So trying to get this list down to ten films was tricky business. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus about whether you should include films not actually released in the year or wait until they actually hit distribution channels, theatres etc. I’m primarily talking here about films shown at festivals. If I did the list as being ‘films I saw in 2013’ then it would look a bit different. But after wrestling with this, I decided that I should only include those films available to just about everyone versus those fortunate few who get to see them well ahead of securing distribution etc. This is not an exact science either, there are foreign films that have such an unconventional path to see the light of day that one could claim a number of years as being the actual release. Anyway, what I’m saying here is that I thought it more appropriate to focus on those released this year and wait on those that’ll get out into the world in 2014.
I only say all of that because my favorite film of 2013 on any genre was Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin. Hands down, one of the best genre films I’ve seen in a long time. Brutal, simple, sad and unrelentingly suspenseful in a way that is earned and makes complete sense. It is a mother of a film and I cannot wait for it to get out and be seen by as many people as possible. It is just that good. This is followed closely by Big Bad Wolves (another revenge thriller/horror) that was a slap in the face to those who want to figure it all out right from the start. Talk about a mean streak of a film wrapped in a thriller wrapped in a police procedural roasted over a slowly growing fire. Quickly behind that are The Sacrament and Afflicted, both excellent, smart, well laid out films that push their respective areas of the genre to new and satisfying limits. I so greatly look forward to these films making it to the public and getting the recognition they so richly deserve. So with that set of loosy-goosey rules in place, I venture forward….
This is a tricky one because my feelings on this film changed from theatre to DVD. Walking out of the theatre I felt frustrated that this unique, interesting ghost story was overrun with terrible CGI at crucial moments which resulted in a less than satisfying feeling overall. Watching it again (and especially the making-of stuff on the Blu-ray) gave me an appreciation for the craft of the film, outside of that damned CGI hair, that I cannot ignore. The film is not perfect, but as an original spooky story (yes, I know, it was based on a really short-short) that doesn’t wholly pander to a completest happy-ending, it succeeded. Great performances by the two lead child actors and also a solid turn by Jessica Chastain.
I’m a total sucker for a good monster movie with a good creature (or creatures) and characters that aren’t totally two-dimensional. Grabbers is a charming Irish film about a small fishing village dealing with a Lovecraftian tentacle monster infestation. How do they try to fend off the monsters’ attack? With a barrel full of alcohol, imbibed, of course. What could have devolved into a bunch of dumb drunk jokes and repetitive monster attacks was instead a calm, warm and engaging film about community and care for others and for yourself. It never gets too sweet and never gets too dull either – it is Waking Ned Devine by way of Tremors and that suits me just fine.
I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that this film doesn’t work for every horror fan. It is a rumination about life paths, bad choices and care for the memory of a person almost more so than for the person themselves under the spectre of something otherworldly pulling the strings. The film focuses most of its attention on the relationship between two old friends, one with his life together and one the exact opposite, who are together again in an attempt by the stable friend to help the unstable one kick his drug habit. The film doesn’t push the supernatural or horror aspect the way many might want: it doesn’t deal headlong initially with what might be actually happening to these two men ‘stuck’ in this remote cabin but it instead crafts a beautiful human story so compelling that the hints of darkness around the edges are merely a passing thought. The transition from this type of balancing act into the meat of the situation was seemless and smart and rendered more powerful by the time it took to really spend time with the two men and make them both matter and, in turn, their situation all the more dire.
7. Evil Dead (2013)
What might be the most divisive entry on my list (or anyone elses for that matter) is one of the more ballsy horror films this year. Ballsy not only because it dares to traipse across the hallowed ground of the Evil Dead series but ballsy because it took an absolutely take-no-prisoners approach to the story. There are no winners. There is no fairness. It is just bloody, mean, unsettling carnage. This could have so easily been some PG-13 mess that slogged through one CGI laden matte’ painting after another with a bunch of underdeveloped halfwits for characters and a sickening amount of winks to the camera for references to the original films. It was none of those things. It was a continuation of the mythology of the originals, it was an interesting angle on the ‘group’ not realizing the danger they are in (this time in the form of their friend Mia’s drug comedown dramatics/why they are in the cabin in the first place) until it’s too late and above all it was original and not a straight remake. Imagine how God-awful some actual remake would’ve been, recasting Ash etc etc etc. Boggles the mind. I really dug the 2013 Evil Dead as much for the blood drenched, black-hearted thriller it was as for all the things it wasn’t. Thank God for that.
6. Jug Face
I have to commend director Chad Crawford Kinkle on marrying a seriously unsettling story about backwoods cultish religion, incest and ritualistic murder with the charm that comes from not making caricatures the crutch by which a story is hobbled along. The people who inhabit this film are flesh and blood and not 100% bad or good (even the ones we are supposed to feel that way about) which makes their progression through the story that much more accessible and real. Had it been a running joke about inbred, magic pit worshiping hicks with some horror thrown in there, it would have been an inaccessible mess. Jug Face is, instead, an endearing (albeit dark) fable about what faith and family and deception really mean in a life of limited means and even more limited understanding of the outside world. The ‘invisible walls’ of this film keep it suspenseful and sharp and ultimately make it a wholly original film that will surely influence the genre in a positive way.
