Top Horror Films of 2020

Blood Quantum' Review - Variety

What a year it’s been. From the pandemic, to the U.S. election that felt like it was 10 years long, this was a hard year. The horror genre, meanwhile, continued to have resounding success and always does best during periods of anxiety. The Invisible Man posted major box office numbers. “Lovecraft County” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor” were huge hits on their respective streaming services, and the little indie film Host reinvented the found footage genre for the Zoom/pandemic age, much in the way that The Blair Witch Project rewrote the rules of the genre in 1999.

Before I offer my list, let me note one trendline that I noticed this year. OLD IS BACK. What do I mean by this? Well, H.P. Lovecraft is huge again. “Lovecraft Country,” based on Matt Ruff’s novel, is one example. Even in my creative writing classes, I have more and more students writing Lovecraft-like stories with otherwordly monsters and an indifferent universe. This year’s first big horror flick was Underwater, an aquatic film that rips off both Alien and the big guy himself, Cthulhu. The underwater scenes are as bleak and hopeless as the worlds in Lovecraft’s stories.

Further, there’s been a return to classic Gothic films/books. “The Haunting of Bly Manor” is a contemporary take on Henry James’ stories, mostly The Turn of the Screw. The Invisible Man reinvented the H.G. Wells’ monster and had so much success that Universal now plans to reboot other classic monsters. Instead of a dark universe, they’re planning individual films, hoping to replicate the success The Invisible Man. We’ll probably be seeing the Gil-man, Wolfman, Frankenstein, and the Bride back on the big screen at some point.

Now, on to the list! Unlike past years, these are not numbered. I can’t pick a specific favorite film.

The Lodge (Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala)

If you thought Franz and Fiala’s Goodnight, Mommy (2014) was brutal, especially its ending, then The Lodge may be too much. There’s nothing pleasant in the film. Nothing. No humor. No quips. This entire movie feels claustrophobic and frigid. After a father abruptly departs for work, his girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), is left alone with his two children. A blizzard traps her in the remote cabin with the kids, where she’s haunted by the past and religious fanaticism. I saw this film in February when it was released in theaters, and boy, did that mid-winter night feel so much colder after viewing this.

Swallow (Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis)

This is a quiet little indie flick and one of a few films released by IFC that made my list. They had a very good year from a horror perspective. This film reminds me a lot of Rosemary’s Baby. Everyone thinks that they know what’s best for Hunter (Haley Bennett). The men want to control her, especially her hubby, Richie (Austin Stowell). So, she takes to swallowing objects, everything from a thumbtack to a marble, and in an odd way, it gives her some agency. (Read my review of Swallow for HorrOrigins). The conversations and break down of communication between Hunter and Richie are some of the most memorable scenes I’ve watched all year.

The Vast of Night (Directed by Andrew Patterson)

I can’t say enough about this film and how inventive it is. It’s a story about UFOs that’s all about the storytelling, using the technology from the 1950s, especially radio broadcasts, to spin its spooky narrative. You don’t even really see the bright lights or little green men. You don’t need to. Everything is relayed through the hair-raising dialogue and storytelling. But more so, the film is about two people, Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz), who want to escape their small town. They dream of something bigger, and they get swept up in something much larger than themselves. (Read my review of The Vast of Night for Signal Horizon Magazine).

The Invisible Man (Directed by Leigh Whannel)

Director Leigh Whannel’s stock has really been rising within the horror community. After creating Saw with James Wan, Whannel’s career didn’t take off the way that Wan’s did, but then The Invisible Man happened this year, a major box office hit and collaboration between Blumhouse and Universal Studios. The film rewrote Wells’ monster and made him a metaphor for domestic abuse. The film is terrifying, bolstered by Elisabeth Moss’ harrowing performance. After the film’s massive success, Universal green-lit a slew of Universal Monsters reboots. COVID has delayed filming schedules, but there will be plenty more classic monsters in the coming years. Whannell, meanwhile, signed a two-picture, first-look deal with Blumhouse directly after the film’s release. (Read my review of The Invisible Man for Signal Horizon Magazine).

The Wretched (Directed by Drew and Brett Pierce)

I’m as intrigued by the story of The Wretched as I am by the film itself. This movie was #1 at the box office a few weeks in a row, thanks to IFC’s wise decision to screen it a drive-ins. This indie film became a major hit! It’s a positive story from the pandemic year. Also, this movie is just a lot of fun. It’s a throw-back to 80s films and practical effects with a few Hitchcock references thrown in. The witch also looks really, really damn cool. (Read my review of The Wretched for Signal Horizon Magazine. Read my interview with the directors for HorrOrigins).

The Wolf of Snow Hollow (Directed by/Written by/Starring Jim Cummings)

When was the last time we had a really good werewolf movie? Ginger Snaps (2000) is the last one that comes to mind for me. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is a thoroughly enjoyable werewolf flick, but at the center of it is a family drama. The lead, John Marshell (Cummings), is an officer in a small Utah town. Oh, and he’s an alcoholic. His life is frayed. His wife divorced him, and the stress of trying to solve the town’s murders may push him over the edge at any moment. The film has SO much heart, humor, and stellar cinematography. It also makes for a good holiday film with its snowy setting and Christmas music playing in the background. (Read my review for HorrOrigins).

