I wrote a lot about horror movies in 2013. I covered a bunch of new releases for Daily Grindhouse and I also wrote a lot of retrospectives about the classics. The master list of my October horror articles can be found [here] and the rest of the horror reviews I did in 2013 will appear lower down on the page. I wouldn’t call myself an authority on the horror genre, but I’ve seen my share. This top ten will be my list of favorites. I also mentioned movies I still want to see, and some that I liked but not enough to engrave into a year-end list. If you’ve enjoyed my take on things before, you may find something new here you’d like to try. If you hate my tastes, I’m not sure why you’d read my top-ten list, but thanks. Actually, I’m not sure anyone reads the introductory paragraph of year-end top-10 lists. Let’s test out that theory: I killed a man in cold blood at 2am on Christmas morning. I enjoyed it. Maybe I’ll do it again on New Year’s Day.
I don’t hear the approaching wail of police sirens, so I’m going to assume I’m in the clear for now. Anyway, let’s get to it.
MOVIES I WANTED TO SEE BUT DIDN’T GET TO
Any film by Jim Mickle is automatically on my radar. After MULBERRY STREET and STAKE LAND, he’s become one of the most promising new horror directors. I wrote about my excitement for his next film, COLD IN JULY, here. I don’t even know what WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is about — I don’t want to read anything and ruin it — all I know is how curious I am to see it.
WILLOW CREEK is a found-footage film about the search for Bigfoot, brought to you by Bobcat Goldthwait. I wasn’t so into GOD BLESS AMERICA, his previous movie, but here you can read me raving about WORLD’S GREATEST DAD. Somewhere along the way, this love-him-or-don’t comedian became one of independent film’s boldest satirical voices, and yes I am absolutely excited to see what havoc he will wreak upon the horror genre.
SEEN ‘EM, BUT DIDN’T MAKE THE CUT
Some great atmospheric scenes early on, and a terrific, original performance by Jessica Chastain throughout, but that ending threatens to undo all that accumulated goodwill. I’d see the next film from the same team, though.
No offense meant — this is an elegantly mounted film from a great director with some truly well-pitched performances — but I’m not sure STOKER eclipses its influences. I mean, if I want to watch SHADOW OF A DOUBT, I’d still rather watch SHADOW OF A DOUBT.
Not remotely as bad as some people want you to think, but not particularly great. It does meet my minimum requirement for Gemma Arterton. (There is no maximum amount.) Also, I noticed that “movies” are a synonym for “something really terrible happens to Peter Stormare.” Not to be confused with the standard Sean-Bean-and-Danny-Trejo-always-die trope. In this one, if memory serves, a monster steps on Peter Stormare’s head. There, saved you the trouble.
Despite a committed and fierce performance from Luke Evans and cinematography by the legendary Daniel Pearl (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE), this one isn’t as good as I’d have hoped from the director of THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, an oddly underestimated sleeper. It’s a very fine line in horror films, the line between thrilling carnage and unpleasant brutality, but I’m afraid this movie steps over the line into unpleasantness. No matter how creative the violence, still it can become tiresome.
A solid haunted-house movie. In a relatively sparse year for the genre, I think it got more shine than it otherwise would, but there are some real efficient scares here. Probably the best horror film I’ve yet seen from this team, which is why it’s so weird that director James Wan is claiming to leave horror for films like FAST 7. That’d be like a baseball player who hit his first triple quitting the game entirely to take up basketball.
A weird case of a movie which is both greater and lesser than I’d hope. It’s very rare to see an A-list star in a zombie flick, which is really the high concept here. It helps the genre, because there’s automatic empathy. Which makes this the first Marc Forster film I’ve ever given half a crap about. But making Brad Pitt the center of a zombie epic is both a blessing and a curse, since as much as he makes the movie work, there’s less attention paid to the rest of the world. No one in the supporting cast really popped for me. A strange and ironic complaint for a film based on a book whose entire individuality is based upon its multiple-perspective oral-history structure.
Look, if you put Danny Trejo in your horror movie, I’ll watch it. I may not like it, but I will surely watch it. More on this one soon.
ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE
This movie gets the “Heard a lot about you, nice to finally meet” award. I plan to write more about it for the site, so I won’t get into it now if you don’t mind.
From the same director, here comes this zombie romance which I never expected to like. For one thing, it’s clever and surprisingly funny, with a terrific supporting turn from the great Rob Corddry. For another, it’s pretty much guaranteed that if you put guys who look like this in your movie, I will have nice things to say about your movie:
FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY is so slow to start that I turned off the DVD the first time I watched it. Luckily I decided to give it another go. The latter half of this film is absolute carnage; while it often feels like watching someone else play a video game, the movie rewards the watch with a menagerie of some of the most eerie, disturbing, and garish monsters in recent memory. And I mean, a TON of ’em.
