So I went back and forth on whether or not to include films that I’ve seen this year, but, won’t come out for a while. I know some people take this very seriously and while I understand the idea that some may only want to include things officially released in 2014, I had a hard time not including some amazing films on this list – starting with one of the two at the very top.
In reviewing my notes, it seems clear to me that anyone who starts in with stuff about it being a down year for film should have their head examined. I had a good 50 films or so on a running list of favorites, so culling out horror from that was not only an easy task, it was a fun one. For all the negative chatter, it seems like laziness on the part of the viewer might be the cause of not finding good films to see. There is a ton of good work out there, you just have to go get it. Pay for it. Support the filmmakers. It isn’t complicated.
In terms of crime/suspense genre films you have amazing mix of work from innovative and energetic filmmakers that push boundaries and break new ground. Films like Big Bad Wolves, Blue Ruin, Bad Turn Worse, Nightcrawler, Cold In July, In Order of Disappearance, Calvary, Man From Reno, Whispers Behind The Wall, The Guest and even a more ‘mainstream’ film like Gone Girl. All solid, all creative and all worth seeking out if you love hard-edged crime/suspense as much as horror.
Beyond that, you have films that defy categorization like Tokyo Tribe, Cheap Thrills, The Raid 2, Under The Skin, Why Don’t You Play In Hell?, Snowpiercer, Jodorowski’s Dune, Nothing Bad Can Happen, The Tribe, Birdman and the utterly brilliant Blumhouse film Whiplash. None of these can be dropped easily into a category but all push the limits.
My point in praddling on about this is that it is absolutely inspiring to see so much creativity and energy exist outside the sometimes limiting confines of the mall multiplex. The underlying truth in this, is, you as the horror fan must get out and support these films and these filmmakers. If you want to see change and diversity and creativity and innovation in horror films and genre films then you have to actively demand it. That doesn’t come from stealing films and it doesn’t come from being lazy – it comes from putting forth the effort to actively be part of a community of creative people. Talk is cheap, as they say and I for one am proud every time I get to buy a ticket or pay for a download because I know that means I’m voting with my money and making a vote for progress. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be all that lofty, but, anything less is an empty gesture signifying very little.
With all that gasbagging out-of-the-way, here are my favorite horror films from 2014, in ascending order. Again, some have not nailed down releases and some are struggling to get it going but I’m nothing if not honest and more than that, I’m a fan, so I’d rather just celebrate my favorites:
20. Late Phases –
Director Adrián García Bogliano (Here Comes The Devil, Cold Sweat), weaves together a story about mortality and regret into a wonderfully strange werewolf mythology set against the backdrop of a retirement community. The grumbling resolve of Ambrose (Nick Damici), his blind army veteran lead character, is something of a marvel – it isn’t noisy or pushy or forced into a familiar ‘life lesson learning’ box but instead is quiet and well thought out. Couple the mature approach to end-of-life drama with great practical werewolf effects and palatable suspense and you get a hard to nail down film that brims with confidence and is smart enough to just let the morality of it all be undefined.
19. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night –
Challenging and stylish and beautiful, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a vampire story that goes outside the bounds of the base subject material in creative and compelling ways to create something unique and wonderful. This is done with a touch for the dramatic visually but also in music – the soundtrack is very well thought out and very interesting as it plays, often in contrast, to the images unfolded in black and white on-screen. I applaud this heartily because the tapestry of sound and music can make or break the mood or tone being attempted and someone who cares about this part of the process clearly thinks about the whole thing, bottom to top. The film centers, in part, on a mysterious and veiled female vampire who haunts as much as she hunts – it is more primal in feeling of presence than that of a vampire all about the center stage. I love the feeling that is created in her contrast against a wall or building fronts that just creates a nothingness – it feels otherworldly beyond any description that could be spoken on-screen. It is that void, that sad and lonely existence across the void of separation from humanity that makes something that is often described as an Iranian Vampire Western so much deeper and more emotionally relevant.
