Honorable Mention (Part 1 of 2)
I know this list is getting in a little late, but such is life when you start a website in December, weeks away from that time of year when you write these things. We'll be rolling out the "Best of.." in installments, or as we can get them written. I thought perhaps it might be irrelevant at this point, but then I reasoned that no, it's not. Most of these films still remain unseen by the majority of viewers and many of them have yet to even receive an official release stateside.
At first I wasn't going to have just thirteen films (Why thirteen? Because I can.) on this years "Best of..." list (strange considering that so many others have bemoaned the fact that this has been such a "lackluster" year for the genre). Initially there was going to be anywhere from twenty onwards. I was going to choose the notables and throw them out there free from numerical order or preference. Yes, I know, CHAOS! So, I re-thunk it and decided that at the very least I could provide our readership a more concise "Best of the Best" top thirteen and compile the rest as honorable mentions (there is still no numerical preference though. I'm not lazy, just eternally indecisive). But before we get to those top thirteen movies, herein lies the first portion of the remaining films that really wowed me.
I was extremely impressed with Philip Rodley's UK genre bender Heartless. Is it a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast? A fantastical study of a young man's decent into madness? Who knows and frankly who cares when this is the end result.You'd think a film with this many identities (there are hoodie clad demons terrorizing the streets of East London, meet-cute romance, Faustian deals with the devil, a creepy little girl as our hero's sidekick, blackly humorous divergences on the sacrificing of gay prostitutes, emotionally wrought family melodrama and so on) would collapse under the weight of it's own ambitions but surprisingly it all gels and functions as a largely cohesive, successful whole. Certainly I haven't seen anything else like it in eons. Additionally, a special nod must be given to Jim Sturgess' (The October Country's Horror Hunk of 2010) portrayal of the lonely, deeply wounded Jamie Morgan. He alone is shouldered with the weight of anchoring the film's baffling amount of tones and story lines. We go along on his journey as Jamie transforms from introvert, to victim, to sociopath, to murderer, to hero and never once does he lose us, our sympathies wavering (maybe) but for a minute. Could Jamie be a 20th century Travis Bickle? Watch and decide. But even if Heartless' lack of focus loses it some viewers, Sturgess' bravo performance will surely rein them back in.
Cherry Tree Lane (which we have reviewed more extensively here) was a memorably subdued, socially thoughtful take on the home invasion sub-genre and another impressive turn from Paul Andrew Williams.
The Hole 3-D
Not since 1987's The Gate (a film that this movie owes a LOT to) have I seen a PG-13 fright film that so gleefully delights in putting it's pint sized characters (and the prepubescent audience that it is aimed at) through the horror movie ringer. No, not in some Pascal Laugier type manner (the proceedings are age appropriate) but if anybody has perfected the art of raising goosebumps on the kiddies and the adults that chauffeured them to the theater, it is Joe Dante (who has successfully mined this territory before with the likes of Gremlins, The 'burbs, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Eerie Indiana and Gremlins 2: The New Batch). When two young brothers (and their pretty next door neighbor) unlock a sealed trap door that covers a bottomless pit in the floor of their basement, they unwittingly release all manner of terrors on their small, picturesque neighborhood. Before you can (*cough*) say Poltergeist. I mean before you can (*cough*) say The Gate (I kid, really), they are under siege by the likes of a possessed toy clown, freaky ghost children, demonic incarnations of abusive parents and a trip to the "other side" that resembles something concocted by Tim Burton in his Beetlejuice days. It may sound as though The Hole 3-D spends in inordinate amount of time riffing on other superior works of horror, you wouldn't be wrong in that assumption, it does. However, by the end of it's running time, The Hole 3-D manages to make for itself it's own identity through it's adventurous, creepy tone, characterizations and much appreciated sense of humor thereby earning it's place at the table. Though it never reaches the graphic intensity of gouging out children's eyes with Barbie doll legs or self mutilation with broken shards of glass ala The Gate (ahhhhh, the 80's, what a simpler time that was, amirite dear readers?) it does expertly and indubitably get the spooky job done. Next time you are stuck watching your sister's kids or your own for that matter (so, so sorry) and you've worn out your copy of Hocus Pocus or The Midnight Hour, throw in The Hole 3-D instead. Children abducted to hell, dead little girls that take their cues from Ju-On's Kayako, it's fun for the whole family!
