Like many other genres, when horror movies are bad, they can be very bad. However, when they are good they can sometimes be great. The horror films of 2011 seemed to fall mostly along this divide; there was either mainstream junk not even worth a Redbox rental or vile, pretentious drivel disguised as indie horror or incredibly spooky and fascinating gems worth revisiting after the initial shivers dissapate.
Some of the very worst movies of the year were in the genre; the dopey and embarrasing Red Riding Hood, the disheartening and embarrassing Hobo with a Shotgun, and the lazy, incompetent and embarrassing Apollo 18. Don’t even get me started on the apocalypse as group therapy cry in the mercifully little-seen 11-11-11. I purposefully skipped antagonistic trash like Human Centipede II and Serbian Film, no matter how many Harry Knowles raved.
But, on the other hand, if you knew where to look you could find some of the best movies horror has had to offer in years, and even a few flawed films delivered strong entertainment. Mainstream fare was a mixed bag, but I got some level of spooky enjoyment from the likes of Insidious (right up until The Further), the irrelevant but reasonably creepy The Thing remake, Craig Gillespie’s good-natured take on Fright Night, and Steven Soderbergh’s paranoid-inducing viral potboiler, Contagion.
Found footage horror increased it’s influential deathgrip on the genre, but there were a few films that came close to finally getting it right. I had a blast with the simple and scary Aussie flick The Tunnel, and was intrigued by the bait-and-switch tactics of Undocumented and YellowbrickRoad which was more like a surreal behind-the-scenes of found footage, playing like The Blair Lynch Project. The directors of Catfish finally discovered the carnival heart at the center of the Paranormal Activity franchise and made a film that literally made one of my fellow theater patrons crap their pants.
The biggest news I think is that the independent field seems to now be one of the biggest contributers of the genre, with the budgets being lower than ever and the interest being higher. Venues like VOD and early festival coverage had the names of some of these features—like The Innkeepers—on people’s lips as early as last February. There was no one trend that dominated this year, and if anything, directors were more willing to follow their darker instincts in ways similar to the cinema of the 1970s. It may not seem that way on the surface, but if you are a horror fan, 2011 was a good year.
Here, then, are the ten films that most impressed me in 2011, with one honorable mention which is more of a pretender to the genre than a participant.
Honorable Mention: Tucker and Dale VS. Evil
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil may not be the king of killer hillbilly flicks—that prize still belongs to Deliverance—but it is without a doubt the court jester. A gleefully morbid and surprisingly good-natured romp through the landscape of hoary slasher films and hicksploitation gimmicks, Eli Craig’s flick gives the tired sub-genre an original spin. Yes, there’s blood all over the place. Sure, the kids, with the exception of Moss and Bowden, serve no function other than to meet hilarious, cartoonish ends. Of course the hillbilly guys are two-dimensional stereotypes. This is in fact, all part of the point. Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil isn’t any kind of a horror film; it’s a comedy, from start to finish, that just happens to have chosen the horror genre as it’s home. There’s a strange sunny kind of innocence about it and the theme isn’t dreary moralism but a witty yet sweet optimism. Tucker and Dale are the heroes, and their general salt-of-the-earth sesnibilities are ultimately echoed in Craig’s direction. Bad things do happen to good people. Depending on your viewpoint, sometimes those things can be funny.
10. Cold Sweat
Adrián García Bogliano’s nervy, over-blown take on ‘old dark house’ movies is a film both ludicrous and deeply suspenseful. Reminiscent of the comically gothic The People Under the Stairs, Bogliano spins a dark mystery that raises the specters of Edgar Allan Poe and Dario Argento. A young man and his intrepid female sidekick go looking for his disappeared girlfriend and stumble upon an old chateau filled with danger and grotesque horrors. Delivering a pair of decrepit old fogeys as the primary villains, Sweatleaves the land of the logical behind the minute the heroes enter the house. From there on it’s a carnival ride of visually lurid frights. The close-up scene where the hero must carefully cut off the clothes of a gal doused in explosive chemicals, inches away from stacks and stacks of ancient dynamite, is notable for how it mixes the exploitative, the absurd and the terrifying into one sublime package.