18. Felt –
What might feel at times (early in the film) like an endurance test to withstand the grating whiles of an overly affective artist evolves seamlessly into an intimate portrait of mental erosion at the hands of abuse and neglect and cruelty. It is airless and drifting but brings things into sharp focus in such a deft and creative way that you don’t see it coming. Partially because you become a caring figure for the central character Amy (the amazing Amy Everson) and partially because you can respect but not fully understand what she has gone through, how she has tried to protect herself and what that kind of frailty can mean. Director Jason Banker doesn’t make it easy and doesn’t make it clean but man, pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to the frenetic and suspenseful final act. I anxiously await whatever he does next.
17. Spring –
One of three werewolf (or quasi-werewolf) films on my list this year, Spring, borrows little bits and pieces from destination/travel-themed horror and mixes them with a very sweet love story to create a kind of Linklater’s ‘before’ films by way of John Landis type of story that is refreshing and creative. That said, filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Resolution) don’t seem to be too hung up on pleasing just horror fans or just art house geeks so the result can be stuck in the fuzzy middle where absolutism doesn’t apply. Which, ultimately, is a good thing. Lou Taylor Pucci plays a drifting American in an aimless trip to Italy that is as wistful as it is stressful and drops him into the age-old battle of the will of the heart and the clutter of the logical mind. And monsters. A wonderful performance by Nadi Hilker as the new, mysterious love really seals the deal and creates an elegant give-and-take without pretense or pushy sentimentality. An excellent, unique love/monster story.
16. Welp (Cub) –
This Belgian film from director Jonas Govaerts is a mean motor-scooter. It is relentless, it is suspenseful and it is unabashedly violent. Taking that into account, it becomes a little more high stakes when you factor in that the main characters are teen/pre-teen scouts and a killer is on the loose in the woods. If this were an American film, any child would most likely be safe and you’d just count down the adults to get knocked off until the end. But that is not the rulebook afforded this film and it gives the viewer a lot to consider when you know, full well, there are no sacred cows. Some hubbub had percolated about so-called animal violence in the film but, considering it is fiction and considering the subject matter of the film, I have zero interest in that conversation. What should be talked about in relation to Welp is how badass and aggressive and bold it is. Another director to keep an eye on, for sure.
15. When Animals Dream –
The light touch and dedication to atmosphere and tone makes When Animals Dream an elegant and wistful film that unfolds less like a roller-coaster ride and more like an opera. That is not to imply that it wastes time, far from it, it just rests more in the quiet, reflective moments than the bombastic ones for much of the runtime. But once the affliction that haunts central character Marie (and her mother) comes into stark, bloody focus, the textural feel of the film is the connective tissue that binds the emotion and the violence together. Without the fully realized artistry of all the choices director Jonas Alexander Arnby makes from start to finish, you would be left with an empty monstrous reveal without much to support it. Instead, you get a complete idea. A complete and beautiful film.
14. Afflicted –
Many folks (myself included) yowl and gnash teeth over the use and abuse of the ‘found footage’ style so much that you fight against holding all the failures of the tool against any new film that comes along. No better example of the need to wipe the slate clean than Cliff Prowse and Derek Lee’s Afflicted. This is a film that doesn’t rely on a crutch to cover up bad characters or storytelling but instead uses the perspective of ‘found footage’ to give the viewer a more intimate and warm association with the two main characters. The choices made by Cliff and Derek (who play the two leads) in relation to the cameras make sense and are never a distraction. The suspense and sadness that dominate the latter part of the film do not exist without the time and care given to making these characters important to the viewer. It is confident and smart and so well realized.
13. Only Lovers Left Alive –
I would imagine that if you’re reading this, you’ve seen a boatload of vampire movies in your day. Many are retreads of previous ideas about the monster and most don’t break a lot of new ground, however competent they may be. Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Down By Law) seems totally uninterested in these well-worn ideas and instead forces his film into more uncharted territory in the form of a very old romance between two very touch-to-nail down characters in Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). The brash confidence in the directorial style and narrative blankness gives over to make-or-break on the backs of these two and they deliver. The aching, weathered love is something many of us non-vampires can relate to and while the film isn’t very interested in spelling all that out, it gives little side-glances to the nature of love and humanity. That decision (and two fantastic leads) is more than enough to make it compelling and engaging, however aloof it may be.
