Throughout the last 12 months, Indiewire has covered midnight sections at festivals ranging from Sundance to Toronto, not to mention genre-specific gatherings like Fantastic Fest. “Saw” hits theaters this weekend to celebrate its 10th anniversary, but there’s no reason to dig into the past this Halloween when the present offers so many wonderfully fearsome possibilities. Per tradition, here are 13 of the best — all of which, with one notable exception, opened earlier this year.
“The ABC’s of Death 2”
The first installment of “The ABC’s of Death,” which was comprised of short films each assigned a letter of the alphabet indicating some macabre form of demise, felt like a dare. It came as no surprise that the outcome was a mixed bag, but with an international set of filmmakers on display, the concept nevertheless provided a keen showcase for global cinema for anyone interested in the horror genre. The sequel builds on that appeal: It’s meatier, more diverse and constantly surprising in all kinds of ghastly and entertaining ways. The new installment kicks off with director E.L. Katz (whose “Cheap Thrills” has also landed on this list) constructing the bloody slapstick effort “A is for Amateur” and closes with newcomer Chris Nash’s outrageous post-apocalyptic body horror effort “Z is for Zygote.” Both of these shorts manage to blend unsettling events and plenty of surprises into a remarkably efficient approach that fits the concise format.
In between, highlights include low budget horror aficionado Larry Fessenden’s “N is for Nexus,” which chronicles a New York City street accident on Halloween, and irreverent comedy director Todd Rohal’s “P is for P—P-P-P SCARY!,” which suggests an unholy combination of “The Three Stooges” and “Eraserhead.” The series also showcases filmmakers capability of developing impressive production values under the constraints of limited budgets and time: The stunning “D is for Deloused,” by British animator Robert Morgan, involves the stop motion antics of a giant bug that somehow manages to resurrect an executed man and help him find unspeakable revenge (literally — you won’t know what happened here, but it’ll freak you out). “W is for Wish,” from “Manborg” director Steven Kostanski, uses green screen and practical effects to follow the increasingly horrific misadventures of a young boy who makes a wish and finds himself in a terrifying fantasyland.
At two hours, “ABC’s of Death” might seem like a lot of scares to take in all at once. But the series has been so well assembled by producer Ant Timpson that it never really drags; instead, it draws you into the sheer energy of its concept with each new entry, and the shocks keep coming. It’s a celebration of the genre’s endless possibilities, and makes a pretty good case to keep the “Death” franchise alive.
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An uneven but effectively unnerving found footage horror entry about a pair of fun-loving vacationers who encounter dangerous, otherworldly forces, it illustrates the full cycle of evolution that the genre has endured since it first creeped us out. At first taking the form of a zippy online video, the plot involves young adult pals Clif (Clif Prowse), a filmmaker, and Derek (Derek Lee), a former IT guy slowly dying from a brain aneurysm and eager to live life to the fullest. With Cliff’s remote cameras in tow, the duo gear up for a globe-spanning adventure, promising to document their every move. The aesthetics are cleverly structured to mimic their enthusiasm, with the introduction of their plan set to uplifting music and edited together with the ebullient first-person mode of address fit for a Kickstarter campaign. In that respect, it’s something of a new media cautionary tale slotted into an older tradition: Fun-loving guys heedlessly strike forth on a reckless adventure; peril awaits.
Promising to bring their online viewers along for the adventure, the duo begin their journey in Paris — and that’s when things get spooky. After a random hookup, Derek winds up in possession of bizarre supernatural powers. The specific nature of his situation would constitute a spoiler — but needless to say, you’ve seen countless protagonists endure it before, just not this way. While at first excited by his abrupt superhuman strength, Derek quickly learns about the darker aspects of his situation. While Cliff eagerly tries to help his ailing pal, they’re both quickly forced to reckon with a scenario greater than either of them can handle. It’s a genuine delight to watch “Afflicted” gradually ramp up its special effects, heightening the fear that anything could go wrong for its ailing protagonist. The payoff of the finale takes the story in a fresh direction. Fifteen years after “The Blair Witch Project,” it’s safe to say that movies like “Afflicted” prove that the genre has entered a new arena of sophistication.