If only all horror films routinely got directing and acting talent of this caliber we'd be in some good shape I tell ya. Martin Scorsese returns to the genre for the first time since his maiden voyage aboard Cape Fear's Moana, in what if judged on it's own terms, is surely an impressive piece of genre film making. The reason Shutter Island resides on the honorable mentions list instead of the top 13 however, is because it is so damn hard to judge it on it's own terms. But before we get to that, lets single out some of the film's high points shall we? Robert Richardson's impressive cinematography, top-notch acting across the board (Patricia Clarkson, you are thee only woman for me), an amazingly haunting score culled from over fourteen composers of contemporary classical music (the always welcome Krysztof Penderecki chief among them), atmosphere that nearly drips off of the screen, amazing production design (Ward C is a sight to behold) and above all else, Scorsese's masterful direction (the man could do this stuff in his sleep at this point). Despite all of it's qualities (and they are many) a single fly in the ointment remains; Shutter Island's plot. It's handled with the utmost care, certainly. The story deftly weaves in and out and back and forth and right and left with assured grace. However, it's all for naught when every single red herring cannot hide the fact that the plot is heading directly where you think it is within 20 minutes into the film, despite every effort of the script to get you to believe otherwise (at this point in cinema, if you've seen this particular plot twist once, you've seen it a hundred times). Which isn't to say that the journey getting there isn't worth your time, it is. I'm just inclined to believe that Shutter Island is more rewarding on the second, or third viewing. No, not because you are going back saying to yourself "Ahhhh, that's what this and that was about." (you've already figured it out on your first viewing, remember) but because now released of the annoying, pestering, smarty pants hunch that you know how this is all going to wrap up, you are free to enjoy the film for what it is; Martin Scorsese's near masterpiece love letter to the bygone days of Hammer Films and the movies of Val Lewton.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
As far as critics in the mainstream press are concerned, Rare Exports and Black Swan have been the films to beat this year if you are a fledgling, under the radar genre picture seeking attention. Like Black Swan, the Finnish Rare Exports just about more than lives up to it's hype. The film focuses on three reindeer herders (hello Jorma Tommila, you should call me, we'll hook up, snack on some Rönttönen and...talk) whose Christmas, and livelihood, is disrupted by the excavation underway of the nearby Korvatunturi mountains. A scientist has ordered a team of workers to dig up what he calls "the largest burial mound in the world" . However, the occupant of the unearthed grave (486 meters deep) is still very much alive. Soon after, the reindeer that the herders depend on for their income are mysteriously slaughtered and one after the other, the children begin to disappear from the small, isolated town. It soon comes to light that the occupant of the grave is the source of the original Santa Claus myth; a supernatural creature that instead of rewarding good little boys and girls, punishes the naughty ones, severely so. One enterprising family manages to catch the devilish St. Nick in a trap and plan on selling him back to the scientist to cover their losses caused by his excavation. If only things went so smoothly. Adapted from the 2003/05 short films of the same name (which we posted earlier, and can be viewed here), writer/director Jalmari Helander expands on his original concept with a bigger budget and a bigger scope. As we have mentioned elsewhere on The October Country, Rare Exports is a "touching, spooky [film]...possessing a playful sense of humor about itself" that while not entirely scary (though, you'll be hard pressed to get the unsettling image of Santa's elves charging across the snow swept mountainside like hundreds of ravenous ghouls out of your head, and nightmares for that matter, any time soon) functions with all pistons firing as one hell of a dark fantasy. There were moments throughout Rare Exports where I seriously felt like a kid again, experiencing that electric frisson that proficiently wielded movie magic can bring forth from one's own buried, childlike wonderment. Which was its own kind of Christmas gift, really. If nothing else and as we also mentioned elsewhere, Rare Exports is a sure bet to "become a seasonal mainstay in many a horror fan's home" as it will most definitely be in this one.
