Here we have the latest installment of my year end horror movie round-up, in which the best and worst of 2015’s horror cinema are ranked (according to me, anyway).
Frankly, there were a lot of disappointments in 2015–more so, in fact, than usual. Sure, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3, THE BOY NEXT DOOR and the POLTERGEIST remake were about what I was expecting, but I was surprised by widely anticipated films like BONE TOMAHAWK, CUB and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, all of which failed to live up to the hype. Luckily there were also plenty of agreeable surprises, such as GOODNIGHT MOMMY, ALLELUIA and SPRING, so I can’t say it was an entirely disappointing year movie-wise.
As always, the following includes only those horror-themed films (you’ll find I tend to be a bit fluid in my definition of horror) that were commercially released in the US theatrically or on DVD–bootlegs, festival screenings and advance screeners don’t count. Also as always, I’ve included recommended mainstream films and DVDs, as well as promising future releases.
No, I wasn’t able to see every horror movie released in 2015. You’ll see I’ve left out the kid flicks HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2 and GOOSEBUMPS, and also TERMINATOR GENISYS, SHARKNADO 3, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION and INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 3. I’m pretty sure I know in which category those films would end up (hint: it wouldn’t be the “Best” one). Overall, however, I feel the following is a good representation of 2015’s horror cinema, starting with…
1. HARD TO BE A GOD (TRUDNO BY’T BOGOM)
An exhausting, frequently incoherent, seemingly never-ending black-and-white slog that is nonetheless one of the most impressive films I’ve seen in years–if not ever. The final effort by Russia’s late Aleksei German (with editing completed after German’s 2013 death by his wife and son), it’s an adaptation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1964 novel about Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), a cosmonaut dispatched to a distant planet whose humanoid inhabitants are mired in the dark ages. Rumata’s dilemma is summed up by the title: worshipped as a god by the planet’s inhabitants, he desperately wants to help his subjects curb their destructive ways, but his assignment calls for him to merely observe, and allow history to take its inevitable course. German is primarily concerned with the minutiae of the self-contained medieval world in which Rumata finds himself stuck. This makes for a profoundly nightmarish spectacle, a landscape of ever-present mud, rain and shit whose denizens are uniformly brutish and half-witted (and a guy peddling human eyeballs doesn’t seem at all out of place). The sense of unblinking realism and the sheer depth of detail are staggering: I’m not exaggerating when I say this is the most fully realized medieval environ ever put on film, outdoing those of ANDREI RUBLEV, MARKETA LAZAROVA, JABBERWOCKY, FLESH AND BLOOD, THE PASSION OF BEATRICE and any other movie you can think of. German’s artistry doesn’t stop with the scenery: the camera itself is made to become a character, with characters frequently breaking the fourth wall to peer directly into the lens, which paradoxically enhances the sense of immersive reality. Also worth noting is the graphic violence of the final scenes, which are unspeakably nasty; it’s here that the so-called Greys invade, an evil tribe who slaughter everything in their path, particularly those individuals who are learned (which was apparently intended as a commentary on the repressive atmosphere of 20th Century Russia). Atmosphere, innovation and political commentary: HARD TO BE A GOD truly has it all. It’s an extremely demanding work, certainly, but also a brilliant one that ranks with the output of the world’s greatest filmmakers.
2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
I really hate to go along with the crowd, but I fully agree with all the superlatives bestowed on this movie. It’s the latest and most expensive installment of director George Miller’s post-apocalyptic MAD MAX saga, and while it doesn’t do much with the series that wasn’t already done before (and in light of 1985’s MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, which tried and failed to elevate the material, maybe that’s not such a bad thing) it’s still an impeccable piece of work. Tom Hardy takes over the title role from Mel Gibson, joined by Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter from the first MAD MAX) as a wasteland-dwelling tyrant and Charlize Theron as a rebellious subject of Byrne who sets off an epic multi-vehicle chase through the desert. There’s not a lot of nuance to the proceedings, but nuance isn’t exactly what we go to MAD MAX movies for, and anyway, the impeccably calibrated stunt work and classical storytelling prowess (definitely something of a lost art in today’s Hollywood) are more than enough to sustain interest.
