By Eric Kohn | Indiewire October 30, 2013 at 12:52PM
If you think the year in horror was solely comprised of "The Conjuring" and "Carrie," think again. Among examples of the genre that have opened in the last 12 months, those mainstream releases represent just a fraction of recent entries. The past year has provided many terrific occasions to celebrate the science of scaring audiences, particularly at film festivals like the Stanley, Fantastic Fest and Toronto's Midnight Madness section -- but the best opportunity to survey the state of scary narratives remains Halloween. Now that we've offered a foundation with the 10 classic indie horror films, here's a look at some of the finest new entries in the genre.
"The ABC's Of Death"
While "V/H/S" brought the anthology horror movie back, "The ABC's of Death" takes the concept to a daunting extreme. Its producers commissioned horror shorts from an international array of rising genre directors, all of whom tackle the challenge in disparate ways. Each short corresponds to a different letter in the alphabet, used to represent another means of death: "A is for Apocalypse," "B is for Bigfoot" and so on. While the entire package runs long, the constant change up of style and shocks makes for a fascinating showcase of cinematic diversity, irrespective of the outré genres being drawn from. Standouts include "D Is For Dogfight," a wordless fight film with a brilliant surprise finish, and "T Is For Toilet," the only animated entry. Then again, "W Is For WTF!" is the wackiest selection, its mashup of inexplicable moments enough to make an Adult Swim cartoon look lucid. That title could equally apply to the utterly bizarre Japanese entry "F Is For Fart." Needless to say, "ABC's Of Death" is wildly entertaining grab bag of surprises that has already a spawned an in-the-works sequel. Now on DVD and streaming platforms.
Contemporary cinema has featured a fair share of young, attractive vampires in recent years, but Neil Jordan's "Byzantium" stands out for exploring that subject with a mixture of intelligence and gravitas. Based on Moira Buffini's play "A Vampire Story," the story follows blood-sucking relatives Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), centuries-old vampires whose precise relationship (sisters? mother and daughter?) is initially unclear. While Clara spends her nights turning a buck at seedy strip clubs and feeding on the occasional overly friendly client, Clara lives a life of solitude that she records in private diaries. Her personal recollections take the form of a solemn voiceover that sets the tone for a movie less interested in the technicalities of vampirism than the tangled emotions caused by it. But that's not to say that Jordan doesn't do justice to the genre. After its bloody opening sequence, "Byzantium" finds its two leads on the lam, leading to a ghastly millennia-spanning adventure that alternately draws on fairy tale and film noir tropes. Now on DVD and streaming platforms.
"All the Boys Love Mandy Lane"
Though it originally made the festival rounds in 2006, the tense debut of director Jonathan Levine ("50/50," "Warm Bodies") is an impressively economical slasher about a group of teens holed up in a cabin for a weekend that goes violently wrong when a mysterious killer starts knocking them off one by one. With a mesmerizingly cryptic performance from Amber Heard in the titular lead role, "Mandy Lane" manages to explore the social phobias caused by teen cliques and early pubescent desires while framing the violence with quiet, lyrical touches that push the doom-laden story in arty directions. Viewed in hindsight, it's one of the most assured debuts of the past decade, even if it offers no indication of the various directions Levine would take next. More than anything else, "Mandy Lane" features expert craftsmanship, its evocative cinematography as effective as the bloody showdowns.
Survival stories often occupy an ambiguous space in the horror genre, lingering somewhere between misogyny and female empowerment. The "final girl" trope pits a lone, frequently virginal woman against some ungodly threat, both glamorizing her struggle and imbuing it with dread. While generally conventional, Katie Aselton's "Black Rock" contains a nice twist on the genre by dividing that archetype among three strong women as they dodge a pair of murderers on a remote island. Aselton's unassuming guilty pleasure gently diverges from a familiar scenario with impressively tense results. Now on DVD and streaming platforms.
Barry Levinson isn't a natural fit for the horror genre, but with "The Bay," he dips his toes in the eco-thriller genre to curiously provocative effect. Although technically a found footage assemblage of incidents replete with shaky cam effects, "The Bay" contains a more advanced collage of media than one usually finds in this overdone style, coupled with a cogent basis in reality that often makes it closer to a documentary than an appropriation of the form. The story tracks a 24-hour period on July 4, 2009 when a parasitic infiltration of the water in Claridge, Maryland threatened to infect the entire town. While the rash of deaths and close encounters with the leech-like parasites borrow liberally from the traditions of zombie and alien invasion movies, the source of the chills never strays too far from the real world. Now on DVD and streaming platforms.
