Jesus Christ, this has been one hell of a year for horror. There were so many genre films that for one reason or another, really spoke to me. Some were intense experiences, ones that led me to think about certain parts of life differently. Some were just plain ol’ fun entertainment and just brightened my dark heart for an hour and a half. Whatever the case was, each film on this list really stood out to me, and to be completely honest, so many others did as well. While I could very easily stretch this list out to 14, 15 or even 20 titles, I put forth a challenge to myself, to really think about ten films that for one reason or another, stayed with me, long after their credits rolled. It was definitely a challenge, and some of my favorite films were festival films that I watched, ones that still haven’t officially released and won’t be until next year, so those titles, such as Patrick Brice’s CREEP or UNFRIENDED (which was called CYBERNATURAL when I caught it), had to be taken off of the list. Other films, such as E.L. Katz’ CHEAP THRILLS and Ti West’s THE SACRAMENT were on my list last year, due to festival screenings, so alas, they aren’t included as well.
THE GUEST (Dir. Adam Wingard) – One hell of a ride, Adam Wingard’s follow-up to last year’s genre fave YOU’RE NEXT traded in animal masks for a different kind of disguise: a stranger showing up at the door of the family of a fellow soldier, and not being exactly who he said he was, THE GUEST was an entertaining movie, with tonal similarities to everything from THE STEPFATHER to HALLOWEEN at times. Great movie, but the last two minutes of the film I wish didn’t exist.
THE DEVICE (Dir. Jeremy Berg)- Director Jeremy Berg and his producing team, The October People, kept ’em coming, with both THE INVOKING and THE DEVICE hitting the genre with that slow-cooked tone that I love so dearly. I like my horror to play out little by little, and THE DEVICE was the kind of alien abduction film that I look for and rarely find. More about its characters and their relationships than probes and gore, this one really did it for me.
RITUAL (Dir. Mickey Keating)- Definitely a surprise of a film for me, RITUAL took the concept of a couple whose relationship is damaged, and injected them into a hotel room, being stalked by a cult. Part VACANCY and part hell on earth, the film is not only very scary but really shows how much talent and potential Keating has a director.
10.) THE PURGE: ANARCHY (Dir. James DeMonaco)
I wasn’t a fan of THE PURGE whatsoever, so liking its sequel, THE PURGE: ANARCHY, was a real shock to me and my senses. While the first film’s issue was giving a good setup and never living up to that setup, this one learned from its mistakes, and while not being a perfect film, it’s what films should aspire to me: entertaining.
Following a handful of different characters, all getting ready for “The Purge” one way or another, THE PURGE: ANARCHY takes that national holiday in which all crime is legal for 24 hours and does what so many people had hoped would have happened in the first film: it drops those characters right in the middle of the action. It bypasses the home invasion aspects of the first film, and instead tells stories of a character looking for revenge; A mother and daughter just trying to survive; a young couple, on the verge of breaking up, just trying to make it through the night. Each set of characters all have great character development, and would make for a full film on their own, but instead we get them colliding and relying on each other to survive.
While the film borders on being too preachy at times, where the film succeeds, is when it gives us a story of revenge consuming a good man, and through a night filled with death and destruction, he finds his humanity again, with the help of other people just wanting to make it out ok. It’s Frank Grillo’s Seargent character that really shines in the film, and if you can look past the preachy aspects, you’ll get one hell of a horror/action film, and what is quite possibly the best portrayal of The Punisher, without it being The Punisher.
9.) IN FEAR (Dir. Jeremy Lovering)
Home invasion in a car. What’s not to like about that greatness? Jeremy Lovering’s IN FEAR was another surprise for me. I had low expectations for the film, and it really impressed me, with its story of a young couple being led into the woods and being stuck there while someone is stalking them.
Filled to the brim with excellent performances by Iain De Caestecker, Alice Englert and Allen Leech, IN FEAR builds slowly, relying on the film’s surroundings for most of the scares. It’s a game of “did I see that?” that’s being played for a good amount of the film, before the couple pick up a bloodied man who might be someone other than who he says. It’s absolutely filled to the brim with tension and dread, making your heartbeat begin to race faster and faster, until an ending that might have turned some viewers off, but gave me a grin from ear to ear.
