for me, january has always been a month for drinking hot cocoa, bundling up tightly in multiple layers of itchy clothing, and hoping it snows so i don’t have to go to school, class, and/or work. january also marks the beginning of a new year and the end of the prior one. our tiny green/blue planet’s completion of yet another trip around the sun is not only a time for celebration, drinking, and blowing into tiny plastic horns — it’s also a time for reflection. reflection on the prior year’s triumphs and failings… lessons learned and future endeavors… but, perhaps most importantly, reflection on the past year’s best and worst cinematic depictions of mutilations, psychotic killers, creepy black-haired japanese children and exceptionally large lizards.
below is my list of the 2008’s ten best horror films. while there’s some general agreement amongst fans on films like inside and the happening, 2008 was a strange year in that it saw many releases that elicited very polar reactions from the horror community. many of the films that made my top ten can be seen in other site’s list of the year’s worst. even within the same site (e.g., bloody-disgusting), many of the films that appear on one writer’s best list also show up on another’s list of the worst. all i can say is that this list represents the ten films from this year that i enjoyed most… stories that drew me in and/or gave me the wiggins might not do the same for you, but i think all of the films listed here deserve a watch from anyone interested in the horror genre.
another in the recently revived ‘found footage’ genre, [rec] is a film from spain that documents a small-scale zombie outbreak in an apartment building. an ambitious news reporter and her camera man frame the story, giving the filming of the entire event a feeling of reality lacking in most films of this type (e.g., why did heather donahue feel compelled to continue filming throughout her ordeal?). less ambitious (but also less pompous and pretentious) than diary of the dead, [rec] is a far more visceral experience than romero’s similar take on the genre. i have yet to the see the american remake quarantine, but i hear it is almost a shot-for-shot retelling of the story — so i’m confident in saying that i’ll enjoy it when it makes it to dvd.
much like the blair witch project before it, the experience of cloverfield was as much about its marketing as it was about the film. cryptic trailers and hidden websites teased the film months before its title was even revealed, leading to a ridiculous amount of hype by its january release. fortunately, the film delivered on its promises… while perhaps not as chilling as the plight of the burkittsville film students, the thrill of glimpsing a godzilla-esque monster in new york from the first person point of view of an amateur cameraman cannot be denied. some (e.g., firstname.lastname@example.org) thought the main characters were shallow and annoying, but i found them likable and sympathetic. for those that didn’t like it (e.g., email@example.com), i have but one question… are you anything more than an empty shell of a human being with no capacity for childish wonder, who can no longer experience the slightest tinge of joy?
it’s a huge damn lizard knocking over buildings and eating helicopters. who doesn’t like that?
inside (à l’intérieur)
i’d heard that inside was a rather grotesque film. about half way into this film’s rather short running time i was all, “hey, i don’t see what the big deal is.” boy did that last half prove me wrong.
this is a messed up little french movie about a messed up little french lady who really wants a baby. unfortunately, the baby belongs to another little french lady who hasn’t so much given birth to the baby yet as hasn’t. home invasion, multiple murders and torture ensues, resulting in a bizarre and rather disturbing climax. likely even more disturbing for pregnant women, women planning on getting pregnant, people who know pregnant women, or people whose mothers were ever pregnant. another little buttery croissant of horror further solidifying france as a force to be reckoned with in the genre. highly recommended.
the director of urban legend returns home to australia to direct this nasty little “city folk find themselves in trouble with hillbillies” story. jon already gushed over this film last month, but i couldn’t help but include it in this list. it’s a simple, fun country mayhem/revenge combo that everyone should throw into their netflix queue. it also features the only scene that i know of where a character is forced to execute a tiny kangaroo, so, you know… it’s got that going for it.
i just realized six of my top ten films are foreign (seven if you count funny games, a remake of a foreign film by the same director). what’s up america? hopefully having obama in the white house, in addition to the unicorns and happiness and candy corn for everyone that we’re expecting, will also bring with it something that inspires some much-needed creativity in the horror-related corners of hollywood.
anyway, yeah. back to frontier(s). this is another nasty french film cut from the same bloody cloth as the texas chainsaw massacre. a group of fleeing thieves (including one who is pregnant… what’s with the french and pregnant women being tortured?) take refuge at a bed & breakfast that isn’t run by the stereotypical nice old couple, but instead by a family of nazi cannibals. as you would expect, the predictable hilarity ensues. less psychological and more action oriented than inside, both films are still probably equal on the ‘gruesomeness’ scale. the film’s climax really puts the final girl through her paces too… this is no simple “run through the woods, put on a crusty old sweater and swing a machete” american slasher film obstacle course — this french girl really has to work to get her final girl credentials.