3. EX MACHINA
This was the filmmaking debut of the prolific screenwriter/novelist Alex Garland, and like most every Garland project I’ve read/viewed, EX MACHINA is marked by a bravura surface that masks an extremely conventional, even cliched narrative. Yet, also like Garland’s other projects, that surface is so amazingly rich I won’t complain overmuch. It’s about an android seductress (Alicia Vikander) created by a quirky mad scientist (Oscar Isaac) in a secluded laboratory. To be sure, babe robot movies have a tendency to go very wrong (as proven by the likes of DEADLY FRIEND, EVE OF DESTRUCTION and SIMONE), but Garland succeeds in creating an impressively sleek mind-roaster with snatches of otherworldly bizarrie that recall 2014’s UNDER THE SKIN. But anyway: a young scientist (Domhnall Gleeson) comes to stay at the laboratory to codify the android’s human-ness. In the process he of course falls in love with the ‘bot, which upsets the balance of power in the laboratory, and leads to an almighty upheaval. The proceedings are enhanced by a wily intelligence and a supremely assured visual style that belies Garland’s amateur status. Another plus is the impeccably cast Ms. Vikander, who possesses a beauty that does indeed seem downright inhuman.
4. ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS
A lively documentary about the late Cannon Films, which turned out some of the most outrageous movies of the 1970s and 80s. Made by the folks responsible for the Aussie cult film doco NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD, ELECTRIC BOOGALOO evinces a great deal of affection for Cannon and its honchos, the late Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, yet is quite frank about the company’s shortcomings. Included are interviews with many participants in the Cannon saga, including the actors Michael Dudikoff, Alex Winter, Richard Chamberlain and Molly Ringwald, former MGM chairman Irving Yablans and quite a few miscellaneous crewmembers. Cannon, we learn, churned out more product than any other studio, and did so at a fraction of the cost. Never mind that 99.9% of Cannon’s movies were utter crap, and that nobody appears to have much liked its overseers (Golan is often referred to as “Jabba the Hut” due to his appetite and physique, and that’s one of nicer things said about him). Inevitably the Cannon Empire collapsed under the weight of its own hubris in the late eighties, leaving its honchos, and most everyone else connected with the outfit, severely disillusioned. Yet the clips we see from Cannon “classics” like THE APPLE, ENTER THE NINJA, NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, KING SOLOMON’S MINES, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, BREAKIN’ and THE DELTA FORCE are amazing, and (against my better judgment) made me long to revisit those films.
Do we really need another movie about the so-called Lonely Hearts Killers (a case already dramatized in THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, DEEP CRIMSON and LONELY HEARTS)? In a word: NO! However, this Belgian take on the LHKs is such a skilled piece of work I find I’m willing to (briefly) relax my anti-remake stance. Directed by Fabrice Du Welz (of CALVAIRE and VINYAN), it stars Pedro Almodovar regular Lola Duenas, who shines as a frumpy nurse drawn into a depraved vortex of madness and murder by a suave conman (Laurent Lucas) who makes his “living” by seducing unsuspecting women and stealing their money. There’s some deeply shocking violence here, and also a startlingly frank sexual angle. Welz painstakingly conveys the perverse bloodlust that takes hold of the protagonists in ultra-gritty style, which gives this film an edge over its less freaky predecessors. That’s despite some questionable directorial choices (such as a wholly ill-advised musical sequence) and a conclusion that could frankly have been much stronger.
6. GOODNIGHT MOMMY
Further proof (as if any were needed) that nobody can unsettle quite like the Austrians. GOODNIGHT MOMMY is the debut feature of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (the wife of this film’s producer, the veteran filmmaker Ulrich Seidl), who prove themselves well versed in the type of straight-faced shock utilized by the more seasoned Austrian provocateurs Michael Haneke and Markus Schleinzer. Like them, Fiala-Franz helm in a deceptively quiet and contained manner that emphasizes the unsaid and unseen as much as it does the onscreen torture and depravity. The film concerns twin boys living in a supremely creepy art deco house whose mother (Susanne Wuest) has just undergone facial reconstruction surgery, resulting in a heavily bandaged mummy head. Her demeanor becomes increasingly unpleasant, leading the boys to suspect that she’s not actually their mother. The boys attempt to run away from home but are brought back, inspiring them to take a different, more proactive approach in dealing with their “mother.” It’s here that the proceedings go from chilling to profoundly disturbing, with only the distracting sound design (whose every rustle is ridiculously over modulated) and some out-of-place CGI (including that annoying spasming head effect familiar from JACOB’S LADDER and any number of subsequent American-made horror fests) marring the effect.
7. CRIMSON PEAK
A Guillermo Del Toro project that, far from the special effects extravaganza that was advertised, is very much in keeping with his highly refined Spanish language features THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE and PAN’S LABYRINTH. In fact, the ghosts that were so prevalent in CRIMSON PEAK’S trailer are largely peripheral to the film, a veritable gothic wet dream that’s more concerned with human evil. Set in the late 1800s, it stars Mia Wasikowska as a sweet young lass swept away by a seductive Brit (Tom Hiddleston), who takes her to live in the titular English mansion he calls home. Also living in the mansion, unfortunately, is Hiddleston’s bitchy older sister (Jessica Chastain), who doesn’t appear to like Wasikowska very much. There’s a dark secret involving Crimson Peak and its inhabitants, although it’s nothing you can’t figure out on your own. The visual design, at least, is to die for, with gorgeous color-coded cinematography and fabulously baroque art direction that positively drips with gothic menace–albeit with a gore quotient that’s very up-to-date, resulting in a film that was too stately for horror hounds yet too nasty for most everyone else.