9. We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s grim novel is an interesting film. When Eva’s son Kevin, who has vexed her since her birth, is involved in a serious school tragedy, she retreats into herself and starts to wonder if it’s nature or nurture that caused to boy to go so wrong. In other hands this could be a droll and listless art film or a static, mawkish Lifetime drama. Ramsay goes a different direction and pushes Kevin into the realm of horror; that perspective is the only one that makes sense for this film, with its carefully layered structure and unrelenting insistence that Kevin himself can always get worse. How much is Eva to blame herself—if at all—as she withholds her affection early on because of Kevin’s otherness. Tilda Swinton is mesmerizing as Eva and gives the year’s most poignant and conflicting performance. In her eyes we see the reflections of her own shattered dreams, splintered apart starting the day she and her husband brought Kevin home from the hospital. Ezra Miller is completely chilling as the teenage Kevin, whose coldblooded malice seems aimed directly at his mother.
8. Attack the Block
Deriving its inspiration from classics as varied as The Warriors, Tremors and Predator, Attack the Block sets its sights on the world of 80’s genre fiction and comes up with a modern day counterpart that can stand on its own. This is a sharp-witted, well directed and tightly paced monster movie that doesn’t put on airs of sophistication. There’s a good number of scares and hair-raising action scenes as a group of Council Estate hoodlums go up against mutant gorilla wolves from space. The monsters are wholly unique in the annals of the b-movie bestiary and I was impressed with the imagination and ingenuity used to bring them to life on a small budget. Performance dancer Terry Notary creates the motion capture and minimalist digital effects render the aliens visually singular, imposing menaces. A pulse-pounding and atmospheric score by Basement Jaxx helps the picture cruise merrily along, gaining heated momentum as it goes. Cornish creates an intuitive geography for the block itself, so much so it might as well be a character in the movie. Big fun with some big thrills.
7. A Lonely Place to Die
Less a horror film than a superbly paced survival thriller, A Lonely Place to Die hits enough notes of the genre to earn a place on this list. When a group of mountain climbers rescue a young Serbian girl from a cell buried beneath the Scottish hillside they attract danger in the form of the nasty customers who had kidnapped her in the first place. This is a tense and atmospheric cat and mouse game that benefits from Julian Gilbey’s taut direction and Ali Asad’s beautiful yet foreboding cinematography, capturing the grandeur of the windswept highlands and the vertigo inducing heights of the craggy cliffs before shifting gears to encompass the virile pageantry of a Beltane fire festival. On top of a multi-layered script, that sees three sets of characters all looking for the little girl, there is the determined performance of Melissa George as a feisty survivor fighting back for herself and the young child now in her charge. This is a rousing and painfully suspenseful slice of reality-based terror that isn’t afraid to break formula and give us surprises we do not expect.
Playing like an alternate take on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend if the screenplay had been written by Flannery O’Connor, Jim Mickle’s and Nick Damici’s Stakeland is a vampire film with legitimate bite. Set in an apocalyptic world similar (minus the vampires) to that of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it imagines a national crisis brought on by a strain of bloodsuckers and a crazed cable of right-wing extremists who have collapsed the government and brought the country to ruin. Into this fray come Damici’s vamp-killing Mister and Connor Paolo’s Martin, the young boy Mister saves and now trains in the art of nosferatu slaying. Mister is one of the few recent cinematic bad-asses who makes an impression without hip one liners or explicit weaponry. Connor Paolo as Martin does a good job of playing a kid in the midst of two different kinds of change—he’s growing into an adult physically at the same time he’s been defaulted into a man due to his circumstances. The production values and the filmmaking are so good as to remind of early John Carpenter. The creature effects are gruesomely simplistic and efficient. The eerie image of a vamp nested in a barn loft, gnawing on what might be a human baby is the stuff of nightmares. A hidden gem of the genre, Stakeland transitions masterfully between slick scares and achingly lovely moments of human nature pushing through blackest night.
5. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Another old dark house and another exercise in stylish, pulpy terrors that tantalize more than they terrify. The old TV clunker Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was a gloomy but unnerving beastie from my childhood and with their remake, Del Toro, Robbins and first-time director Troy Nixie take everything I remember about it and escalate it into the realm of dark fantasy. For some, this fabulist take will dilute the dread —with shadowy, ominous rings of toadstools and elegant ponds filled with darting coy signaling the world of the mythical— but I enjoyed the way the film adopts the viewpoint and sensibilities of a child. Dark’s villains are a garrison of nocturnal goblins intent on stealing away the young Sally and dragging her to the land behind the basement furnace. Think of this as training wheels for younger (not too young!) horror fans, with enough visual opulence and grim charm to hook the adults. The endearing and sensitive performance by young Bailey Madison as Sally, the medicated little girl who sees monsters, elevates the film from throwaway creature feature to creepy keeper.
