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.