8. IT FOLLOWS
Contrary to what you might have heard, this is not the best horror movie of 2015…although it is the hands-down winner of the Most Overhyped Movie award. Yes, IT FOLLOWS is a film many genre pundits have been praising to the skies, evidently overlooking its many glaring flaws. To be sure, it’s one of the best directed films of the year, with a notably precise, confident visual style and a pitch-perfect grasp of atmospheric dread on the part of writer-director David Robert Mitchell. Offsetting those things is the seriously wonky premise, positing that a young woman (Maika Monroe) contracts an STD that allows her to see ghosts that can affect the physical plain even though they’re invisible to everyone else. These ghosts sometimes chase after their prey and at others simply stand and stare at it, with their ultimate goal being, apparently, to kill the seer and twist his/her body into unnatural contortions. The ghosts can be killed by a gunshot to the head, albeit only briefly, and the curse alleviated by being passed on to others via sexual contact…although not really. Confused? You’re not alone, as even Mitchell himself doesn’t appear to fully understand his movie’s afterworld mythology. The filmmaking is nearly strong enough to overcome the narrative wonkiness, but the wholly ridiculous climax, involving a swimming pool, a bunch of electrical appliances and an aquatic ghost, nearly tanks the whole enterprise.
9. LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU
This talk-heavy documentary is essentially a glorified DVD extra, and no wonder: it was put together by David Gregory of the DVD outfit Severin Films. It consists of a succession of talking head interviews about movie-related matters, interspaced with clips from the movie in question and archival photos. It’s not as strong overall as LOST IN LA MANCHA and JODOROWSKY’S DUNE, two similarly-formatted moviemaking docos, but the tragic story related here is a compelling one nonetheless. It chronicles the unmaking of director Richard Stanley’s ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, an extremely ambitious mid-nineties production that was done in by bad weather, skittish executives and its own supremely egomaniacal star Val Kilmer. We hear from Stanley, producer Edward R. Pressman, New Line honcho Robert Shaye, actress Fairuza Balk and many other participants in the MOREAU saga, all of whom have strong opinions about what went wrong. The question of whether Stanley’s film is truly the lost masterpiece it’s made out to be remains an open one (did this oft-filmed property really need to be done again?), but it’s an acknowledged fact that the John Frankenheimer directed abomination that emerged from the rubble of Stanley’s attempt was an unmitigated disaster. In fact, the recollections of the making of that mess provide some of the most interesting material in LOST SOUL, with the production descending into an orgy of sex, drugs and general insanity that was fully reflected in the finished product. The biggest laugh occurs near the end, when Shaye praises Frankenheimer for managing to complete the film at all.
10. THE HARVEST
Strong and unsettling kid centered psycho-horror by Strong and unsettling kid centered psycho-horror by HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILER’S John McNaughton, directing his first film in over a decade. It involves Andy (Charlie Tahan), a severely ill boy looked after by his strong willed heart surgeon mother Katherine (Samantha Morton) and wimpy father (Michael Shannon) in upstate New York. An inquisitive orphan girl (Natasha Calis) strikes up a friendship with Andy, much to the consternation of Katherine–who it turns out is harboring some profoundly unhealthy secrets. What’s most striking about THE HARVEST is its studiedly non-aggressive atmosphere, and also the towering performance by Ms. Morton; anyone who’s ever spent time around crazy people (as I have) will recognize the sudden mood swings and impulsive acting out that drive her character. Unfortunately the script by Stephen Lancellotti isn’t always up to the high standards set by McNaughton and the cast. It’s often quite predictable, and goes over the top completely in the final scenes, involving a sudden change of heart by one of protagonists, an overly fortuitous appearance by another and a thoroughly implausible foot chase. It’s here that the material grows overtly horrific, which is a shame, as it works best as a dark character-based drama–which of course is precisely the type of film John McNaughton does best.
Every now and again the American indie film scene turns out something genuinely vital and interesting. Case in point: this film, a loose, semi-improvisational love story with a potent supernatural underpinning. The lovers are Lou Taylor Pucci as a traumatized young American in Italy and Nadia Hilker as an alluring Euro-babe with an odd habit of undergoing monstrous bodily transformations, which she keeps at bay through periodic hormone injections. Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead keep this cockeyed account consistently compelling, despite a narrative that frankly tends to ramble. Credit must also go to the lead actors, whose courtship feels quite real and touching. The CGI effects that come to pack the second half are about as you might expect given the non-budget, but they don’t negate the film’s stark, dreamy spell.