La Llorona (Directed by Jayro Bustamante)

If you are a horror fan, then you need to subscribe to the streaming service Shudder. Period. Year after year, they put out some of the best international and domestic films in the genre. La Llorona is one of the films they released this year, and it feels SO important, especially in the context of right-wing populism’s rise internationally over the last few years. In Guatemala, Alma is murdered with her children during a military attack. Thirty years later, the general who ordered the genocide is found not guilty, and Alma comes back to the world of the living to torment Gen. Enrique. This film is so haunting, especially in its portrayal of genocide and how those ghosts impact the present. This film is also a warning about strong men and how a country can collapse under authoritarian rule.

Relic (Directed by Natalie Erika James)

This is the final IFC film on my list. Few films recently have moved me as much as Relic, a story about dementia and a family’s struggles in dealing with the matriarch’s decline. Yes, there are scary scenes in this, but the film is more about witnessing a family member’s ailing mental health and being helpless to stop it. The house becomes a metaphor for a ravaged mind. The ending is one of the most poetic that I’ve seen in a while. I can’t wait to see what James does next. (Read my review of Relic for HorrOrigins).

His House (Directed by Remi Weekes)

Netflix’s horror selection is REALLY hit or miss, but then along comes a film like His House that totally reinvents the haunted house genre to tell the story of a refugee couple who flees war-torn Sudan. This film is creepy and atmospheric, but its real importance lies in the story that it has to tell.

Blood Quantum (Directed by Jeff Barnaby)

Once again, Shudder has more than one entry on my best-of, year-end list. Blood Quantum is important for SO many reasons. It’s directed by a Native filmmaker and features an all-Native cast. It totally rewrites the zombie genre to tell a story about erasure, survival, and reclaiming history. Like George A. Romero before him, Barnaby understands why zombies work so well as social metaphors. Oh, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film with lots of gore, too. Before I say anymore about this one, just go watch it, please.

Runner-ups and Honorable Mentions: Host, Shirley, Becky, The Devil to Pay, The Beach House, Color Out of Space

Let’s hope that next year is an easier year for all of us. Maybe we’ll finally get Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot in theaters and Halloween Kills by next October. Be safe everyone!

Who’s Sleeping Next to Us?

(Photo from IFC Midnight)

Recently, I wrote a feature story on the films What Keeps You Alive (2018), currently streaming on Netflix, and Honeymoon (2014), one of my favorite horror films of the last decade. The article looks at how both films have a monster who is a significant other and use a rural setting to invoke the Otherness/monster. It’s a terrifying premise, that the one we love isn’t who we think they are. The article appears over at Signal Horizon. Check it out if you’re so inclined!

BBC/Netlix’s Dracula: A Mixed Adaptation of Stoker’s Classic Novel

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Photo Courtesy of the BBC

How do you make Bram Stoker’s 19th Century Dracula relevant for the 21st Century? How do you tell a vampire story post-Twilight and make the classic monster threatening? The three-part BBC/Netflix adaptation tries to do both with mixed results. Its first episode is reminiscent of early Dracula Hammer films, while drawing fairly heavily from the source material. The second two episodes take bold risks with Stoker’s novel, while trying to maintain the general story-line and characterization. At certain points, the series succeeds in making the vampire relevant in 2020, while at other times, namely in the third episode, there are too many poorly executed leaps.

In terms of the building slow dread and genuine scares, the first episode is the most effective, and it generally follows the beginning of the novel when lawyer Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) treks to the Count’s Gothic estate to complete a real estate transaction, only to fall prey to the monster, while  his fiance Mina (Morfydd Clark)  frets over his whereabouts. The challenge of adapting Stoker’s novel is the epistolary form. To handle this, show creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Mofatt still give Harker’s account of his time under the Count’s spell, but they do so by having nuns/vampire hunters (yes, you read that correctly) interview him. Oddly enough, it works. We’re introduced to a pale, badly scarred Harker, and in one of the most effective scares, a fly crawls along and under his eyeball. The presence and stench of death is a reoccurring motif in the novel, and the first episode uses the constant image of flies to reinforce this. It is unnerving and haunting, underscoring the power that the monster still has over Harker. His wounds are both physical and mental.

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(Photo Courtesy of the BBC)

Claes Bang is generally a captivating Dracula as his power grows over the young Harker. He is suave and handsome once he feeds. His hair darkens. His wrinkles disappear, but the fact his first appearance depicts him as a scraggly-haired, sharp-toothed fiend compounds the point Stoker emphasizes in the novel that no matter how alluring, Count Dracula is a monster who only unleashes death. Throughout the rest of the series, however, Dracula resembles a caped Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi more than he does Max Schreck/Noseratu. Additionally, the influence of the Lee-era Hammer Films  is apparent in the first episode, with several close-up shots of the castle and fog rolling beneath looming spires. The episode leans heavily into the Gothic elements and creates a mesmerizing atmosphere.