12. The Sacrament –
Ti West’s aching and melancholy film about the power of suggestion and blind faith is nothing if not untraditional. It plays against expectation about nearly everything: from the news crew that makes their way to the religious compound to find one of their crew’s wayward sister, to the dynamic Gene Jones as the leader ‘father’ to the reasons for why this separatist group exists at all. It all doesn’t go exactly as you expect. And that makes it unbearably suspenseful. Not because West is playing games, but more because you find yourself fooled too for a time. It is a subtle thing that happens emotionally that would not work if not for great performances from the entire cast. This starts and ends with Gene Jones whose turn of phrase and honeyed voice mask the truly ugly nature of it all. But much credit should go to Amy Seimetz as Caroline, the sister who inspires the TV crew (and her brother) to try to find her. Seimetz is an effortless talent – very present and engaged and her transition from sweetness to frenzy is something else. The film, on the whole, is haunting and powerful and all too relatable.
11. Ich seh Ich seh (Goodnight Mommy) –
If there was ever a film damn near impossible to characterize, it would the be the Austrian film Ich seh Ich seh. The story revolves around identical twin boys who receive their mother back home after surgery with a suspecting eye. This starts in subtle and pedestrian ways that play to the fear of change, of the unknown on the part of the boys toward their mother. It evolves, though, into a armrest grippingly suspenseful march toward a more stark and sad and dramatic expansion of what is happening with this family. The boys, for their part, are really wonderful to watch: you try to discern the differences between them, how they communicate and how they deal with this growing fear of their bandaged, recovering mother. The shifting fears from mom to something else (or not) on the part of the viewer goes directly in-line with what the boys are doing and how they are dealing with things and man, once things hit a fever-pitch it is just relentless. Just a wonder of a film – not for being loud and jumpy but for being quiet and more sinister and ten times more effective because of it.
10. Oculus –
There is something strangely satisfying in a horror film that doesn’t allow winners, doesn’t automatically succumb to happy endings and just lays bare the idea that sometimes bad things just happen to people. Couple that with an unnerving ghostly threat and a deft touch for atmosphere and unease and you get a film that sits low and stays mean, even when it is quiet. The lack of obsession with jump-scares and shock-gore aids in this pursuit – so much so that when you are faced with ucky reveals or shocking turns, they resonate better and more honestly because of the lack of game-playing. So many times in mainstream horror films this year, the tired camera swing shock or jolt-graphic shot were beaten into the ground with abandon that the decided lack of those crutches in Oculus are a welcome treat. But really, it all comes down to the sadness and desperation of how unfair it all can sometimes be and in that, Oculus is a strong, mature winner.
9. Starry Eyes –
The low rumble of dread dances outside the edges of Starry Eyes as we watch Sarah (the excellent Alexandra Essoe) slowly, unknowingly (or not) go ass-over-tea-kettle into a dark, evil sacrifice of self for the glory of fame and success in Hollywood. The film gives you enough to care about in Sarah early on that you are invested but not automatically. You have perspective on her life, her employer, her friends and her aspirations all played through a filter of her hope and wishes and it all seems on-the-surface. But after a strange audition for a mysterious project from shadowy, almost cruel producers, Sarah seems to separate from the groundedness we assume she has and drifts hopelessly into darkness that is as much the making of her mystery producers as it is from her deep down desires violently brought forth. That mixing of the blood and the muck is a tricky balance to pull of but writter/directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer just nail it – the final act especially just hammer home how ugly and dehumanizing this pursuit can be. An absolutely excellent score and confident lens also help make Starry Eyes standout in the crowd.
8. It Follows –
Creeping dread is a concept that really only works if the dread your characters are trying to avoid is actually scary. Otherwise it is just a slow-motion chase movie. This is, blessedly, not an issue for David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, a suspenseful, super-creepy take on the dangers of youthful promiscuity shown in the form of an ever-evolving evil that pursues with unwavering focus. This starts and ends with the lead and in this case, is in very capable hands. The engaging Maika Monroe (also of Adam Wingard’s The Guest) plays Jay, a well-balanced, smart girl on the receiving end of something supernatural and vengeful after a fateful night with a seemingly innocent and kind older boy. Monroe is just captivating to watch – she plays young with the right kind of swagger and unsteadiness mixed together. The authenticity (coupled with very smart character writing) creates a relatable and grounded character that you as the viewer are invested in sincerely. This is very key – without it, this becomes a suspenseful but weightless exercise in possibly inevitable death by all those involved. But with Monroe’s performance, the excellent visual and editing style, the use of the pulsing, driving score and the environments all never seeming just right you get a bold, uncomplicated film that rises well above what it could have been.
