While nothing in fictional frights can compete with the real life horrors that took place in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut this past year, there were still plenty of scares worth lauding. Thus, here are the highlights in horror, on the big screen and one on the small screen, that I picked in my role as the Chicago Horror Movie Examiner for 2012. (http://exm.nr/SN3ij5)
The best horror movie this year was not only an all-family animated film, but it was one of the sweetest love stories of 2012 as well. Director Tim Burton revisited his famous short from 20 years ago and turned it into a full-length feature and a stop-motion wonder. School boy Victor loves his dog Sparky so much that he brings his deceased pet back to life after a car accident with the help of well, sparks, as in a lot of electricity. It’s an endearing riff on FRANKENSTEIN, shot in black & white, as Sparky’s return throws the whole town into a tizzy. And in doing so, Burton cleverly lampoons societal norms, the mob mentality, schoolyard bullying, and at least half a dozen horror movies. Written by Burton, Leonard Ripps and John August, FRANKENWEENIE is darkly witty and yes, more than a bit scary. But it’s largest body part, in a film filled with them, is its huge heart. (My original review: http://exm.nr/R2OeSi)
Two animated movies on a best horror list? Yes, and I’d put them both on my regular Best in Film list too. PARANORMAN, written by Chris Butler and directed by Butler and Sam Fell, is the story of a boy named Norman who is anything but normal. He sees dead people everywhere and no one believes in his ‘sixth sense.’ But when his hometown becomes overrun with zombies and a vengeful ghost, only Norman sees what is happening, literally and figuratively. And like FRANKENWEENIE there is a sensitivity and sweetness to it. And the way the filmmakers here tweak teenagers and family politics is as biting as anything John Hughes ever did. (My original review: http://exm.nr/PwO2cb)
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
What looked like a cliché from the trailer, with a group of college friends running from a maniac in the woods, turned out to be just that as well as an exceedingly clever satire of such horror clichés. The savvy script is by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, and Goddard directs it with knowingness as well. The films works as a thriller and a political commentary, suggesting that violence has become so commonplace in our society that it’s become some sort of ersatz policy. This movie’s relevance will only increase after what happened in Sandy Hook last week. This movie is not only one of 2012’s best but it’s a definitive statement of the times we live in. (My original review: http://exm.nr/MMo28V)
This eerie film, written by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill, and directed by Derrickson, inexplicably bombed at the box office this autumn. I think it’s because the movie’s message was just a little too hard for filmgoers to stomach. That message? Few monsters compare to man. As I’ve steadfastly maintained, the human is always much scarier than the inhuman. And here, the all-too mortal character that Ethan Hawke plays is an utterly despicable man, blinded by his trembling insecurity and raging ego. He plays a true crime writer so desperate for success that he moves his family into the house where a family was murdered so that he will be inspired as he writes about it. Of course it isn’t long before he starts seeing all kinds of ghosts and yet he refuses to move out. His sins made SINISTER by far the scariest movie I saw all year. (My original review: http://exm.nr/QfSBFr)
Sure, it glosses over much of the truth of the Master of Suspense’s real life. And it ignores many of the fascinating anecdotes about the making of the classic horror film PSYCHO. Still, it’s a movie biography about history’s greatest film director, and you’ve got to love that, right? Anthony Hopkins plays Hitch with the right balance of imitation and interpretation while Helen Mirren shines in the role of his plucky wife Alma. It’s an odd and affectionate love story, written with cheeky humor by John J. McLaughlin and directed with panache by Sacha Gervasi. I enjoyed every frame of it. (My original review: http://exm.nr/10B2XHx)
Best Actor – Ethan Hawke in SINISTER
On screen virtually the whole time, Hawke played his forlorn writer with palpable panic. When he discovers a box full of home movies that turn out to be snuff films, Hawke’s face ran the gamut of shock, awe, repulsion, fascination and elation, sometimes all in the same scene. As he digs deeper into the truth behind the serial murders, he loses his grip on reality and Hawke lets us understand every quaking moment of his descent all too well. It’s a bravura turn that is easily the best lead male performance in a horror movie this year.
Best Actress - Jennifer Carpenter in DEXTER (Showtime)
Helen Mirren was great in HITCHCOCK, but for me, even the esteemed Dame Mirren did not equal the amazing performance by Jennifer Carpenter on the horror TV series DEXTER this year. And Carpenter better finally get an Emmy nomination for this sterling turn. In the seventh season of Showtime’s most popular series, Deb discovered that her stepbrother is a serial killer and then decided to help him cover up the crimes. She used to be the moral backbone of the show but now her character has morphed into a terrifying enabler. Deb’s frustration and sorrow, as she spiraled downward, was a marvel to watch. And Carpenter aced every single moment.
Best Supporting Actor – Steve Berens in THE ABC'S OF DEATH
Doing a short horror film for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet all but guaranteed an uneven movie, and THE ABC'S OF DEATH was certainly that. However, the great segments really stood out, most notably D IS FOR DOGFIGHT. Written and directed by Marcel Sarmiento, it’s a riveting mini-masterpiece. And in it, Steve Berens gave an incredibly intense performance that I think is the best supporting one in a horror movie this year. He plays a homeless man kidnapped and forced to fight a vicious dog in a battle to the death in front of sneering gamblers. He doesn’t want to fight but knows he’ll die one way or the other. The shame, fear and courage rippling across Berens’ horrified face were absolutely palpable. And acting isn’t even his main vocation - his day job is that of an animal trainer, one of Hollywood’s most sought after for 30 years! (He also trained the dog he has to ‘fight’ against here, naturally.)
Best Supporting Actress – Hannah Fierman in V/H/S
V/H/S is another anthology horror movie with some segments far better than others. The short film that worked best in it was entitled AMATEUR NIGHT and it concerned three frat boys out cruising chicks and videotaping their exploits. They pick up two girls and one, Lily, is a spooky looker played by Hannah Fierman. She seems naïve at first, whispering only “I like you.” Soon after though, she reveals herself to be a monster out hunting prey and the horn dogs are her next victims. Fierman is utterly terrifying in the role, with her big, dark eyes and her feral body language. She, and her character Lily, a half vampire/half winged beast, deserve their own franchise!
Well, fellow horror aficionados, those are my picks for the highlights of onscreen horror in 2012. I’ll try to forget the dogs like SILENT HILL: REVELATION 3D and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, and prefer to remember Sparky and his ilk in FRANKENWEENIE. And here’s to the New Year and even better haunts in store, just hopefully all up there on the screen.