READ MORE: The 13 Best New Indie Horror Movies to Watch at Home on Halloween in 2014
Every year, it gets a little trickier to find a legitimately scary new movie. The appeal of torture porn fizzled nearly a decade ago — don’t get me started on Eli Roth’s latest, the underwhelming “Cannibal Holocaust” rip-off “Green Inferno” — while most found footage has become a wasteland of shaky-cam amateurism and predictable jump scares. Nevertheless, filmmakers keep experimenting with the genre, pulling apart its conventions and in some cases reinventing them. Less a tradition than a platform, horror provides a starting point for tapping into a variety of emotional experiences that range from outright dread to morbid amusement. The experimentation continues.
With Halloween providing the best excuse to sample the latest highlights from the horror arena, consider this list of titles — all of which opened within the last 12 months and can be viewed at home this scary weekend — an attempt to represent the sheer variety of options available today.
“Nobody ever comes back here,” says nine-year-old Ted Henley (Jared Breeze) to his father John (David Morse) in “The Boy,” in reference to the isolated desert motel where Craig William Macneill’s eerie 1989-set thriller takes place. It’s an apt summation of the dark, purgatorial quality that permeates each scene of Macneill’s debut feature. Adapted from one chapter in Clay McLeod Chapman’s 2003 book “Miss Corpus” (and produced by Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision label), the movie explores the childhood of a would-be Norman Bates-like psychopath driven to murderous extremes in adolescence. This is hardly a spoiler considering the morbid inevitability in each scene, but Macneill’s elegant treatment of the material keeps its central mystery in play, with the palpable suspense derived from how and when young Ted will finally snap. Setting aside the formidable performances in “Beasts of No Nation” and “Room,” Breeze unquestionably offers up a creepy child characters for the ages, and the scariest depiction of emerging lunacy in years.
A comedy about the travails of a wannabe novelist (Elijah Wood) moonlighting as a substitute teacher, “Cooties” eventually transforms into a zany riff on the zombie genre, with a series of students and teachers evading the advances of cannibal school children infected by viral chicken nuggets from the cafeteria. Combining the absurd depravity of a classic Troma production with a surprising degree of empathy for its lead characters’ plight, “Cooties” taps into the bloody irony last seen in “Shaun of the Dead” with a wicked sense humor about its schoolyard setting. Rainn Wilson, as a conceited gym teacher who winds up providing the dominant muscle among the survivors, is the icing on this gruesome cake.
At first, this debut effort from “The Overnight” director Patrick Brice looks like a meandering blend of found footage and aspirational mumblecore tropes: Brice plays a videographer who answers a cryptic advertisement sent out by Josef (Mark Duplass), who claims to be terminally ill and eager to record his messages to his unborn son. At once goofy and obnoxiously loudmouthed, Josef is the typical irritating man-child Duplass has been known to play before — but that’s part of the point: Isn’t there something a little, well, creepy about that self-satisfied Duplass grin? As Josef gazes into Brice’s camera, it gets increasingly unclear whether he’s actually speaking to his future offspring or chasing some other unstated agenda. The truth doesn’t arrive until the shocking climax, when “Creep” veers from unsettling implications to horrific certainties. Needless to say, Duplass has never been scarier, or better cast.
Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Michael Haneke-like portrait of twins in an alienated country house, who begin to question their mother’s true identity, builds from a cerebral start to a place of utter terror. Elias and Lukas Schwarz portray the aforementioned children, a pair of scrawny, stone-faced loners who peek at their bandaged mother from around the corners of their spacious home. Presumably recovering from a surgery, her masked state underscores a recurring sense of dread surrounding mischievous agendas in play — including those of the filmmakers. Once they tie her down and torture her to get at the “truth,” the movie catapults into a place of unearthly visceral fears surrounding familial relationships coming apart at the seams. It’s the scariest movie of the year partly because it never gives you the impression that the nightmare is over.
British director Corin Hardy’s gothic tale finds a small family taking root in a remote shack in the Irish forest, despite locals who warn him off. That much we’ve seen before, but “The Hallow” elevates its premise with utterly believable (and largely practical) effects as the forest slowly comes alive: Vines and shrubbery never looked this menacing before. A visual artist before he turned to cinema, Hardy’s atmospheric horror uses a series of familiar beats to churn out marvelously eerie storybook imagery, not to mention the world’s scariest fungus.
For his first feature, New Zealand director Gerard Johnson taps into an endearing horror-comedy blend reminiscent of early Sam Raimi. The story follows the anarchic Kylie, who’s arrest for an inane burglary and winds up stuck at her mother’s tattered old home with an ankle-bracelet. Once there, she grows increasingly cognizant of ghostly presence lurking in the walls of the home, which leads to a series of effective showdowns and hints of a criminal past. Despite the ominous atmosphere, “Housebound” retains an ongoing black humor that constantly delivers, as does the plotting — particularly once the movie arrives at a totally original twist that upends the earlier circumstances.