While filming, Lovering didn’t tell his actors where the film was going, who was good, who was bad and so on. That approach works so well for this one, because their responses and decisions seem genuine, because a lot of them were. It’s that ballsy approach that really stood out to me, and made this one a film not to miss.
8.) LATE PHASES (Dir. Adrián García Bogliano)
While I absolutely love werewolf films, what initially attracted me to LATE PHASES, was Adrián García Bogliano’s previous film, HERE COMES THE DEVIL. Anyone who knows me can testify in detail how crazy I am about films dealing with the devil, possession, etc, so HERE COMES THE DEVIL really knocked me on my ass and scared the hell out of me. When I heard that Bogliano was making a werewolf film starring Nick Damici (WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, STAKE LAND), Ethan Embry (who is absolutely great in this one), Tom Noonan and Lance Guest (!), I knew right away that it would be something special, and it was.
Following a blind veteran being moved into an old folks retirement community, LATE PHASES doesn’t waste much time before putting our protagonist in the path of a hairy creature killing the community’s residents. Not having his vision to assist him, Damici’s Ambrose character relies on his years as a soldier and his tough as nails attitude to protect himself and eventually goes head to head with what is one of the coolest looking practical werewolves in years.
LATE PHASES is a film about a man coming to terms with many things, most of of them being the realization that he had failed his son Will (Embry), and that his days are numbered. It’s a film about a man coming to terms with death, and going out on his own terms, not being slaughtered like many of the other residents.
Packed to the gills with amazing performances, such as Tom Noonan as a flawed minister, Lance Guest as the minster’s right hand man, and various others doing a hell of a job as well. Seeing Twin Peaks‘ Dana Ashbrook in a very memorable scene was great too, but LATE PHASES is Damici’s game through and through. Though some might just know him from his work with Jim Mickle, Nick does an excellent job given one hell of a fight and serving up some werewolf ass-kicking.
7.) NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN (Dir. Katrin Gebbe)
Based on true events, NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN absolutely ripped my heart out upon watching it. It’s a film that questions how you feel about what you believe in, whether it be religion or even just yourself. It’s a film that’s very hard to watch at times, but has such a strong, powerful message, that it rises above just being another genre film. It becomes a statement, an examination of faith and asks you as a viewer, “How much would you endure for your beliefs?”.
The film follows Tore, a young Christian punk who is one of the most genuine and heartfelt characters to be committed to film in a long time. In a world of people going back on their faith when it’s convenient for them, Tore completely believes in what he claims to, and that’s put to the test, when after a well meaning encounter, he’s taken in by Benno and his family. Benno isn’t very subtle and there’s an anger in his eyes, an anger that gives you the feeling that Tore is in for a very upsetting ride. Soon Benno begins to inflict physical and emotional pain on Tore, questioning his faith, and raising the bar on how much torture one can inflict on someone before they cave. Tore’s steadfast beliefs do nothing but infuriate Benno, and it only makes things worse for him, leading Benno to cause some pretty horrifying things to happen to Tore.
While I don’t agree with the beliefs of Tore, I couldn’t help but to find the deepest amount of sympathy for the character, as anyone who stands by their convictions, even when their life is at stake, is in my opinon, a great hero. Gebbe, like THE BABADOOK‘s Jennifer Kent and HONEYMOON‘s Leigh Janiak, shows that horror is definitely not just a man’s game, as she proves how great of a filmmaker she is, with NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN being her first feature. It’s a great feeling when the year’s best films have been made by a mixture of races, genders and so on. With a film like this one, Gebbe has already solidified her place as a director, a place that I can tell will provide many great stories.
6.) FOUND. (Dir. Scott Schirmer)
Oh boy. This film is one that plays out little by little, introducing you to Marty, a young boy obsessed with horror films, and the awful situation he placed in when while going through his older brother’s room, finds a severed head in a bowling bag. It’s the dilemma of finding out that your brother is a serial killer and not knowing how to deal with it that really drives FOUND. Picked on at school, and without many friends, Marty looks up to his brother, Steve, and even after finding such a horrific discovery, he still keeps quiet and even becomes strangely interested.
