2014 in Retrospect

By now you’ve seen countless of Top 10 Horror for 2014 lists, with the end of the year upon us, and I considered posting one as well.  2014 has been a great year for horror, though you wouldn’t know it judging by wide theatrical releases.  However, I feel wrong titling this list as the “top” or “best of” as, to be honest, there’s so many I still haven’t seen.  So instead, consider this my list of recommendations.  My reflection of the horror films throughout the year that resonated with me; the gems that may have gone overlooked.  In short: my absolute favorites.

The Guest

THE GUEST

Do not pass go, do not collect $200.  Immediately go to your closest retailer or VOD of choice this Tuesday, January 6th.  This is, hands down, my favorite film of 2014.  While The Guest may not count as traditional horror, the obvious John Carpenter and James Cameron influences argue otherwise.  As does the blatant Halloween III homage and that the plot is set over Halloween, with the climax set amidst the most amazing Halloween party ever.  The setup is simple: a soldier shows up at the doorstep of a family, claiming to be there fulfilling a promise he made to their son to look out for them after his death.  Their teenage daughter soon suspects this soldier is not who he says he is.  The performances by leads Dan Stevens and Maika Monroe elevate the basic premise into something extremely special.  Maika’s performance as tough-as-nails Anna made her one of the best final girls in recent years. This genre bender is a masterpiece, complete with quirky humor.

Starry Eyes-

Starry Eyes

A cringe inducing allegory on ambition and a stark look at sleaze of the casting couch, Starry Eyes follows Sarah and her desire to reach stardom.  Alex Essoe carries the film as Sarah, from tragic vulnerability to vehement determination in achieving her goals.  Sarah lives in a complex of other Hollywood wannabes, a group of friends content with partying amongst each other, while Sarah persistently looks for casting calls and juggles a job at a Hooter’s style restaurant.  She gets her lucky break when invited to meet with the producer of a well-known company to discuss the lead role in their latest film, but must trade in morals and more to win the role.  Starry Eyes spends a lot of time setting up Sarah and her journey, but once her deal is struck the film picks up the pace and amps up the gore.  Sarah’s transition into stardom is both gripping..and gag inducing.

Purge: Anarchy-

The Purge: Anarchy

A hugely entertaining sequel to a mediocre at best predecessor.  Read why this film is worthy here.

Late Phases-

late phases

A blind Vietnam vet moves into a retirement community where the residents are being slaughtered every full moon.  Wait, really?  Instantly intrigued by the premise, I found this film had more in common with Bubba Ho-Tep that initially suspected.  Stocked with a solid cast (Ethan Embry, Tom Noonan, and Larry Fessenden) lead by Nick Damici as the gruff and independent vet, Ambrose, Late Phases transcends its gimmicky plot with a melancholic study on the forgotten elders.  The residents are largely forgotten outside of their community; their children have abandoned them and even the community’s security treats them like jokes.  Behind Ambrose’s abrasive persona lies guilt and depression, and it’s both heartbreaking and captivating to watch it unfold amidst the gory slayings every full moon.  I should probably mention I have a huge soft spot for werewolves, and as far as both makeup and transformation sequences, Late Phases doesn’t disappoint.  Horror and heart? Instant win.

Witching & Bitching-

Witching_and_Bitching

I’ve previously discussed how much I love Spanish horror, as well as why this eccentric comedy is a must see here.

Housebound-

Housebound

Another great horror comedy, but this time from New Zealand. After getting into some trouble with the law, Kylie is sentenced to house arrest in her childhood home.  Kylie is a bit of a loner, so this punishment is especially painful for her as she’s stuck under the same roof as her blabbermouth mother who is convinced their house is haunted.  But when she begins encountering strange events in the house, she starts to question if her mother may be onto something.  For a comedy, the film takes some surprising sharp turns that keep you guessing.  Kylie is so initially off-putting, but her mother’s quirks and personality distract and compensate.  In fact, all of the supporting cast make up for an irritating lead.  Housebound tries hard to balance the horror with the comedy elements, instead of favoring one over the other.  There are genuine scary moments as well as laugh out loud jokes, which is no easy feat to accomplish.

Afflicted-

afflicted 2013 poster

A horrific transformation story reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London that effectively uses the found footage style? Yes please!  Read why Afflicted worked so well here.