12. THE GREEN INFERNO
You have to give it to Eli Roth: he delivers exactly what he promises. THE GREEN INFERNO, a splat-happy homage to the Italian cannibal film cycle of the 1970s and 80s (a listing of some of the more relevant examples of which is included in the end credits) is, as advertised, a profoundly vile spectacle that truly earns its R rating. Of course there’s very little in the way of depth or nuance, with the narrative following the by-now predictable Eli Roth movie formula of naive twenty something airheads afoot in an exotic locale, in a quasi-comedy that around the halfway point morphs into an unrestrained gore fest. The “heroes” are a band of student activists staging an environmental protest in the Amazon, only to find themselves the main course in a cannibal banquet after their plane crashes in a rural village. Roth’s staging of the action-tinged nastiness is reasonably strong, and the KNB FX Group does a good job with all the plucked eyeballs, severed limbs, slashed throats and hollowed-out torsos that come to dominate the proceedings.
13. THE VISIT
A surprise: a good movie from Blumhouse Productions and writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, whose respective output has been quite erratic in recent years. THE VISIT offers a modern take on Hansel and Gretel, with two kids (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) going to stay with their grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) in the country. Weirdness is apparent almost immediately, with “Nana” wandering around the house at night, vomiting all over the floor and clawing at the walls, and “Pop Pop” attacking a pedestrian and sticking a shotgun barrel in his mouth for no good reason. The madness steadily builds as the kids’ stay stretches on, and comes to a head in the genuinely demented climax, in which the inevitable twist ending is revealed. I’m not crazy about the mock documentary wraparound, with the whole thing presented as a compilation of video footage shot by the kids, but I will concede that the device works reasonably well (especially in a bit where the kids hide the camera in the living room to record the old folks’ nocturnal activities). Far more damaging are the misconceived concluding scenes, which attempt to atone for the nastiness of the climax with an excess of sappy sentimentality. Phooey!
A film that feels both innovative and derivative. This is to say that while the setting–a computer screen–and social media milieu are strikingly unique, UNFRIENDED is at heart the same tired old found footage silliness, complete with a giggly young heroine who becomes a blubbering basket case by the end. Yet the whole thing is ingeniously conceived, with a group of seemingly virtuous young folk engaged in a skyping session that turns increasingly horrific when they’re joined by an unidentified other. There’s a pertinent message here about the evils of cyber bullying, but UNFRIENDED’S true charms are of the creepy-crawly variety. It’s gripping from start to finish, and at 83 minutes can’t be accused of overstaying its welcome–plus, it features TEEN WOLF’S beyond-gorgeous Shelley Hennig in the lead role, ensuring that the proceedings are at least always pleasant to look at.
15. JURASSIC WORLD
This, the third sequel to JURASSIC PARK, registers as enjoyable summer movie fluff with a pleasantly nostalgic tinge. That makes sense, as the 1993 original is now a bonafide historical relic, a check-your-brain-at-the-door effects spectacle that by today’s standards actually seems thoughtful and nuanced. JURASSIC WORLD follows the overall arc of PARK quite closely, with Chris Pratt in the Sam Neill role and Bryce Dallas Howard in the Laura Dern one, along with a new pair of kids in jeopardy, a two-dimensional bad guy (Vincent D’Onofrio) and of course the dinosaurs, who really deserve top billing. Director Colin Trevorrow does a good (if far from Spielberg-worthy) job with the material, although he can’t overcome the film’s many annoyingly silly aspects, such as the sight of Ms. Howard in high heels outrunning a T-Rex. Hard-hitting realism this isn’t!
Recommended Non-Horror Releases:
THE ASSASSIN (CIKE NIE YINNIANG)
An artier-than-average martial arts epic from Taiwan that’s all-but impossible to follow, but so visually rapturous you probably won’t care.
BEASTS OF NO NATION
This film is best known for the controversial release pattern granted it by Netflix, but deserves to be considered on its own terms, as a stark depiction of violence and exploitation with at least one genuine lunch-loser scene.
THE BIG SHORT
There exist many dissections of the financial meltdown of ’08, but this film relates the whole sordid account in easily accessible terms (courtesy of several movie stars and the director of ANCHORMAN), so you no longer have any excuse not to pay attention!
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Further proof that my tastes in Quentin Tarantino movies run counter to those of everybody else, as this film, which hasn’t caught on with the public, is easily my favorite QT flick since GRINDHOUSE (which, of course, was likewise rejected by moviegoers).
KINGSMEN: THE SECRET SERVICE
One of the most sheerly enjoyable movies of 2015, and, unexpectedly enough, one of the most brutal; the already-infamous church massacre alone makes it a must see.