Marty’s loyalty to his brother is tested by the discovery, and when Steve becomes pretty much the only person who sticks up for Marty, the film asks you what you would do, if faced with the same decision. It’s a question that is tough, deciding where your loyalty would lie. It’s a controversial film, and rightfully so, as it asks many questions of its audience and takes the viewer to some pretty dark places, especially with its INTENSE AS HELL ending.
It’s a year for thinking-led horror, films that challenge you, making you look inside yourself for the answers to the questions these films raise. I, for one, am proud to be writing about horror in such a great time and era. Films like FOUND. are important for the genre, because they cause you not only to feel uncomfortable (which is great), but makes you think vicariously through such well written characters living within them.
5.) HOUSEBOUND (Dir. Gerard Johnstone)
HOUSEBOUND came out of nowhere like a punch to the face. The feature directorial debut of Gerard Johnstone is yet another debut that bypasses a “decent” first film and goes straight to “instant classic” territory. It’s a rare film that plays with your head so much, that you have NO idea what kind of film it is, until the very end. Its ability to jump around from genre to genre is a flawless one, and keeps you guessing the entire time.
When Kylie Bucknell (played wonderfully by Morgana O’Reilly) gets arrested for attempting to rob an ATM, she’s sent to her mother and step-father’s house, to stay under house arrest. Having had such a fractured relationship with her mother, it’s hell on Earth as far as Kylie is concerned, and things soon get worse, when she begins to hear noises in the house. Her mother insists that the house is haunted, but Kylie isn’t buying it whatsoever, until she gets some evidence of something sinister first hand, leading us into one expertly crafted mystery, and a wild ride that gets you to think it’s one thing, before pulling a 180 and revealing itself to be something entirely different.
The combination of scaring the living hell out of you, then making you laugh hysterically, right before creeping back up and scaring you again, is one that works so well for the film. It feels like the kind of film that Peter Jackson would make, had he not went the way of the CGI-filled Tolkien fare that he’s spent over a decade on now. It’s a bloody as hell, side-splitting film, full of scares that come just as frequently as its laughs do, providing a fun time that you won’t forget anytime soon.
4.) THE BABADOOK (Dir. Jennifer Kent)
The last four films on my list are ones that weren’t just entertaining films to me, but all meant something very real and deep to me. While films like THE PURGE: ANARCHY gave me a fun time while watching it, these four films weren’t “fun”, they were shocking, impossible to get over, and were all able to plant seeds inside of my head, sprouting into full blown adoration and love for each of them.
Telling the tale of a woman, who after the death of her husband, must raise her child alone, THE BABADOOK is more than just a scare-filled ride, it’s a deep and profound one. Amelia struggles with feeling close to her son, Robbie, who is reacting to the loss of his father with outbursts, violence and eventually, after coming into contact with a pop-up book called, “The Babadook”, a dark figure intent on destroying both the mother and her son. There are some pretty horrific scenes in THE BABADOOK, most of which come from the characters’ response to the dark figure taking over their homes and their lives.
It’s a film about allowing pain, despair, and darkness to take your life over, and having to fight that darkness to eventually get your life back together. For anybody who has had a hard time feeling something for any of their children (it’s more common than one would think), the film hits hard. Amelia struggles to connect with her son, and it takes the creature to lead her to some pretty dark places, before she can be the person her son needs her to be: someone who will protect and guide him.
Part David Lynch/part Polanksi, Jennifer Kent has done one hell of a job establishing herself as a true visionary, and a voice in film that should DEFINITELY be listened to. With THE BABADOOK being her first film, it’s a glorious thought to think, wondering what she has up her sleeve next, because this film is one of the few films this year, that will be hailed as classics in due time.
3.) STARRY EYES (Dir. Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer )
We’ve all been there. Selling our soul, for a break. Working dead-end jobs, in hopes of one day, attaining our dreams. It’s a common thing, and that’s what makes STARRY EYES so fucking perfect. We’ve all been there before, questioning how far one would go for the dream, for the fame.
Revolving around an actress who surrounds herself with people who might seem like friends on the surface, but really only have their own interests at hand. When Sarah gets what she thinks is a big break, she’s faced with some pretty awful decision surrounding the part, with questions of how far she’ll go to get the role. Soon, as her dreams are coming true, she’s also falling apart (quite literally), and she slowly loses not only her soul, but her humanity as well. It’s a powerful film, full of visually striking scenes, and some excellent performances from Alexandra Essoe, Noah Segan, Marc Senter and Pat Healy (as Sarah’s boss at a burger joint).