Here’s yet another film I plan to honor with a longer review. This one is on a lot of year-end top-ten lists, and there’s a lot to celebrate here. But all I have is my own experience. I was so with this movie, hooting and hollering all the way through the first half — and then there’s a moment where for me it peaked, and it was never that fun again. That isn’t a technical criticism. The film is well-made, well-choreographed, and consistently entertaining. I’m talking about a horror movie’s emotional effectiveness. I just wasn’t as invested for the latter half as I was for the start. There are possible explanations for that, such as my suspicion this one suffers from “BEHIND THE MASK” effect — Michael Myers is scary because of his unknowability. Once you give the silent killers a personality, you risk losing much of their horrific potency. But this is part of a longer conversation, and I still have a top ten to get to. So…
AND NOW… THE LIST….
10. BIG BAD WOLVES
Israel’s second-ever horror film is a grueling experience. The level of craft on display is virtuosic, all deployed for the express purpose of socking you in the gut. From the perfectly orchestrated opening scene with its ingenious reveal of the title credit, all the way through to the unforgettable final shot, this is one hauntingly directed motion picture. Writer-director team Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado made Israel’s first horror film (2010’s RABIES) and I hope to see many more. But I hope to not see this particular one again for quite a while. It’s not hard to see why BIG BAD WOLVES is Quentin Tarantino’s favorite film of the year: Torture scenes are a leitmotif with Quentin, and the torture scenes in BIG BAD WOLVES set a new, disturbingly tactile standard for the practice of cinematic torture. An outlaw detective (Lior Ashkenazi from FOOTNOTE, the only actor I recognized) doggedly pursues and harasses a schoolteacher who he is convinced is guilty of a string of ghastly child killings in the area. When he teams up with the demented father of the latest victim, things get really nasty. It’s very hard to review this film without giving too much away, but if you like your comedy in shades of deepest black and your suspense near-unbearable, this is one you’re going to need to see.
This Neil Jordan vampire film was supposed to come out in 2012. It didn’t. I’ve been waiting a while. I’m honestly not the hugest fan of Neil Jordan, who is most famous in horror circles for THE COMPANY OF WOLVES and INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. He makes sumptuous, swirling gothic, romantic pieces which are arguably more highbrow than the kind of horror flicks I love best — don’t get your costume drama in my monster movie. But I liked what I read about the femme-centric approach by screenwriter Moira Buffini, about an immortal mother-daughter pair of vampires; one who works as a prostitute or a stripper or whatever trade she can to keep money coming in and to provide her with dudes scummy enough to use as lunchmeat, and the other a perpetual teenager with a conscience, who only kills willing victims, liberating the infirm from their mortal shells. Saoirse Ronan is typically effective and soulful in this part, making delicate moments seem natural, an uneasy task for a young performer but we’re almost used to it at this point. It’s Gemma Arterton who is a fearsome revelation. If you’ve seen Stephen Frears’ TAMARA DREWE you know she can blow up the screen with unrestrained sensuality, but here she makes it scary. In this movie, she’s a monster made of sex. Check out that still frame at the head of this article. She may be a right fine figure of a woman, but the bottom line is she’s gonna tear your head off, dude. It’s great. The other star of BYZANTIUM is cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who had an epic 2013 (he shot 12 YEARS A SLAVE, amidst three other features) — I’ve seen thousands of movies in my day, so I can honestly tell you that no one has ever filmed a waterfall made of blood as beautifully as this man has.
8. JOHN DIES AT THE END
A funky mind-bender from the stewardship of Don Coscarelli, who we really need to gang up on and strap to a camera so he makes more movies more frequently. JOHN DIES AT THE END is based on a book of the same name by David Wong, who is the movie’s main character. (The author’s real name is Jason Pargin and the actor who plays David Wong is a guy named Chase Williamson, or maybe that’s just what they want you to think.) David Wong and his best friend, rock vocalist John Cheese (Rob Mayes) work as paranormal investigators and eliminators, dealing with weird and unprecedented problems which only they can handle, due to their exposure to a substance they call “Soy Sauce”, which allows them to see monsters where there aren’t otherwise monsters and travel to alternate dimensions against the normal constraints of space and time. Phew. Long sentence. The movie is funny, that’s all you need to know, and spooky and surprising, stuffed with enough ideas to feed a hundred other movies. Coscarelli’s adaptation of the book is super-faithful but smartly adapted to screen, particularly with the addition of an investigative reporter played by the great, great Paul Giamatti who’s interested in Wong’s story. Williamson and Mayes are an unusually likable pair of young actors, giving off an agreeable Tobey Maguire update and a young Val Kilmer in REAL GENIUS vibe, respectively. They get perfect support from awesome veterans like Clancy Brown and Glynn Turman (you probably know him from The Wire, or GREMLINS if you’re nasty). If the movie occasionally bumps up against the constraints of its budget, Coscarelli, the actors, and the score from the underrated Brian Tyler (who’s scoring Marvel movies now) keep things moving. Rewards the rewatch, this one.