French director Marina de Van ("In My Skin") contributes to the "creepy kid" strain of horror cinema with "Dark Touch," in which an 11-year-old girl loses her whole family by way of grotesque supernatural circumstances that continue to haunt the neighbors willing to take her in. Though not nearly as inventive as touchstones of the sub-genre like "The Omen," de Van brings an unquestionably haunting bleakness to her scenario that never, ever lets up: Early on, it's pretty clear that Niamh (Missy Keating) harbors some kind of telekinetic ability to move objects around her, but it's just as possible that some demonic force is pulling the strings behind the scenes. With those possibilities in flux, "Dark Touch" glides ominously toward a living nightmare that constitutes one of the most unsettling finales of the year. Now in theaters and VOD.
"Here Comes the Devil"
Though Magnet Releasing doesn't open this midnight festival hit until December, eager viewers can find international DVDs for sale online. Argentinean director Adrian Garcia Bogliano first gained attention from genre fans with "Cold Sweat" and "Penumbra," but "Here Comes the Devil" is a whole new level of freakiness: The story of parents whose young children mysteriously vanish in the desert overnight before returning with a menacing new presence hanging over them, "Here Comes the Devil" starts off like "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and then turns into a horrifically shocking tale of possession and paranoia. Cryptic until the very end, the movie keeps you guessing will remaining attuned to the constant fear experienced by the family: No matter how weird things get, the fears are especially potent because they're grounded in reality.
"The Lords of Salem"
Metal rocker Rob Zombie's second career as a filmmaker proved he is just as capable of unsettling showmanship behind the camera as he is onstage. "House of a 1,000 Corpses" hinted at the spectacular portrait of depravity that came next in 2005's "The Devil's Rejects," which got so intimate with serial killers even some dedicated genre fans felt it crossed a line. Zombie's two "Halloween" remakes, however, found less favor, which means it's time for a comeback. With the effectively creepy "The Lords of Salem," Zombie reaffirms his capacity to tap into the genre's strongest qualities. A decidedly spookier achievement than his earlier films (possibly due to the involvement of "Paranormal Activity" producers Oren Peli and Jason Blum), "The Lords of Salem" stars the director's wife Sheri Moon Zombie as Heidi Hawthorne, a spunky radio DJ in the sleepy Massachusetts town who hosts nightly talk shows with her pals Herman (Jeff Daniel Philips) and Herman (Ken Foree). A recovering drug addict, she lives out her frumpy life in a rundown apartment marked by shadows and an eerie hallway. After discovering a cursed record at her station, Heidi finds herself stalked by menacing figures devoid of faces and a comparatively innocuous goat, while requisite witchcraft scholar (Bruce Davidson) becomes aware of her predicament and scrambles to alert her. The accompanying vivid imagery includes bleeding walls, bodies lurking in the corners, and some first-rate creature effects. Zombie's witches aren't as scary as the credible psychopaths he has portrayed before, but "The Lords of Salem" contains enough frenzied imagery in its climactic moments to make the spell linger.
British filmmaker Ben Wheatley has earned a following on the genre film festival circuit with his bleakly funny "Down Terrace" and gory hit man drama "Kill List." With "Sightseers," Wheatley's aesthetic strengths finally start to fall into place. This hugely entertaining tale of serial killers in love neatly merges the neurotic black comedy of "Down Terrace" with the morbid twists of "Kill List," inching close to defining the director's overall style. The scenario takes a matter of minutes to sink in: 34-year-old introvert Tina (Alice Lowe), a woman with a diploma in dog psychology even though she accidentally killed her own pooch a year earlier, still lives at home with her obsessive mother. In the opening minutes, she announces plans to travel around the Yorkshire countryside with her mysterious new lover Chris (Steve Oram), a chummy, bearded man who claims to have aspirations as a writer even though he's not writing anything in particular. But there's more wrong with Chris than misguided career ambition. Chris' abrupt decision to mow down a litterbug in the parking lot with his Oxford Caravan marks the first in a rash of deaths that make it clear to Tina that she's cavorting with a closeted serial killer. While the murders are never as graphic as the infamous "hammer scene" from "Kill List," Wheatley still heaps on the blood in ample detail; the amusing circumstances never create distance from the violent events onscreen. Wheatley has clearly found his sweet spot: a darkly funny place with serious potential. Now on streaming platforms.
South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook's filmmaking always dances a fine line between sublime and absurd genre ingredients. "Stoker," his first American-set, English language picture, is no exception. It's tempting to resist describing the movie in terms of the cinematic traditions it calls to mind: Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" meets "Heathers," Park's creepy tale of a peculiar family wrapped up in murderous antics continues the twisted pleasures that define the director's filmography. Shot in Nashville, the movie revolves around the affluent Stoker family, thrown into sudden turmoil when patriarch Richard (Dermot Mulroney) dies in an apparent car accident coinciding with the 18th birthday of his treasured daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). Stuck in their secluded mansion with her demanding mother (Nicole Kidman), India retreats into her grief, shunning the outside world. But her aggressive mourning period is interrupted by the arrival of her enigmatic Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) -- the same name as the menacing figure who materializes in the aforementioned Hitchcock movie -- as he claims to have been traveling the world for the duration of his niece's life. Both drawn to Charlie's piercing eyes and intimidated by his continuing attempts to befriend her, India grows intrigued by his mysterious past once the man decides to move in with them. This being a Park movie -- albeit one scripted by actor Wentworth Miller -- depraved urges and grotesque outbursts linger around every turn, but Park's formalism positions the mayhem within an alluring cinematic tapestry. Now on DVD and streaming platforms.