Australian director Jennifer Kent’s expertly crafted debut finds a troubled single mother (Essie Davis) attempting to raise her young son (Noah Wiseman) on her own. That job gets tricky after she reads him the titular children’s story, found in their shadowy home, which involves a supernatural home invader. It’s only a matter of time before the Babadook starts lurking the shadows and threatening to unleash unspeakable horrors on the pair…or is he? The genius of Kent’s haunting narrative is that it leaves us in a state of uncertainty with each new development: Did something really horrible just call the house and mutter its dreadful catchphrase before hanging up?
Or is the mother losing her mind? The only guarantee in “The Babadook,” which offers a creepy elegance unseen since “Rosemary’s Baby,” is that each moment engenders a state of extreme terror delivered with masterful sense of atmosphere. More than that, the movie roots its hair-raising developments in the credible emotional turmoil of maternal insecurities. Even the jump scares have a deeper meaning. “The Babadook” opens November 28 (it is currently available to watch on DIRECTV), but merits a spot on this list simply because — following its Sundance debut — it ranks as the best horror discovery of the year. Say it with me now: “Baba…dook…dook…dooook…
Director Alex van Warmedam’s feature was the first Dutch film to compete at the Cannes Film Festival in 38 years. After all that time, it makes sense to program a real jolt of a movie, which is certainly one way to appreciate this twisted take on an upper class household gradually destroyed by a mysterious evil visitor.
That would be the title character (Jan Bijvoet), a bearded forest dweller seen in the opening sequence fleeing a gun-brandishing priest. After escaping from his underground lair, Borgman makes his way to suburbia and manages to attract the sympathies of bored housewife Marina (Hadewych Minis), who allows him to hide out in the wealthy family’s backyard shed while keeping her uptight husband in the dark. With these disquieting pieces in place, Borgman slowly introduces chaos into the family’s life, calling up his equally menacing friends in the service of a hazy agenda.
The degree of ambiguity involved in this scenario imbues each new twist with claustrophobia and dread: Borgman wanders the house nudely at night and causes Marina to have nightmares, kills off the gardener and dunks his head in concrete, and at one point allows one of his henchmen to seduce the maid. While easily comparable to Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” the characters in that movie were more blatantly psychopathic, while the motives of Borgman and his crew are difficult to discern until the very end. That makes its narrative progression less of a knockout than a tantalizing curiosity, but certainly heavy enough with themes worthy of analysis. As a symbol, Borgman represents the encroachment of fatalism and dark urges on the pristine image of suburban idealism. With its palatial setting, “Borgman” shows how money can buy luxury, but it can’t salvage the corruption that comes from within.
Possibly the first horror movie to star a film archivist, Irish director Ivan Kavanagh’s skillful ghost story involves celluloid expert David (Rupert Evans), who comes across an old reel of police footage from the early 20th century that depicts a murder in his house. At the same time, he starts to question his wife’s infidelity, a situation that grows further complicated when she disappears. While the police see David as a suspect of a possible crime, he struggles to care for his young son in their cavernous home, which may in fact be haunted — unless, of course, David’s spent so long pouring over old reels of film that he’s lost his mind. Similar to “The Babadook” in its depiction of parental responsibilities as a terrifying ordeal, “The Canal” also offers a savvy look at how the unknown element of the past can be scary no matter what happens in the moment. As the first minutes make clear, recordings of people from over 100 years ago don’t just provide a window into earlier times — they give them a ghostly quality in the present. As “The Canal” takes a series of dreadful twists in its psychologically unnerving climax, it’s the mysteriousness of the medium itself that continues to resonate.
