The terrorist threats over the movie THE INTERVIEW, as well as the rash reactions from Sony and the theater chains who all caved into the demands to squelch the release of the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy, were truly frightening these past couple of days. Too often it's real world monsters that eclipse any fictional vampire, alien or zombie. But at least horror on screen remains fun, and all of the following films picked as the best genre entries of the year were able to be seen and find an audience.
So good was 2014, that some horror films - like Jim Jarmusch’s ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, Jonathan Glazer’s UNDER THE SKIN, and Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK - have climbed onto traditional 10 best lists. Those rate listing here too as the year's best in screen horror.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE was tops, and the fact that it was such a fresh take on the overdone vampire genre made it even more of an accomplishment. Jim Jarmusch’s story wasn’t a bloodfest but rather a dissertation on love and loss. His vampires were a longtime couple witnessing far too many centuries who've lost friends and their will to live. Even their home city of Detroit seems dead and buried. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston played the world-weary duo giving subtle, sensitive performances. This vampire tale was both a poignant romance and a dark comedy. And it proved that when unconventional directors approach horror, wonderfully unique movies occur.
Perhaps the most unfairly treated movie of the year was Denis Villeneuve’s ENEMY. (Okay, okay, THE INTERVIEW had it worse.) Nonetheless, ENEMY was dumped on VOD this past spring without a national release. That was a true shame as this psychological horror/thriller proved to be one of the year’s most thrilling once seen. It was a dark and brooding piece about the monstrous male ego, and Jake Gyllenhaal rendered both impotence and hubris equally well in one of the year's best performances in any genre.
There were also two monsters in Mike Flanagan’s wonderfully creepy OCULSU. One was a demonic mirror that caused death and destruction wherever it appeared, and the other was one of its survivors determined to defeat it. Ultimately, it was survivor Kaylie (Karen Gillan) who proved the most frightening in the piece, and Karen Gillan made her both sympathetic and despicable. Gillan can be funny (the short-lived ABC series SELFIE) and fierce (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY), but here she went utterly cra-cra as she helped bring Mike Flanagan’s sharp thriller to edge-of-your-seat life.
Can a children’s movie, and an animated one at that, truly be considered a horror tale? Well, THE BOOK OF LIFE wasn’t really scary, but it was a tale about death and the supernatural, so indeed yes is the answer. Like 2012’s FRANKENWEENIE this was a story that challenged the family audience with more mature subject material. But it wasn't a dark, funeral dirge. Instead, it was a buoyant and colorful spectacle that brimmed over with life in every scene. Never had resurrection been so gorgeous or fun. Oscar will likely nominate Jorge R. Guittierrez' sparkling effort for Best Animated Feature, but it deserves nods for costumes and production design too.
Last year’s THE CONJURING was my pick for the best horror movie of 2013, and its prequel ANNABELLE was one of the best this year as well. John Leonetti directed a sharp horror tale that was less about the demonic doll namesake, and more about how evil overwhelms good people. The young couple battling against a haunting spirit was reminiscent of Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes in the horror classic ROSEMARY'S BABY. It’s a worthy comparison as Leonetti showed wonderful slyness in his direction and helped star Annabelle Wallis turn in a memorable heroine fighting for her life and family.
Movies don’t have to have lots of blood and gore, big budgets, or supernatural aliens to terrify, and CHEAP THRILLS is the proof. It’s a four-hander about two middle-aged losers coaxed into a creepy bar game by a rich man and his alluring, trophy wife. The two sad sacks are so down on their luck they're willing to compete for whatever dollar the riches wave in their face. It starts with pranks and soon turns into violent exercises and bloodletting. CHEAP THRILLS was as funny as it was disturbing as it showcased how far desperate souls will go and how they'll lose those souls in the process. Director E. L. Katz ratcheted up the tension throughout and drew expert performances out of the game Pat Healey, Ethan Embry, David Koechner and Sara Paxton.
LUCKY BASTARD was another offering that mostly found its audience on VOD, and this nasty little thriller spoofed both crazy killer movies as well as gonzo porn. Robert Nathan's clever film earned its NC-17 rating due to the unflinching nudity and language, but its true shock was how skilled a movie it was against such an unsavory backdrop. Don MacManus excelled as the put upon producer, and Jay Paulson made his regular Joe killer both pathetic and empathetic. Finally though, Betsy Rue steals the picture as the worldly starlet who stayed between the sheets a few films too long.
There were other wonderful movies that did the genre proud too.
HONEYMOON asked how well one really knows their spouse in Leigh Janiak’s knowing thriller about a marriage undone by forces alien and internal. The unsettling AFFLICTED was a wicked riff on vampires and documentary filmmaking written, directed and starring Clif Prowse and Derek Lee. VHS: VIRL was the third of that franchise in as many years, and it's best. Zachary Donohue’s THE DEN played as a shrewd updating of REAR WINDOW with a strong performance by Melanie Papalia as the doomed grad student. And the versatile Elijah Wood continued to excel in the genre with superb and varied turns in GRAND PIANO and “OPEN WINDOWS.
UNDER THE SKIN struck me as more of a science fiction film, but it certainly mined scares and thrills with Scarlett Johansson's fully committed work as a sexually voracious alien. GONE GIRL wasn’t really a horror movie but David Fincher’s direction, Jeff Cronenweth’s photography and Rosamund Pike’s scary lead played as if they were and the results were absolutely chilling. And THE BABADOOK certainly established writer/director Jennifer Kent as a real up and comer in the genre with HER auspicious Aussie winner. She also got an Oscar worthy turn out of lead Essie Davis but the Academy will likely ignore the actress' superb performance. What a shame.
Horror had a banner year on TV too, and that will be the subject of a future list. 2014 did the horror genre proud and its best proved that it doesn't take ginormous budgets or star power to make stunning thrilling films. All it takes is a storyteller that knows how to scare, and make us care.