Sister Agatha Van Helsing (Dolly Wells) also elevates the first episode, specifically when she encounters the Count for the first time and taunts him, calling him nothing but a beast who driven by sheer hunger at the sight of blood. Some  may gripe that Van Helsing was changed to a woman for this series, but in the first episode, she gives one of the strongest performances. Her intellect and confidence match Dracula’s.

The second episode takes place on the Demeter, a ship set for the New World/England,  as the Count stalks victim after victim and hides the bodies. The gore here is as effective as the use of flies in episode one, but after spending an hour and a half on a ship, you just want the Count to reach London already. Additionally, too many of the characters in the second chapter are too hollow and serve as little more than vampire bait. The third episode is the shakiest in the series and has drawn the most complaints from viewers. There are great leaps in the narrative and major characters from the novel, namely Lucy (Lydia West) and Renfield (Gattis), who feel shoehorned into the final chapter. The most brazen move entails setting Dracula in the present day. How he ended up in the present is absurd and laughable from a narrative standpoint and comes across as lazy writing. There are plot points regarding the Van Helsing family that also don’t quite stick. Yet, I couldn’t stop laughing (in a good way) each time Dracula checked email and Skyped.

Overall, the series is uneven. Its first episode is the strongest. Its visuals, story line, and acting all cohere to create an engaging first chapter that stays true to the source material while making changes that make sense for the TV format. The third episode is by far the riskiest and has drawn the most ire from fans. Too many major characters from the novel are stuffed into the conclusion and not given enough time to breathe. All of that said, at least  the vampire doesn’t sparkle. On the one hand, he’s attractive and intellectual, and on the other hand, when his mouth is covered with blood, or when he visits Jonathan’s dreams as an aged demonic figure, he’s quite terrifying. Final verdict: watch the series with an open mind and enjoy it for what it is.

 

 

Review: Hold the Dark (2018)

In Green Room, director Jeremy Saulnier uses the tight confines of a dingy punk rock club in rural America to create isolation and tension as a band is besieged by neo-Nazis. At one point, the group is hauled up in the confines of a sound check room with no access to the outside world. Sauldnier’s latest film, Netflix’s Hold the Dark, contains sprawling Alaskan landscapes and stunning cinematography that creates bleakness and despair. The violence is as brutal and sudden as some of the scenes in Green Room. However, the film strays into too much ambiguity near the halfway point and sinks beneath its own weight.

Hold the Dark is based on the 2014 novel by William Giraldi, and it traces the journey/mission of writer Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who is summoned by Medora Slone (Riley Keough) to investigate the loss of her son, who was allegedly killed by a pack of wolves. The animals are also blamed for the death of other children in the village. The opening act  is the strongest, especially the scenes between Wright and Keough, whose acting is top notch. The dialogue is well-crafted and builds a foreboding sense of darkness that can’t be kept at bay, especially when Medora says, “The wilderness here is inside us…Inside everything.” The early scenes are isolating and often feature long shots of the all-consuming Alaskan wilderness, sometimes with the characters set small against the backdrop. One of the most tense scenes occurs when Core stumbles down a snowy hill and encounters the pack of wolves, their snouts bloodied after devouring one of their own, a cub. It’s a survival of the fittest/kill or be killed type of world.

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Russell Core (Jeremy Wright) and Medora Slone (Riley Keough)

Following the opening act, once Medora flees the scene and after it’s discovered that she may have been the one who killed her son, the rest of the film loses its momentum and veers off track, especially once her husband, Vernon Slone (Alexander Skarsgård), returns home from Iraq after getting shot in the neck. He kills and kills some more, as he searches for his wife. There were several missed opportunities and potential story lines left uncharted. The idea of isolation and loneliness caused by Vernon Slone’s Iraq tour is generally unexplored. Imagine being a military spouse, left to raise your child alone in Alaska. The tension between what the Native people believe about nature and the wolves and what police believe, mainly that there is no greater, metaphysical force at work, is interesting and deserved far more attention. Early on, the idea that there is some connection between Medora Slone and the wolves is lightly introduced but also underdeveloped. I had hoped the film would have explored some connection between the feminine and nature and how Medora is viewed by the villagers and the police.

Watch the trailer for Hold the Dark:

 

The film’s final act, when Core eventually confronts Vernon Slone, is the most frustrating. Yes, they come face to face and one walks away, so to speak, but the film’s conclusion is utterly ambiguous. Nothing is really resolved. It takes over two hours to build to such a climax, only to veer off into a strange direction with no finality.

The acting and cinematography are the highlights of Hold the Dark, and fans who liked the level of gore and violence in Green Room won’t be disappointed with some of the brutal scenes in Saulnier’s latest effort. However, the film’s plot comes unglued around the halfway point, and anyone who sticks around for the ending will probably find it underwhelming.