Savagely assaulting the desperate state of a blue-collar family man, the comedic thriller “Cheap Thrills” establishes a ridiculous premise early on and takes it to various extremes, again and again, until you just have to accept the crazy venture on its own terms or simply give up. That’s also the situation for its dazed antihero, Craig (Pat Healy), a broke father who’s newly unemployed when he comes across the affluent Colin (David Koechner) in a bar and plays along with a series of increasingly deranged bets in exchange for monetary rewards. The metaphoric weight to the scenario is immediately evident, but “Cheap Thrills” basically uses that starting point to mess around. It asks, “How far would you go?” and then digs around to find a grotesque answer. Like Michael Haneke by way of Eli Roth, “Cheap Thrills” is a horror movie about desires that nobody can deny and everyone battles to suppress.
“Life After Beth”
Zombie comedies are tough to pull off in a post-“Sean of the Dead” age,
which is what makes Jeff Baena’s oddball feature such a welcome
surprise. Though not outwardly horrific, the uncertainty of the movie’s
premise creeps up on you. After energetic teen Zach (Dane DeHaan) loses
girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza) to a snake bite, he mopes around with her
pot-smoking dad (John C. Reilly) as if trapped in an unfinished
breakup. Then Beth magically reappears, kinda-sorta herself again, until
it turns out that she’s not. With time, this peculiar comedy develops a
sense of dread around the reasons behind Beth’s sudden reappearance,
and finally confirms our worst suspicions during the chaotic final act.
Despite its various absurdities and uneven tone, “Life After Beth” joins
“Zombie Honeymoon” in the ranks of movies that use the undead motif to
expand beyond the realm of social commentary and probe the depths of
heartbreak with alternately silly and creepy results.
Leigh Janiak’s eerie debut starts out as your typical cabin-in-the-woods fright-fest, with cutesy newlyweds (Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway) dealing with the presence of unseen stalkers late at night in the immediate aftermath of tying the knot. But with time, “Honeymoon” takes a series of bizarre directions, not only keeping you guessing about the nature of the ominous forces at work, but also playing with a much wider range of horror film tropes. There’s a bit of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to the ominousness of the surrounding ghost town, but look out for a sharp turn into body horror and science fiction territory in the later scenes, which won’t prepare you for a grim finale that negates its character’s gratingly cheery personas once and for all.
It’s easy enough to jolt an audience into submission, but that’s not the same thing as getting under its skin. Recent horror movies ranging from the “Paranormal Activity” series to “The Conjuring” excel at the art of the jump scare, though no matter how expertly delivered, it’s a cheap gimmick at best.
“Oculus” is an exception. Appropriately co-released by microbudget fear factory Blumhouse Production — its founder, Jason Blum, helped turn the scrappy productions “Paranormal Activity” and “The Purge” into profitable franchises — much of the new movie’s chilly atmosphere involves the experiences of two characters in a room with one very ominous mirror. As the haunted object plays tricks on its two would-be victims’ minds, the audience falls prey to the ruse as well. Director Mike Flanagan turns the fragile nature of consciousness into a better fear tactic than any visceral shocks could possibly achieve.
In “Proxy,” a young pregnant woman named Esther (Alexia Rasmussem) leaves the clinic and gets knocked unconscious by an unseen assailant who pounds a brick against her victim’s abdomen; when Esther opens her eyes again, she’s in the hospital, bearing witness to her stillborn child being torn from gaping abdomen. The ensuing two hours include further child death, shootings, drownings, tattooed lesbian criminals and perverted fantasies. Director Zack Parker, working from Kevin Donner’s screenplay, never hesitates to sacrifice his characters’ happiness for a relentless grab bag of grotesque surprises. Increasingly silly even as it maintains a grave tone, “Proxy” doesn’t always work, but its commitment to unpredictable twists and pushing beyond morbid extremes bears the stamp of showmanship sorely lacking from many other examples of the genre.