7. What We Do In the Shadows –
The more serious horror fan might not be able to unstick their ass long enough to enjoy a comedy horror film like Taika Waititi’s What We Do In The Shadows, but, that is their loss. Taking a page from the Christopher Guest-style of mockumentary filmmaking, Waititi crafts a rollingly funny story about a den of vampires and how they deal with the day-to-day struggles of being a vampire and how they deal with each other. Bits involving dishes in the kitchen, virgin blood and new vampires are on the nose and goofy and great, but more subtle bits with nightlife and other creatures of the night take a bit to roll out. This change in style could make some get a little impatient but honestly I cannot see why. One-note comedy horror gets old fast and so with this film we’re treated to a level of smarts and respect that doesn’t automatically come with an expiration date. It is more Young Frankenstein and less Scary Movie and that is a glorious thing. Excellent turns by the director himself, Jemaine Clement (of Flight Of The Concords & also with a director credit), and Rhys Darby help make What We Do In The Shadows one I loved this year and will love many years down the line.
6. Død Snø 2 (Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead)
sometimes what you need is energy at level 11, you need splatter gags, you need ridiculousness and you need joy. You get all these things and more in spades in Tommy Wirkola’s spirited and insane Dead Snow 2, a sequel that could very well be considered better than the original. Considering the love I have for the first Dead Snow, that is saying quite a bit. This film picks up exactly where the first one ended and expands on Herzog’s mythology and what they are really after beyond just a box of gold. Vegar Hoel is pitch-perfect as Martin, the last one (kind-of) standing at the end of the first one coupled with a trio of Americans who’ve been summoned to help the zombie fight. The Zombie Squad, as it were, is a great addition to the story and brings humor and fish-out-of-water charm realized only on the strength of the three: Martin Starr, Jocelyn DeBoer and Ingrid Haas. But the star of this film is the frantic action, absurd gross-out gags and wonderfully ambitious practical effects work that goes toe-to-head and back again in every damned way possible. This film is so funny, so enjoyable, so gross and so great that it’d be impossible to not see it as a midnight movie favorite for many years to come.
5. ABC’s of Death 2 –
While not 100% a horror-movie from start to finish, the sinister glee in all things death-related make this second collection of shorts under the ABC banner a major winner. I don’t have much interest in comparing first to second, but it is easy to see that the successes and failures of the first film heavily influenced this one. If the first one was the rough and tumble genesis of the ’26 letter’ idea, then the second is the realization of that idea. There are strong, bold entries from Dennison Ramalho (J is for Jesus), E.L. Katz (A is for Amateur), Hajime Ohata (O is for Ochlocracy /mob rule), Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado (F is for falling), Chris Nash (Z is for Zygote) and Marven Kren (R is for Roulette). Beyond those there are many many more that are solid and many more that show serious spirit and care – really there isn’t much to fuss about and certainly nothing to look down on. This is a collection brimming with energy and dedication and passion and I would venture to guess that the folks involved in this collection will be those you see on the forefront of genre filmmaking in the future. Talented, driven and original. It is such a joy to see so much creativity celebrated in one place.
4. Honeymoon –
The tension and suspense at the heart of Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon is matched by the palatable human tragedy and sadness felt for the couple at the center of it all. Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway play a newly married couple on a honeymoon (of sorts) to an old family lakeside cabin who experience something potentially supernatural or otherworldly that rips their humanity away piece by piece. This is done with patience, with maturity and with a craftsmanlike lens by cinematographer Kyle Klutz. This also puts a heavy burden on the two leads but Treadaway and Leslie are so strong, so relatable and so grounded that all that is piled upon them is felt two-fold by the audience. Lesser performances would rob that investment you (should) have in them and make for a dull patience exercise. Instead, the human element is played up and distorted and abandoned and exploited throughout with a level of confidence that is breathtaking and inspiring. The beautiful look of the film too, the washed amber and blues and the contrast from light to dark make for a dreamlike feel. Taken all together, Honeymoon is a complete success and I for one cannot wait to see what director Leigh Janiak will do next.