An indie creep-show with a shoestring budget that achieves near-greatness through a wellspring of invention and imagination. Absentia isn’t scary in a visceral sense, but it is astonishingly eerie and dread-inducing given how little it reveals of the phantoms and bogeymen lurking at the center of its story. Instead, director Flannagan puts the emphasis on story and character, and achieves a kind of psychological maelstrom as he walks the tightrope of the narrative. Tricia’s husband Daniel has been missing for seven years—now long enough for him to be declared ‘in absentia’ and thus, legally dead—and just as she’s preparing to move on, his angry ghost starts making house calls. The bond between Tricia and her sister Callie is far more real and personal than the sibling team-up in the Paranormal Activity movies, and the mystery they find themselves in is absorbing and spine-tingling. Are there loathsome, demonic silver-fish hiding out in the drainpipes of Tricia’s neighborhood, or is her mind gradually unraveling on her? A fabulously mounted low-budget triumph that still proves the beasts of the human psyche are scarier than any visual effect.
3. The Innkeepers
Ti West is one of the most interesting horror filmmakers currently working and The Innkeepers is another chilling installment in his low-key stable of chillers. Trading up the faux 80’s accoutrements of his powerful House of the Devil in favor of a melancholy humor, West finds another beguiling female lead in Sara Paxton and a setting of foreboding mystique in the empty Yankee Peddlar Inn. Set-up in the first reel like a chipper indie comedy, complete with endearing support work by Pat Healy and Kelly McGillis (her second strong performance including Stakeland), West builds anticipation through the early chapters, teasing a classic ghost story that might be the kind of thing you’d find on an episode of Ghost Hunters or in one of those cheap anthologies that used to litter the supermarket checkout line. When the scares come in the last third, the atmosphere really ramps up, and we care about what happens to Paxton, who finds herself surrounded by all manner of supernatural mischief. If you crossbred the style of Kelly Reichardt and John Carpenter, The Innkeepers would be the resulting lovechild. If you can hang in there for all of it, you will be glad you did.
Swedish horror gets another exquisite shot in the arm with first-time director Filip Tegstedt’s Marianne, which isn’t just a folksy nerve-jangler or a supernatural folktale, but also a carefully observed human drama about a man haunted by his failings and shortcomings as he seeks to reconcile with a family he’s responsible for breaking. Thomas Hedengran plays Krister, a man dealing with his wife’s recent death and his infidelity to her, all while trying to care for his daughters—a young baby and a sullen, moody teenager. If this real world tribulation were not enough, Krister is under spiritual attack as well by a phantasmal female being that visits him in his room at night and draws upon his guilt regarding his past misdeeds. Hendengran is wonderful as the besieged man, and Tegstedt fills each frame with painfully small and pertinent details while keeping the pace and tone just to the left of a horror feature. In a reverse of The Innkeepers, the mood lightens somewhat in the second half with Krister and his daughter’s boyfriend tracking down a mythological Swedish creature that threatens the entire family. This is without a doubt the best supernatural horror film to be released this year.
I tend to like my horror more pensive and meditative than full-bore and visceral, but I enjoy both and in a sort of miraculous hat trick, director Ben Wheatley has made a film that combines all those traits in ways I never saw coming. It’s almost criminal to say much at all about this film, as surely anything will prevent you from going into it blind, which is the best possible way to see it. Just know the following; Wheatley has improved upon his last film Down Terrace—a gruesome, surreal collision between real world grime and bewildering spiritual warfare—with one that is straight-forward, literate, beautifully acted and directed, and in a nice change of pace, wise. I’m hard pressed to think of a horror picture in the last five or six years that was so painstakingly put together and achieves so much emotional impact as a result. Kill List will knock you down, bust out your teeth, and leave you breathless, but what it does it does honestly. When the slavering fan-boy blogosphere praise malignant trash posing as edgy art, this is really the kind of movie they are looking for.