after seeing funny games, it doesn’t surprise me that this strange little film didn’t do any real box office. oddly marketed as a comedy, and despite the title, funny games is anything but funny. while much of the violence occurs off screen, few films are as sadistic as this shot-for-shot remake of the 1997 austrian film of the same name. even within the horror genre, the purpose of almost all films is to entertain — watching funny games, you’re left with the distinct impression that the director has far more sinister intentions for his audience. the villains are politely cheerful while performing an array of inhuman acts and the victims react utterly realistically to everything that occurs. this combination made me uncomfortable throughout the film in a way that no other film really has. one often mentioned scene in which the film literally rewinds itself is too clever for its own good, resulting in what feels like little more than art school posturing while almost derailing the audience’s emotional attachment to the characters — but this is really the only flaw i can find. the overall effect of the film is terrifying, leaving the audience disturbed and emotionally drained. while not for everyone, i personally think funny games is brilliant.
when i heard the guy who did wolf creek was making a killer alligator film, i couldn’t wait. then i saw rogue and was largely underwhelmed… how did the disturbing and subversive tone of wolf creek transform into the castrated, audience friendly hollywood-ized (but admittedly, still fun) antics of rogue? it did whet my appetite for more gator action though, so i put black water in my netflix queue. as it turns out, black water is exactly what i was expecting when i heard about rogue… it’s bleak, frightening and humorless. imagine open water in the swamp. there are no giant cgi crocs to be found and no silly heroics or sappy hollywood endings. despite stiff competition from rogue (and rather flacid competition from the abysmal lake placid 2), this is the alligator movie of the year.
let the right one in (låt den rätte komma in)
apart from meatballs and the chef from the muppet show, i don’t know a lot about sweden — but it appears they can make really good horror films. given that the main characters are twelve year olds, i’m tempted to say this is a near dark for the hannah montana crowd… but that would do the film a disservice because it’s actually a far more complex and mature film than the midwestern antics of severyn and company. oskar is a bullied child who falls in love with eli when she moves in next door. eli gives oskar the confidence to stand up to his bullies, but what is oskar to make of eli’s aversion to sunlight and slightly troubling tendency to drink human blood? this may sound a bit like twilight, but make no mistake — this is an adult, thinking-person’s vampire film. beautiful and complicated, let the right one in is already lined up for the american remake machine. however, do yourself a favor and seek out the original. now.
apparently this is not a remake of the french film ils (them), but i find that very hard to believe given the similarities. regardless, the strangers surpasses that film in every respect. creepy, moody and unrelenting — the strangers touches on the same fears as funny games — home invasion and torture. the strangers is much scarier though, and just as disturbing. and my god — that mask! apart from those based on the face of william shatner (michael myers’) or borrowed from my favorite sport (jason’s mask), this film features the scariest mask in horror film history.
i didn’t really have any expectations going into the unrated dvd of the ruins… if anything, i expected another over-produced and toothless teen horror film starring a platoon of pretty upn television show washouts (e.g., the prom night remake). you have no idea how happy and surprised i was to find likable characters, a unique premise and a surprisingly scary “villain.” the film is remarkably grim from the beginning, and i was glad to see the ending on the dvd (different from the predictably useless theatrical one chosen by the studio) didn’t betray this. from what i’ve read, the film didn’t work for a lot of people — but i was not among them. the ruins caught me completely by surprise, which may play into why i liked it so — but it remains the film i enjoyed most this year.
honorable mentions: i really liked all the boys love mandy lane, but it wasn’t released this year. again. even though it was completed in 2006. the weinstein’s really need to decide what to do with this film and get it out already. i also saw repo: the genetic opera, but despite it being a downright gorgeous film and my love of musicals of this type (e.g., dr. horrible and the rocky horror picture show) — i’m afraid to admit (particularly given its near-universal critical acclaim), it just didn’t do it for me. maybe once i experience it in the theater (as it was intended), i’ll reconsider my opinion…
bonus list: best horror video games of 2008
silent hill: homecoming
i was concerned the creepiness and undefinable “silent hill-iness” of the silent hill franchise would suffer when it moved to an american studio. i need not have been concerned.
story wise, dead space borrows (read: steals) liberally from the thing and, even more-so, event horizon… but it does so extremely well. furthermore, it features the best user interface in recent memory and is one of the prettiest games ever released.
left 4 dead
valve + co-op play + the inevitable zombie apocalypse we all know is coming. nothing had a chance of topping that.