Friday, December 11, 2015

THE BEST HORROR FILMS OF 2015

2015 is coming to a close and we are in the thick of  movie awards season. So, how is the horror genre doing? Unfortunately, no frighteners were called when the Golden Globe nominations were announced Thursday, December 10, but the popular IT FOLLOWS did net a number of Independent Spirit nominations when they were announced on November 24. It's showing up on a lot of critic's lists as one of the best of the year, and it's at the top of the heap here as the best of all 2015 horror movies. Here is my complete list.


IT FOLLOWS was the most effective horror movie of the year, both for its scares and its artistry, and it's writer/director Robert David Mitchell’s masterpiece. Almost nine months since its release, it is still the horror movie that has the most sticking power in 2015. It has a very simple premise: a deadly entity in human form hunts you down to kill you if you have sex with the wrong person. But everything else about the film is rich with nuance and complexity, from the camerawork to the score to the acting. And yes, there is bound to be some moralizing when your monster is a metaphor for STD’s, yet this film doesn’t judge Jay, the teen lead subtly played by Maika Monroe, too harshly. Sure, she's put through the ringer as the entity chases her all over the place, but her character is not a helpless victim, and ultimately she prevails. This is smart, thoughtful and shrewdly calculated storytelling. And it's one of the best entertainments of the year, horror or otherwise.


THE GIFT was the other horror movie that was the sharpest this year is this psychological thriller from writer/director/star Joel Edgerton. He created a small masterpiece about grudges and bullying. The taut story focuses on Edgerton as a loner exacting revenge 20 years later on the guy (Jason Bateman) who made his life a living hell in high school. But who's really the bad guy here? That's what Bateman's wife (Rebecca Hall) wants to know, and her loyalty zig-zags back and forth, as does the audience's. It all crackles with exquisite tension and dark humor, and the three performances are sharp and nervy. Here's hoping that Edgerton shares his gift for writing and directing more in this genre. 


The year’s most misunderstood genre piece was CRIMSON PEAK. It didn’t get a fair shake from critics or audiences. It was sold as a thumping ghost story, heavy with CGI, but in actuality, it was a character-driven Gothic romance. The tony cast of Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska should have clued in moviegoers that Guillermo del Toro was operating on a slyer and more serious level than mere spooks and specters, but they must have been expecting something more obvious and jolting like the boo's in the “Paranormal Activity” series. Thus, this movie tanked. If there is any justice, its eerie art direction will get an Oscar nomination, and the VOD release of the film will create an audience for a stunner that shouldn't have been shunned.  


A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT came out way back in January, but Iranian filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour’s black and white thriller bested most everything that came out in all the months after. She created a black and white arthouse film that used the backdrop of an Iranian city to tell of a female vampire who really just wants to enjoy the easygoing life of a teenage girl. Of course, she can't in her condition, and she's not nearly as monstrous as many of the jerky guys preying upon her in such a sexist region. Amirpour made a film that was not only frightening, but was a shrewd feminist commentary as well. 


Another spectacular arthouse ghost story was GOODNIGHT MOMMY It's so good, in fact, it's the official Academy entry from Austria for the year. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala wrote and co-directed this sparse, unsettling tale about the disturbing relationship between a mother who returns home to her isolated lake house after some plastic surgery, and  engages in a battle of wills with her ten-year-old twins Elias and Lukas. They think the excessively bandaged woman ordering them around is an imposter, and they start defying her at every turn. Their fight turns increasingly violent and by the end, you’ll be truly horrified at how their mind games have gotten out of hand. This might be the year’s most disturbing film. And even if you guess the big surprise, the even bigger one is how this film holds you utterly in its thrall the entire time, never letting go, never letting you relax. 


KNOCK KNOCK and THE GREEN INFERNO from horror wunderkind Eli Roth were both great, and he went two-for-two this year with his smart, contemporary and gripping horror stories. Neither film got the respect or box office they deserved, but in years to come, their reputations will only increase. Here, Roth is truly coming into his own as a mature filmmaker. He's always been able to make us squirm in our seats with his graphic violence and dark humor, but here, he's more cerebral, less visceral. And yet, the impact is still placing us firmly on the edge of our seats.

THE GREEN INFERNO came out first and concerns a group of activist college students trying to do some good down in the Amazon. But their naïveté hurls them headlong into an indigenous tribe that would rather eat them than surrender. Sure, it drew comparisons to the cult classic CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST from the early 1980’s, but this film was hardly a B-thriller like that. Instead, this one was a beautifully shot and carefully crafted piece that contained tons of tension, compelling characters, a dozen nuanced performances, and some of the cheekiest political commentary this side of Rachel Maddow.


KNOCK KNOCK also dealt with politics, the sexual kind, and marked a continuation of the strong comeback of Keanu Reeves. Here he plays a well-to-do architect who’s home alone for a weekend, trying to concentrate on getting some work done, when his doorbell rings and two comely women ask him for directions to a party. They're lost, and soon, he's lost in their charms. He invites them in and they become more and more evil in their motives towards him. Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armis play the interlopers and watching them turn for harmless flirts into vicious, calculating attackers is a marvel to see. Roth tightens the screws as effectively here in a well-lit, well-to-do home as he did in the thick, dangerous jungle of THE GREEN INFERNO. Special kudos to Izzo for two outstanding horror performances this year. Here, she's a sexy psycho, and in THE GREEN INFERNO she was 180 degrees different as an earnest ingénue. 


Horror fans were served a delightful treat this past Halloween with the release of EXTRAORDINARY TALES an animated anthology of five of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous tales. “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Tell Tale Heart”, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Masque of the Red Death” were each exquisitely animated in this adult cartoon. Each had a different style of animation, but all captured the eeriness, loneliness, and macabre sensibilities of author Poe, the father of modern horror. Especially striking was the use of water color in the "Red Death." Prince Prospero’s kingdom of sinners were painted with soft, sexy colors suggesting the lust of their transgressions. All to make the red-cloaked intruder pop upon his entrance as well. Raul Garcia wrote, produced and directed these marvelously rendered tales of madness and mirth.

Honorable mention must be given to STARRY EYES, a 2015 VOD release from writer/directors Kevin Kolsh and Dennis Widmyer, about a young actress who makes a deal with devilish producers to become a queen of Hollywood. It was wicked satire and a body transformation shocker that had to be seen to be believed. Also standing out this year was the holiday dark comedy KRAMPUS. Michael Dougherty’s dark comedy showcased the shadow of St. Nick and his terrorizing of a family that had lost the Christmas spirit. This farcical horror was as funny as it was fierce.


And for those who prefer their terror  at home on the smaller screen, where the lights can remain on, no horror on TV matched FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: THE SERIES this year. Each episode was sharp, mean, sexy fun. And it starred one of the best ensembles on the tube. In fact, AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL may be getting more press, but for true horror aficionados, Robert Rodriguez’s signature series on his El Rey Network is the one to go gaga over. And thankfully, to the delight of true horror fans everywhere, it was renewed for a third season.

Standouts like these made 2015 a ghoulishly good year. And here's hoping that 2016 holds even more haunts for all of us at the Cineplex and on the TV. 

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