We're separating ourselves from the pack on this one, apparently. From the best of what we can gather, Canada's independent monster movie Altitude was seriously not liked by genre fans and critics alike. Which honestly, confounds us. The one complaint that reigned supreme being that every last character was annoying and unlikeable to the point of the viewer wanting the film to end as quickly as possible. Which honestly, wasn't our experience when we watched it, but there is your warning nonetheless (even if it is somebody else's). If anything about Altitude was going to be a point of derision, I would have guessed it was that despite all the other things I felt were great about it, in the end, it really is a "just go with it" kind of movie (it shatters almost all rules of logic, disbelief and the laws of physics to boot). However, if you check said disbelief at the door, it proves to be quite a fun, tension filled little film. What we have is another story told from a single, confined location (this in a year absolutely crowded by just such a device; Burning Bright, Frozen, The Killing Room, Buried, Cherry Tree Lane, Devil, The Collector and to lesser degrees, Dogtooth and Skyline), this time our location being a small Viper Navajo, 7 seater, twin engine plane. When five young friends embark on a cross country flight (it's really a cloudy road movie, full of simmering secrets and self discovery) to attend a rock concert, things go from bad, when their plane inexplicably begins to climb in altitude with no way to level off it's ascension, to worse, as terrifying howls echo across the sky accompanied by glimpses of something massive, something monstrous stalking them amongst the clouds. Transitioning from survival film to Lovecraftian monster movie to something straight out of an old issue of Weird Tales or an episode of The Twilight Zone by the end (It's a Good Life and Nightmare at 20000 Feet to be precise), director Kaare Andrews and writer Paul A. Birkett handle the admittedly (at times) messy proceedings with aplomb. Andrews had this to say about the film, "It's a real throwback to the old Twilight Zone episodes, or at least that was the intent. Where you have a group of disparate characters, different personalities, all having relationships and you put them in a supernatural pressure cooker and then you watch their personalities boil out...". We think that they pulled that off. What could have been a boring and listless looking film considering how small the set was, is kept slick and lively by cinematographer Norm Li who bathes the film in eerie, gorgeous blue hues. What could have been an absolute nightmare logistically when it came to the SFX in relation to the film's meager budget (3.6 million) actually emerged as something quite impressive. There are over 600 visual effect shots in Altitude, and every single one of them look absolutely state-of-the-art (a feat that both Monsters and Skyline also pulled off with equally impressive results this year, take that Hollywood). What could have been a showstopper in a bad way (Lovecraftian creatures are hard to pull off, their effectiveness relies on them remaining unseen), the monster (which is kept off screen until the climax), is really something. Taking it's cue from Lovecraft's bestiary of enormous tentacled abominations, Altitude's creature is an amalgamation of human and creature biology, tapping into that age old horror movie trick of exploiting people's fear of sexual anatomy (anal, vaginal) in it's design. In the end, despite all of the film's flaws and regardless of all the critical nay saying, we here at the October Country found Altitude to be a scary (if at times silly), suspenseful good time, and well worth yours.