Honorable Mentions:

The Taking of Deborah Logan-

Taking of Deborah Logan

A documentary crew offers money to use Deborah Logan as the subject of their medical documentary on Alzheimer’s disease but is soon questioning if her eerie behavior is just a product of her disease or something supernatural. Jill Larson’s performance as Deborah Logan is downright frightening in the best possible way, and the first half of this unique possession tale will leave you with chills.  However, halfway through when one character wisely leaves as you most characters would, the film unravels.  The more that is revealed about the supernatural elements haunting Ms. Logan, the sillier it all becomes.  The disappointment of the final shot stings all the more with such an effective first half.

The Babadook-

thebabadook

An excellent film, to be sure, but nowhere near what critics lead me to believe.  It also doesn’t help that I’m not a mommy.  Read more about my thoughts here.

I can’t wait to see what 2015 has in store.  What were your favorites from 2014?

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Spanish horror

Over the past couple of decades, Spain has emerged as an expert on horror.  I’ve realized that many of the films that have terrified me the most, the ones that I share with friends, hail from Spain.  Even when the idea behind the some of the films seem like horror that’s been retreaded many times over, they’re injected with tension, effective scares, beautiful cinematography, and emotion that just gives it that refreshing twist.  I thought I’d share my absolute favorite, though it’s by no means the only Spanish horror films worth checking out.

5.) The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

The Devils Backbone

Set in a remote orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, the story follows young Carlos who was left behind by his parents.  As stories circulate about a child who went missing the day an unexploded bomb dropped into the orphanage’s courtyard, Carlos notices ghostly figures and creepy noises.  The plot is far more complicated than a simple ghost story; the effects of the war stretch even to isolated orphanages.  Though Guillermo del Toro’s first draft was set in his home country of Mexico and didn’t feature a ghost, I’m glad for the changes.  The addition of the ghost not only unnerves, but adds a layer of melancholy that enforces the tragedy of war.

 

4.) Witching & Bitching (2013)

Witching_and_Bitching

This zany horror-comedy by director Alex de la Iglesia follows bumbling thieves as they steal gold from a pawn shop.  Truly, the worst robbery ever.  Jose even brings his son along, since it’s his day for custody.  With the cops closing in the thieves try to evade them by heading to France, though they get stuck in Zugarramurdi, a little town known for being inhabited by witches.  Now they must not only escape the law, but the family of witches looking to serve them for dinner.  Though some of the humor falls flat at times, the banter between the thieves is a highlight and the horror elements are so bizarre that the film succeeds any way.

 

3.) Sleep Tight (2011)

Sleep tight

Directed by Jaume Balagueró, this intense thriller follows concierge César and his unhealthy obsession with apartment tenant Clara.  What begins with unhappy César playing pranks on his unsuspecting victim quickly escalates into far more sinister acts.  From wiping cockroach eggs everywhere to voyeurism, this film’s chills come from its realism and fear of privacy invasion.  The tension is palpable throughout, and the reason César does what is does is terrifying.  Well acted and often uncomfortable, this thriller feels on par with classics like Hitchcock and Polanksi.

 

2.) Fragile (2005)

fragile

Jaume Balagueró strikes again!  Shot in Spain and the UK, this supernatural flick is set in a rundown hospital, currently in the process of closing its doors for good.  Enter American nurse Amy, played by Calista Flockhart, who frantically tries to keep the remaining patients safe from a series of mysterious attacks.  Amy bonds with a young orphan, Maggie, who is suffering from fibrosis and together they discover the entity behind the attacks.  This ghost story may not be original, but its abandoned hospital setting, save for the children’s ward, may for very effective scares.  No other ghost may be quite as scare as the one that haunts the remaining patients, but it’s the emotional bond between Amy and Maggie that’s the heartbeat of this film.  Their growing adoration of each other not only gives this film purpose, but it pulls on your heartstrings.  With scares and soul, this is easily one of my favorites on any list.

