americans, best exemplified by Mark (Will Poulter), who serves as comic relief but also exemplifies the worst aspects of western culture. He is rude and dismissive of the Hårga’s ancient traditions. At one point, he relieves himself on a massive tree viewed by the Hårga as  physical manifestation of their deceased ancestors. Additionally, the other friends, even Josh (William Harper Jackson), a grad student writing a thesis on midsummer traditions and history, are constantly pulling out their phones to snap photos.  Eventually, Christian, whose graduate work is rudderless, decides he too is going to write on the Hårga. However, he does this for his own benefit and doesn’t have the deep respect for the traditions that Josh has. That said, even Josh can’t put his phone away  and takes photos of sacred books, despite being told no by the elders. This conflict between modernity/western sensibilities and ancient ritual is one of the undercurrents of the film and folk horror in general.

Midsommar also contains interesting commentary on suicide and death. In one of the most gut-punching scenes, the friends witness the suicides of two elders, but the Hårga explain that it’s better to give back to the life cycle and not allow both the spirit and body to break down in old age. To the westerners, however, this concept is unfathomable. Suicide is always bad.

Image result for midsommar

The Hårga

Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski deserves major props for bringing Aster’s nightmare vision to life. Simply put, the visual are stunning, be it the sprawling mountainside or the blinding brightness of the constant daylight. At times, the film is disorienting to the viewer, especially in the way that it bends time, specifically when the friends are tripping and images blur together. Grass grows on Dani’s feet and hands, for instance. The film is worth seeing for the visuals alone, especially on the big screen.

It’s too soon yet to declare Midsommar a masterpiece of the genre, as Peele has already done. There needs to be some time and distance before any work of art can and should be given such a title. Aster’s sophomore release is wildly ambitious, and at times, as existential as Hereditary, while including a nice dash of dark humor.  At its core, though, it’s a film about two people who simply shouldn’t be together. This, coupled with Dani’s trauma and her desire to find a family, are what really drive the film. The visuals are a memorizing and fairy tale-like addition to the narrative.

Some resources on folk horror:

Mark Gatis’ History of Horror

Folkhorror.com

Hereditary as Folk Horror by Alexandra Hauke, published by Horror Homeroom