A dramatization of the crimes of the Kray brothers, twin gangsters who terrorized London during the 1960s. An appropriately harsh, brutal saga that outdoes the previous Kray movie (1990’s THE KRAYS) and boasts an impressive dual performance by Tom Hardy.
There’s nothing else quite like this delirious three and a half hour French import about an irrepressible young boy living in a coastal community where racism runs rampant and a bizarre series of murders are occurring. Think of it as “MY LIFE AS A DOG meets TWIN PEAKS.”
Fact: this is director Ridley Scott’s finest effort in years, if not decades. I actually prefer it to a certain other mainstream space opera from 2015, one whose title, FYI, contains the words “Wars” and “Star.”
An above-average time travel mind-bender from Australia, marred only by the fact that I predicted its much-ballyhooed twist ending long before it occurred.
In which director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and star Leonardo DiCaprio set out to make the wilderness survival drama to end ’em all, and very nearly succeeded.
A superbly directed, if occasionally incoherent (I’m still not sure what-all happens in the cave sequence), drama about drug enforcement on the Mexican border that roundly damns both the criminal drug runners and our government-appointed enforcers.
A 138 minute one-take wonder about a night in Berlin, where a young Spanish woman (the striking Laia Costa) is roped into taking part in a calamitous bank robbery. Lively and engaging, though also a bit uneven.
The year’s premiere documentary IMHO, a verite look at the attempted takeover of a small town by a white supremacist that’s as chilling and unsettling as any of the year’s more traditional horror movies.
WELCOME TO NEW YORK
An unalloyed wallow in sex and sleaze from director Abel Ferrara, with a balls-out (I mean that literally) performance by Gerard Depardieu as a debauched banker.
Recommended DVD Releases:
Hardly a pleasant film, but ANGST is one of the key serial killer dramas of our time, and its long-in-coming North American DVD release is a definite event for all true horror buffs.
BLOOD AND LACE
Often called the nastiest GP (or, as it’s now known, PG) rated movie ever made, a strikingly brutal seventies-era shocker that’s still shocking.
The long-neglected second film by NEKROMANTIK’S Jorg Buttgereit deserves a reappraisal, being a striking, and strikingly uncompromising, wallow in death and despair.
The masterpiece of Germany’s Eckhart Schmidt, THE FAN is a definite stand-out in the crowded field of extreme Euro cinema, as well as a thoughtful and intelligent portrayal of adolescent longing and disillusionment.
HEART OF MIDNIGHT
It’s hard to believe, but it’s taken until now for this singularly odd and outrageous 1987 J.J. Leigh vehicle to make it to DVD/Blu-ray.
JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME
This French mind-boggler isn’t exactly horror themed, but it is required viewing, a magnificently phantasmagoric time travel extravaganza that was the admitted inspiration for THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND.
THE MASK 3-D
This isn’t what I’d call great cinema, but it is historically important as the first-ever Canadian horror movie, and definitely has some compelling imagery.
I continue to insist that this little-seen pulse-pounder is one of the finest thrillers of eighties, and it’s now available in an extras-packed Blu-ray edition.
An early feature by director Roger Christian (of BLACK ANGEL and BATTLEFIELD EARTH), an uncommonly stylish and surreal paranormal thriller.
I have no idea why it took so long for this one-of-a-kind masterwork from Walerian Borowczyk to reach home video in the US, but it’s here at long last, in a jammed-packed Blu-ray courtesy of the good folk at Arrow Video.
A cinematic endurance test to be sure, but this underground outrage is worth viewing at least once, being one of the most important and influential (its similarities to THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW are too blatant to ignore) films of its type.
A Criterion-ized edition of Jaromil Jires’ stunningly surreal Czech classic? Sign me up!
1. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3: LAST SEQUENCE
Were it not the second sequel to the cult classic THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE this “Last Sequence” (we can only hope!) would doubtless have never been released, as in a sane world it wouldn’t pass muster as a student film. Germany’s Dieter Laser, who played the mad doctor in the first HUMAN CENTIPEDE, returns as a loony prison warden in a riot of heavily accented carrying-on that can’t really be called acting. His assistant is played by Lawrence R. Harvey, who essayed the psychotic security guard in the second HUMAN CENTIPEDE. It’s Harvey who hits upon the idea of making a new human centipede with the prison inmates, a suggestion Laser initially poo-poos but for some unexplained reason eventually decides he likes. Along the way we get face burning, testicle eating, stab wound rape (don’t ask) and many other delicacies, all too ineptly staged to make much of an impression one way or another. It seems writer-director Tom Six has essentially given up, turning out an unforgivably disjointed, slapdash product that doesn’t even work as unintentional comedy.