Best Worst Movie
"Oh my God!" Few things this year equaled the pure, unadulterated delight that was Best Worst Movie. Nay, nothing equaled the pure, unadulterated delight that was Best Worst Movie. The child star of Troll 2, Michael Stephenson, here directs a feature length documentary about the making of that ill fated movie, (considered by many to be the worst film in the history of cinema, the film has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, bless it) and the subsequent resurgence of it's popularity as the best worst film in the history of cinema. If you are reading this and you have yet to see Troll 2, I don't know what to tell you. Short of finding a copy immediately, you cannot be helped and you and I dear reader, shan't be on speaking terms until you do. Now go, shoo. For the rest of you who have experienced Troll 2, well then you know exactly what it is you want to see here and happily, Stephenson doesn't disappoint. From revisiting the original shooting locations in Utah, to horror conventions across the globe, to the Nilbog Invasion Troll 2 festival , to the Alamo Drafthouse, Joshua, um, I mean Stephenson captures Troll 2 fans in all their rabid, appreciative glory. Thankfully though, this is the rare fandom that seems to be in on the joke. Which is more than could be said for Troll 2's director Claudio Fragasso, who not only in not in on the punchline but is decidedly none to pleased that one is being made in the first place. Which provides Best Worst Movie with some startling moments of both poignancy, as Fragasso sincerely discusses his film as a genuine work of art (albeit in terms not present in the finished product) only to met with derision and good natured mockery, to his ego coming unglued at one of the festivals wherein he begins to harshly scorn and criticize Troll 2's cast, who are likewise present (the latter of which is absolutely squirm inducing). Fan favorite George Hardy is present in nearly ever scene (and yes by the documentary's end, you'll be happy to if you never hear "You can't piss on hospitality, I won't allow it" ever again), acting as our guide and gateway into Troll 2's world of worship. Hardy is an affable host, embracing his unexpected, new found stardom with glee (even if at one point he shit talks his fan base, the hand that feeds you George, the hand that feeds you) and provides Best Worst Movie with a sense of fun that is absolutely infectious. Along the way there are some joyful surprises (Jason F. Wright is now a New York Times bestselling author and political pundit) and not so joyful (Margo Prey's mental state is worrisome to say the least, yanking the viewer out of all the reverie and back into the real world, where sadly, some Hollywood hopefuls don't always live happily ever after). If you've seen Troll 2, you'll absolutely understand why you must see Best Worst Movie, and if you haven't yet seen Troll 2...hey, what are you still doing reading this article?
Yes, it is true that M. Night Shyamalan's career has been on an ever unpleasant downward spiral. Some say since Signs, others The Village. For me it was Lady in the Water, but whenever Shyamalan's trajectory went the way of turdsville, it's hard to deny that Devil shows the man still has some fight left in him. Which isn't to say that Devil is a M. Night Shyamalan film, because it isn't. He conceived the story, which was written by Brian Nelson, and then stayed on as producer. Other than that, I've found it a bit unfair to judge the fallen director on this film as much as I've found it unfair to judge this film in relation to Shyamalan's reputation. Someone else directed it ya know (though you'd likely think otherwise judging by the wealth of material devoted solely to Devil's conceiver/producer), John Erick Dowdle actually (director of the amazingly frightening The Poughkeepsie Tapes). So yeah, Shyamalan was involved, and the story bears his trademark twist ending, now can we move on to the actual film already? Devil, as I'm sure you are well aware, centers on five strangers trapped in the elevator of a high rise office building. What is at first a mere inconvenience turns into a blood-chilling nightmare when during a freak power outage one of them is gruesomely murdered. Then the lights go out again and again, each incident leaving a fresh corpse in it's wake. As the paranoia and accusations mount, demonic faces are seen in cab's security camera. Every attempt to free them fails, their would-be rescuers meeting grim demises. Something is among the terrified passengers, something that will not be satisfied until it has dragged all of them straight to hell. Okay, I don't like elevators (really who does) but ever since I read pages 287 - 299 of Ramsey Campbell's horrifying The Overnight, I really don't like elevators (a fear that my husband likes to knowingly capitalize on by jumping up and down in them to the accompaniment of my high pitched screams) and certainly Devil magnificently exploits this commonly held fear of heights and claustrophobia to hair-raising effect. I for one, was positively riveted from beginning to end. The opening credits sets the perfect tone of disorientation, presenting us a unbalanced world that has quite literally turned upside down (viewing this on massive theater screen nearly had me falling out of my seat from dizziness, sadly an experience I'm sure that will be all but lost on the more modest home television). As a threatening storm front moves in and the afternoon light disappears behind blackening clouds, Devil casts a positively eerie spell over it's viewer, one that crackles with dread, tension and unseen lurking menace. The ensemble cast is excellent all around (Jenny O'Hara and Chris Messina doing double duty to see who shall emerge most memorable, I say it's a tie), the scares are effective and come fast and hard, Fernando Velázquez turns in an effectively lively score and John Erick Dowdle proves that the praise he acquired from The Poughkeepsie Tapes was not premature. So how about everyone shut up about a Shyamalan and give this creepy little gem it's due.
We will return shortly with the second installment of 2010's honorable mentions. Until then, thanks for visiting The October Country.
5 Skulls - The Best
4 Skulls - Very Good
3 Skulls - Good / Average
2 Skulls - Poor
1 Skull - The Worst