3. Housebound –
What makes Gerard Johnstone’s Housebound so enjoyable is hard to nail down exactly. I don’t know if it is the off-centered humor or the Scooby Doo-esque plot or the 100% perfect final act or the leads or what it is but the whole thing works in perfect harmony. The story surrounds Kylie (the lovely Morgana O’Reilly), an often-arrested spit-and-vinegar young woman staring down the barrel of house arrest with her ding-ey mother, nearly mute stepfather and a creaky, crummy old house. Couple this with a series of bumps and noises in the night and a seriously unpleasant threatening-seeming neighbor and you have the makings of a classic haunted house reveal. The story and the reveal are well handled and fun but the real joy is watching Kylie have to negotiate her own bitterness in the face of the larger (and possibly deadly) bigger picture helped along by those who care for her anyway. She doesn’t become a different person by the end as much as she grows as the person she is and that is the kind of character arc you hope for and rarely get. As mentioned, the heights of energy this film captures in the final thirty minutes are just wonderful – the joy and fun and excitement of it is sincere and grand and just so satisfying. Wonderful film all around.
There wasn’t a way that I could pick a number one from the two films I have at the top of this list, so instead I’ve just tied them and made them both number one. This isn’t meant as wishy-washy – it is more meant to signify that there were two films that, in my eyes, advance the genre in important and creative ways and are both films I really love.
1. The Babadook –
First of the two is the Australian film, The Babadook by first time feature director Jennifer Kent. This film gets to the heart of mourning and loss and struggle in a way that few attempt in any meaningful way in horror. In this case, the story surrounds a struggling single mom Amelia (played beautifully by Essie Davis) who must manage her son Sam (Noah Wiseman) with the cloud of sadness over her husband’s death the day Sam was born. She is a mess in every sense of the word and barely copes having to deal with the boundless energy and challenging personality of Sam day in and day out. A bedtime story from an unfamiliar storybook off Sam’s shelf one night seems to trigger some kind of vengeful monster hell-bent at getting after Amelia and Sam in a wide variety of scary and downright cruel ways. The effect of this threat plays against Amelia’s grip on reality in such a way that the real nature of this monstrous beast is not as clear-cut as it might seem like early on. This film is also downright scary in a number of ways – some jolting, some lingering but all effective. The washes of color in all parts of Amelia and Sam’s life also speak to the theme in a passive but important way. Taken all together, a film like The Babadook is a shining example of what you can do when your goal is resonate instead of just shock, effect instead of temporarily entertain and to create lasting art instead of merely a passing splash of horror forgotten as easily as it came.
1. Musarañas (Shrew’s Nest) –
The multiple levels of tension, of tragedy and of bloody violence played out in Juanfer Andrés and Esteban Roel’s Shrew’s Nest are all equally important and equally well-handled. The film is a story about the fragile nature of sanity and the ways in which humanity can be lost. The film does not mess around but it is not a shock and gore fest either: it takes its time to fully realize the characters and the cost of what has happened to all involved. It is at times a delicate family tragedy over generations laying bare the ugly cruelty of abuse. The two sisters at the center of the film, Macarena Gómez as Montse the older and Nadia de Santiago the younger, are on different paths of their lives. Montse is a seamstress crippled by fear of the outside world while her younger sister is on the verge of adulthood and wanting to spread wings and fly away from the home. The pressure of this, coupled with the effects of the tragic family history slowly unfolded (with the always excellent Luis Tosar as their father), on Montse is entirely too much to bear. Once a neighbor breaks his leg outside the women’s’ apartment and is brought inside by Montse, it all starts to crumble in on itself. This is felt in emotional ways as well as violent, unsettling ones and once it all narrows in and charges to the final act, there is hardly a breath to be had. The suspense is palatable, the emotions are real and the sorrow is heartbreaking – it is so bold and so unyielding and scary. It is the kind of film that makes you shake your head in amazement, not only for the completely triumphant craft of it (50’s setting, costuming, style, filming etc) but for the courage on the part of the filmmakers to pull it off without compromise. It is one that will stay with me for many years to come.