2. KRAMPUS: THE RECKONING
A reasonably polished but deadening SOV production about Krampus the anti-Santa. It contains a creditable depiction of Krampus as a skull-faced CGI creation, and also some diverting sex and nudity. At its center, however, is a thoroughly bland little girl who appears to have a special connection to Krampus, resulting in a lot of excess boredom about which there’s little point going into detail. If you absolutely must see a 2015 Krampus movie (of which there are three), this isn’t the one to pick.
3. THE BOY NEXT DOOR
I’m tempted to say this by-the-numbers stalker thriller is better suited to a Lifetime Network movie slot than the theatrical run it received. Such a claim, however, would be wrong, as most Lifetime movies contain better acting than THE BOY NEXT DOOR, which proves yet again that Jennifer Lopez is not a good (or even semi-good) actress. Here she plays a high school English teacher seduced by a suave teenager (Ryan Guzman, whose emoting is even more pathetic than J-Lo’s) who’s moved in next door. This leads to some widely publicized but actually quite tame erotica, and the inevitable violent finish that occurs after Lopez dumps Guzman and he won’t hear of it. At least the pic is filled with unintended hilarity, meaning it’s not an entirely unenjoyable viewing experience.
I’ll confess my opinion on this film is a biased one. The original POLTERGEIST, after all, was pivotal to my childhood, it being one of the very few horror movies I was allowed to see back then. Now of course I can recognize the film for the ridiculous cliche-fest it is, but its impact on my nine-year-old self remains undiminished. In fairness, this new POLTERGEIST succeeds in streamlining the original film’s unruly jumble of a narrative, involving a townhouse haunted by malevolent spirits who snatch a little girl off the earthly plane, but in most every other respect it’s a definite step down. In fact, this POLTERGEIST made me appreciate just how good the 1982 original actually is; back then filmmakers and actors really had to work hard to make the supernatural intrusions seem convincing, a job accomplished here by middling CGI. I also found myself flashing back to the skilled performances of Oliver Robbins and the late Heather O’Rourke as the child leads of the original POLTERGEIST, who are replaced by two of most shrill and annoying kid actors in film history.
A shameless rip-off of Steven Spielberg’s DUEL with two hot chicks in the Dennis Weaver role. Not a bad idea, I will concede, although it’s not the first time such a gambit has been tried–see the 1989 Italian sexploiter HARD CAR, which I much prefer. HARD CAR at least had some non-derivative elements, something that can’t be said for WRECKER, which in addition to DUEL cribs heavily from THE HITCHER and DEATH PROOF. As in the latter film, WRECKER’S heroines (Anna Hutchison and Andrea Whitburn) like to banter endlessly about sex and drugs while on a marathon drive through a desert, at least until they’re harassed by a never-seen tow truck driver who becomes determined to run them down. The proceedings never take an unexpected turn, and the familiarity of the narrative is reflected in the scenery, with the gals seen driving down the same stretch of road again and again. Yes, Hutchison and Whitburn both look quite fine, but there’s really nothing else here worth recommending.
6. THE GALLOWS
To think: I was under the impression that the found footage craze had run its course. THE GALLOWS might seem interesting to viewers unfamiliar with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT or any of the hundred or so like-minded scare fests that followed, but to the rest of us it’s a been-there-done-that concoction through and through. The setting is a high school auditorium where a kid dies in a hanging accident during a play; 20 years later the production is revived, and, as a gaggle of troublemaking students discover, haunted by the dead kid’s ghost. This results in a lot of frantic running and jumping by the cast, with the camera whizzing around madly and actors screaming at things we can’t see. You know the drill.
7. DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS
This is the infamous Kickstarter funded movie by Spike Lee, which received a lot of pre-release publicity but was quickly forgotten once it was released. There’s a reason for that! DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS is a remake of the late Bill Gunn’s 1970s art-horror fest GANJA AND HESS, which Lee subjects to every imaginable indulgence. The silliness starts with the lengthy opening credits sequence, featuring a guy dancing around the Brooklyn waterfront despite the fact that the film takes place largely in the wilds of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s there that Hess, a wealthy black doctor (Stephen Tyrone Williams), nurses an insatiable addiction to blood after being stabbed with a mystically-endowed African dagger. He finds a romantic partner in the form of Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), a fiery Brit Hess vampirizes. The darkly poetic charge of GANJA AND HESS is nowhere to be found in this film, whose effect is one of unalloyed tedium, broken up only by some startlingly graphic bloodletting and gratuitous lesbianism.