 

1.) [Rec] (2007)

REC

Perhaps I should have just dedicated this list to Jaume Balagueró?  This time he shares the helm with co-director Paco Plaza.  In one of the most intense horror films I have had the pleasure of viewing, [Rec] is a found footage film in which television reporter Ángela Vidal and her camera man follow a local fire station for her show.  What starts out as a rather boring evening turns out to be anything but when the fire station receives a call about a woman trapped in her apartment.  Upon arrival they find the woman is completely crazed and aggressive, and bites one of the firemen before plummeting to the lobby floor below.  The CDC and police arrive and put the building on quarantine, locking everyone inside with an infection that’s spreading.  This is easily the most effective use of found footage.  The limited view of the camera contributes to some of the most tense scenes in any horror film.  When the lights are cut off, the camera also becomes the only source of light, eliminating the oft asked, “Why didn’t they put the camera down?”  The final moments will likely have your hands hovering somewhere around your face, and at the very least you will watch most of this film at the edge of your seat.  It’s not a bad idea to have a change of pants handy, either.  What appears to be a simple zombie film is anything but.

 

What are your favorites?

 

Found Footage still works.

While Devil’s Due was a letdown, I was caught off guard by the reviews.  Not that I expected favorable reviews, but a lot of them focused on how tired they are of the found footage sub genre.  How found footage is just a gimmick.  I actually felt bad for Devil’s Due.  Radio Silence put in a lot of effort to make the camera use plausible, so why are we focusing on the one aspect of the film that wasn’t broken?  Why are the critics focusing their ire toward an entire sub genre solely on one film instead of breaking down what really didn’t work with it?  Oh, like perhaps a complete lack of emotional attachment to the two leads we’re meant to sympathize with?  With no scares and no attachment to the story it was difficult to stay invested in Devil’s Due.  Grumblings about how bored everyone is of found footage isn’t new, but for me at least, it was new to find an editorial masquerading as an honest review.

It got me thinking.  As with all genres, when a film unexpectedly strikes a strong chord with audiences you’ll find studios scrambling to recapture that magic.  You see trends come and go; when the current movement fizzles at the box office the next shiny new thing ushers in a new trend. Repeat.  It seems to be more recognizable in horror.  Asian horror, torture porn, slashers, etc.  They all have spent time in the spotlight until mainstream audiences get overexposed and then step back for the next sub genre.  But here’s the thing: they don’t go away.  Just because the box office tired of the Saw franchise doesn’t mean that similar films ceased being made.

So I guess what I’m saying is, don’t blame an entire genre or sub-genre for being the current fad.  They were likely around before and will still be long after Hollywood forgets their existence.  Blair Witch wasn’t the first Found Footage film; you can give that credit to Cannibal Holocaust in 1980.  Yup.  Nearly 20 years before Blair Witch made Found Footage a household name it’d been done numerous times before.  And when people groan and whine at the trailers for Paranormal Activity sequel # 6, rest assured that there will still be more to come.  Really, if the idea of watching a found footage film bothers you that much…then don’t go.  Simple.  There’s no clearer message to studios than that.

But for me, I’m not tired of them.  I know I’m not alone in this.  Found Footage still works.  Not always, but often.  I think what studios are discovering, much to the dismay of critics and audiences, is that found footage is hard.  It’s difficult to explain to audiences why that camera is still in hand when shit hits the fan and that character still hasn’t put it down.  It’s difficult to keep things fresh for audiences, to set the film apart from its predecessors.  But it’s still being done and done well.

I think when it comes to film and media, memory is extremely short.  It was just last year that people went nuts over V/H/S/2.  Guess what?  That’s found footage.  Europa Report currently holds a 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Also found footage.  The Bay in 2012?  Also fresh at 77%.  What about Chronicle, also released in 2012? 85% on Rotten Tomatoes.  There’s also critical darlings like [REC], Trollhunter, and Lake Mungo released in recent years.  So, clearly found footage films isn’t a washed up sub-genre incapable of putting out great stuff.  Are we basing the criticisms on a couple of bombs and a franchise that’s a bit tired?

Perhaps its technicalities.  Maybe what Found Footage needs is a name change.  More often lately, you’re watching a first person narrative, rather than found footage.  I’ve read complaints about the lack of “finding footage.”  So if we’re nitpicking, maybe this would put minds at ease.  It’s a fine line, really.

Nothing gets you as deep into the experience as Found Footage.  You’re right there with the characters, experiencing their journey as if you’re there.  You see what they see, which amps up the atmosphere when that line of sight is limited.  I commend filmmakers who can pull this genre off.  It’s not an easy feat to accomplish, and I sincerely hope people keep trying.  There are innovative people out there still full of surprises, and I support you.