"We Are What We Are"
Writer-director Jim Mickle has steadily established himself as a horror filmmaker who treats the art of shock value with rare maturity. In his feature-length debut "Mulberry Street," he funneled a cheesy monster movie into a metaphor for gentrification and urban decay; in his follow-up, "Stake Land," he imagined a B-movie universe of vampires versus humans with soft-spoken exchanges and lyrical imagery that invited comparisons to Terrence Malick. "We Are What We Are," Mickle's loose remake of Jorge Michel Grau's 2009 Mexican cannibal tale, brings the filmmaker's distinct blend of the elegant and the macabre to its ultimate realization. Outdoing the original by a long shot, Mickle's slow-burn take on the story is poetic, creepy and, most of all, satisfyingly gross. Transplanting the drama to the Catskills, Mickle follows the exploits of the Parker household after its matriarch suddenly passes away -- creating a sudden, unspoken tension in the household now headed by the grizzly Frank Parker (Bill Sage), a scowling beast of a man who spouts quasi-religious vagaries about his dedication to "our way." His daughters, the grown Iris (Amber Childers) and teenage Rose (Julia Garner), watch and listen to their father's ramblings with a fearful gaze. Make no mistake: Mickle wants to make you jump and scream, but death only arrives in this movie once its world comes to life, which makes each sudden turn all the more intense. When it eventually gets around to a final gruesome surprise, Mickle doesn't disappoint. "We Are What We Are" devours expectations even as it satisfies the best of them. Now in select theaters.
Last year's anthology horror production "V/H/S" was a revelation mainly because it took the overly familiar found-footage genre and exploited it to the fullest extent. The sequel, "S-VHS," achieves a similar goal with more frightening extremes. Containing only four spectacularly gory shorts directed by emerging genre filmmakers, along with an equally unsettling wraparound tale, "S-VHS" lacks some of the original's subtleties but delivers a nearly unbroken series of visceral shocks. The last movie was a wild ride with several stops along the way; "S-VHS," once again produced by the Bloody Disgusting production team known as The Collective, pushes full throttle ahead the whole way through. The quartet of doom-laden tales that follow are relentless in their attempts to provoke immense shock, but more than that, they each contain an innovative approach to explaining camera placement. even the more twisted moments focus on playing up the fun factor in conjunction with fear rather than emphasizing one aspect over the other. It's a tricky balance that this indie franchise has so far sustained better than most. In the sickening final shot, a gruesomely mutilated figure looks directly into the camera and gives the thumbs up sign. Assuming you haven't covered your eyes at this point, you'd have to agree. Now on DVD and streaming platforms.
"You're Next" doesn't break new ground in the horror genre, but it sticks to rules that work. Director Adam Wingard ("A Horrible Way to Die") and screenwriter Simon Barrett ("Dead Birds") demonstrate a firm grasp on their material, delivering a tightly-wound survival story replete with disarming humor that holds the whole bloody mess together. After a morbid prologue in which two unnamed characters meet their doom at the hands of an unseen menace, "You're Next" settles into a family reunion at an isolated vacation home deep in the woods. The affluent heads of the Crampton household, parents Paul (Rob Moran) and Barbara (Aubrey Davidson), invite their grown children and their respective significant others to a dinner party that quickly turns grim. Before the danger begins, however, Wingard and Barrett neatly set up the family dynamic. Klutzy college professor Crispian (AJ Bowen) shows up with his levelheaded girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson). Aimee (Amy Seimetz) brings her indie filmmaker boyfriend Tariq (horror director Ti West), while the neurotic Felix (Nicholas Tucci) has the mysterious goth Zee (Wendy Glenn) in tow. Joe Swanberg rounds out the cast as the smarmy Drake -- not that you need to keep track of all of them, because the body count rises fast. Arrows stream through the window and put the entire household into shock mode. But then the tables turn in a most exciting fashion: The murderers didn't count on Aussie outback veteran Erin's fast-paced survival skills. Setting traps and taking advantage of her environment (I assure you that a kitchen blender has never been used this creatively), she keeps the masked killers on their toes and shifts the power dynamic, upending the mysterious scheme behind their attack. Never taking its scares too seriously, "You're Next" barrels forward, eager to please at every turn. Still playing in some theaters around the country.