8. WE ARE STILL HERE
Or: “DON’T LOOK NOW meets THE AMITYVILLE HORROR meets A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET meets STRAW DOGS.” The opening twenty minutes of this film are compellingly understated and atmospheric, centering on a grief-stricken couple (Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig) coming to terms with the death of their son in a new house. Said house, unfortunately, is haunted by a bevy of vengeful spirits who “wake up” every three decades, and it seems a new 30 year cycle is just getting started. In apparent acknowledgment of the fact that his premise is too flimsy to support a feature film, writer-director Ted Geoghegan throws in every genre cliche imaginable, including seances, bodily possession, hallucinatory gore setpieces, zombies and a violent home invasion (all that’s missing are androids and dinosaurs). There is at least some bad movie fun to be had in the third act, in which the material descends fully into camp, but on the whole it’s a silly and disjointed mess.
A Canadian made exercise in holiday horror, presenting four segments tied together by William Shatner as a radio DJ. It’s an almost movie, with many promising elements that never quite reach their full potential. The segments involve a group of teenagers investigating a building where some brutal murders occurred a year earlier, during which one of the teens becomes possessed; a suburban family running into Krampus in a snowy forest; a kid whose behavior changes dramatically after he enters a hollowed-out tree; and Santa Claus dealing with a zombie epidemic among his elves. The way the film interweaves its segments rather than presenting them in the traditional manner (i.e. as four sequential mini-films) is interesting, but otherwise the proceedings are undistinguished, suffering from a tacky synthesizer score, cut-rate art direction and amateurish performances.
10. CUB (WELP)
This film could have worked. It’s a German made depiction of boy scouts on a camping trip menaced by a creepy bark-mask wearing brat named Kai, who together with his equally deranged father sets a number of intricate booby traps that result in the obligatory succession of gory set pieces. CUB is interesting for its even-handed portrayal of Kai, and his relationship with the protagonist, a bullied boy whose own moral compass is decidedly skewed. Offsetting the good things are a plethora of annoyances, such as the vastly overlit “night” scenes, consistently implausible action sequences (kids outrunning a speeding car?) and a thoroughly unsatisfying “That’s it?” fade-out.
11. KNOCK KNOCK
Eli Roth was responsible for this umpteenth unnecessary remake, turning out a film that’s even more nonsensical than its predecessor, 1977’s DEATH GAME–a classic of sorts, but a silly one that was admittedly made up as its makers went along. As for KNOCK KNOCK, its supporters claim its ridiculousness was intentional. Apparently that includes Roth’s overwrought attempts at “atmosphere,” such as the many distracting slow pans through the home of its protagonist, a wealthy professional played by Keanu Reeves. He’s approached one night by two young women (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) he unwisely lets into his house, where they initiate Reeves into a torrid threesome and then embark on a rampage of wholesale destruction and miscellaneous bad behavior. Perhaps Reeves’ bad acting was part of the aforementioned intentional comedy, and also the lackluster performances of the gals; Lorenza Izzo (a.k.a. Ms. Eli Roth) is particularly miscast, failing to summon up a shade of the eroticism and psychotic menace provided by Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp in DEATH GAME, incidentally the only truly effective, non-campy element of that film.
12. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
A horror comedy that’s enormously clever yet never particularly funny. It’s a highly idiosyncratic mock-documentary about a clan of vampires residing in modern-day New Zealand. We watch as they attempt to find fresh blood in this vampire-unfriendly environ–vampires, for instance, can’t enter a residence unless they’re invited in, and so these vamps find themselves in a quandary when they’re turned away by a nightclub bouncer–which naturally results in some gory, though never especially impacting, business. Another problem is the formless and meandering narrative, which never finds its footing.
13. SAN ANDREAS
There’s really no sense in being overly critical about SAN ANDREAS. The pic is unapologetic Hollyweird disaster movie bullcrap, after all, that makes similarly minded past efforts like EARTHQUAKE and VOLCANO look like models of dramatic realism. Nonetheless, perhaps because I happen to reside in California, where earthquakes are a very real threat, I couldn’t help but be annoyed by the lack of anything resembling plausibility in this account of a succession of catastrophic quakes that rip apart the Golden State, San Francisco in particular. Dwayne Johnson plays the musclebound rescue worker hero who invariably manages to weather every obstacle in his path–falling buildings, a tsunami, a crashing airplane–simply because he’s Dwayne Johnson. The best (and indeed only) way to watch this movie is to completely shut down one’s brain and ignore all the ridiculousness, but director Brad Peyton and screenwriter Carlton Cuse make doing so extremely difficult.