I’m a sucker for a creature feature, in the gross-out comic style of GREMLINS or TREMORS. This is the best one I saw this year. SHARKNADO only wishes it were this consistently witty. A strong cast came to play, including the Andy-Serkis-esque Richard Coyle and the cute but tough Ruth Bradley, along with a bunch of faces I recognized from THE GUARD. The high concept sounds like a joke — when tentacled monsters attack a coastal town, their only weakness is a resistance to high blood alcohol contents of its would-be victims — actually kinda sorta makes sense, in a pseudo-science kind of way. Writer Kevin Lehane and director Jon Wright wring the slender story for all the entertainment possible. There were scarier movies this year, but few as irresistible.
6. CURSE OF CHUCKY
Chucky the Murder Doll starred in three mostly-straightfaced slashers before starring in two of the campiest horror films of the past decade. Director Don Mancini, who created Chucky and has written all six Chucky movies to date, pretty much jettisoned all the smirks and smiles and took Chucky back to his creepy goddamned beginnings for this newest installment. CURSE OF CHUCKY is Gothic in the classical sense. The impressive cinematography by Michael Marshall excellently exploits the shadows and angles of the cavernous mansion which serves as the story’s setting. The terrifically talented Brad Dourif returns as the voice (and the occasional face) behind Charles Lee Ray, the serial killer whose soul is bound to the iconic doll in that poster there. In a bit of stunt casting that works very nicely, Dourif’s daughter, Fiona, plays the young woman confined to a wheelchair who receives a Chucky doll in the mail, right before all hell ensues. She’s one of the most likable protagonists in any recent slasher film. CURSE OF CHUCKY is filled with kinky sexuality and plenty of melodrama; the story focuses around its human cast for longer than could be expected, considering how we are all so acquainted with the film’s marquee star, but it’s a neat way to distinguish this straight-to-home-video release which is plenty good enough to be shown theatrically and to quickly gain in standing and popularity.
5. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
Here’s how BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO works: Press play. Watch. Wonder, “What did I just see?” Watch again. Think about BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO. Find friends who saw it. Talk about BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO. Barring that, go to internet. Read about BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO. This story of a movie sound artist from Britain (Toby Jones) who goes to Italy to work on a giallo film and gradually loses himself in the process may feel oblique and inaccessible to many. But the pure joy in the elements of cinema is tangible. You may not immediately grasp everything you’re seeing and hearing, but you feel it. And it’s clearly composed with terrific intelligence and skill. Writer/director Peter Strickland has created one of the year’s most indelible films. Like a dream or a nightmare, maybe all that sticks in your mind after the first viewing is a sound or an image. That’s why you’ll want to explore it again. I’ve seen comparisons to David Lynch, but my hunch is that this film actually is more linear than most of his work. The questions are answerable, with attention paid. But I could be wrong. That’s why I want to explore it again.
4. JUG FACE
Most horror films are content to be intermittently scary. One of the most original motion pictures of the year, JUG FACE is more eerie and unsettling, on a long sustained note. Horror films have a long history of short-shrifting backwoods folk, making them out to be wild-eyed maniacs. JUG FACE details an unusual community who live just outside of the America you and I know. The villagers have their own customs and beliefs. Sean Bridgers, star of THE WOMAN, plays a kind of savant who fashions creepy-looking jugs out of clay from the earth. The jugs have faces on them. Community tradition holds that when your face comes up on the jug, it’s your turn to be sacrificed to the pit which the assembled populace worships. The villagers have a generally fatalistic attitude towards this ceremony. When it’s time, it’s time. But the independent-minded Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) hides her jug when it comes up, which wreaks all kind of unforeseen havoc. In a world where marriages are arranged, Ada wants to love who she loves. The thing is, the first time we meet Ada, she’s having sex in the woods with her own brother. And this is our point-of-view character! Amazingly, Ada remains sympathetic throughout, in part because she’s the only one questioning anything, or thinking of anyone other than herself. Sean Young and Larry Fessenden play her parents, one a grotesque and bellowing matriarch, the other a true company man. Lauren Ashley Carter has an open expressive face that draws your sympathies, even if you have to wonder what future Ada can have, even if she does manage to escape her fate. This is an odd, challenging movie, but there aren’t two like it. I have no earthly idea what writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle will do next, but I do know I will be checking it out.