It’s such a refreshing feeling to have smart, thought-provoking genre films this year. While the popcorn and fun films are great, it brings me such a wonderful feeling of faith in the genre when films like STARRY EYES arrive, because it’s a statement, challenging other genre storytellers to rise up and create artistic films that mean something, as opposed to the same slice and dice films we’re given so very often.
The gauntlet has been thrown by films like STARRY EYES, THE BABADOOK, and so on. I’m optimistic to see who picks it up next.
2.) HONEYMOON (Dir. Leigh Janiak)
There’s a sense of confusion to wake up one day, and not know who you’re sleeping next to. You find yourself going over every little thing leading up to that realization and you find yourself going mad, wondering when and where your partner changed from who they were, into who they are. Leigh Janiak’s HONEYMOON is a film so full of that scary realization, that it rises above just being a genre film, and becomes what good storytelling SHOULD be: important.
The newlywed couple played so wonderfully by Game of Thrones‘ Rose Leslie and Penny Dreadful‘s Harry Treadaway are completely in love and spending their honeymoon in the bride’s family cabin, and that obvious love helps pull the viewer in, and throws us completely for a surprise when one night, Treadaway’s character finds his wife in the woods, shaken up. Little by little, she begins to act like a different person, causing Treadaway to question what had happened to her, and leading to some terrifying revelations.
It’s great storytelling and like THE BABADOOK, it’s more than what is on the surface. It’s deeply metaphorical, as anyone who has been through a relationship in which someone changes already knows: it can be as if someone or something has inhabited that person, taking them away and replacing them with someone else. Expertly-crafted writing is a must for these types of films, but its the performances by Leslie and Treadaway that just make you an emotional wreck throughout the entire second half of the film, leading to what is one of the saddest and gut-punching endings that I’ve seen in years. HONEYMOON is a film that is impossible to shake for quite some time, it stays with you and like so many wonderful horror films throughout the years, it makes you think.
1.) AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR (Dir. Nicholas McCarthy)
Hands down, my absolute favorite film of the year, Nicholas McCarthy’s AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR is a film that just feels like it was made for me. Every single thing I love about the horror genre and great storytelling is in this one, and it’s the one film that left me thinking for MONTHS after first seeing it during the Fantasia Film Festival.
Horror is never meant to be a rule-book, with its directors playing safely within the confines of said rules and cliche’s that we find so very often within many many genre entries. What AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR does is give you a character to follow, a young woman named Hannah, who unfortunately sells her soul to the devil. While what follows with the Hannah character would make for a very interesting take on the devil and what playing with fire can bring, McCarthy does the unexpected: switches the focus ahead some years later, to Leigh, a strong and independent woman who is trying to broker the sale of the house that Hannah and her family had resided in. Just when we get used to following Leigh, McCarthy does it again: switches focus to Leigh’s sister, Vera, an artist who is somewhat of a loner. We’re given three STRONG lead performances, all from great female actors, something that horror isn’t known for too much these days.
It’s a film that weaves in and out of multiple timelines, creating a mystery completely full of slow-burn dread, a tale of selling one’s soul to the devil and it in time, leading to changing the lives of our leads in the most horrific of ways. It’s a film that I find to be very important to the genre because we simply do not get many films like this. Had it been made at a larger studio, I could see McCarthy having to fight to keep the tone, the twists and one hell of an ending. Thankfully, that’s not the case, because he not only made the film with the right people, but in turn made what is easily, in my opinion, the best horror film not just of 2014, but in years. There is absolutely no way this one will leave my mind anytime soon. It’s a Satanic masterpiece as far as I;’m concerned, and I feel those who might have missed it or even unappreciated it will eventually recognize its ability to keep you on the edge of your seat, without resorting to the typical scares. It’s a horror film, that no doubt will end up going down as a modern day classic, and rightfully so. Easily my top horror film of the year, in fact, my favorite film of the year in general. P.S.-please give THE SENTINEL remake to McCarthy.