“Summer of Blood”
Nobody says the word “vampire” in Onur Tukel’s hilarious satire “Summer of Blood,” even though the movie obviously deals with just that in pretty explicit terms: disgruntled Brooklynite Erik Sparrow (Tukel, also the writer-director) whose life increases in excitement after he’s changed into a fanged bloodsucker only capable of going out at night. Over the centuries, vampires have provided a potent metaphor for various maladies, but the absence of the word in Tukel’s freewheeling comedy makes its target especially clear because there’s no symbolic detective work necessary. Running his mouth for everyone around him—and sometimes just yelling at the world—Erik suffers from the disease of urban cynicism even before he’s cornered in an alley and transformed by supernatural powers. His vampiric abilities only make his recklessness more absurdly pronounced. “Summer of Blood” amusingly sets aside much traditional exposition involving the character’s confusion over his state, and instead allows him to relish in the opportunity to live out a fantasy of lazy, hedonistic behavior that he’s been chasing along.
Quitting his job, sleeping around, and hypnotizing his landlord to avoid the pressures of paying rent, Erik has a more contemporary cinematic reference point than Woody—he’s like the cartoon extreme of the lackadaisical, privileged hipster played by Tim Heidecker in Rick Alverson’s “The Comedy,” a more confrontational indictment of the city’s least tenable drifters. Tukel doesn’t bother to infuse his character study with nearly as much sophistication, instead relying on a series of wacky vignettes to get the point across about the pratfalls of inner city malaise, which he only escapes through his own relentless sarcasm. “You are fundamentally incapable of taking anything seriously,” he’s told, a statement that extends to the movie itself. As far as vampire tropes go, “Summer of Blood” delivers — make no mistake, despite the rampant silliness, there’s plenty of blood-letting and weird sex scenes — while foregrounding Erik’s crass outlook at every turn. Like the bite that sets the story in motion, his self-involved demeanor is horribly infectious.
“Under the Skin”
Is Jonathan Glazer’s cryptic, eroticized thriller, in which Scarlett Johansson plays an alien inhabiting a woman’s body and preying on unsuspecting male victims, really a horror movie? The answer lies in the title. Outdoor scenes shot with hidden cameras find the actress interacting with the our world, surrounding her otherworldly presence a menacing realism. Yet the claustrophobic sense of the unknown in her dark, empty lair, where her victims repeatedly slip into an empty void, generates fear specifically because so much goes unexplained. “Under the Skin” turns the alien gaze into our own. And there’s nothing scarier than that.
As a director, Bobcat Goldthwait’s humor belies deep-seated insecurities about people unwilling to consider the consequences of their actions, so it was only a matter of time before he made a horror movie. “Willow Creek” conforms to the traditions of the found footage genre with generally satisfying results, but it also manages to build on them.
The basic premise finds young couple Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) venturing into prime Bigfoot territory in Willow Creek, California, a quaint town littered with Bigfoot statues, museums and other seemingly kitschy indulgences in the popular myth. Yet Goldthwait takes the obsession at face value by letting the characters roam about the actual town and interact with its colorful locals. The first half of the movie actually works as a bonafide documentary about the culture of Bigfoot believers with a mixture of genuine curiosity and strangeness on par with Errol Morris’ usual routine.
Only in its slow burn second half does the suspense take hold as his subjects encounter the possible confirmation of the creature Jim hopes to discover. (Look out for a chilling long take set in the confines of a tent.) The movie’s dual nature as both non-fiction portraiture and utterly scary creature feature turns it into a unique representation of the tension between those who scoff at the Bigfoot legend and others willing to accept the mythology as gospel. While it eventually devolves into exploring the terrifying prospects of something hairy lurking about in the shadows, Goldthwait uses that thrill factor to validate the commitment of Bigfoot believers. “Willow Creek” never feels like an attempt to proselytize, but it’s a smart recognition of the dangers that stem from doubt.
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