3. AMERICAN MARY
Here’s a tricky case: The makers of AMERICAN MARY are friends of the site. Some are even regular contributors here. That doesn’t affect my personal decision to fully endorse this film. I endorse this film because it’s weird, well-made, gruesome, upsetting, socially relevant, thought-provoking, and hard to shake. Think of it this way: The New York Times couldn’t stop reporting on how great Mariano Rivera was as a pitcher just because he played for the home team. The way I see it, it’s not a question of whether or not AMERICAN MARY belongs on this list, but whether or not it should be number one. There were two pieces of work I saw in 2013 I loved more, but none that affected me in a deep way like this one did. AMERICAN MARY is a huge leap forward for the Soska Sisters as filmmakers. It’s a sleek, stylin’, occasionally clinical thriller set in the controversial world of body modification.
Katharine Isabelle plays Mary Mason, a med student whose need for money leads her to get wrapped up in doing surgical favors for underworld figures, work that horrifies her at first and leads her to take a sharp right turn into helping people achieve their dreams of resembling cartoon characters, having devil horns, and becoming more plastic and doll-like, among a variety of other alterations. The unsparing operation scenes are as disturbing as the film’s treatment of these outsiders is empathetic. There’s more still going on: A brutal assault leads Mary to transform herself, into a cold seeker of some of the most monstrous vengeance imaginable. Katharine Isabelle’s performance is one of the most impressive I’ve seen in any movie in any genre in 2013 — she runs the range from sardonic to sensitive, emotional to disaffected, uncertain to confident, sexy to vicious, charismatic to frightening, and back and forth and more besides. There were a couple moments where she scared me, and I don’t scare easy. I think that’s how I was supposed to feel, as a straight man who’s biologically prone to leering no matter how sensitive my soul, and as an occasionally complacent horror fan. I think there’s some righteous feminism at play here. And I think that’s valuable. The genre needs it. I’m bored with the ritualistic victimization onscreen. Let the tables turn. Especially when the results are this sly and clever.
Best in-joke: The film’s title. This movie is super-Canadian.
[Editor’s Note: Co-star of AMERICAN MARY, Tristan Risk, is a DG contributor]
2. THE “SAFE HAVEN” SEGMENT OF V/H/S II
V/H/S II is the second installment of the horror anthology that brings together some of the coolest and most promising new horror directors around for found-footage mayhem. There are many more bad found-footage movies than good, but this is the good stuff. Now, V/H/S II is a solid amalgamation of frights, but there is one segment that stands out. It’s called SAFE HAVEN. There’s good stuff to the left of it and great stuff to the right — the Jason Eisener segment, SLUMBER PARTY ALIEN ABDUCTION, is like candy, it’s so tend-ah — but SAFE HAVEN is on a whole different stratosphere, like on the moons of Jupiter or something. A collaboration between Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans (director of THE RAID) and set and shot in Indonesia, this story begins with a news crew doing an investigative report into an eerie cult, which soon enough erupts in violence and mass suicide. And then things get really crazy. SAFE HAVEN is freaky, fucked up, out of control and just a little bit hilarious. It’s a let’s-watch-that-again-right-away kind of wildness.
1. CHEAP THRILLS
By rights, this movie shouldn’t be here. For starters, it won’t see theatrical release until late March of 2014. I hate when critics put movies I can’t see yet on their top ten lists. How much do I have to hear about HER, y’know? Really burns my behind. Now I’m part of the problem. What a dick move of me to put a March 2014 movie all the way in the number-one spot. And on top of that, once you see it you may argue whether CHEAP THRILLS is even a horror movie at all. IMDb calls it a thriller. Wikipedia calls it a black comedy. It’s both of those. There are no supernatural elements, no ghosts or ghouls, not even a mortal murderer in a monster mask. But here it is, all the same. It’s all about the emotions elicited. CHEAP THRILLS is fierce and nasty. It’s a blow to the gut and while you’re doubled over, an uppercut to take you all the way down. Why do I feel justified topping my horror list with CHEAP THRILLS? Because I found its scenes of suspense more suspenseful than THE CONJURING and its scenes of grue more stomach-churning than anything in the TEXAS CHAINSAW or EVIL DEAD remakes. This is real. This is relevant. This is where we are now. This movie has crafty points to draw from our current culture. It’s also punk rock and wickedly funny as all hell. I wanted to it see again as soon as it was done. I hate that the rest of you have to wait until March to see this movie, but I hope that by my pushing it hard here, you’ll remember to check it out when spring rolls around. It’s a sick party of a flick.
Here’s my extended review. (If that wasn’t enough.)
So there’s my ten. How about y’all? Anything I should have covered and didn’t? Anything I got wrong? Any shocks or surprises? Let’s hear it all!
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