5. The Conjuring
While some may lament director James Wan’s departure from horror to direct more mainstream fare, I for one am glad this film (and not the dopey Insidious 2) has a bit of an anchor to it that may draw him back in down the line. By anchor I mean that the film has a timelessness to it that is more than just period costuming and practical effects and such. It has a grace to it, a measured tempo that balances the family dynamic with the evil to come that invests us not only in their fate but in the reasons for what is happening. So often, possession or ghost films just make the ‘big reveal’ a throw-in bit of stuff near the end to wrap it all up neatly. This film, instead, puts as much importance on what might have originated this evil and in the why of it that and when you take it against the family’s survival, they both seem valuable. This level of calm care for the trajectory of the story give it a real quality that will give it legs years from now. It is a real achievement of a film that doesn’t rely on gimmicks or tricks or flash-in-the-pan-trends to tell its story. That has to be worth something to the crafty and effortlessly talented James Wan.
4. The Battery –
I loved this film the first time I saw it and appreciated it even more the second time around. It is small budgeted, small scoped film about the aftermath of a zombie outbreak through the lens of two baseball teammates (a pitcher and catcher) making their way through the back roads and forests to stay alive. The dynamic between these two is something special: you have the polar opposite thing (a la The Odd Couple) going but at the same time you have the base level human need for companionship wrestling for control over these two men. The chemistry between them and the delicate, relatable coping mechanisms they both employ paint a truly humanistic portrait of hopelessness dressed up as a plan for success. It is lovely and funny and tragic and should serve as a model by which others meaning to wade into the zombie genre should follow if they want to make their story about zombies about more than just zombies.
3. 100 Bloody Acres
While hard to recommend to too many non-genre type people, this film is an utterly charming, gross, bloody and slyly funny tale about making bad choices for good reasons and what happens when you do. The story itself is pretty simple: two brothers operate an organic fertilizer business that utilizes, among other things, roadkill, to make a strong performing blend of fertilizer. It becomes very apparent very quickly that there is more than just four-legged animal parts being used to make their blend and with this grisly bit of information, we watch the two brothers stumble through the mess they’ve quasi-accidentally created for themselves. Not only because the ‘new blend’ performs great and customers want more, but because their pastoral life is interrupted by three young people en route to a concert and the wheels just come right the hell off from that point forward. Watching the meek brother Reg take ahold of his life intermixed in this whole mess is something so endearing and charming that I find myself marveling at not only the writing that made this a priority but also in the definite lack of smarm and syrup that it could have become. It is perfectly balanced between blood and gook and grossness and a larger message about self-worth and strength. An unconventional way to express a traditional kind of message, sure, but one well worth it.
This is another film that strengthens its grip on you the second time you see it. While I thought a lot of it on the first viewing, it was the second time that really cemented it as one of the best genre films of the year. There is an airtight feeling to the film that elevates even normal interactions to suspenseful, worrisome affairs. It is in this constant tension that director Park Chan-wook manipulates and toys with the audience. He seems fully aware we do not trust any of the people in this odd family – we don’t trust their intentions, we don’t trust what we’re being shown, what we’re being told. We just don’t know what to expect. He knows this and makes it a priority to force your hand on guessing what will happen and who will do what from a pretty early point in the film. Once you’ve abandoned your need to try to work it all out ahead of time, you’re treated to a slow burn story that is a marvel of heebie-jeebie reveals, creepy family dynamics, murder, mystery and longing that once you reach the apex of the thing, you’re rendered near breathless by the experience. It is a haunting, subversively funny, utterly unsettling and original film that leaves its mark with thunderous authority.
1. You’re Next
Yeah, like I was going to pick anything else for the #1 spot? Seriously. This film embodies all that is right and good when it comes to horror films. It is funny. It is bloody. It is nerve-wracking. It is expertly paced and well-acted. It is smart. It is relentless. It is suspenseful. It is unyielding. A film like this, while not deep and contemplative, is what I hope for as a horror movie guy and a genre dork in general. One of the things that makes the film so successful is its reliance on a strong female character to carry the load. This isn’t some accidental action star-type situation, nor is it someone who becomes a hero just by sheer dumb luck and/or being the last one standing. The film rests its success or failure on the shoulders of a strong woman. Not a wallflower. Not a cardboard cutout. A strong, dynamic (and at the same time) real female character that must be both real and relentless. She must be believable and not just convenient. She must be someone you root for with abandon but she cannot be superhuman. She must embody Ripley but bleed like John McClain. The effortlessly great Sharni Vinson is all these things and more and it is through her performance, through this tense and thrilling re-imagining of the home-invasion subgenre that I unequivocally found something to stand up and cheer for this year in our beloved horror genre.
So there you go. There are many films I quite enjoyed outside of these ten, including Citadel, Thale, Alyce Kills, Kiss Of The Damned, American Mary, Byzantium, This Is The End, The World’s End, ABC’s Of Death, Sightseers, Dark Touch, Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal, V/H/S/2, We Are What We Are and many more after that and a bulk more I’ve likely forgotten. As an aside, I’ve got a full docket of films this weekend so I may hit on some that could have made the list including Toad Road, Here Comes The Devil among others. There is certainly never enough time and entirely too many good films around!
Lastly, I wanted to give special mention to three documentaries in the genre that I really loved and hope they get a lot of attention. Fantasm, about horror conventions, Monsters Wanted, about an ambitious haunted house attraction and Rewind This! about the culture of crazed VHS fans. All three are pretty darn special and say a lot about what you can do with some knowhow, a good heart and a passion for the subject.