14. LOST RIVER
A film that deserves partial credit for having an altogether unique and distinctive directorial vision. It also contains some affecting elements, although they’re overpowered by all the silly and overwrought ones. The filmmaking debut of Ryan Gosling, LOST RIVER is an art-thriller that stylistically falls somewhere between David Lynch and Harmony Korine. It certainly boasts a great cast, headlined by Christina Hendricks as a single mother residing in a depressed Midwestern community who joins the cast of a Grand Guignol nightclub where she recreates bits from EYES WITHOUT A FACE and SWEENEY TODD, together with Gosling’s off-screen squeeze Eve Mendes. Also featured are Saoirse Ronan as a naive girl caring for her loony grandmother, played by genre legend Barbara Steele, and DR. WHO’S Matt Smith as a weirdo who rides around in a retrofitted convertible sporting a king’s throne. A subplot about an underwater city is promising, but goes nowhere outside of providing the novel sight of half-submerged streetlamps turning on and off. This is an image Gosling evidently found far more arresting than it actually is, which can also be said about this ludicrously over-directed, woefully underconceived film as a whole.
PG-13 rated horror that in truth never had much of a chance. Mainstream Hollywood, it seems, has grown increasingly incapable of turning out a good holiday horror fest (GREMLINS, needless to say, was a long time ago), as evinced by all the gooey sentimentality and preachiness on display here. To be fair, director Michael Dougherty (of TRICK ‘R’ TREAT) makes a concerted attempt to add some gravitas to the oft-silly proceedings, involving a family whose fraught Christmas celebration is invaded by Krampus, Santa’s evil inverse, and his minions. Inspired touches include a flock of evil gingerbread men and an animated flashback sequence that adroitly apes those moldy old Rankin-Bass holiday TV specials (SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN, RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER, etc), but all the good things are overpowered by the seriously lame conclusion, one of those it’s-all-a-dream-but-not endings to which Hollywood has become dangerously attached.
16. BONE TOMAHAWK
Another one for the “Almost” category, an extremely gory horror western that can be summed up as “TOMBSTONE meets CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.” It benefits from a top flight cast–Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Sid Haig, David Arquette and Sean Young–and stylish direction by novelist S. Craig Zahler. That BONE TOMAHWAK is Zahler’s directorial debut is evident in the uncertain pacing and vastly inflated 132 minute running time. That latter complaint is especially galling given that narratively the proceedings are quite thin, being about some cowboy lawmen tracking a band of cannibal savages that eventually capture their pursuers, who have to fight their way free of the cannibals’ layer. This film might have worked better were it around 30-40 minutes shorter, although we’d still be stuck with the lame fizzle of an ending with which it most unfortunately concludes.
17. MAPS TO THE STARS
Yet another disappointment from David Cronenberg, who’s becoming a bit too enamored with hermetic dialogue-driven dramas. MAPS TO THE STARS, in other words, consists of more of what comprised A DANGEROUS METHOD and COSMOPOLIS: highly stagey, action-free chatter spiced with occasional grotesquerie. Scripted by novelist Bruce Wagner, MAPS stars Julianne Moore as a bubble-brained starlet haunted by the ghost of her deceased mother (COSMOPOLIS’S Sarah Gadon). John Cusak plays her shrink and Mia Wasikowska his pyromaniac daughter, who becomes Moore’s assistant while attempting to worm her way back into the affections of her child star brother (Evan Bird). As you might guess, it’s all leading up to a horrific disaster, although it takes an awfully long time for that disaster to occur, with most of the film taken up by Wagner’s patented brand of pop culture inflected chatter (also on display in WILD PALMS and I’M LOSING YOU) and shot through with Cronenberg’s talent for making even the most mundane settings seem creepy. Of the actors, Moore fares the best, delivering an extremely daring, nudity-packed performance complete with an impressively modulated valley girl accent. There’s even a scene of her on the crapper accompanied by farting sounds, proving that Cronenberg definitely hasn’t lost his impish side.
Still Waiting On:
I’m trying not to be too cynical about Rob Zombie’s latest (which recently made the news for Rob’s numerous attempts at securing an R rating), but it really doesn’t look too promising.
Director Jeremy Saulnier’s long-awaited follow-up to the masterful BLUE RUIN, GREEN ROOM is said to be a thriller about violence at a punk rock concert that early reviewers have favorably compared with the earlier film.
The early film festival notices devoted to this film, director Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian classic HIGH RISE, have been tantalizing. I can’t wait!
I’ve already seen this bizarre account of a future where people are transformed into animals of their choosing if they don’t find love, and…well, the first half is quite strong.
THE NEON DEMON
This, the latest film by Nicholas Wendig Refn (of DRIVE and ONLY GOD FORGIVES), sounds intriguing, being about murderous competition in the modeling industry, and boasts a strong cast that includes Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves.
STORY OF YOUR LIFE
A quirkier-than-average (or so I’m told) alien invasion freak-out by SICARIO’S Denis Villeneuve, headlined by Amy Adams.
Hey, this one could conceivably be good. As far as upcoming superhero flicks go, it certainly sounds more intriguing than BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN–but then again…